All photos by Paul Fisher unless noted
“The worst feeling is leaving J-Bay when it’s going off.”
by: Eddie Solt
Malibu legend Allen Sarlo had only a four day window in August to score waves halfway across the world.
He begins to reflect on this near perfect J-Bay excursion while sitting at the armchair below a naked fully landscaped girl airbrushed on a late 1970s surfboard hanging on the wall at Mike Purpus’ apartment on a beautiful Redondo Beach afternoon. The front door opens. Purpus comes into his living room, rejuvenated after his daily morning surf a block from his pad, rubbing his head with a towel
While Sarlo’s tale is the meat of the interview, you can’t deny Purpus — one the most publicized and innovative surfers of the ‘70s ( also a Playgirl centerfold, as he will tell any attractive woman interested in perusal) — the opportunity to throw in the spice of an epic trip from 1977. Back then, Purpus and the 16-year-old Sarlo, who was on his first South Africa trip, were fortunate to travel to the world class point break during a swell. The surf media frenzy that ensued, created largely by surf journalist Derek Hynd, put Jeffrey’s Bay on the map.
Last summer, Sarlo decided he wanted to return to this epic spot.
“I looked early on in the forecast last July and knew there was nothing [in Southern California] but the report looked good for J-Bay,” Sarlo said, “I went through a list of friends like John Baker, Andy Lyons, my son Colton who was at the top of the list, but he just started university, to see if anybody could take the time off.”
With no takers, Sarlo went back through the list, urging one of his top choices Paul Fisher, to join him.
“Paul works as a nurse and I knew he could get the days off,” Sarlo said. “After I showed him the report, we were going for it.”
Due to Fisher’s work schedule, the allotted time for the trip was only eight days — two to get there, two to come home. Sarlo was banking on the allure of point break perfection to persuade Fisher to agree to make J-bay a multi-week affair.
“Every minute on the flight there I thought about how I could extend the trip,” he said. “The worst feeling is leaving J-Bay when it’s going off.”
By this point, the tinder was lit. The room’s air of surf talk was ignited, sparking the reminiscing of two legendary pro surfers who have been all around the world together. Tales bounced around the room, some on topic, some off topic, some on the record, some off the record.
“After we flew into Johannesburg, we spent the night at a freezing cold hostel, and then took a 45 minute flight into Port Elizabeth,” Sarlo said.
The mentioning of Port Elizabeth got Purpus rolling. “Remember that spot that broke underneath the factory like Swamis, with a set-up like Lunada Bay, where the water smelled like fish oil and underneath us had black silhouettes swimming?” he asked.
Sarlo laughed his baritone laugh.
Purpus is keen on remembering the humorous details of any story and over the last couple of decades has polished his act of one liners and juicy tidbits.
“You remember what you and my team did to my jet stinger?” Purpus asked.
Purpus was on the forefront of design in the late ‘70s, good and bad. He started experimenting with different channels and air intakes on his stinger models. The Jet Stinger was all excess with PVC pipes going through the board from nose to tail and airbrushed flames all over the deck and bottom.
“My team guys, and 16-year old Sarlo, thought it would be funny to stuff bananas in the PVC pipes,” Purpus said. “The banana oil residue made my deck slippery, wouldn’t come off, and I kept eating shit with guess what was swimming below us.”
Sarlo got back into the present tale. “The first day of surf was 4-5 foot like Rincon,” he said. “With only a few guys out.”
As for the J-Bay locals, Sarlo made a point to go “fit in with the pack” as he was a guest of the break.
“The crazy thing is all the true heavy locals remembered me from 35 years ago,” he said.
Purpus chimed in, “Yeah, because we fucking took over the place.”
Back before the condos were built at the point — Purpus still ponders to this day, what if he bought one of the lots for the then asking price of $1,000? — the swell of ‘77 had a who’s who of the decade’s surf scene arriving at the point. Sarlo and Purpus started listing surfers and their ripping prowess. Back and forth, the two mentioned Micheal Ho, Buzzy Kerbox, Simon Anderson, Peter Townend, Bobby Owens, Shawn Tomson, Rick Rasmussen while almost in unison both said, “Terry Fitzgerald.”
“The Aussies were there, the Hawaiians, both Tomsons,” Purpus said. “Shawn Tomson to this day says it was the best J-Bay has ever been,”
“It was a once-in-a-fifty year swell,” Sarlo said. “It was a combination of three different swells that came together, the perfect storm for J-Bay.”
Sarlo continued his recent story, picking up at Day Two, when he was woken up by the increasing swell.
“The waves sounded like thunder and it got my heart pumping with anticipation,” Sarlo said, “It was 8-foot and rolling like Rincon, with guys even out in the dark.”
Sarlo has has surfed the best Malibu and Rincon can offer but admits J-Bay, while perfect, is a little deceiving.
“Sarlo has dominated Malibu since the late ‘70s,” Purpus said. “All those Malibu surfers like Dora, Carson, and Fain couldn’t surf beach breaks — Riddle didn’t like beach breaks, the Zepher guys couldn’t surf outside of Venice. But Sarlo could adapt to any wave in the world.”
Sarlo points out that the intricacies of the wave and getting it dialed is something that takes time. The various sections of J-Bay cause it to speed up or slow down, barrel or mush out.
“It’s an easy wave to surf but is a really hard wave to surf well,” Sarlo said. “You must know the wave to know when to cutback, hit the lip, set-up for the tube, and take the high line to connect the lines and dots.”
Another unique aspect is how the wave builds up while going further down the point. In California, it’s the other way around.
“You take off at boneyards and it’s like a fast beach break at 6-foot that’s not hollow yet has enough curl to beat the section. See, each section is like it’s own small point break. When you get into “supertubes” it’s like a sideways bowly peak and the wave increases to 7-8 foot,” Purpus said. “It’s like backdoor pipe that spits you out of a cannon and you’re lucky if you do a roundhouse cutback. Once you hit ‘impossibles’ the wave now is 9-feet and seems like an easy section to make so you pull into a crouch as the wave gets faster and faster. But, you have a 60 percent chance of making it and if you do, there’s giant size boulders on the inside waiting to meet you.”
“It’s definitely a grower,” Sarlo said.
The one surfer Sarlo pointed out has J-Bay completely dialed is finless aficionado and surf journalist Derek Hynd. Sarlo took the opportunity to borrow my laptop to show his highlight clips of the trip. Through out the footage, Hynd is riding in a low crotch stance on finless equipment going incredibly fast, reading the sections correctly with an array of cutbacks and 360s back into the pocket, while always making the wave.
“He’s surfing like how me and Terry Stevens surfed on our 360 fins in the ‘70s and back in those days” Purpus said. “Hynd would slam us in the magazines for being anti-soulful with our 360s and our side slips. Shit, [Dan] Merkel would be screaming at me everytime I’d do a 360 during photoshoots and told me to have my hair blowing, my rail buried, and my fin out.”
“Purpus, you were definitely ahead of your time,” Sarlo interjected.
After day three, and the routine of surf, drink coffee, surf, eat lunch, repeat, and Sarlo and Fisher taking turns behind the lens, Sarlo was getting a bit winded.
“I was sore and stiff and by Day Four. It took all my energy to go back out,” he said. “I had aches and fatigue on my shoulders and inside my arms from the result of wearing web gloves in the ‘80s. Remember the Baley wetsuits, Purpus?”
“Yeah, Bayley wetsuits kept you warm but it was like wearing 40 pounds of armor,” Purpus said. “After surfing all day, your arm pits bled.”
“The waves were so good, I thought to myself, I had to take advantage as I might never come back,” Purpus said. “I’d get in at dark and pass out waking up in the middle of the night freezing in a puddle of beer on my bed from the Fosters I cracked before crashing out.”
After Day Four, even with a consistent 6 foot swell, the thought of extending the trip for Sarlo was a distant memory. Sarlo’s worst feeling became a relieving feeling. His traveling buddy, Fisher, got the shots, and got in some shots.
“The problem with a surfing photographer is we’re both surfing when it’s good.” laughed Sarlo.
He and Fisher boarded a plane to go back home on the other side world. They landed at LAX, ruefully preparing to get back into the mojo of “working to surf.” He shared his trip to his list of nine friends and much to his delight was informed “he didn’t miss a thing” on the homefront.