"CAT IN DA SHADOWS" BIARRITZ, FRANCE
By Steve Boehne
The Biarritz Surf Festival; there is no other event like it in the surfing world primarily because it came to being purely as a celebration of surfing and a sharing of surf culture. The history of surfing in France began in the early 1960’s right in Biarritz.
There are old photos of the early pioneers of French surfing. Modern French surfers hold these old pioneers in reverence. In the early 1990’s Robert (Robear) Rabagny realized that all modern surfing owes a thanks to the Hawaiians for inventing this sport that we all love. He decided to bring real Hawaiian surfers over to France to celebrate Hawaiian surfing heritage.
He traveled to Hawaii and met the elite in Hawaiian surfing culture. The next year, he found sponsors for the Biarritz Surf Festival. Together, they bought two outrigger surfing canoes and tickets for the Hawaiians. His aim was more than to just bring the current hot group of Hawaiian surfers, but more importantly to honor the older Hawaiian surfer legions. Virtually every important figure in Hawaiian surfing history has been to the Biarritz Surf Festival.
In 1995, the Long board World Championships took place at Malibu. This was first World Surfing Contest to include tandem surfing since the 1972 World Contest in San Diego. Barrie and I won the World contest in 1972 and I suppose by default were still the World Champions. We were invited to defend our title 23 years later at Malibu. We were 48 years old then, but still actively competing in tandem events. The best tandem surfers in the world arrived, including the strong teams from Hawaii.
We were probably twenty years older than most of our competition, but we felt confident because of the intricate routines that we knew and our years of experience. The Malibu contest went well for us and we once again won the World Title. Robert was on the beach observing the action. After the awards presentation, he asked us to come to France to be a part of the BSF. Later, he asked us to be the ambassadors for tandem in France and to choose two other tandem teams to join us each year for the BSF.
We felt so honored. Tandem takes a pretty distant back seat in the US surfing contests and media, so even though we had been the top team in tandem competition for over 25 years, we never felt part of Surfing’s elite. In France, tandem is a very big deal with extensive TV coverage. We participated and won six out of the eight BSF events we entered. We were featured in many TV interviews and even a short documentary.
One of the outstanding years at the BSF was the year of 2000 because Quick Silver was the sponsor. QS is the top Surf clothing company in Europe and was determined to let it be known. No expense was too great. The elite of Hawaiian and Australian surf culture was there. Just to name a few: Rell Sun, Buttons, Buffalo, Clyde Aikau, Dennis Coveia, Archie ---, Dave Kalama, all the Kailana boys, Jock Sutherland, Peter Cole, Fred Hemmings, George Downing, Rabbit Kaikai Greg Noll, Gerry Lopez, Jeff Hackman, Mark Richards, Midget Farley, etc, etc
There was an event every night after each day’s competition. There were banquets, concerts, dinners, parties, surf movies, tours everything to share Hawaiian and French culture. During the day all the elite of the surfing world were just hob-knobbing around the event. There was an eating area cordoned off at the contest site where the celebrities could dine on fine French cuisine. It was a dream to be part of such a notorious group.
The tandem teams From Ca., plus Mickey Munoz and His wife Peggy stayed in a small Inn a few blocks from the event site. Mickey and Peggy were wild partiers and would come in late every night. They must have been drinking Harvey Wall Bangers because that’s just what they were doing.
One evening, a group of us decided to go to the art gallery of a talented French surfing artist, Eric---. The Gallery is in the entry hall of his very large house in the village of Guithary, just a few miles from Biarritz. The BSF actually supplied us with a vehicle for the entire trip. Mark and Debby Gale, Barrie and I along with Mickey Munoz and Peggy all drove together.
Mickey had the address, when we pulled up I couldn’t believe how big and old the house was, but then everything in France seems big and old. Eric greeted us at the door. His pictures were hung in the entryway and on into a large entry hall. Most of the paintings were of photographs of famous moments from the past; the shot of Greg Noll standing next to his gun staring out at big Pipe Line and the shot of him taking the drop in his stripped trunks at Waimea. There was that drop knee cutback shot of Dewey Weber, Gerry Lopez at Pipe, LJ Richards at Makaha, plus many others.
It’s funny how one photograph printed in a surf magazine can define a surfer’s entire career. Us old baby boomers just never forget an image printed years ago in our young brains. I seemed to scan my way through the paintings a little faster than everyone else. As I turned to review the paintings closer, I noticed that through a doorway, in a dimly lit room, there were even more pictures hanging. It didn’t appear that these were part of the main display, but the door was open…so I wondered in alone.
In the center of the room was a very large easel with a very large painting in progress. On the floor, was a surfboard, up on its rail, leaning against the easel. I walked around to stand directly in front of the new creation. It was a picture of Mikki Dora in full speed trim at Malibu. I was amazed to recognize the board on the floor as the same one in the picture. I was contemplating the significance of Mikki Dora’s board being in this room when I had a strange feeling of someone standing behind me.
I turned my head and was struck dumfounded by what I saw. Mikki Dora was lurking in the shadows. He was standing posed in the same position that he always had in all his old surfing pictures (the position that has been printed in my brain for decades). He was a little sideways, one foot was ahead of the other, his head was cocked slightly to one side, his elbows were down, but his hands were reaching forward, almost pointing at me.
For years I have read about Mikki Dora, but had never actually seen him. He had disappeared from the scene at Malibu long before I started surfing there. He appeared in relatively few classic 60’s vintage surf movies, but his surfing style was so unique and flowing that his impact was enormous. His nickname was “Da Cat” because of his soft, fluid footwork while surfing. Dora was the bad boy of surfing.
He would shoot his board at anyone who would take off in front of him or just come up behind them and shove them off their boards. His famous remarks like: “Oh, do you mean the Killer Dana that is right next to Killer Doheny?” were often quoted in Surfer magazine. Dora is definitely the most controversial figure in modern surfing history. Mickey Munoz shared an apartment with Dora in the early 60’s and he said he wouldn’t trust Dora for a second with anything.
Dora did some jail time for breaking & entering plus credit card fraud. He fled to France in the early 1970’s, but was run out by the French Police for similar activities. It was rumored that Dora was living at Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa, so I never expected to see him in this back room in France. There was an awkward silence and then I said: I really like your picture. He replied: aren’t you that photographer from Longboarder? I said: No I’m just one of the contestants at the BSF. He was looking at me like he was trying to decide if he was pissed at me for some past transgression, maybe taking off on him years ago or possibly some misquote in a magazine.
I am not one of those in-your-face kind of people who seem to thrive on awkward situations, so I said: well, it’s been nice talking to you and I walked back out into the main hall. I was nearly bursting with what I had discovered, but I realized that this was also a delicate situation; Mr. Dora was definitely a little edgy. I knew that Barrie had actually spent time around Dora in 1966 when she was surfing with Pete Peterson and I thought he might remember her.
I walked up to Barrie and Debby and said: please come outside, I want to tell you something in private. Debby is one of those girls who would belong to a celebrity fan club, she gets giggly around them. I said Debby, I have a very big secret to tell you and I want you to promise to behave and not act all crazy. There is an old friend of Barrie’s in the next room and I think you two would like to go back and talk to him. Just keep it cool! They said: who is it? I said: Mikki Dora. NO WAY!
I took them to the doorway and said go on in. He was still lurking in the shadows. Barrie reintroduced herself and Debby was close to losing it. They talked of the old Wind an Sea Surf Club, to which they both belonged for a while and then Debby asked for his autograph. Dora said: Sorry, I can’t sign any papers; they’re still looking for me. Even with persistent begging from Debby, Dora steadfastly refused to sign his autograph. After a while the girls also left the room.
While they were in there, I walked over to Bill Par, the photographer assigned to the BSF for Longboard Magazine (different than Longboarder) and told him what was going on in the next room. Apparently, the defunct Longboarder had interviewed Dora and never paid him for his caustic comments. Bill was pretty excited about the opportunity waiting in the next room, but I warned him to play it very low key because Dora seemed to have a beef with some other photographer.
Bill “wondered” into the room and “discovered” the easel and painting. He stepped back and prepared to take a picture. Suddenly, Dora yelled out from the shadows: Hey; don’t take a picture of my picture. Bill, with the camera up to his eye pivoted around to face the commotion behind him. Dora put his arms up in front of his face like Dracula grimacing from the sight of a cross and said: and don’t take a picture of me either! You and your magazine still owe me $10,000 for my interview.
Bill tried to explain that he had never seen Dora before and that the old magazine had gone out of business. Dora would have none of it, so Bill hastily left the room. Mickey Munoz also went back to see Dora and they had a somewhat civil conversation.
We all decided to drive a short way over to Christoph Reinhart’s Restaurant for dinner. The Restaurant is situated in the unbelievably quaint village of Guthrie on the sea-cliff overlooking the famous big wave surf spot of the same name. The sun down was spectacular and we settled around various tables on the terrace overlooking the sea. Mickey Munoz was sitting with a group of seventy’s surf starts including Buttons, LJ Richards, and Titus. We were sitting with Mark, Debby and Bill Par.
I left the table and went into the Bar to fetch another round of beers. As I walked past the side door facing the street, I spied Dora drive up in a very nice sports car. I decided to discretely watch from the bar. Soon, Dora’s head peered around the bushes. He surveyed the area before entering just as his nickname “Da Cat” would do. He had a drop dead gorgeous blond French girl on his arm. Together, they slithered along the bushes and flowed around the corner just like a pair of alley cats.
The gorgeous blond seemed to be use to the routine and probably enjoyed the attention it attracted. When Munoz saw them, he pulled up two more chairs and invited them to join his table. Cautiously, they acquiesced. Mickey suggested that he take a group picture, but Dora protested. Mickey said: this is just my old camera and I won’t take this picture to any magazines. As this was going on, Bill Par eased out of his chair and into the restaurant. He looked around the corner, pointed his camera and snapped a picture.
With the click of the shutter and blink of the flash, Dora bolted for Parr yelling: you fucking paparazzi! He body slammed Parr into the wall, grabbed the camera and ran away with it before Parr had a chance to know what happened. Dora ripped the film out of the camera, dropped the camera on the ground, summoned the gorgeous blond and fled the scene. We had a pretty lively conversation over dinner.
Over the next few days, as the contest continued, we would hang out, watch heats and wait for our next heat. Several times we spotted Dora in disguise wondering amongst the crowd. He wore a sort of Afro looking wig, dark glasses and French style clothes. All of the celebrity Surfers knew who he was, but he was very private, so everyone just went along with the act. He would come and sit with old friends in the celebrity eating area.
Barrie walked up to him once and said: Mikki, I know who you are. Why don’t you give me your autograph? He said well, for you, I will, but not here. Stop by the Carolina Hotel later and I’ll sign it for you. She never did.
Post script; Apparently, Quicksilver had been supporting Dora somewhat in South Africa and had paid his way to France to hobnob around the contest site. Mikki Dora was diagnosed with cancer and died at his parents’ home in Ca. two years later.