If nothing else, the days and weeks that followed Miki Dora’s death served to justify his long mistrust of mainstream media and the masses it feeds. Written by people with little, if any, personal knowledge of the man they now referred to as “Surfing’s Black Knight,” news stories and obituaries raked through the cold ashes of his past in feeble attempts to resurrect the kind of controversy in which the public so loves to wallow. Yet, after all the words, all the stories, legends, innuendo and speculation, we are still left with little of any real substance and - except for the rare interview and images captured on film - only the memories of those who actually witnessed the inimitable artistry of surfing’s ‘Wavemaster’. In July 2001, when I first learned that Miki Dora was seriously ill, I dismissed the news as just another rumor in a colorful life plagued by rumor. Besides, it seemed unlikely that a man who had always radiated such vibrant health could now be fighting for his life. Months later, I heard the news again. This time from an mutual friend who’d known Miki for well over 40 years. This time I couldn’t dismiss it as idle gossip. According to my friend, Miki had developed a rampant form of cancer that ruled out anything but palliative care. He’d left France, where he’d lived and surfed for much of the past twenty-five years and was spending what time he had left at his father’s home in Montecito. He’d come home to die, “as gracefully as possible.” As I was rapidly approaching my ‘big-six-oh’, I’d already had to accept the increasing loss friends and family. Death comes with the territory and, all too often, one doesn’t get a second chance to say goodbye. So I decided to write to Miki from my home in Aotearoa New Zealand. I know that Miki received a number of visits and phone calls from old surfing mates over the next couple of months and I heard that he was moving painfully towards the end of his life with courage, dignity and humor. I also know that he read my letter. In it I thanked him for his contribution to my life by recounting the first time I’d seen him surf and describing the impact of that experience. Finally, I wished him well on his “continuing journey,” as that is how I chose to look on the transition we call ‘death’.

“When there’s surf, I’m totally committed.

When there’s none, it doesn’t exist.”

The first time I saw Miki Dora was a defining moment in my seventeen year young life and one for which I will always be grateful. It was the late 50’s and I’d been surfing just long enough to feel confident about thinking of myself as a ‘surfer’ and trying to look and act the part as well. In that short space of time, surfing had become a ‘way-of- life’ for me and just about everything I did, said, thought or planned revolved around what I considered to be my ‘sport’. For a few months after I caught my first wave, I confined my surfing to Point Dume, where I’d learned to stand up, and Latigo Cove, where my girl friend’s family had their home. From there I ventured out to all those challenging and diverse North Bay breaks between Hubbyland and the Lighthouse.   Although I hadn’t yet met Dewey Weber, I was unconsciously following the advice I’d later hear him offer to other apprentice surfers: “Learn at a nice right point break and that’s the only kind of wave you’ll know. Learn at beach breaks, jetties, points, breakwaters and reef breaks. Take off on every wave that comes along: lefts, rights, mush, crap, even closeouts. Then you’ll be ready to ride anything.” Slowly, by trial and error, I learned how to surf and started going out at Malibu. On that particular day I’d walked down past the ‘Wall’ and was squatting up on the cool, dry sand above the tide line with my board balanced across my lap. It was one of those special early mornings when the air  buzzes with light. A hint of desert in the light offshore feathered across my bare back and sent raw shivers of excitement throughout my body. The sun was less than an hour old and there were already five or six guys out in the water. Another couple were now waxing up in the ‘Pit’. But Malibu was still new to me and the inshore rocks sharp and unforgiving. I was content to spend a few more minutes checking out the waves and wondering about the best place to paddle out. Suddenly my attention was drawn to a distant figure taking off on a beautifully shaped shoulder-high wave way out at the Second Point. It was like becoming aware of a focus of intense energy and I stood up to get a better look.  What amazed me at first was that whoever was riding the wave had made it all the way past the first point and was still going. Then, as the surfer got closer, his board appeared to be sliding back and forth all on its own. Was it the board moving under the surfer, or was it the surfer moving up and down the board? It was like magic; like watching someone far more subtle than Michael Jackson doing a barely perceptible ‘Moon Walk’ to stay in perfect trim. The finesse. The control. The pure, unparalleled artistry. Up until that moment, I had looked upon surfing as a sport, and surfers, myself included, as players who competed against each other to see who was ‘the best’. With my new friends and acquaintances I’d sit on the beach or stand around in parking lots judging whoever happened to be surfing at the time. Every once in a while someone’s ride would be overwhelmingly acclaimed and the surfer receive a popular accolade such as, “really good.” But most of our energies were spent on criticizing each other and trying to convince ourselves how much better we would have done had we been on the wave.   Even now I’m embarrassed to admit that I wanted to be the guy about whom they’d all say, “Wow! He’s a really good surfer.” I wanted people to recognize me when I walked onto a beach or into a surfing movie. I wanted to be respected for my amazing surfing ability and skill. Not that I had a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving any of this, but that’s what my seventeen year old intellect thought surfing was all about. I was surfing to be noticed.   Firstly, by opening my eyes to the exquisite beauty and grace of someone else’s surfing and the tremendous enjoyment that virtuosity could engender. Secondly, by planting the seed that eventually grew into an understanding that surfing was no longer about me and other surfers. It was about me and the wave. Each wave special. Each wave new. Each wave worthy of my total commitment and respect.  Surfing was no longer the statement by which I expressed myself to the world and wished to be recognized in return. It was an absolutely personal experience that didn’t require an audience or anyone else’s opinion to validate. Surfing was mine. 

“Thank God for a few free waves.”

It was Miki who introduced me to the essence of that passion and solitary joy of surfing. And that has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.  Bill Cleary also had clear memories of his first experience of seeing Miki surf at Trestles when Bill was still in the Marine Corps: “At the time I fancied myself a good enough surfer to appreciate the subtle things he was doing out there, but I really didn’t have a clue. It would be another ten years before I really understood the subtleties: and that far from being good Mickey Dora was a surfing genius.”*  Bill had one of those “on again, off again” relationships with Miki that kept everyone guessing whether they where really friends or really enemies. They’d insult each other in public and laugh about it later in private. “When someone is exceptionally talented, we tend to think of him in terms of extensions of our own abilities. Those who can multiply ten figure numbers or do square roots in their heads, we assume to be just like us except that they were born knowing some kind of trick. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Like a Michelangelo or a Mozart, Mickey had a heightened sensibility born of something akin to a sixth sense. But that does not nearly do it justice - no, it was more like Mickey Dora was born with an invisible organ, some mysterious faculty homologous to a radio tuned to higher frequencies. The ‘sounds’ that reached Mickey made up a foreign language - or perhaps they were more like music or a swirl of color, but whatever they were, these rarefied intimations contained the wave information Mickey’s brain hungered for, and which enabled him to surf in ways beyond our imagining.”* 

“The media is impersonal. They care little whether I live or die.

So what? It’s irrelevant. I know what I stand for, and that’s all that’s important.” 

“And so it happened. Mickey stopped by one afternoon, we sat outside on the porch, I flicked on the hidden recorders and he took off. I hardly said a word, not wanting to interrupt the flow of Mickey’s classic dialog as he recounted Malibu myth. Fingers flying over the memory beads, he raked through the old stories of Mitch the Masochist, Tubesteak, Gidget, Simmons and Matt Kivlin. “Listening to the tape later, I knew I had got exactly what I wanted.   His dialog was perfect. I could print it word-for-word.”*  It is one of the many paradoxes that punctuated Miki Dora’s life that his unconcealed contempt for the surfing media and his unwillingness to share his private thoughts with the surfing public were immortalized by the very medium he despised.

“The vintage years are over.

I have my memories and that’s it.

I want to keep them to myself.

I don’t want to share them with a bunch of idiots.”

Bill's Surfguide interview with Miki had been secretly recorded and, according to Bill, Miki was furious. Or was he?   In any event it was followed by other articles, including what some consider an even more revealing profile Bill did for Surfer when he was the magazine's associate editor.  “Mickey is not only a genius but an eccentric one whose personality is so complicated and wound with contradiction and paradox, that even those closest to him cannot claim to understand him.”  “One can see everything there is to see in Mickey Dora when he is surfing.   He is quick, supremely conscious, and he is always the first to know when the waves are coming and where. His timing and balance defy description. He is upon occasion even playful out there. He will segué into an impromptu session of “Quasimodo’s” and “Coffins” and “spinners” or he will simply surf backwards. For the most part, however, there is no one who takes his surfing any more seriously than” he does.* And that is what I remember more about Miki than anything else - his surfing. The way he lived his private life was exactly that. Private. Whether he was called Mickey or Miki, Chapin or Dora - that was also his business. It was surfing that defined his life as an artist and to judge him by any other criterion is to close one’s eyes to the essence of that art. In the same way, trying to rank him amongst the pantheon of surfing greats or comparing him with other artists, such as Phil Edwards or Kelly Slater would be like trying to compare Nureyev with Baryshnikov. Miki was in a league all his own. 

“Life is passing time

as gracefully as possible.”

“In surfing as in his life, Mickey Dora has made up his own game, plays it by his own rules, harvests his own rewards. Nobody understands him. Even those intelligent enough to relate seldom grasp what he is saying and doing - because the Cat never lets anyone get too close. He is good at what he does, and he does it with grace and style. That’s enough for me. People like him should granted special status. Maybe they should be turned into national parks. At the very least they should be left alone.” Left alone to dance with the waves. That doesn’t seem like all that much to afford an artist of Miki’s eminence. In fact, up until shortly after I first saw him surf he enjoyed exactly that kind of freedom. But when things changed it happened quickly and irrevocably. Surfing’s new generation had little respect for subtleties, art or tradition. All but a few were “surfing to be noticed” and, like swarms of moths, drawn to nearest flicker of flame rather than the distant glow of the moon. I’ve always thought that it must be have been mixed-blessing that a master such as Miki was only whole when he was in total communion with his art. But to suddenly have to share the stage with tradesmen, apprentices and rank amateurs must have been frustrating to the extreme. It seemed like his frustration turned to a bitterness that grew in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of surfing itself. So it didn’t surprise me to learn that he was becoming even more reclusive and spending his time traveling the world in search of unsullied waves. I was just sorry that I wouldn’t see him surf again and when he turned up one day in Gisborne, New Zealand (where I’d temporarily settled during my own search), I was pleased to learn that he’d been successful in his quest.  Of the last 25 years of Miki’s life I know little except that he was once again able to enjoy that precious, inviolable communion. May his soul continue to surf joyfully in the hand of God.
Miki @ Malibu Photo: LeRoy Grannis

In celebration

of an artist

and his art

by Bob Feigel
Malibu Morning - painting by Bob Merson Please click on his name for more.
Da Cat gliding along on the nose @ Malibu Photo: LeRoy Grannis
Outside the Topaga Beach house. Photo - Bill Cleary
Miki at Rincon - Photo by Ron Stoner
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