Most of us think pro surfing began in 1976, when the IPS jumped off Randy Rarick’s kitchen table and took its first wobbly steps into the world. Or maybe a few years earlier, with the debut Smirnoff Pro-Am. But pro surfing goes further back. Jantzen paid Ricky Grigg $2,000 in 1964 to wear their not-very-surfy gear. New world champ Midget Farrelly earned pocket change from Philips, makers of Philishave cordless shavers. A year earlier, Hobie brought out the Phil Edwards Signature Model board, and Edwards got ten bucks a pop for each sold unit. Heck, back in ’58, Bud Browne not only paid for Edwards’ plane ticket to Hawaii, he cut Phil in on the movie profits.
Apart from Edwards and Grigg, when I think of first-wave pros, three names come to mind: Corky Carroll, David Nuuhiwa, and Gary Propper. Together, they made up the centerpiece of a 1996 article I wrote for Surfer’s Journal, called “Green on Blue: Kelly Slater’s Million Dollar Deal, and Other Thoughts on Surfing for Hire.” Here’s an excerpt. Keep in mind that $10,000 in 1967 equals about $72,500 in 2017.
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In 1966, Hobie introduced both the Corky Carroll West Coast Model and the Gary Propper East Coast model, while Bing Surfboards debuted the David Nuuhiwa Noserider.
The Noserider was developed in ’66, but Bing didn’t advertised it until early 1967—a few weeks after Nat Young won the world titles, and just as Bob McTavish in Australia was building his first Plastic Machine. Four months after it’s introduction, the Noserider was phased out for the Nuuhiwa Lightweight, which in turn was phased out four months later for the Brewer-designed Pipeliner. Which is not to say that Nuuhiwa didn’t do well as a pro. His precise earnings are unknown, but CEO Bing Copeland paid him $10 a board (standard for all signature models), and guesses that his company sold between five and six thousand Noseriders and Lightweights in just over two years, which means Nuuhiwa in relatively quick time made $50-60,000. In a 1972 interview he said that he made “a lot of bucks . . . I just took that money, took my friends, and ran.” When the checks got big enough, Copeland suggested that they set up an interest-earning account, against which the 18-year-old Nuuhiwa could draw a weekly allowance. Nuuhiwa declined and asked instead if he could park his new purple Porsche in Bing’s garage.
While Carroll, Propper and Nuuhiwa lived in the same neighborhood, professionally speaking, in nearly all matters of form and style the two Hobie riders operated in a completely different world. Nuuhiwa was laconic, a bit of a shadow-dweller, content to slide by on his enormous gifts as a surfer. Carroll and Propper—still teenagers in ’66, as was Nuuhiwa—were Heckle and Jeckle, with loud, chattering, high-pitched voices. Both were high-energy surfers, but neither one magic. Both were perpetually on the make, figuring angles and working deals. Propper was an excellent regional competitor (East Coast champion in ’65 and ’66), with some small measure of national and international success, while Carroll, from ’62 to ’72 was simply the most relentless and successful contest surfer in the world.
Money, competition, fame and good times dangled in front of Carroll like a bunch of carrots in 1963, as the 15-year-old starting building a career from surfing. Competition titles almost never paid directly, but earned him product endorsements; Carroll’s good humor and boy-next-door charm helped get him spots on The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, What’s My Line and To Tell the Truth.
Hobie paid Carroll $80 a week, on top of his board royalties for the West Coast model (followed by the Flexible, the Mini, the Hawaii, the Pintail, the Super-Mini and the Deadly Flying Glove), while Jantzen chipped in their small but steady $1,500 per year. The rest was made on the fly. Carroll did rep work for O’Neill wetsuits and Bay Standard surf racks, while Kawasaki paid him $5,000 for a 1968 promotion, and Keds paid him $1,000 for a sneaker ad. The contests themselves occasionally brought dividends: $250 for winning the Morey Noseriding contest in ’65, for example, a color TV that same summer for winning the Laguna Swimwear Masters, and $1,500 for winning the ’69 Santa Cruz Pro.
“You know why I did so well?” Carroll told me over the phone recently, cataloging the reasons for his professional success, “My name. I have a totally recognizable name. It’s really surfy, and everyone remembers it. People in Cleveland, when you ask them if they’ve ever heard of any surfers, still say they remember that Corky guy. Plus I just lucked out on the timing in general. Plus I surfed in every contest known to man, and I did the interviews and stuff afterwards. Phil (Edwards) didn’t like contests and never really wanted to do the interviews. Then I’d visit the shops, go surfing with the dealers then take their orders. I’d be on TV, holding up the new Hobie skateboard, ‘This is a Hobie skateboard. That’s H-O-B-I-E. Hobie. Not hobby.’ And Hobie watched that, did a back-flip and that’s a $500 bonus right there.”
Taking Carroll at his word (and if some people were mildly skeptical about the following numbers, nobody shot them completely out of the water), his annual income started at about $4,000 in 1964, peaked at $40,000 in 1968, then dropped steadily down to about $22,000 in 1972, when Carroll retired. In ’66, as the first substantial paychecks began to arrive, Carroll bought and renovated a Capistrano Beach duplex, and not long after bought a blue Porsche 911. He travelled constantly as a pro surfer, usually on his own dime, and supported a wife and young son. They lived moderately well, but there wasn’t much of a nest egg in ’72 when Carroll quit competing. (The initial phase of Nat Young’s professional career also ended at this time, and while the ’66 world champion is either forgetful or vague about earnings, his aggregate income from White Stag wetsuits, Weber Surfboards, and a weekly newspaper column for the Sydney Telegraph allowed him a a comfortable existence in the late-’60s—actually peaking, by Young’s estimation, in 1970—including a beautiful house in Palm Beach and a Mercedes 220S.)
The last thing Carroll said to me before hanging up: “”I wasn’t making that much. But I was making more than anyone else.”
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Floridian Gary Propper is thought to be the second-place money maker in pro surfing’s initial phase, with Nuuhiwa a fairly distant third. Carroll and Propper were both important players in the Hobie competition-promo troupe, but a quick check of the Hobie ads from ’66 to ’70 proves beyond question that Carroll was the star and Propper the sideman—which may have been a function of residence as much as anything. The mid-’60s surfing world revolved around Dana Point, which meant that local boy Carroll could do the morning photo shot, visit the magazine, the factory and the showroom, and be home for lunch. Face-time-wise, Propper, 3,000 miles away, never had a chance.
Or so I thought. I introduced myself to Propper over the phone and listened as he energetically guided me through the early days of East Coast pro surfing. Finally I asked him if he bought a neat car in the late ’60s like everyone else. He had—a green Jag. I asked if his best year, like Carroll’s, was 1968. No,it was ’67. Corky made $40,000, I said, suddenly feeling as if I were about to embarrass Propper. “Well,” pressing on, “I guess I wanted to ask—how did you do?”
“I did pretty well, actually.” Not embarrassed at all. In fact, something else entirely.
“Huh. So . . . what side of forty grand?”
Propper exploded. “Are you kidding?” He barked a laugh. “The other side, man!Way more! It was a joke! Do you have any idea how many Propper models I sold? I fuckin’ took over the Hobie factory! Plus selling Katin and O’Neill? I got $12,000 that year from O’Neill just for the Ron Jon shop alone! It was a joke, man! A JOKE!”
Propper sounded at once credible and slightly lunatic. I was stunned. “Fifty grand?” I ventured. “Sixty?”
A slight pause on the other end. Propper’s voice dropped back down. “That year, ’67, all things included, I was close to a $100 thousand.”
“I can find the tax returns if you want.”