Mike Doyle, a Surfer’s Surfer and a Skiing Pioneer, Passes Away at 78

I didn’t know Mike Doyle personally. But as a lifelong surfer, I’ve known and been charmed by surfers like Mike Doyle. Baby boomer surfers who unashamedly, unabashedly, committed deeply and fully to the free-spirited fun-loving life that rose during the Golden Era of surfing, never infected with the cynical, jealous grumpiness so many surfers eventually developed as the decades moved on.

When he passed away at his home in Mexico this week, at age 78, his wife by his side, it was the culmination of a California surfer’s life well-lived.

“People always say, ‘Who’s the best surfer in the world?’ I go, ‘The one having the most fun.’ ”

Doyle, born in Los Angeles in 1941, had only been surfing for two years when, in 1956, he discovered the perfect point surf and buzzing social scene of Malibu. While working his way up the Malibu pecking order, buoyed no doubt by his powerful 6’1″ 190-pound and carved-from-marble physique, Doyle met a young woman named Kathy Kohner who wanted to get into surfing. He sold her a surfboard and Kohner’s father went on to write Gidget based on his daughter’s beach exploits. Kohner remembered Doyle when the book was made into a movie in 1959 and tabbed him as a surfing stunt double.

Doyle spent the ’60s as a kind of archetypical California surfing playboy. Blonde, tanned, and handsome, he dominated surf contests and paddleboard racing contests, using his athleticism to master the heavy surfboards of the era even though he’d been surfing for only a decade. Doyle also excelled at the charming, no-longer-much-practiced sport/art form of tandem surfing, winning a bushel of events in California and Hawaii with his longtime partner Linda Merrill.

Surfers loved Doyle’s power surfing and his easygoing confidence while dominating competitions. He came first place in Surfer magazine’s Reader’s Poll in 1964 and 1965, voted the most popular surfer in the world. He also had an aesthetic flair and an eye for style.

Australian surfing icon Nat Young remembered Doyle showing up in Sydney for the 1964 World Championships and awing the Australians with his oversized personality and athletic surfing. “He was riding a mauve board with white competition stripes and I was totally and utterly infatuated,” Young said. “We couldn’t believe it when he actually showed up at our local beach [and] brought with him a handmade, embroidered Mexican shirt as a present for me. It was a perfect fit and became my all-time favorite shirt, worn only on special occasions.”

Doyle transitioned into a bit of an entrepreneur in the 1970s. He helped invent and sell the first surf-specific surf wax and he went into business with Tom Morey to manufacture the first soft-top surfboards. Despite the rise of the Costco-sold Wavestorm soft-top, many surfers today, especially in Southern California, still refer to all soft-tops as “Doyles.”

As surfers became increasingly interested in skiing in the ’70s, Doyle started spending time on the slopes, trying to incorporate some of the feeling of surfing into skiing. He pioneered a monoski, a kind of precursor to the snowboard, except the rider faced forward with both feet parallel, and still used poles.

In the 1980s, Doyle fulfilled pretty much every single California surfer’s fantasy and moved into the idyllic golden sunset of a life as a surfer and artist in Cabo San Lucas. He ran a small surf school, surfed, paddled, and painted, growing a big goatee, and generally looked like the kind of guy Sammy Hagar and Jimmy Buffet would spend lots of happy time with.

There must have been something about coming of age surfing in the 1950s. So many surfers of Doyle’s era still seem wowed and charmed by the experience of surfing, of a free-wheeling, fun-loving beach life. As crowds swelled and lineups grew jaded, he split, headed to Mexico and the good life. Still looking for a taste of the happy Malibu scene he cut his teeth on—long beach days with friends, not a whole lot of bullshit competing for his attention.

“The direction of surfing is fun; it should be fun,” he said. “People always say, ‘Who’s the best surfer in the world?’ I go, ‘The one having the most fun.’ ”

A surfer until the very end.

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