Josh Mulcoy is a surfer’s surfer. He can surf any wave, big or small, with an easy grace and power, the twin pillars of timeless surf style. Mulcoy’s dad, Bill Mulcoy, known as “Harbor Bill” among the locals in Santa Cruz, California, where Josh grew up, is a mascot for rebellious surfers everywhere. For years he skirted the law to surf a perfect wave that breaks along a breakwater protecting the Santa Cruz harbor, and which was, technically, off-limits to swimmers. Harbor Bill would surf the wave, a boater would call the cops, and Bill would retreat to his job as a golf course groundskeeper. He was willing to break the law because, for one thing, it was dumb, but also because he just wanted to surf really good waves without a crowd.
That solitary streak runs through Josh Mulcoy too. He’s made his living getting paid not to compete, but to chase waves around the world, the dream of every surfer, professional or not. But Mulcoy, while having surfed the usual warm-water meccas of Hawaii and Indonesia, prefers the isolation that cold surf brings. Or seems to anyway. He spent so much time traveling to places like Scotland, Russia, Canada, and Alaska to surf, he eventually started his own surf travel business. That’s not to say he doesn’t also like warm water—he’s a mainstay at tropical pointbreaks in Mexico. But he was surfing freezing waves with snow-covered mountains in the background decades ago, before ice surfing became the photographer’s favorite surf travel muse.
One of the first trips to Alaska to make a splash in the surf world was a SURFER Magazine feature that included Mulcoy and landed him a coveted cover shot. I was fifteen years old when this magazine hit newsstands, just getting my feet underneath me as a surfer. I still have that issue.
Mulcoy has been trying to score waves again in that same part of Alaska for three decades. The film, Within Reach, which you can watch below, is a chronicle of those attempts. Alaska is a difficult surf destination to get right. Swell is a constant, but so are winds, rain, fog, swirling currents. The waves Mulcoy surfed during his first visit in the 90s, however, were so good he kept coming back, kept getting skunked.
Until his most recent trip.
Mulcoy not only found that the prized wave was firing, a long left-hander rivaling some of the world’s best pointbreaks, but a new wave, likely never before surfed, reared its head. He found it purely by accident after his truck broke down on the beach, just in front of a rogue sandbar. There were no waves when the truck broke, but upon returning to collect his vehicle, Mulcoy saw the sandbar spinning up perfect overhead surf.
That’s the beauty of any surf trip, but it’s especially satisfying in a fickle place like Alaska, and even more so after decades of fruitless travel back there to find waves like this. The life of a globetrotting pro is built on such ephemeral things as perfect waves breaking for only a couple hours on a sandbar in remote Alaska.
“It sounds stupid,” Mulcoy told SURFER. “But that’s what I live for.”
Photos by Mark Mcinnis.