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40 Years of Tandem Surf Competition

Posted on March 27 2020

40 Years of Tandem Surf Competition

Now, at fifty-eight years old, I can look back at what is perhaps the longest-running and most successful sports team in history, the Steve and Barrie tandem team.  I feel free to comment, even brag about our accomplishments now because like an old retired boxer; you always call him Champ, you don’t mind as he recounts blow for blow the old fights and repeats how he once was the greatest.  You respect him for stepping up to a challenge time after time and bowing out gracefully when the end is near without embarrassing himself. I don’t want to recount all the many competitions we entered, but would like to comment on the feelings and atmosphere of the times along with some of the more memorable competitors.  Tandem surfing is a fairly rare sport, you may surf all your life and never see a tandem team in the water, but if you are a tandem team, you know the names of every team in the world.  People who tandem surf are passionate about their sport.

As I look back over forty years of competition, I feel two emotions, fulfillment and sadness. Fulfillment for surfing hours and hours in preparation for upcoming competitions, participating successfully all over the world, winning the prize for best performance (not beating the competition) in a majority of key events and gaining the respect and friendship of our competitors. This all was a horrendous physical accomplishment. I feel sadness as my physical strength declines with age. The years of experience, our near-perfect timing together and a finely developed sense of position and flow with ocean waves are still there in my head, but my body no longer can do what is required.  I suppose the greater your treasure, the greater your loss when it’s gone.  I remember the feelings of excitement and anticipation for contests when I was young as compared with apprehension from fear of embarrassing myself with a poor performance when I was older.  I can’t say how Barrie feels about all of this. I don’t think women hold as much at stake. Perhaps it’s the allure of Asian women, they can be quiet and secretive about their emotions, while they are strong, stoic and tough competitors under pressure.

The seeds for this team were planted young and grew from the strongest of human needs; recognition. When you think about it, everyone is looking for recognition.  From the time we are young, people tell us every time we do something good.  We want recognition for our accomplishments at work.  Little girls are told how cute they are.  Little boys are told how big, strong, or handsome they are. We are conditioned to want to know how we compare to everyone else. It is only natural that after you have been tandem surfing for a while, you want to know how you compare to the other teams. 

This particular tandem team was born thanks to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the premier sports broadcast of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Back in 1964 there were very few surfing movies and the only surfing on TV was the Makaha International.  The Makaha contest was the only international contest and was considered to be the world contest of surfing. Barrie Alagao happened to see tandem surfing for the first time as her father watched WWS on a Saturday afternoon.  She said: Dad, I’m going to do that someday.  He replied: Sure, you can’t even swim.  This exciting sport of tandem surfing was perfect for her petite size, but how could she ever get into it?   

Barrie’s Dad was working three jobs while going to dental school and her stepmother was mean and resentful.  She had no home life and no recognition or support for her accomplishments.  Life at home became unbearable and she moved out to live with friends or sleep in a car when she was only 16.  Barrie lived in Santa Monica, home of the famous Muscle Beach at the Santa Monica Pier.  She started going down to the pier after school and on weekends where she learned to work out with the many circus performers and acrobats who used to practice there.  Soon she was one of the top “fliers” on the beach and became an expert at Adagio, Risley, and teeterboard.  (you can see a wonderful sample of her 60’s performance in the “ART OF TANDEM SURFING” video from the Infinity Shop).  Barrie’s big opportunity to start tandem surfing came when Pete Peterson who worked on the Santa Monica pier noticed her flying through the air after being catapulted off the teeterboard. 

Pete Peterson was perhaps the most famous surfer of the 1930’s and1940’s.  Pete was an early Ca. surfing pioneer.  He was the US surfing champion several times in the 1930’s and early ‘40’s.  He won the Catalina Island paddleboard race in that era and was one of the early big wave riders on the North shore of Hawaii.    

Pete was one of the first Ca. surfers to travel to Hawaii to go surfing.  In 1932 Pete and Lorrin Harrison went to the Army surplus store in LA. and bought sailor suits.  Next, they went down to the Navy dock in San Pedro dressed as sailors and marched onto a ship headed for Hawaii.  They took births, worked as deckhands the whole way over and were never discovered.  When they reached Hawaii, they left on shore leave with the other sailors and got free transit to Hawaii.  While they were surfing at Waikiki, they saw tandem surfing for the first time.  The Waikiki beach boys would take the tourist women out for rides on their boards.  To give them a more exciting ride and to show off for those watching on the beach, they would pick the gals up into a shoulder sit.  Pete and Lorrin brought tandem surfing back to Ca.  There are photos of Pete tandem surfing at Malibu in 1934.    His competitive surfing career reblossomed in the 60’s, as he became one of the top tandem surfers.

When Pete went down and asked Barrie to try tandem surfing.  She knew this was her big chance to tandem surf so she failed to mention that she didn’t know how to swim.  Pete took her down to Bologna Creek surf spot.  After a fall, Pete discovered her floundering in the water.  From then on, after a wipeout, she would just climb onto Pete’s back and he would swim her in.  Barrie couldn’t swim, but she was outstanding “in the air”.  

That year, 1966, they went on to win every contest, fourteen in a row.  Pete had been competing in the Makaha contest since it’s inception in 1954 and had never won.  He wanted to win that more than anything.  On the day of the Makaha contest in 1966, the surf was 15 feet, the biggest it had ever been for a tandem event.  Everyone knew that Barrie couldn’t swim and some of the competitors were trying to psyche her out about it.  Pete had to keep her away from the others.  The competition was tough including Mike Doyle, Bob Moore, and Don Hansen with their partners.In those days tandem boards didn’t have leashes so a single fall could put you out of the competition.  Pete told Barrie: Don’t think about how big it is, just stand up fast and go for our lift.  They rode every wave perfect and won.  Their performance was shown on Wide World of Sports and Barrie at sixteen years old got the recognition that was missing at home. 

1966 was also the first year that a formal World surfing contest was held in San Diego.  Midget Farrely won men’s and Pete with Barrie won the tandem.  They were flown to NY City to appear on the What’s My Line TV show, life was getting exciting, but a short time after that, tragedy struck.   Pete dropped Barrie on his head while practicing, compressing a disc in his neck forcing his retirement from tandem surfing.  Barrie had just lost the best tandem partner in history.

I started mat surfing around Redondo Beach in 1958 and bought my first balsa wood Velzy – Jacobs surfboard in 1960.  In 1961, I saw tandem surfing for the first time on the Wide World Of sports coverage of the Makaha contest.  At the time, I never thought that I could do lifts, I just wanted a tandem board to take my younger brothers and sister out surfing.  I saved my money all winter and bought Hobie’s personal tandem board for $150.  In 1962, Ninth grade, I first started inviting girls from school to go tandem surfing.  This was four years before Barrie met Pete.  I started learning lifts from Pete, Bob Moore, Jack and Cathy Iverson and Bill Silzle.  I entered my first contest at Doheny in 1963.  (You can see part of this contest in the “Art Of Tandem Surfing” video). 

 

In those days as now all the tandem surfers tend to hang out together.  They would help the new teams learn the lifts, but keep a few secrets for themselves.  I used to hang out at Doheny where Bob Moore was the head lifguard.  He was built like a gorilla and very intense about tandem surfing.  Bob, Micky Munose and I used to do pretend competition tandem heats.  I was the youngest and always came in last.  Eventually, Mickey quit tandem surfing and I inherited his partner, Tina.  Tina and I did a few contests and then my family moved to Virginia where I surfed on the East coast for three years.  While in Virginia, I watched the Makaha International on TV and saw Pete and Barrie’s stellar performance.  When I returned to Ca. after graduating from Jr. collage in Va.  I went to visit Pete.  He told me about his neck injury and suggested that I contact Barrie about tandem surfing.

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