By Balsa Bill
I first saw Gary surf on a summer day in New Jersey in 1965. In those days there was no internet media. No cell phones. The communication was word of mouth, the Jersey shore version of the coconut wireless. The word on our beach was that the Surfboards Hawaii team captained by Dick Catri was in town for the Atlantic States Contest and would be surfing at the Surf Club in Ortley Beach.
It was a beautiful summer day. Glassy morning and a solid summer swell of about 3′.
I was amazed at the surfing of the team especially Gary Propper. The star of the team.
The next year, 1966, the team was back. The Atlantic States Contest in Seaside Heights was the showdown for the Weber Team and the Surfboards Hawaii Team.
Dewey Weber, 10 years Gary’s senior was the legendary surfboard builder and Malibu surf star known as the “Little Man on Wheels.” He had brought his team of California hot doggers to surf in the East Coast contest circuit starting in New England. The next stop on the tour, The Atlantic States Contest in Seaside Heights, New Jersey.
There was no interference rule in those days as long as there was no physical contact.
In the finals Gary Propper and Dick Catri were up against a field of Californians on their Dewey Weber boards. Bob “Porkchop” Barron, Tom Lonardo were among the members of Dewey’s team with one goal. Block Propper and Catri so Dewey could win.
On every wave Propper and Catri took off on there were at least one or two of Dewey’s riders boxing them in. In spite of this Gary did pretty good. They didn’t count on the fact that he could hang five going straight off in the soup. But he didn’t do good enough to win. Dewey took first getting a trophy and a check for $500.
But Gary got his revenge a couple of days late in the East West Open at the East Coast Surfing Championships in Virgina Beach.
Propper took off on a wave, walked to the nose and when he did his fin slipped out. While not unusual today, back then it didn’t happen often since fins on the old noseriders hung right off the tail. His board slid around and now riding fin first he again walked up to the nose which was now the tail and flipped the board around doing a 360. No one had ever seen a move like this before. Contest or no.
Competition Surf magazine called it Proppers “Fantastic Spectacular” maneuver. Surfer magazine ran the headline: “For the First Time East Beats West.”
I asked Catri about it years later. “After that ride he came out of the water. ‘What are you doing?’ I said. Gary said that they were going to judge the best three waves, that he’d had three waves good enough to win the contest so he was coming in.”
“Get back out there and if a good wave comes in be on it!” Catri told him.
Catri told me about Gary’s style: “I’d been living in Hawaii in ’63. I’d seen the surfing of Joey Cabell which was a departure from the classic Hawaiian style. I called it an acrobatic style off surfing. And When I came back to Florida with Shagg to open the surf shop and to promote Surfboards Hawaii I started looking for a surfer with the ability to adapt to that style. I knew I couldn’t do it, but I could coach someone to do it. Propper was the guy. He had the ability and the drive.”
Gary on his own style: “Surfing the small waves in Cocoa Beach I tried to get as much speed as I could. I paddled fast for a wave. Faster and faster trying to beat the wave to the beach. That would give me extra speed for my first turn.”
Tom “Boogie” Morey on Gary Propper. “He once told me to never paddle straight in. Always paddle on an angle. Either in the opposite direction across the peak to set up the turn, or on a fast closing wave paddle in the direction of the break.”
Publisher of Surfing East magazine Dick Van Winkle once said, “I saw Gary surfing some one foot waves and he made it look like overhead surf.”
The secret to Gary’s distinctive style now revealed.
Gary was a movie producer, agent and manager to the stars. But the surfer from Cocoa Beach who innovated a style and took it to the world is how I remember Gary Propper.
Balsa Bill Yerkes March 2019