The greatest competitor of California’s Golden Age and surfing’s first real pro, five-time US Surfing Champion (1966-’70) Corky Carroll is also famous as a surf instructor, an author, a recording artist, a TV ad personality and a surfboard salesman. This animated, witty and talented rider was as famous for his mouth as he was for his huge surf knots. Charles Curtis Carroll was born in Alhambra, California, but his parents (dad an electrician, mom a singer) moved to the small colony at Surfside — between Seal and Huntington beaches — when he was a baby. He started surfing right out in front of their beach house and got his first surfboard (an 8′7″ pintail balsa gun shaped by Dick Barrymore) in 1958, just before foam boards came on the scene.
As a student at Huntington Beach High School, Carroll excelled at journalism and math, played baseball, basketball and water polo,and took as many surf safaris as possible up and down the coast with good friends such as Mark Martinson, Robert August, Mickey Munoz, Billy Hamilton and Mike Doyle.
His first competition was the 1959 West Coast Surfing Championships at Huntington Beach, where he placed third in his Junior-division heat. His first contest victory was at the 1962 San Clemente Surf Capades. The following year, he became the US Junior Champ with a win at Huntington. So promising was the young lad that Hobie Alter decided to sponsor him, paying Carroll $80 a week to use and promote Hobie Surfboards. In 1965, along with surf celebs like John Severson and Ricky Grigg, Carroll won an endorsement sponsorship with Jantzen Sportswear for $1,500 a year.
Carroll’s style of surfing was flashy but functional. During the mid-’60s noseriding era, he was as good as anyone. He was a champion paddler with keen wave judgment and a fiery competitive spirit that usually paid off with high-scoring performances. He was the US Men’s champ in 1966, 1967 and 1969, and Overall Champion from 1966 through 1970 (he claims he was cheated out of the 1971 title). A multiple champ of the USSA and WSA in the ’60s, he placed third in the 1966 World Contest in San Diego, won the International Big Wave Championship in Peru in 1967 and the World Small Wave Championships in Florida in 1968. He won the Surfer Poll Award as the best surfer in the world in 1968 and few disagreed with that popular consensus.
“Of everything I achieved in my surfing career, winning the Surfer Poll meant the most to me,” Carroll says. “To be named the best by the people was the greatest honor. It is one of the only trophies that I kept for my kids.”
Throughout those years, Carroll was at the forefront of developments in surfing equipment. His Hobie Mini Model, introduced in 1967, was the first production shortboard in America, and his Deadly Flying Glove model furthered the evolution. He was one of the first to convert to twin fins in 1971 and was featured in a number of surf films in the ’60s and ’70s, including MacGillivray-Freeman’s Five Summer Stories.When competitive surfing lost some of its luster in the early ’70s, Carroll reached into his grab bag of talent and diversified into an array of livelihoods. He taught himself to play the guitar and was soon in the studio producing spirited albums of original music such as Laid Back (1971), Surfer for President (1979) and Beachtown Rhapsody (1997). He wrote a couple of books, Surf Dog Days and Bitchin’ Nights (1988) and Pier Pressure (1998).
In the ’80s, Carroll spent 10 years as advertising director of Surfer magazine, six years as a tennis pro and a couple of years as a ski instructor. Along the way he had brief stints as a bartender, waiter and/or lounge singer; he managed a car dealership, did three movies, seven videos and some television comedy.
All the while, Carroll never totally relinquished the surf scene. Now an inductee into the Surfing Hall of Fame and Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, he lives in Huntington with his wife Pamster and daughter Kasey, and he has an older son, Clint, from his first marriage.
Today, he works a record number of part-time gigs, including designing surfboards, retail surfboard sales and writing a column for The Huntington Beach Wave. He runs the Corky Carroll Surf School — headquartered at Bolsa Chica State Park with trips to places like Puerto Vallarta and Costa Rica. He’s a regular invitee to Legends events around the world. He’s continually recording new CDs, has written a third book (Pier Pressure Book 2: Surf Bumps) and has done some heroic television commercials, most recently for Ocean Spray cranberry drinks.
Above all, however, Corky Carroll is most widely remembered for the 13 commercials he did for Miller Lite Beer.
Says Carroll, “Yes, I still surf all the time, and no, I still don’t have a real job. Let’s hope it never comes to that.”
– Drew Kampion, October 2000