A Shore Once Far

Photo by Craig PetersonTo a non-surfer, surf videos are eye candy, continuous loops of indistinguishable surfers in generic tubes and barrels backed by a hard-charging, off-the-shelf soundtrack with little thought, dialogue or story. They're background entertainment at parties, surf shops and restaurants, ignored but for those few moments when a couple of guys suddenly turn toward the screen.

"That guy's ripped!"

"God, what a break!"

"Was that chick topless?"

The most famous exception is Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer. Filmed in 1966, Summer is an actual surfing documentary, accessible to anyone—though, today, the surfers' bemusement at Africans comes off a bit patronizing in a naively racist sorta way.

Filmed a few years after The Endless Summer, but only recently released, is The Far Shore. It shares Summer's premise—two surfers traveling the world in search of "the perfect wave"—but adds contemporary interviews and insight. Think of it as The Endless Summer with political context—a few discussions of Nixonian foreign policy, local poverty and the ethics of publicizing hidden surf spots, mixed in with grainy Super-8 footage of surfers and hippie bikini girls.

Director Greg Schell's film follows the decade-long adventures of Orange Countians Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson, who were 18 and 16 respectively when they began traveling and filming in 1972. Tired of surfing familiar OC and LA spots, Naughton and Peterson packed their camera gear and longboards and headed into Central America, Africa, Europe and the South Pacific. Peterson, not yet out of high school, was also a staff photographer for Surfermagazine.

"Nothing was known of this place," Naughton says of their trip to Central America. "All the adventure of a Third World country. . . . We gotta do more of this."

It was during that first trip into Central America that Naughton and Peterson decided to chronicle their journeys for Surfer. Naughton would write a few pages of story, Peterson would shoot some rolls of film, and they'd send the package to their editor. They'd never see the finished product until an issue hit the newsstands.

"We'd hope there'd be a check waiting for us at the next spot," says Naughton in one of the film's present-day segments. "Sometimes there was, sometimes there wasn't."

Where The Endless Summer depicted an endless series of sun-drenched, happy adventures, The Far Shore is grittier. During their 1972 trip to Mexico, the guys thoughtlessly ran into President Nixon's Operation Intercept, in which heavy-handed drug-hunters roughed up suspects at the border.

"We got stopped all the time—strip-searched," remembered Macho, one of the surfers the guys met in Petacalco on Mexico's central coast at a time when Nixon wanted to make an example of our southern neighbor. "It was a scary time. We could have gotten killed. Some did."

Naughton and Peterson found more than danger and ideal surfing conditions in Petacalco. After publishing a big story and photo collection on the hitherto unknown spot, Surfer's editor received death threats from locals infuriated by the bands of gringos who came charging into town for the surf.

From then on, the pair changed the names of places they visited for their Surfer articles. But the damage had been done. Years of surfing travel stories and films had inspired hundreds, even thousands of men and women to duplicate their trips. By the time Naughton and Peterson made it to Fiji in 1983, they were victims of their own success. There they found a few pristine beaches and "surf adventures" but plenty of "surf camps" full of guys just like those they'd left in SoCal.

"Will they spoil what they have discovered by making it known to others?" asks Bill Nichols, who is credited in the film as an author/film historian. On this, The Far Shore is very clear. The places they were traveling were more than just wide-open beaches caressed by long, gentle waves. The people who worked hard to raise their families in those places didn't care about surfing. And to this day, they suffer the American Express adventurers searching for the next big swell. If The Far Shore doesn't tell American surfers to stay home, more than any other film, it acknowledges the ethical quandary.

OrderThe Far Shore at www.thefarshore.com.

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