Two of surfing's best: Paul Strauch Jr. and Jericho Poppler. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Surfing heroes become friends

As a teenager, my bedroom walls were papered with images ripped from the pages of Surfer Magazine. Lance Carson hung 10 like nobody else, Phil Edwards laid into the perfect drop-knee turn, Butch Van Artsdalen ruled the barrel and a young man named Paul Strauch Jr. was stretched out like a predatory bird, flying across a muscular Hawaiian wave, hanging five in his own unique way.

The move, his patented move, on that wave and many others would come to be known as the “Cheater Five,” or, in honor of its inventor, the “Paul Strauch Five.” The PSJ, as it was sometimes known, became a necessary tool in the belt of surfers internationally. For a time, I practiced Strauch fives at every opportunity, mostly on my bed, but sometimes on a wave. I did some good ones but never did perfect them.

I don’t remember how, but sometime in the early 1980s, I became friends with Paul. After that, I surfed with him a few times, and while the years had dulled some of his sharpness, he more than held his own among surfers half his age. Brief bursts hinted at the surfer he had once been, and the only thing I found to match his skill was his kind and joyfully personality. While paper realities proved he had once ranked among the greatest, I had never seen him surf in his prime. Then, in the early ‘90s, I did the next best thing — I interviewed him. We spoke several times, and while he was easy to talk to and told me many great stories, he proved far too modest to place himself where others had, at the top of the pack.

I would need to contact some of his many admirers. Among that group were some of the top Hawaiian-based surfers of all time: Legendary big-wave rider Peter Cole, Jeff “Mister Sunset” Hackmann, power ranger Barry Kaniaupuni, and Pipeline master Gerry Lopez. Each of them told different stories about their hero, but their conclusions were all the same — that Paul Strauch was the best surfer in the world in the mid-1960s. Being among the best themselves, they were in a unique position to know.

It would be another decade before Jericho Poppler caught my attention, again through Surfer Magazine. Like Paul, her surfing was a notable expression of joy, and she exhibited a fluidity not matched since Margot Fonteyn ruled the ballet world. With each turn and cutback, Jericho seemed to summon the magic of a hundred aquatic genies. Her surfing was as fast and powerful as some of the best male surfers of the day, with a feminine silkiness generally unknown by that gender.

Over the years, I have become friends with both Paul and Jericho. I am forever proud to be associated with them through the sport they have dominated and influenced while I vainly tried to describe their essence with words. Through the decades, they have remained consistently kind and gracious in and out of the water, while able to strike hot sparks that bring to mind the word genius.

It is that combination of goodness and greatness, skill and kindness that separate them from the rest of us who stand back and have the honor to chronicle their lives.

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