Dick Catri - EC Surfing Hall of Fame Profile
- July 1, 2007
- 1 Comments
- By Story/Photos by Dharma Mum – Gayla Schaefer
Dick Catri is called the Godfather of East Coast Surfing for good reason. Armed only with cursory knowledge of the legend from what I had read in old stories and online, I met the 1996 East Coast Hall of Fame inductee at the door of his garden cottage on the river near the end of a torrential downpour.
He welcomed me in to his refuge, a small home he purchased 20 years ago with his third wife, Teri, when it was little more than a shack surrounded by overgrown weeds.
Despite the gloomy clouds overhead and the remnant rains, I was awestruck by the lush tropical gardens that surround the home on all sides, totally eclipsing the beautiful riverview out back and even the newbie monster mansion that the Catris share a drive with.
"Terri did all of the landscaping herself," he tells me noting that his wife owns Vegetation Specialists. "It helps to have a professional landscaper around."
Between the rain and the images fresh in my mind from online stories of Catri's current incarnation as a charter fishing boat captain, I couldn't stop thinking about Ernest Hemingway. It was as if I had wandered into the secret clubhouse of the Old Man and the Sea himself.
But the mental comparisons quickly ceased as I tried to take in his story and make friends with his faithful companion, a hefty blonde lab named Nadine.
To finish my connection to the Hemingway novella about the fisherman battling the giant catch – after spending an hour with Dick Catri, you know this guy conquered the sea long ago.
To tell the complete truth here, I am not even sure how to go about telling his story in a way that would hit you in the face the way I was by what an incredible ride this man has had – but I will give it a shot.
Catri moved to Miami in 1947 from New Jersey with his folks, a brother and two sisters. He graduated high school a decade later and within a few years somehow managed to move from a job working Miami Beach as a pool boy at big hotels to becoming a professional spring board diver doing shows with the now legendary Jack "Murph the Surf" Murphy, who introduced him to the sport of surfing.
"My life was never the same," he laughed.
The buddies decided to take a surf trip during the down season and decided on Hatteras as their destination at a time when it wasn't like they could pull up surf reports or hang with friends along the way.
The duo aimed north for Hatteras, figuring that geographically there should be good surf there, and tried to hit each beach town along the way. They were disappointed until they landed in Indialantic.
Amazed by the 6-foot swells and glassy water, they never made it any further than the nearby town of Cocoa Beach for the next month before heading back to finish out the show season.
"I decided as much as I was enamored with surfing, the place to do it was Hawaii," he says.
He spent the next five years surfing the breaks of the North Shore and moving from making ends meet as a cabinet maker to becoming head lifeguard in Pearl Harbor. He even landed a sweet job as the Aquatic Director for the movie, "Ride the Wild Surf" after starting work in the industry at Dick Brewer's factory.
"I became a member of the 20 plus club," he said with a definite twinkle in his eye as he surely thought of Pipe, Waimea and Makaha in the '60's. "I rode some pretty good size waves."
The cash from the movie let him head back to the East Coast to set up a Satellite Beach surf shop in '64 as a rep for Brewer's Surfboards Hawaii. He also helped pull together the team that would dominate the waves for years to come first under Brewer's label and later with Hobie.
"I surrounded myself with a bunch of very talented surfers and we moved up and down the East Coast competing," he said modestly trying to negate the title as Godfather. "My reputation was built then. It was a pretty elite group."
Catri's pals included Gary Propper, Mimi Munro, Fletcher Sharpe, Bruce Valuzzi, Claudie Codgen and more. The team took over.
"For four or five years we pretty much dominated competitive surfing," he said. "We made the magazines, got involved in the few surf films being made at the time, had all the notoriety."
Catri built on his fame by branching into manufacturing. He opened Catri Surfboards and was Clark Foam's first East Coast distributor.
He also started the first contests for cash prizes, well before any arrived on the West Coast or in Hawaii.
Explaining to me that he has owned the Easter Surfing Festival for the past 22 years with partner John Griffin and helped found it twenty years prior to that, I start to see where that "Godfather" thing came to be.
Catri found a nice niche as a contest promoter and the pair created the Sundek Classic and the American Professional Surfing (APS) organization, those first pay-out comps I mentioned, which included the $25,000 Florida Pro.
Catri said that planning for the monster event takes a full year and has grown to two locations with the short board portion at the Cocoa Beach Pier and the longboarders nearby at Sheppard Park.
"I'd like to see that event go on forever," he said when asked if it was something he might consider selling. "I am working on creating an Easter Surfing Foundation that would organize surfing events around the world on the same weekend with proceeds going toward a worthy children's charity."
He did say, by the way, that he wouldn't rule out selling the event if the right person came along but there was a definite spark when he started talking about his dreams of a foundation with simultaneous worldwide reach.
While Catri says the most important thing he got out of his life in the surf were lifelong friendships formed with those he shared the "spirituality" of the ocean with, the rep he gained as captain and coach of the Hobie team also got him invites to several U.S. championships, the 1968 World Contest in Puerto Rico and the 1967 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational – an obvious highlight of his life.
Much of Catri's home decor has something to do with that event in '67 where he only placed third in his first heat, albeit to the two guys who won, back when major events landed winners nice trophies instead of nice checking accounts - something he helped to change forever later in life.
Next to his Hall of Fame award at the front door is a framed poster of the event, but even more prominent is a longboard that hangs from the ceiling and is the definitive focal point of the eclectic surf decor.
"See that board," he said, as if there was any way to have missed it. "In the corner of the room over there under the trophy is my invitation to Duke signed by all the people who were part of it with me."
Over the next few minutes, he explains to me the sordid past of the board, left in his shop after his divorce from second wife, Shagg, the mother of three of his four daughters, one of whom is depicted for eternity as a two-year-old riding a wave on Daddy's shoulder in a limited edition painting by Phil Roberts.
"She sold it (the board) for 50 pairs of swim trunks," he said grinning in a way I could not fathom. "It went to a collector here, then New Jersey, then Hawaii. Everyone who signed that invitation went together and bought it back for me and gave it back to me at the '98 Hall of Fame induction."
There is no way to miss how moved he was by this one massive grand gesture by so many friends, and this, he pointed out to me again is the point many people miss about the sport.
"Hollywood has done such a disservice to surfers," he explains. "I always end my interviews by encouraging young surfers to get an education. Hollywood makes us all out to be idiots but the current group of athletes has gone a long way toward showing kids that you can go to school, have a life, enjoy life and excel at the sport."
He continues to explain that today's moves were completely unimaginable back in the day and to compete now, you have to be a real athlete in training all the time, not exactly the lifestyle of a junkie.
Catri was no saint, and he doesn't pretend to have been. What he is, it becomes obvious to me around this point, is a damn savvy businessman who sees the huge boat missed by much of the East Coast tourism community for decades.
"There has never been an area where surfing was introduced that it didn't flourish," he says. " Cocoa Beach has been the center of East Coast surfing because we put on good events and pay attention to sponsors and marketing."
He recounts how he would make his team mop the floors of hotels where they stayed to help erase the notion that surfers were nothing but a rabid pack of partying hedonists no right-minded hotelier would seek out.
He is also an East Coast promoter, tried and true, but what he promotes happens to be true, whether the guys who grew up riding point breaks like it or not.
"This area has produced more world championships than the West Coast, Australia and Hawaii combined," he boasts.
I ask him why he thinks that is, since I have heard varying reasons of late, all seemingly tied to our lack of long, rideable waves.
"We have beach breaks here," he explains. "The geography and climate are right so there are consistent waves, but they are short. You grow up surfing here and pick up speed and ability, whereas the guys on the West Coast who are used to long rides have a more soulful approach. When you are used to getting a few seconds, you pack a lot more moves in, and when you are competing on bigger waves, that means higher scores."
Now entering his 20th year of retirement, so-to-speak anyway, Catri notes how the switch to cash contests created an industry of mega-conglomerates hocking designer baggies and branching into new sports such as skating, wind-surfing and snow-boarding.
"Surfing let me retire before I was 50, not rich but I still got to retire," he laughs.
Of course, retirement for this Hemingway of the surf means organizing a contest for 12 months of the year, offering his charters on a word-of-mouth only basis only a few miles north of Monster Hole.
I admit to getting easily caught up in the romance of a great storyteller who has lived his tale and this guy damn near takes the cake in those regards. But, as is often not the case for those who have lived so free and furious, Catri is able to enjoys the fruits of his labors and losses and enjoy the quiet contentment of a proud Papa.
Toward the end of our chat, after Catri has beamed about the many competitive swimming awards his daughters held during their years at nearby Mel High, and in some cases still hold almost two decades later, he assumes the enthusiastic boastfulness of every kindly grandfather I've ever met as he explains that his grandchildren are coming this way soon for a traveling surf camp.
Coming down from his tales of the high seas and seeing that the sun had finally come out from behind the dark clouds, Catri walked me to my car in a way that few "gentlemen" would do today.
The man is definitely one-of-a-kind and one that I am glad to have had the privilege to meet.
Hopefully the grandkids know what a cool Papa they have.