From certain angles, the life of Miklos Sandor Dora is easily cast off as that of just an itinerant swindler, a wily conman who did time in prison for crimes which he made no attempt to deny. He committed credit card and check fraud on several occasions, assumed multiple identities, and was generally known for subversive, shadowy dealings. Yet Miki Dora's persona was more nuanced than that of a common criminal; he was a world class surfer with a keen wit, a highly developed sense of adventure and, in his own way, something of an ascetic. Part of the reason he gamed the system so to speak-aside from it being the easiest way to fund his leisurely lifestyle of chasing waves the world over-was that he saw what a fraud the modern world was with its television sets and 9-5s and superficial comforts. He made no effort to conform following his own precarious, poetic path. As he once put it, 'the individuals are being pushed out, and the clones are taking over.'
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1934, Miki's family relocated to Los Angeles while he was still very young where his parents soon split, his mother fortuitously marrying early surf legend Gard Chapin who would introduce him to the sport at age 6. Though, like anything regarding Miki Dora, details are vague and some sources say his Hungarian father was a surfer as well, introducing the young talent to wave riding. Either way Miki quickly showed promise. He fell in love with the ocean and developed a subtle mastery of the nuances of longboarding. Him and his father were regulars at San Onofre, an ideal cobble stone break for the large, early balsa shapes.
As surfboard technology progressed in the 60s with the introduction of foam and fiberglass, Dora's skill in the water began to turn heads, especially at classic right hand point breaks such as Malibu where he was a fixture. Miki is synonymous with the world class cobblestone point having famously spent several summers in the late 50s living out there in a handmade driftwood shack, throwing parties and generally having a big time. Even when I was a short board wielding teenager who looked with contempt upon anything related to logging, I was taken with the idea of the bearded wild man camped out in front of his favorite summer break.
In some ways it would seem, these were his glory days; a golden era when almost no development existed in the area and crowds were light. Long, hot summer days of sharing perfect waves with a handful of friends, but close enough to steal into the city and go to a party or make a beer run. It was the dream, a time that any native Californian longs for and the subject of many a picaresque, overpriced coffee table book.
Those days were numbered though and by the mid to late 60s every resident of the Valley who'd seen Gidget seemed to have purchased there Robert August or Phil Edwards model and were driving over the hill to Malibu and Topanga. The masses arrived and Miki's paradise was ruined, or at least highly compromised. He became infamous for his fierce localism-threatening violence to kooks flailing around in his path or even dropping in on him. In an interview with Surfer he was accused of being ruthless in the water, to which he replied, 'it's a lie, I'm vicious.'
This, along with an FBI investigation into his murky financial practices, sent him overseas in search of calmer waters in the early '70s. His timing was unwittingly impeccable, landing in France's Basque Coast just prior to it's own surf culture obsession. It was generally known that southwestern France held some world class beach breaks and even reefs, but for whatever reason the French had yet to take up the occupation of surfing in earnest. It was a natural fit for Miki with an agreeable blend of waves, charming ancient port towns, great wine and beautiful French women. He frequented the now fabled beach breaks of Hossegor and Biarritz and a reef in Guethary, where he would more or less settle down (using the term liberally) for the next three decades with extended visits to New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa, Namibia, Argentina, Australia and, reluctantly California; where he would do almost a year in prison after being convicted of forging a check to purchase ski equipment.
True to form, even Dora's crimes had panache (such as risking prison time to acquire ski gear). This flair and sense of the absurd extended to his writing as expressed in letters to friends from prison. Upon entering jail he wrote:
“I have been found guilty beyond any hope by the people of California, who have a negative sense of humour. They seem unimpressed by my International status for all my bewildering indiscretions, one of which is being disinclined to do anything which requires effort, and the other great sin of riding more waves than any other of the species in the history of mankind.
“Upon entry to Le Grand Chateau, I proclaimed my service as an Honourable Gentleman, to do my duty as prescribed by law. The management was so impressed by my presence that they instantly confiscated my luggage, including all my interesting reading matter, and threw it all in the trash dump — vitamins and all. There’s one thing I can tell you for certain, I’m not tipping on this trip.”
After his release, Miki left for France and would not return until the final year of his life, which he spent at his Father's house in Montecito, CA battling pancreatic cancer. Miki Dora passed in 2002.
Dora is now hailed as the archetype rebel surfer, 'the siren voice of a nonconformist surfing lifestyle' as the London Times put it. And he was; so much so that he even rebelled against surfing, writing lengthy articles through the decades condemning the corporate surf industry. Of course, this was a blatant contradiction as he widely profited through those very companies selling his signature model surfboard among other surf paraphernalia. But, as with any enigmatic character, Dora's life was a study in contrast.
'Miki was a paradox,' Alan Carter, a friend who began surfing with him in the '50s said. 'He was reclusive on one hand and flamboyant on the other. He'd get comped with $500 tickets to an A-list party in Hollywood, and give the tickets away and walk in the back door. He was a wild character.'