The first time I recall hearing the name John Peck was in 1963 when he was featured in both Surfer Magazine and Surfing Illustrated (SI). In the Surfer photo the wind is howling offshore, while the SI image captures a wave with a glassy face. Judging by the size and shape of the waves, the photos appear to have been taken at different times of the same day. While I’m not sure about that, Peck identifies the date of the centerspread as New Year’s Day, 1963. It was a day that not only launched a new sun cycle, but a career.
At the time, only a few people had ridden Pipeline for a few years. Like its riders this wave was then new on the scene and respected for its energy and raw power. Butch Van Artsdalen was unofficially crowned Pipe’s king after getting the deepest barrels anyone had ever seen. Still, nobody took off later than Peck, or managed to pull out of seemingly impossible drops on what was then the most feared barrel in the world.
The SI centerspread, which ended up on my bedroom wall, showed Peck riding low and parallel while grabbing a rail. The Surfer cover shot, which was taken at a time when only six of those magazines were produced a year, was enough to immortalize any surfer lucky enough to find themselves in frame.
Both were shots seen around the surfing world and placed John’s name with an elite crew that included the Van Artsdalen as well as surfers like Donald Takayama, Phil Edwards and Greg Noll. Even in that crew, Peck stood out for his unique fluid style, subtle moves and always played it close to the curl.
By the mid ‘60s, Peck’s signature model for Morey Pope, the Peck Penetrator, was a top selling board that applied long-held aerodynamic principles to surfboards. The Penetrator made its maiden voyage over half a century ago, yet the airplane wing foil on the nose of the Penetrator makes perfect sense. At the time, however, this was an unidentified flying object, difficult to comprehend until John set his magic feet on the deck, drove hard off the bottom and slinked, catlike, to the nose. I rode one of those boards once and while I was a million miles away from the master’s skill, it definitely improved my surfing. Did I mention that Peck might have invented a maneuver called the sideslip, a functional stall that would later be perfected by Herbie Fletcher?
By the time I met John Peck on Maui in the summer of 1969 he was surfing very little and involved in a counter-cultural lifestyle. The next few years brought change to both society and surfing as a new crew of surf stars replaced Peck and his peers. I had no idea where he was until one day in 1974 when I saw him surfing Beacon’s. His flow and economy of movement gave no indication of a layoff.
It was during the biggest day of the decade that Swami’s in the late 1990s hit 15 feet and Peck distinguished himself by riding the biggest waves of that swell.
For the last decade or so I have seen John almost every year at the Moore’s Cancer Center Luau and Longboard Invitational. During the surfing portion of the event, he always showed that he was still on top of his game — playing fast and loose in or near the curl.
A few years ago, I again lost track of the elusive Mister Peck. The last I heard he was living somewhere in Hawaii and surfing every day. While he, no doubt, leaves Pipeline to those a quarter his age these days, each of those kids owe him a debt for opening the door for them long before they were born.