In his darkest hours as an inmate in a Florida state prison, Jack “Murf the Surf” Murphy looked to surfing magazines for inspiration.
“They were my prized possessions,” he said. “They were one of the things that kept me alive.”
Murphy, serving a life sentence for murder, had hit rock bottom. The man who introduced the “Sport of Hawaiian Kings” to Florida’s Space Coast didn’t know when or if he would ever catch a wave again. But the photographs of long, blue lines kept his spirits high.
“I would use the pictures to paint, always seascapes,” he said. “Surfing is such an expression of freedom, and as I studied more philosophy and religion, I started to appreciate God’s handiwork in the universe. Then I realized that when you're surfing, you’re not on your schedule, you are on God’s schedule. You are waiting for his waves, to break in his ocean, in his way. There is this communion that most non-surfers would never understand… surfing puts you in touch with the heartbeat of a higher power.”
Murphy had seen his share of fame and fortune. Born in Los Angeles in 1937, the young Jack Murphy traveled through the beach towns of Southern California during the Golden Age of surfing.
“My father was an electrical contractor, so we were always on the move,’’ he said. “I attended 12 grammar schools and three high schools… I was used to picking up and going.’’
When Jack was in fourth grade, the Murphys moved to Oceanside, just a few blocks from the sea. It didn’t take long before the young Murphy made friends with local water rats down at the beach.
“We were always in the ocean,” Murphy said. “Everyone bodysurfed. When we could, we rode mats—the inflatable rubber ones you still see at the beach today. If it floated, we would try to ride it. In the ‘40s, since we didn’t have our own boards, we would even cut up our moms’ ironing boards and ride them. They were kind of like boogie boards today.”
Like all of his friends, Murphy was a junior lifeguard. He and his buddies would hang around the guard shack, and occasionally, they would take out one of the old lifeguard paddleboards and ride it to the beach.
“There were surfboards back then, but they were made of mahogany or redwood and weighed a ton,” he said. “It would take three of us kids just to pick one up.’’
By the time Murphy was a teenager, the lighter balsa boards had become available, and he and his friends began to travel up and down the coast to surf. At Trestles, a die-hard group of local heroes like Miki “The Cat” Dora and Phil Edwards lived on the beach in tents surrounded by piles of empty cans of pork and beans.
“Those guys were hardcore,” Murphy said. “They lived to surf. It was the early days of space exploration, and these guys were like astronauts, boldly exploring new frontiers.”
Unfortunately, Murphy’s family was forced to move east, and he had to finish his last year of high school in Pennsylvania. After high school, he attended the University of Pittsburgh on a tennis scholarship and also played the violin. He played so well, he was invited to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony, but his tenure at Pitt lasted only a semester. It was too cold and too far from the ocean. He had seen a movie about Miami Beach. The white sand, blue water, and palm trees looked appealing, so he headed south in 1955, long before the Sunshine State began producing world champion surfers.
In Miami Beach, Murphy found the waves nothing like California, but he liked the laid-back Florida lifestyle, and once again, he gravitated towards fellows with similar interests down at the lifeguard station.
“They had a few paddleboards, and occasionally, I would get out and ride one,” he said. “But there wasn’t much surf to speak of.”
Every now and then, however, a winter cold front or summer tropical system would roll through and kick up some waves. Murphy would hit the water, and it didn’t take long before the lifeguards would give him the nickname the world still knows him by today.
“Whenever the storms would come up and the lifeguards would close the beach, I’d grab my surfboard and paddle out,” he said. “There was no surf scene in Florida when I got there. There were guys who had surfed up in Daytona on 16-foot paddleboards in the ‘20s and ‘30s. But in the ‘50s, there was nobody really surfing in Florida, so the lifeguards called me ‘Murf the Surf.’”
In Miami, Murphy introduced a friend to surfing, and this person would go on to become an East Coast legend himself.
“That’s where I met Murf, working on the beach,” said Dick Catri. “We were both professional springboard divers.” Catri and Murphy teamed up for a comedy routine at hotel swimming pools. “I was the straight man, and he was the clown,” Catri said. “We would do four or five shows an afternoon, up and down the beach, at all the fine hotels.”
At the time, Catri was also an avid freediver who would hunt the blue waters off Miami Beach armed with nothing more than a spear, mask, and set of fins.
“One day when it was too rough to dive, Murf showed up with a surfboard,” Catri said. “I paddled out, gave it a try, and was hooked.”
Six months later, Catri was in Hawaii, surfing seemingly unridable breaks with big wave legends like Greg Noll. About the same time, Murphy hitchhiked north to Cape Canaveral to see a friend.
“I stood on the beach, and there were lines of glassy waves coming in as far as the eye could see,” he said. “And there was nobody surfing.”
Murphy planted roots. He opened up a shop in Indialantic called Murf’s Surf Shop. It was next to where Shagg’s Surf Shop is today in the space where Bizzarros Pizza sits now. He also talked Hobie Alter into fronting him some blanks and started shaping boards. Murf had dreams of making a living at the sport like his friend Hobie in California.
“I didn’t know anything about business,” he said. “I was just a surfer. All I wanted to do was hang out on the beach and make a living. The boards we would shape are pretty much still the same today. Only the materials are much lighter and better.”
The surf scene was starting to explode with Dick Dale, Gidget, the Beach Boys, and Bruce Brown. Murf traveled up and down the coast, surfing the different spots and entering the occasional contest. In 1966, Murf won the Men’s division at the East Coast Surfing Championships in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Back in Florida, Murf and his buddies earned extra money by renting public halls to show surf flicks.
“Me and another guy would go find a place that we could rent cheap,” he said. “Then we would get the latest surf movie and pack ‘em in. I had this apartment above a hardware shop, and I always kept a couple of extra mats and blankets in the corner for the guys who would roll in from Hawaii or South Africa. We would just throw some more hot dogs and beans in the pot—everybody was welcome. We were all surfers.”
Murphy’s factory, where he made his signature model boards, was doing well, until the day he arrived at work to discover that his financial backers had decided to make fiberglass panels for the booming construction industry instead of surfboards. It was the early ‘60s, and the space race was heating up as NASA was growing bigger and bigger every day. These new workers needed homes not surfboards. Murphy felt the free enterprise system had failed him.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. Contracts and city hall were foreign things to me. I grew up on John Wayne movies where a man’s handshake was all that mattered.”
Handshakes didn’t jive with the bottom line however, and this business failure led Murf down the path that would lead to crime and headlines that captured the world’s attention.
The Star of India, a golfball-sized gem which legend says was formed in the earth by sparks from the Star of Bethlehem was the most famous star sapphire in the world. It was stolen from the American Museum of Natural History on a rainy October night in 1964. The boldness of the theft impressed even the police. Murphy, who was 27 at the time, and another man, Allen Kuhn, had just seen the Jules Dassin film “Topkapi” which detailed the theft of a priceless gem from an Istanbul museum.
According to published reports, the athletic Murf dangled from a 125-foot rope and swung onto a fifth floor window ledge that led to the gem room of the museum. Murphy waited until the night watchman’s flashlight disappeared then entered the museum through an unlocked window. He used the sound of a plane passing overhead to drown out the noise of breaking into the glass jewel case. After stuffing several gems in his pocket, he went down to Times Square and grabbed a drink at a local bar.
The next day, when museum officials discovered the 563-carat Star of India, the famous Eagle Diamond, the Midnight Sapphire, and the DeLong Ruby were missing, the New York Daily News called it, “a chapter in criminal history that rivals anything in fiction.” Others said it was the American equivalent of England’s Great Train Robbery, the jewel heist of the century. Two days later, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation kicked in the door of a Miami Beach penthouse, and Murphy and his associates were arrested.
The $410,000 burglary cost Murf 25 months at Rikers Island Penitentiary in New York. But the museum burglary was just one of several crimes Murf was linked to during that time period. Four months before the museum break-in, three men walked into the Algonquin Hotel—a plush Manhattan establishment—pistol whipped the night clerk, and made off with $250. The clerk later identified Murf as the man who beat him. Two months following the museum job, while free on bail, Murphy was arrested for burglarizing a Miami mansion.
“Some of my friends had gone over the edge, and they took me along with them,” Murphy said. “They were messing with narcotics… a lot of bad things. I made some very bad decisions.”
Having served his time in New York, Murf returned to South Florida and more trouble. This time it would be far more serious, and he would pay more dearly. In 1967, authorities discovered the bodies of two secretaries, stabbed and beaten, at the bottom of Whiskey Creek near Hollywood, Florida. The women had both been suspects in a $500,000 securities theft. Prosecutors said the secretaries were working with Murphy, and the women had stolen and turned over the securities to be fenced when Murf and another man killed them in an argument. Two years after his arrest, Murphy received a life sentence for his involvment in the death of one of the secretaries and was sent to Florida’s maximum-security prison at Starke. In 1970, when a judge handed down a second life sentence for the muder of the other secretary, Murphy was labeled an “incorrigible enemy” of society.
In prison, Murphy painted and dreamt of clean, glassy waves. He studied philosophy, theology, and read letters from Christians concerned about his salvation. One day, a fellow inmate gave him a Bible and likened it to an “owner’s manual.” The friend said it was the answer book, a road map for life. The Bible, he said, stood for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
Then the former football player and prison evangelist Bill Glass came into Starke with his superstar cast of athletes and entertainers for a prison ministry conference. Glass and Murphy corresponded over the years, and it helped Murf get his priorities straight. In 1986, after nearly 20 years behind bars, Murphy convinced a parole board that religion had changed his life. The board agreed, and after his release, Murf went to work for Glass as a counselor. The born-again surfer began to travel to prisons throughout the country and eventually the world, spreading God’s word to men who had also chosen the wrong path at one time or another.
“He underwent a remarkable change,” said Catri, who kept in touch with his old friend during his stay in prison. “Murf is a brilliant individual… musically, artistically, socially… but he is truly born again. He is a man committed to his faith who now travels to prisons around the world spreading the word, but he never forgets where he came from or how he got there.”
Murphy, who now lives in Crystal River on Florida’s West Coast, recently returned to California for a prison tour with Bill Yerkes, owner of Balsa Bill’s Surf Shop in Satellite Beach.
“We struck up a friendship, and when he was released, I took up a collection with some friends and bought him a violin and a surfboard,” Yerkes recalled.
Soon Yerkes began joining Murphy on his prison ministry visits, and the California trip stirred old memories of Murf’s days as a boy riding the waves in Oceanside.
“Over the past year in our prison ministry, we’ve gotten to surf Rincon in Puerto Rico and Malibu in California,” Yerkes said. “It is always good to go some place where we can both evangelize and surf… it’s sort of a double blessing.” The pair paddled out at Malibu where Murphy ran into an old chum from his Oceanside days, L.J. Richards. “I hadn't seen L.J. since 1954,” Murphy said. “We surfed, sat on the beach and talked, then surfed some more just like the old days.”
Today, Murphy spends the majority of his time traveling to jails and prisons around the world. He speaks mostly about faith and redemption, but when prompted, he can’t help but talk about the sport that kept him alive during his darkest hours.
“I just came back from Peru where I visited a surf shop that had a poster of Kelly Slater hanging in it,” he said. “I think that’s amazing… halfway around the world and people know this surfer from Florida.”
Although born and bred in California, Murphy considers himself a Floridian when it comes to surfing.
“There is such comraderie among East Coast surfers,” he said. “It is like one big happy family. The reason is because the surfers from here are always the underdog,” he continued. “But wherever they go in the world, Florida surfers can compete with the best of them. Just look at the list of world champions.”
In 1996, Murf joined the ranks of several champions with his induction into the East Coast Hall of Fame. Today, at age 62, he still gets wet every chance he gets, having surfed in California, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico in recent months. Every time Murphy paddles out, it reminds him to keep life in perspective.
“Every surfer I have ever known, and I am talking about a real surfer, not a pretender but a contender, has been on the ocean when it has bucked up all of the sudden,” Murphy said. “In an instant, they realize that the ocean is bigger than they are. They see wave after wave coming in, and for a minute they wonder if they have the steam to make it back in. ‘This could be it,’ they think, ‘time to check out.’ That’s the moment when a surfer makes a deal with God. That’s when they start looking to God for help.”
Murphy and Yerkes recently began re-issuing some of the old Murf the Surf shapes from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“They are classic boards,” Yerkes said. “They are traditional styles—volan cloth, no leash cups, glass-on fins… but they are made to ride. I guess you could say they’re also collectibles. I just hope people ride them and don’t just hang them on the wall.”
Murphy hopes his signature boards do better this time around. The sight of those classic longboards remind him of a much simpler time when the most important thing in life was a clean, well-shaped wave.