Colin Herlihy’s board skills and Dan Herlihy’s surfing videos have taken the father-son duo far

By John Ryan  |  Photograph by Eddie Compo
From the August 2014 issue

ChasingWavesbyEddieCompoAs the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season rears its ugly head, Delaware surfer Colin Herlihy sees a silver lining in the coming storm clouds. Like hungry animals, he and other die-hard surfers from Miami to Maine will scour weather maps and buoy charts, licking their chops in anticipation of the next big swell. When the waves arrive, jobs and responsibilities are put on hold. Nothing else much matters.

“Only a handful of times each year do East Coast surfers get the chance to ride Hawaiian-size waves in their own backyard,” notes Colin. “We’ll drive hundreds of miles in hopes of hitting it just right.”

Indeed, at a moment’s notice, he and his father, Dan Herlihy, can be found loading their SUV with surfing gear, cameras and enough provisions to weather any approaching storm — once they get there.

And as the younger Herlihy looks forward to riding the next epic swell, the elder family member — no stranger to the waves himself — focuses on capturing each session on high-definition video. For this father and son duo, it’s just another day at the beach.

The seeds of a passion

In the late 1950s, on a simmering July morning, a 14-year-old boy paddles an oversized rescue board into gently rolling waves off Ocean City, Md. In the shade of a nearby lifeguard tower, a man shares a laugh with one of the guards while keeping a close watch on his son in the nearby surf. Young Danny Herlihy catches his first wave — the first of many.

“When I started surfing, there were only a few other surfers in Delmarva,” Dan recalls. “There was me, Bill Wise, Don ‘Smedley’ Graham, Pat Marshall, Bob Ennis and George Pittman. Smedley and Bill would make the trip from Harrington, Delaware, to Ocean City every chance they got.” (Tragically, Wise broke his neck surfing the shallow sandbars off the South Bethany fire-control tower. Despite paralysis that forced him to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he expressed his love for surfing through photography, using his tongue to trip the camera’s shutter. It was no idle pursuit. Bill Wise became a well-known surf photographer and journalist. For many years, he wrote a weekly column for the Ocean City Beachcomber about the surfing lifestyle. He died in 2007.)

“What got me totally stoked on surfing was watching the landmark film ‘The Endless Summer,’” says Dan, who isn’t overstating his enthusiasm. The independent film by Bruce Brown (which would eventually create enough buzz to earn nationwide release in 1966) premiered locally on a Friday night in 1964. Dan was part of the rambunctious crowd at Stephen Decatur High School in West Ocean City, some of whom — Dan included — traveled to Virginia Beach the next night to see it again. They followed the movie as the screenings unspooled in a southward path along the coast. “By the third viewing I was inspired to explore surfing options beyond my hometown, maybe even make my own surf film,” he adds.

Still in his teens but smitten with this pursuit, Danny Herlihy packed his bags and headed west. His plan was to reach sunny California, where surfing was fast becoming the “in” sport. “I wanted to be part of that experience,” he explains. “Lucky for me, I wrote a letter to Reynolds Yater, a well-known Santa Barbara surfboard manufacturer, and got a reply. Rennie was kind enough to let me sleep in the back of his surf shop.” Not only that, but Yater hired the young man to sweep out the shop at the end of each business day. Before long, he was applying fiberglass to boards and, later, working for Hobie Surfboards in Dana Point. It was the break he had hoped for: “I was surfing by day and glassing boards by night.”

But travel is a big part of any serious surfer’s resume and Dan Herlihy was no exception. Rising quickly through the competitive ranks, he became a member of the famed Windansea Surf Club of La Jolla, near San Diego. Back then, such clubs were formed mainly to create a competition structure along the coast, and Windansea was one of the most respected clubs in California. Iconic surfers such as Phil Edwards, Mickey Dora, Butch Van Artsdalen and Pat Curren were highly respected members. “Those guys made the sport of surfing what it is today. I felt honored to be included,” Dan says.

During the winter of ’65, his thirst for big-wave riding led him to the North Shore of Oahu, where daring surfers challenge the largest and most dangerous waves in the world. “Hawaii was, and still is, the ultimate proving ground for any surfer worth his or her salt. Like so many surfers before me, the chance to ride and, on occasion, conquer the dangerous waves of Hawaii was something I had to do,” Dan says.

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