The True Tale of Harbor Bill

Stomping Grounds: Santa Cruz (5:23)

The "real" Surf City, Santa Cruz is home to tasty waves, tastier pizza, and a whole lot of history. (5:23)

"I was pretty much raised around the harbor," tells Josh Mulcoy. "As a kid we didn't have much money. My dad found a boogie board on the beach and threw me in the water in the inside of the harbor while he'd go surf on the outside. That's kind of where it all began."

Santa Cruz Harbor Gallery

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Like a lot of places in California, this winter the Santa Cruz Harbor enjoyed a banner run, breaking consistently for the better part of three months straight. For those not well-versed in the ways of the fickle, sucking right-hander, when it's on the wave freight-trains across the entrance to the Santa Cruz Harbor, but because it's at the mouth of a harbor occasionally the sandbar is dredged and the wave goes into hibernation until the sand builds up again. It's also the site of some of surfing's most brilliant civil disobedience.

Thanks to the innocence of youth, when Mulcoy's old man handed him that beat-up boogie board he had no idea what his dad was going through to protect this sacred surfing ground. In the mid 1970s, when the sandbar was in its golden prime, surfers and sailors had a contentious differing of opinions in regards to how the waters were best utilized -- surfers wanted to get barreled, sailors didn't want to sink their ships. Finally, in the winter of 1977 Santa Cruz Harbormaster Brian Foss announced that surfing in the harbor was forbidden and began citing surfers that didn't comply.

Enter William "Harbor Bill" Mulcoy and his defiant band of tube hounds. "My dad spent his whole life in town. He was about 14 when he started surfing at Cowell's," recounts Josh. "He has all those stories about dragging the longboard down to the water with nothing but a wetsuit vest on and snow in the road, you know, all those good stories those guys like to tell."

After growing up on a hearty diet of Santa Cruz's numerous world-class breaks, the '70s harbor crew understood full well that only a fool would let such a perfectly sculpted sandbar go to waste. Thus, they embraced their lives as outlaw surfers. They'd sneak out under the nose of the harbormaster, and then when the patrol boat showed up they'd either paddle in and run for it, or find other means of eluding the authorities. There's a legendary account of Harbor Bill paddling a mile and a half down the coast to Pleasure Point, where he lost himself in the crowd, eventually slipping out of the water and cutting through back alleys back home.

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"I've seen so many ups and downs with my dad and the harbor patrol," tells Josh.

Up until 1985 Mulcoy Sr. was able to stay a stroke or two ahead of the law -- or at least he was until the noble editors of Surfer magazine famously printed a photo of him and used his full name in the caption. Like the Sherriff of Nottingham bringing down Robin Hood, the harbormaster finally had his man. Mulcoy Sr. was subsequently charged with obstructing navigation and resisting arrest. He would have to plead his case in court.

"He basically got in trouble and then went to court and beat the charges," describes Josh. "He won the case because basically there wasn't really an official law on the books and no one ever challenged it, they'd just paid the fine. He fought it for years and finally won. It was a big win for our community. I have a lot of respect for him for standing up for up he believed in, not just for himself, but everybody that wanted to surf out there."

But in the end the fight had been taken out of the legendary Harbor Bill. "What's ironic about him winning that case and this whole thing is that was about the time he was over it all and moved to Hawaii. And then there was this weird period where the harbor didn't break for nearly seven years," says Josh.

But time passes, and a new generation has taken their place at the infamous harbor bar. "Whenever I paddle out there it's just like there's so much meaning behind a wave. I know it sounds bizarre, but just seeing what my dad and his friends went through makes that place so meaningful to me.

These days Josh spends a good portion of his year on the road, living the life of a wandering pro surfer, while his father has long since stepped away from the fray, living a more peaceful surf life in Hawaii.

"I'm on the road a lot, but everybody knows where I'll be during the winter months," says Josh, speaking to the fact that when the harbor's on it'll always be his Number One priority. "This year we've had three solid months out there. As far back as I can remember I can't think of a time when it broke that consistently. Obviously we had a lot of swells, so that helps, but this season has been something special."

No doubt his dad and all those that liberated the Santa Cruz Harbor have enjoyed the show.