Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy*
Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy was born in Los Angeles in 1937, and traveled through the beach towns of Southern California during the Golden Age of Surfing. His father was an electrical contractor, so the family was always on the move — Murphy ended up attending 12 grammar schools and three high schools. “We were always in the ocean,” Murphy once said. “When we could, we rode mats — the inflatable rubber ones you still see at the beach today.” By the time Murphy was a teenager, the lighter balsa surfboards had become available, and he and his friends began to travel up and down the California coast to surf.
But soon, Murphy’s family moved east to Pennsylvania, where he finished his last year of high school. 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 Pittsburgh was too cold and too far from the ocean. Murphy 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 laidback Florida lifestyle. Every now and then, a winter cold front or summer tropical system would roll through and kick up some waves, and Murphy would hit the water. It wasn’t long before the lifeguards gave him the nickname that the world would come to know him by. Murphy soon met Dick Catri, the captain and coach of the legendary East Coast Hobie team of the 1960s. The friendship led to surf travel antics up and down the East Coast and to California. Murphy ended up opening a shop in Indialantic called Murf’s Surf Shop. He was also a dangerous competitor — in 1966, he won the Men’s division at the East Coast Surfing Championships in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Unfortunately, Murphy started dabbling in crime. He took part in an infamous burglary at New York’s Natural History Museum, which involved the stealing of the 563-carat Star of India, the famous Eagle Diamond, the Midnight Sapphire, and the DeLong Ruby. Soon, the FBI was knocking. The heist was just one of several crimes the FBI linked Murphy to in that time period. In 1967, Murphy received a life sentence for his involvement in a murder, then, in 1970, a judge handed down a second life sentence for another murder.
In prison, Murphy painted and dreamed of surfing. He studied philosophy and theology. One day, a fellow inmate gave him a Bible, which sent Murphy on a path to personal salvation. In 1986, after nearly 20 years behind bars, Murphy was released. 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.
Murphy lived in Crystal River, on Florida’s West Coast, and spents the majority of his time traveling to jails and prisons around the world. He spoke mostly about faith and redemption, but when prompted, he couldn’t help but talk about the sport that kept him alive during his darkest hours. Murphy passed away in September 2020.
Photos by Joe Mc Govern, Nathan Adams / Tranquility Optics, Albert Coya, Fast Eddie Mc Cabe and courtesy Murphy family