Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1949, Mike Tabeling was the son of a Navy pilot. When his family moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, around 1962, Tabeling picked up surfing and was soon pioneering spots like Sebastian Inlet with fellow future hall of famer Bruce Valluzzi. Inspired by Gary Propper’s meteoric rise to surfing fame, Tabeling quickly followed suit, winning the Juniors division of the East Coast Championships in 1966 and 1967, the Juniors division of the 1967 Laguna Masters in Redondo Beach, California, and placed second to style icon David Nuuhiwa in the Mens division of the 1968 U.S. Championships. He also competed in the 1966, ’68, and ’70 World Surfing Championships.
With his sterling competitive accolades came various other opportunities. In 1967, Tabeling signed on to the Dewey Weber surf team, which led to his opening up a surf shop in Cocoa Beach with his father, Roy. Tabeling’s surf team would foster decades of talent, from Phil Salick, Greg Loehr and Jeff Crawford, to Matt Kechele, Jeff Klugel, Bill Hartley, and Kelly Slater — just to name a few.
In 1971, Tabeling became the first East Coaster to make the cover of SURFER Magazine. He was also featured in several films, including 1970’s Pacific Vibrations, and 1972’s Oceans and Directions. He even had his hand in surf journalism, penning a SURFER piece titled, “I Love Cocoa Beach: An Erotic East Coast Confession,” which helped put Tabeling’s hometown on the worldwide surfing map.
Throughout the 70s, Tabeling was also a prolific traveler, chasing waves in Europe, Australia, and Africa. But in the early 80s, he settled down a bit and opened up Creative Shaping surfboard factory, where he began producing Mike Tabeling Surfboards. Whenever a pro surf contest came into town, famous pros like Shaun Tomson, Ian Cairns and Peter Townend stopped by to pick up some boards. For a few years Tabeling built high quality boards for shops all over the coast. But in 1989, the travel bug bit again, and Tabeling moved to Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, where he lived for the next decade.
When he returned from South Africa, Tabeling worked for a time as an insurance salesman, before taking a job in California with the monolithic surfboard distributor, Global Surf Industries. Throughout his life, Tabeling, at 6’4” and 195 pounds, was an imposing, impressive presence. Greg Loehr once called him “the best surfer in the world,” and the surf journalist Matt Walker said of meeting Tabeling, “Your first impression will be awe.”
Tabeling died of kidney cancer in 2014 at age 65.
Photos by Tom Dugan / ESM, Dick “Mez” Meseroll / ESM, Roger Scruggs, Larry Pope and courtesy the Tabeling family