Buddy Pelletier was elected to the East Coast Legends Hall of Fame this past January 5, almost five years after his death. He was larger than life then, and the legend lives on to this day. Just mention Buddy’s name the next time you walk into a surf shop to the surfer who has been around, paying his dues for a while and watch the sparkle in his eye. “I knew Buddy’, he’ll say. Then with a distant look in his eye, the corner of his mouth will slowly creep into a smile. Rubbing the back of his neck and staring at the floor, he will try and hold back, and then finally,” What a guy. He was crazy… I remember the time…..” He’ll tell you a story or 10 – about his ‘good friend’, Buddy”. Tales of a pure surfing machine, a man with a heart as big as the waves he traveled the world to find, living on waves, surfing on whatever was on the beach when he got there. If you’re skeptical, just move on to the next surf shop and repeat the experiment. You’ll find that every surfer from ‘back in the day’ shared the beach with him and sometime or another and no doubt has a ‘Buddy story’ of his own. Buddy is what legends are made of. Here is one friend’s tale:
I first met Wade Hampton Pelletier, heretofore known as Buddy, in the early 70’s. I was on a surfboard sales trip up the coast from Florida with my friend George Easily. We were invited to stay at a large house on the beach in Atlantic Beach North Carolina. Here lived Buddy and Randi, as in Randi a girl. Not just any girl but one of the most beautiful girls in the world – all part of the legend. Buddy and Randi were guarded by Dutch,as in Dutch a dog – who sat our front and seemed to not care about much, but who would eat us alive if he got the whim. This dog could do heavy geometry, drive a car and find a tennis ball anywhere you threw it, in the 48 contiguous states.
George introduced everyone and told me that Buddy was one of the best surfers he had seen in his life. Now I had my doubts. Being from Florida, I’d figured I knew every hot surfer on earth and I had heard of the few that were outside Florida (Remember, I was young and dumb). But the waves were flat, so I just had to take his word for it. A few more trips up the coast playing with Dutch, talking with Buddy, staring at Randi, and still no waves. The next year we moved our business to Cape Hatteras. It was a very good year with winter swells and summer waves. Buddy seemed to show up in Hatteras from Atlantic Beach whenever the waves hit. One time in particular was during a massive hurricane swell. With side shore winds, the surf at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was huge and out of control.
Buddy suggested that we check out S turns because the winds might be offshore. We went and it was. Upon arrival, Scott Busbey, Carol Busbey, Buddy and I were the only people out in the six-foot plus rights and lefts breaking top to bottom. That’s when I got to see it happen.
Buddy took off on the sweetest mamma loader and faded under the lip front side going left to disappear for yards and then come out of the barrel backside, cut back into the lip, switch stance in the middle of an off the lip and pull into the barrel for another hundred yards. It was a show, boys and girls; it was a show all day long in perfection.
It was a time of rebellion, and Buddy had some dues to pay in Atlantic Beach. For years, not many people head of Buddy outside of the Carolinas. But that was soon to change with pro surfing. The dawn of pro surfing pitted Pelletier against kids ten years younger than him, but that did not stop Buddy. He was winning contests in no time. Not a small surfer, Buddy could catch any wave he wanted. “Has bird bones”, David Sledge, North Carolina surf guru, once told me. “Webbed fingers, like a duck.”Another tidbit from Dave. Curious, I once asked Buddy if I could see his fingers, and there it was, skin half way up his knuckles. Then I had to ask him if he was a regular or a goofy foot. Buddy got all philosophical about swell directions and different kinds of waves, the stars and the moon…… I figured I would get more info from his dog, Dutch, so I just dropped it.
Dave Sledge relayed another story. Back in the longboard days, Jacob’s surfboards had a children’s “longboard” so little kids could learn on a board that was about 5’ long. Buddy spent an entire year back in the 60’s riding a 5’ range board in the height of the longboard era. He could ride any surfboard all the way to the shore with his board upside down and the fin sticking out in front of him – any such variation. The theatrics were so heavy at some of the pro events that the crowd would start cheering when they saw him start paddling for a wave.
Buddy joined a promo team for Hawaiian Tropic that took surfers up the coast for surfing demonstrations. It was like elephant boy had come to town when Buddy started his routine. There were cheers and applause up and down the beach.
Buddy never minded bucking the system. In the heavily policed piers of North Carolina, he was notorious for his timing, noting how many police cars there were and their placements. He knew how far and at what angle he had to ride his last wave to evade Barney and Gomer and he never got caught.
Driving with him through his beloved Carolina was an experience as well. We would be on Interstate 95 and he would just blurt out. “Turn here, turn here!” Soon we would be weaving down some Carolina back road. “Now roll down your window and smell that air” Undoubtedly, we were now on a trail that some ancient Pelletier relative had bolted down leading some Yankee down a wild goose chase during the Civil War.
“COTTON” as Doug Waters pegged him.
Buddy chose to ride a longer board, a 6’10,in the early twin fin days. He was winning so many events that the pros had a meeting to try and limit competition boards to 5’10”. Buddy just sat through the meeting, legs crossed like some old fellow on a park bench.
When the absurdity died down Buddy just asked how wide his 5’10” should be.
Like most any surfer, Buddy had to take on the challenge of Hawaii and the big waves. Word soon came back from Hawaii that Buddy rode the Pipeline and Sunset front side and backside. I wonder if he rode the 5’10”.
But alas, Buddy stayed in Hawaii too long. The lovely Randi waited and waited and waited and then moved on. When he heard Randi was leaving he even (he stressed this to me and those who knew Buddy understand what I mean), SOLD HIS TELEVISION SET to get back to Carolina to try to catch Randi before she left. Now that is love.
I bumped into a distraught Pelletier in Atlantic Beach soon after he returned from the islands. Buddy told me that he just HAD to go to Hawaii and once there, he just HAD to stay, the waves were just sooo……….. All Buddy ever was and he ever wanted to be was what God built him to be: a surfer.
My favorite Buddy story happened during the Easter contest at Cocoa Beach Pier one year. There were about 365 contestants with three to four days of surfing. Cotton stood out the entire event and had a solid win under his belt and it was time to celebrate. Dennis O’Hare, one of the other judges and I were leaning over the side of the pier at the end of the event marveling at the massive crowd. We were trying to recover from the Easter judgeathon when we spotted two small boys under water, being pulled in a rip out to sea past all the white skinned fleshy beer swilling tourist. We were screaming at the top of our lungs at the people below, but no one in that gaggle of humanity even had a clue. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this shadow flash by and Buddy/Cotton/Spiderman/Batman Pelletier, was instantly over the pier railing and in mid-flight (it was low tide) sailing toward his doom. Just before he hit the water he spread out his arms and legs (I swear I saw a cape) and hit the water flat, sweeping his arms around the two boys and in one continuous motion, picking them up and casually walking them to shore. He never looked up a Dennis or me. Both of us and all these people on the pier were beside ourselves with mouths open in shock, others screaming and cheering. All this happened in about 30 seconds. Buddy got his trophy and his check, his write-up in the paper and an Act of Heroism for the rescue. Buddy’s sister, Lisa, still recalls fondly that of all the trophies and wins Buddy collected over this career, this award was by far his favorite.
Ol’ Cotton moved to Puerto Rico for more and better waves, and I did not see him for years. Buddy entered the Puerto Rican amateur ranks surfing longboards in later years just for kicks. He won most of their events, but through the amateur/politico/maneuvering Buddy was left off the Puerto Rican world contest team and it hurt.
Buddy had a house at Shacks beach in Puerto Rico with a break out front. He would catch some fish, cook it up, watch some TV and of course rest. World Tour surfer Todd Holland came back with a story about surfing 15’ Tres Palma and have Buddy push him to the limits the whole time.
More time passed and one summer Chris Burch told me Buddy was back in North Carolina from Puerto Rico and was fighting cancer. When I got to Atlantic Beach and saw an old friend, Mickey Marsh, I could tell by the look on his face and tone in his voice that I shouldn’t leave town without stopping by Bill Roach’s house to see Buddy. Everyone in Atlantic Beach was on pins and needles. Buddy was in a little apartment Bill and his wife had behind their house. He was as cool and casual as always, only talking about the cancer treatment and how in two weeks or so he was going to turn the tide.
Randi came back to help out. I commented to Pelletier that he was always one for the grand gesture and suggested that he developed this cancer thing just to get Randi to come back around. Buddy shook his head, chuckled and said. “It’s a Greek tragedy”.
Two weeks later, I dropped in to see him. Physically, there wasn’t a lot left of the slick master, but he was as sharp as ever. The mood was a bit more subdued and finite. Buddy said he has made peace with the Lord and hoped his friends wouldn’t think he was a deathbed convert.
Buddy died a few days after that visit. On the day that Buddy passed away, there were incredible waves that came out of nowhere. But those of us who knew him, could hear him say as he passed through the portal to the other side. “Hey, send a few for my friends, OK??”
I still marvel at Buddy Pelletier, his impeccable timing and grace in the water. Even though he caught some edges and got held down sometimes in life, Buddy pulled a well time switch stance at the end and really pulled into a perfect one.
Before Buddy passed away, he began to plan a humanitarian aid foundation. In 1995,The Buddy Pelletier Surfing Scholarship Foundation was officially founded in Buddy’s memory. Emulation his zest for life, his belief in mankind and the pursuit of excellence, the Foundation awards scholarships to deserving students who are involved in the sport of surfing, and renders humanitarian aid to those surfers with catastrophic needs.