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The Surfing Swami, finally back home in Jacksonville Beach, where it all began

By Matt Soergel

JACKSONVILLE BEACH – After 47 years away, the Surfing Swami is back on the beach where it all began, ready for another morning surf session with some old friends from the old days.

Jack Hebner is early. But of course, he is: After several decades as a celibate Krishna monk, he’s used to waking up before dawn to chant and meditate.

The waves aren’t much. One foot and junky. But the Surfing Swami is not disappointed.

He smiles. “That East Coast sun, right in your face. It’s very reminiscent.”

Besides, he’s not going to let the 50th anniversary of his surfing life go by without paddling out. And he’ll soon be back home in the waves of India, in his saffron robes and his multicolored surf trunks. There are 7,000 kilometers of coastline there to explore, almost all of it to himself, apart from an occasional elephant on the beach.

Such is life for Jack Hebner, aka Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha: The Surfing Swami.

It is a story that is well-nigh irresistible. Google the Surfing Swami and you’ll find article after article on him, from press around the world.

They tell how he left Jacksonville to chase waves, becoming a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna. How he wandered the world and explored the beaches of India, surfing where no one had surfed before.

How he set up an ashram at the beach for travelers willing to give up alcohol, meat, and sex during their stay. In return, they get waves and a glimpse, perhaps, into a deeper understanding of their world.

How he taught some Indian boys to surf – after first teaching them to swim, in a nation where few take to the water. How surfing is slowly growing in India, and how the Swami Narasingha, who now has a surfboard importing business, is the man behind it all. The pioneer.

Lighting the fire

The Surfing Swami has changed lives.

Consider this quote, in the Asian edition of Sports Illustrated, from a 22-year-old Indian surfer: “If (he) had not introduced us to surfing, we probably would never have experienced this unalloyed joy.”

Unalloyed joy.

Isn’t that what surfing’s about?

It was for teenage Jack Hebner, a Westside kid from Nathan Bedford Forrest High. He was hooked the minute he saw someone ride a surfboard, in the summer of 1963.

No car? Twenty-plus miles to the beach? No problem. He and neighbor Boyd Emerson would hitchhike, with their boards, across town, just to surf. One time Boyd, on his own, was stuck, really stuck, until filmmaker Bruce Brown and his “Endless Summer” crew, on tour with the movie, came along in a motor home and helped a fellow surfer get to the beach.

Talk about unalloyed joy.

“That was such a stoke for us,” Hebner says. “It lit the fire.”

Just a few weeks from his 68th birthday, that fire still burns.

“It did dim, at times,” he says, “but it never went out.”

‘Always looking’ 

Hebner came to the pier Thursday morning after visiting his mother, who’s turning 90, in Orlando. Before that he was in an ashram he helped found. It’s in the highlands of Mexico, where you can kayak in water as blue, he says, as the sky over the Jax Beach Pier.

Hebner has spent most of his time since the 1970s in India. The U.S. feels foreign to him now.

But as his old friends – Boyd Emerson, Bill Perry, Byron Colley, Glenn “Gordo” Guthrie and Tom Grizzard show up – he slips easily into the old stories, when they were all skinny and bleached blond by the sun.

Emerson grew up down the street from him, both of them the sons of Navy chief petty officers.

As a surf-crazy teen, Hebner got a job fixing dings at Harry Dickinson’s surf shop; Dickinson sometimes lets him and Emerson stay overnight there. The Swami’s memory is fuzzy on this story, but Emerson likes to tell how Hebner schemed to dig out a cave under the shop; that way the two Westsiders would have a permanent Beach home.

“He was always looking for something,” Emerson says. “Jack always had a plan.”

He had a wandering soul too. He and some buddies made the trip to California a few times, piling into $125 cars, never dreaming anything could go wrong.

He left Jacksonville for good in the spring of 1966 and eventually made it to Hawaii. He got waves, sure. But he also found a deeper kind of enlightenment there, taking up yoga, getting his body and mind clean, joining the Hare Krishna movement – orange robes, shaved head and all.

He was serious: Soon he swore an oath of celibacy and traveled the world as a Krishna monk. He went all over Africa in those robes, taking photos and writing stories for the movement’s magazine. He became something of a Hare Krishna celebrity.

But he grew disenchanted with the Hare Krishna bureaucracy – every organization has some sort of bureaucracy, he notes – so he lit out for India. Solo.

Slowly, followers were drawn to him, as he was drawn to the waves there. Decades passed, and the story of the Surfing Swami grew.

A family, again

Of course, any time you take one path, you have to leave another behind.

Hebner hasn’t seen many of his old friends since the 1960s. And at one point, he spent 26 years away from his family.

It was sometimes difficult between him and his Navy father. Being a Hare Krishna made him – and here he jokes – the “orange sheep” of the family, a family that included a younger brother, Scott, who joined the Navy and became a rear admiral.

But he reunited with his father before the one-time chief petty officer died, and things came easily. In fact, it felt like family. The Surfing Swami is glad for that.

And he’s glad for his two-day trip back to where it all began, glad to paddle out with Colley, his old friend, to catch a few imperfect Florida waves.

After 45 minutes or so, they leave the water and rejoin their buddies in the shade of the pier. The other guys don’t surf that much these days, perhaps. But they’re all eager to talk about old friends and old times – the road trips they took, the girls they chased, the all-you-can-eat restaurant that was woefully unprepared for young men with such appetites as they possessed.

The Swami smiles. He’s satisfied: Out in the Atlantic, in those humble waves, with that eastern sun in his face and the pier to his left? He’s 18 again.