EASTHAM – In Barney Burrill’s published obituary, the list of survivors includes the names of family members, his sisters, wife, daughters, and his grandchildren “along with surfer brothers in many parts of the world.”
“Barney’s soul was surfing,” said Rick Weeks, 66, of Orleans, who met Burrill at a stretch of beach in Wellfleet that surfers call “Four Mile” when Burrill was a young kid with “wavy red hair and a big smile. He was a really smiley kid,” recalled Weeks.
That young smiley kid lived 56 adrenalin-filled years, according to surfer friends contacted by Cape Cod Wave. Robert M. Burrill Jr. died of lung cancer on April 23. “He was a junior,” said Burrill’s friend, Greg Norris, 55, of Eastham. “So the family, instead of calling him after his father, they just called him Barney.”
The Scene At “Four Mile”
Norris had lived in Hawaii and then Boston, and came down to the Cape in the summer to surf. “I saw a kid my age that surfed,” said Norris. “There was a little surf scene here in the summer.”
In Wellfleet, on the beach that surfers called “Four Mile,” at Whitecrest Beach, Weeks recalled that surfers used to park illegally on the side of the road and then go down to the waves.
“There was a couple of young kids that started to get into the surf scene,” said Weeks. “Barney Burrill was one of them. Barney was a little kid. We were the bigger kids. He was little then, he looked up to the big guys,” said Weeks. “To the little kids, we were the big surfer dudes.”
Norris met Burrill about that time, said, “Rick Weeks was one of the very best surfers around when we were kids.” It was good to get his respect, said Norris.
Burrill was little compared to the big guys but Weeks noticed, “He was good. He was a strapping kid, starting to get tall with long legs and arms.”
In late September of 2013, at the Nauset Surf ‘N Music Festival, Burrill spoke to Cape Cod Wave while holding a plywood surfboard that his uncle made for his cousin in 1965. “I was just a little rascal back then (in 1965),” said Burrill. “I was nine years old. I was thinking it was cool, man. Way cool. I thought my cousin was the luckiest kid in the world.”
According to surfers contacted for this story, Burrill began at a young age chasing Cape Cod waves, and then he chased waves around the world. His obituary stated, “He was a skilled carpenter and fisherman while continuing to nourish his appetite for epic surf.”
That quest of a lifetime began at Four Mile, on Cape Cod.
Dreaming of Bali
A few years after meeting Burrill on the beach, Norris moved to the Cape and enrolled at Nauset Regional High School, same as Burrill. “He was a year older. He had a license before I did. He had a nice set of wheels and he’d come pick me up and we’d chase waves from Orleans to Truro.”
“We’d look in the surfer magazines,” said Norris. “And there was this new discovery, Bali. It had always been Hawaii, California, but now they were talking about Bali. We hung on every article. It became a quest. No doubt about it, we were going there.”
They both got there Norris transferred for his senior year to a high school in Teheran, Iran. It was 1977. After graduation, he knew he was so close to Bali, and he had to get home anyway, so he went via Bali. After that adventure, he went to Hawaii for six years where he coincidentally crossed paths with Burrill.
Norris lived in Hawaii for three months with another East Coast surfer. “I was walking down the North Street one day, when this old car, an old beat up North Street bomber pulls up, and the door swings open and Barney jumps out.”
While Norris was on his way back to the Cape, Burrill was at the beginning of what turned into an around-the-world quest chasing waves. “He went solo through the South Pacific one year out of high school,” said Norris. “In nine months, he ended up circumnavigating the planet.”
Burrill got to Hawaii about one month after Norris. “Barney’s father had gone to Dartmouth,” said Norris. “So Barney looked at an alumni magazine, found someone living in Honolulu, called him and he’s a honcho in the construction business. The guy put him up. Barney was living in the lap of luxury.”
After a couple of months in Hawaii, Burrill continued on his solo adventure, said Norris. Burrill was heading to the South Pacific and beyond. He visited Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, and New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia – Bali.
“I can just see him partying with the locals,” said Norris. “He would have stood out like a sore thumb. He was 6 foot 2 with red hair and freckles. And he could meet people easily. He was extroverted.”
A Power Surfer
“Barney was a big guy and used his size fully to his advantage. He was by all means what they call a power surfer,” wrote Paul Cuccia in an email. Cuccia, 50, of Eastham, met Burrill in the 1970s. “When he hit the lip, he destroyed it. Doing a cut back, he carved it up. The face of the wave was shredded. Barney was an excellent tube rider. He could fit that big frame of his into the barrel no matter what.”
“Everything he could do, he went all out,” said Ed Cuccia, 60, who now lives on Long Island. “He had a sense of adventure. He had a saying, ‘Go large,’ and that’s what he did. He went large.”
Brendan McCray, 43, or Orleans, said, “The bigger and more radical the surf was, the more aggressive he’d get. He was like a lion chasing the waves.”
“He did Indonesia back when nobody did Indonesia,” said Weeks. “Barney was right after the leading edge. The stuff he was doing is the stuff that makes legends out of people. He’d go out and ride the big waves and come home with stories.”
Burrill visited Bali many times. He lived in Bali. He married a woman from Bali, Wayan Sukerti in 1987. He worked construction in Hawaii, and owned a restaurant in Bali, said Norris.
But as Weeks said, he had the soul of a surfer. “That’s why he lived in Bali,” said Weeks.
“In the surfing community, generations seem to go in 10-year cycles,” said McCray. “I was in the 80s. Barney was in the 70s crew. Of that group of guys, he was the one who wasn’t around when I was learning to surf. So he was larger than life. He was somebody who was surfing in Bali, in Indonesia.”
“He was very much an example of 70s surfers,” said McCray. “They were good surfers, not surfing for fame. They were counter-culture, anti-establishment. By the 80s, it was cool to be a surfer.”
Burrill recalled last fall, at the Nauset Surf ‘N Music Festival, “We just want quiet time in the ocean with a bro. Big crowds and all the contests turned it into too much publicity, We don’t like crowds. We keep things quiet. We’ve got secret spots. We’d be fine with no trophies and no contests.“
And yet Burrill himself was a bit of a legend. He was known as the guy who chased waves from Hawaii to Bali and beyond.
“The reputation, before I knew him, was he was someone we’d most likely be afraid of as kids,” said McCray. “You know, there were the older guys, you didn’t mess with them.”
And Matt Rivers, the owner of the Orleans surf shop, The Pump House, said, “When I first knew of him, I always looked up to Barney as an elder statesman of the Cape Cod surfing scene. And then he gave us the bro’ handshake and it was like, oh, man, Barney really likes us.”
He was the guy chasing the biggest waves, the New England surfer taking on the world. “He didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk,” said Rivers. “He was one of the best on the water. He was a world traveler. He lived in Hawaii. He lived in Indonesia. He had a unique style, charging hard if not harder than anyone in the water.”
And, said McCray, “He took his act on the road.”
“Barney shined in big waves,” said Weeks. “He knew what he was doing.”
“He had a great style,” said Norris. “He was a natural at it. He really had courage. He surfed with all kinds of legendary guys.” And Norris added that Burrill was special because, “Back then, East Coast surfers were second or third rate surfing citizens.”
McCray said, “He was a big strong powerful dude surfing all over the world. He could go shoulder to shoulder with any surfer.”
“He was always stoked, and always chasing waves around the world,” said Rivers.
Norris spoke extensively about the exotic Indonesian spots that Burrill was among the first to discover. One secluded spot that Burrill discovered, said Norris, was called “Dreamland.”
A Complete Waterman & More
After getting married in Bali, Burrill had children, and in 1992, Burrill moved his family to the Cape to educate his children.
“You might not see him for years but when you saw him again you picked up where you left off seamlessly,” said Norris. “Barney had grown as a person, but he was always the same guy. He was a very intelligent guy with good common sense.”
Burrill worked as a carpenter during the off-season, and as charter fisherman in the summer.
Paul Cuccia wrote, “He was the complete waterman. A powerful swimmer and paddler, good free diver, and fisherman. Barney chartered his boat for years catching stripers. We went out on a trip and had the catch box filled in half an hour. Spent the rest of the day catch and release. His knowledge of the water was about as good as it gets.”
“He became a fisherman here,” said Weeks. “Water was important to him. He wanted to be near it. You don’t go get a day job in an office when you’re a surfer. It would tear you apart.”
Goodbye to A Surfer
In the middle of May, said Rivers, there will be a paddle out where surfers will gather in a circle floating in the water and there will a ceremony.
“He had a pretty rough year this past year,” said Rivers. “Up until he got sick, even at his age, he was still one of the best. And he’d always greet you with a hug. He was always positive.”
McCray recalled that at his wedding he received from Burrill a hand-carved replica of a surfboard out of exotic Hawaiian wood with the date of his wedding and the name of he and his wife.
“He was a really loyal friend,” said Norris. “The whole world could turn against you, and you could count on him being in your corner with a smile on his face.”
“I saw people at that funeral I haven’t seen in 45 years,” said Weeks. “A lot of people came in for that funeral. It was a surfer funeral. It was all about surfing, the entire funeral.”
In September, 2013, Burrill said this to Cape Cod Wave, “It’s a lifestyle, man. The true surfer sees the beauty of the sand and the sun and the ocean. It’s about being in nature, a cross between religion and a lifestyle.”
– See our other surfing stories.
— Brian Tarcy