Doug Waters’ legend begins where most great surf stories do: the ocean. As a 12-year-old kid growing up in New Bern, NC, about an hour from the Emerald Coast, he would hitchhike his way to the beach and stay all day, borrowing boards from whoever was kind enough to lend him one. As he grew up, he surfed the area inlets, explored Cape Lookout and the Core Banks by boat, and occasionally made the trek up to Cape Hatteras. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion. And when Waters was 21, like so many young surfers before him, he followed his passion out to the North Shore of Oahu. He expected to find good times and amazing waves, but he could never have predicted that he would discover his life calling.
While Waters was living in Hawaii between 1974 and 1975, the natural beauty of the islands turned him on to photography. “There were so many things you’d see in the ocean and just want to record,” he said. “And during those days, you had all the legendary photographers there on the North Shore too. I’d see them on the beach, and that got me interested in it. So before I left, I got a little camera to shoot all the stuff around Hawaii. Just memories, really: where I lived, days at Rocky Point, stuff like that.”
Waters’ time in Hawaii soon came to an end, but his new obsession with photography did not. He moved to Colorado briefly, where he started taking scenic landscape pictures and was further inspired by his roommate, a rock-climbing photographer. By the time Waters made it back home to North Carolina in 1977, he was fully hooked on his new hobby and ready to invest in some serious camera equipment. So he bought a Nikonos and started shooting from the water. It wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, though. Water photography was still in its infancy, and technological limitations made getting the shot quite an ordeal.
“With the Nikonos you had to try and focus it and then just hope that the guy was in the right spot at the right time and that you were the right distance from the water,” Doug said. “It was so much easier to sit on the beach and shoot. Swimming out in the water, you’d be lucky to shoot one roll during the whole session, whereas, on the beach, you could shoot 10 or 15 rolls.”
Understandably, there were relatively few photographers willing to put in the work necessary to shoot from the water. But to Doug, it seemed well worth the effort. “Water photography was what I was interested in most, because it’s just such a different perspective that only surfers get to see,” Waters said. “It added to the uniqueness. Plus there’s just something about being out there swimming around in tubes that’s really appealing.”
At first, Doug would just swim out and take a few pictures of his friends at home. But as he started to get the hang of it, he wanted to do something bigger. So he organized a trip to El Salvador with a few friends from North Carolina, including Bill Roach and Mike Holleman. He spent each morning drifting around in the shorepound barrels, snapping photo after photo. Then he mailed his film home for processing and waited anxiously for almost a month to see the results of all his hard work.
When he finally got back that first batch of images, it was a life-changing moment. The photos he saw in front of him no longer looked like the work of a hobbyist playing around with a new toy. They looked like true artistic creations. It was then that Doug Waters decided to become a professional surf photographer.
After the trip to El Salvador, Waters threw all his efforts into surf photography, tagging along on the contest circuit with pros like Buddy Pelletier, Rich Rudolph, Charlie Kuhn, and Matt Kechele and shooting every swell that hit the East Coast. When he got his first photo published in Wave Rider magazine in 1980, it was a feeling he would never forget. “When I got the check, I don’t even think I cashed it for a while, because I was just so stoked,” he said. “I took so many pictures of it because I was like, ‘I can’t believe I can get paid for doing something like this.’”
Waters moved to Central Florida full-time in 1981, and before long was submitting to Surfer and Surfing magazines. “I didn’t get a lot published at first, but I’d get something every now and then,” he said. “It was a learning process, and it was all about persisting, I guess.” Of course, it didn’t hurt that budding East Coast pro talent had forced the California magazines to finally take an interest in Right Coast surfing. And when they did, they looked to talented local shooters like Waters. Fellow East Coast photog and ESM Co-Founder Dick “Mez” Meseroll was a senior staff photographer for Surfing and Surfer at the time, and he explained the important role that Waters played during the era. “He really helped document what was then the early rise of East Coast surfing into professional prominence,” Mez said. “He added a visual component to the growth of East Coast surfing, which completely exploded when Kelly Slater came on the scene. Doug was right in the middle of all that.”
Mitch Varnes, who was the East Coast editor of Surfing at the time, agreed that Waters was invaluable. “His photos brought to light what was going on here on the East Coast,” Varnes remembered, “and proved that we could stand our ground and be as good or better as California.” For obvious reasons, it wasn’t long before Doug worked his way up the masthead at Surfing, starting out as a contributing photographer in 1983 and earning senior photographer status by 1990. While there, he benefitted from the careful tutelage of legendary photo editor Larry “Flame” Moore. Waters explained that Moore had a huge influence on his photography:
“He was always dropping suggestions on what to do to improve and what he wanted to see more of. He would get excited about something that was a little different, so that’s what you would go for: a different angle that nobody else had shot or a different perspective or height. Sometimes I would send in a picture that I didn’t think was that interesting, but he would just rave about it. Maybe the clouds were in it, or there was some other interesting element that I hadn’t noticed. And he was always on me to shoot more lifestyles. It’s kind of hard to step back sometimes when you’re out there and the surf is so good, but in reality, sometimes the more usable pictures are the ones that get an overview of the wave breaking and the beach. He was always telling me to do more of that.”
Waters carefully followed all of Moore’s advice, and Mez said the results were revealed in his stunning photography. “It helped Doug to become one of the best East Coast photographers ever,” Mez said. “He was really good at telling a whole story with his photos. There weren’t a lot of guys like him around.”
But amazing photography wasn’t the only reason why Waters won such respect from his peers. He also tirelessly championed the Right Coast throughout his time at Surfing. “Of course, when it’s your home coast, you’re proud of it, and you want to show it in its best light,” he said. “Internationally, people don’t really want to see East Coast surf. They want to see Indonesia or Tahiti or Hawaii. Exotic locales, you know? But I just shot as much as I could and sent it in to them, trying to get them pumped on the happenings over here.”
Waters became Surfing’s East Coast specialist, following pros to Central America or the Caribbean, covering the Atlantic Seaboard, and becoming a staple at iconic breaks like Sebastian Inlet and Cape Hatteras. Though he loved representing the Right Coast, he also sometimes longed for the globetrotting lifestyles of other photographers. “For me, it probably wasn’t as glamorous as for some of the other guys who got to do a lot of international traveling,” he said. “It just wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be.”
But the major disappointment about surf photography was monetary. During several phases of his career, Waters found himself struggling to make a living; however, he was willing to do whatever it took to keep pursuing his passion. “He always had to work side jobs to keep doing what he loved to do,” said former World Tour surfer Charlie Kuhn, who frequently shot with Waters. “Surfing and photography have always been a part of Doug’s life, and he’s good at both. I would not only see him shooting from the beach and in the water, but, after putting in hours of shooting, he’d be right out there surfing after his work was accomplished.” Matt Kechele, another former East Coast World Tour representative who also shot with Waters, was equally impressed. “He was super dedicated, and his work was incredible,” Kechele said. “He was always on every swell.”
But in the late ‘90s, Waters came up against an obstacle that hard work alone could not overcome: a tragic series of events forced him to put up the camera and quietly disappear from the surfing world. “The economy took a turn, and then I crashed a dirt bike and broke my hip,” Waters explained. “Basically, the perfect storm came along. I got dropped from retainer at Surfing, and after the accident, I was non-weight-bearing for three months. Going to the beach and shooting wasn’t really an option. And when I got to where I could finally work again, I got a real job. Unfortunately, reality kind of set in.”
These days, Waters lives a quiet life in his North Carolina hometown, serving as a full-time caretaker for his aging parents. But he still looks through surf photography online, trying to keep the stoke alive. Every once in a while, he’ll get out to shoot scenery or sunsets, and he’s patched up his water housing in hopes that, perhaps, one day, he’ll take surf photos once again. “There are still a lot of images I’d like to make,” he said. “I just have to wait until I’m able to get back on the beach and in the water.”
In the meantime, the East Coast surf community has certainly not forgotten about all of Waters’ monumental contributions. His images launched careers, made history, and helped surfers around the globe to realize what the East Coast has to offer. But Waters, ever humble and hardworking, says he only wishes he had been able to do more for the community he loves. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be included in the East Coast Surfing Hall Of Fame,” he said. “I still don’t think I’ve earned the honor. But hopefully, I will be able to get back on the beach one day and live up to it.”
We all have our fingers crossed.