Being a surfer is like being in the Mafia, once you’re in you can never leave. In the 1960’s and 70’s it was the central pin around which my life revolved. I traveled to find waves, Mexico, Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji and up and down the coast of California and Mexico. Surfing populations were still small, particularly in the early days. With just a few thousand surfers along the entire Pacific coast. You rarely surfed in a crowd, and when you did; why, they were all your friends. We traveled in groups, exploring anywhere we thought we might find good waves. Long distance travel wasn’t common just yet. What travel we did was in our cars, usually someone else’s cheap old junker that only a kid would have the nerve to drive. The front row of the parking lot at Pismo was populated with old woodies from the forties and fifties and a collection of mom and dads cast-offs. Younger surfers arrived at the beach in packs, delivered by Mrs Carnate’s station wagon or Beth Fossaceca’s Studebaker. Gary and David McDonald left their boards at dad’s optometry office on old highway one next to the A & W. Bootsie could walk out on the deck of his house to check the waves. There were no rich kids. I don’t recall anyone thinking that way, we were all democratic, money gave you no status and neither did education or family connections. Really, only one thing counted, did you want to surf. Pecking order was established by skill. At the beginning, before Gidget, if you knew someone who had been in the water for more than a year or two, you knew an old timer.
I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be in the water. Mom would take us to the high school pool in the summer when we were young and I never wanted to leave, When we were older she took us to the beach where she would rent those inflatable mats for us to play on, you remember, yellow on one side blue on the other. Wade out as deep as you could and then ride the whitewater. What a thrill for a 12 year old. When I entered high school surf culture was just beginning. Jon Macom, Ralph Miller, Larry Hill, Sehon Powers and John Steele made up a group who had been surfing for a bit in 1961 when I started shortly after my 16th birthday. They were one of a very small group of kids who hung out at the beach and rode surfboards. For some reason I was desperate to try it so I bought a used Velzy surfboard for twenty five dollars from Sheriff Mansfield’s son, loaded it in my car, and with my friends Andy Harp and Mike Senuik, went to the beach after school, ran down a stairway known as the thousand steps. actually less than a hundred, truth be told, and paddled out into the coldest, windiest and absolutely miserable surf you could imagine. A blustery winter afternoon. We really didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t surf an actual wave but we did get pushed around by the whitewater and even managed to stand up; briefly. So cold and miserable, wretched conditions, but I loved it and never looked back.
Pismo Beach 1961
That sort of existential excitement fades with time and responsibility. The standard of wave type grows narrow with experience, which is kind of sad. Maybe it’s not big enough, glassy enough or the water is too cold in March so the veteran may go home. The other day though, I sat in the Addie Street parking lot and watched as an old orange Datsun, that had seen much better days wheel into the lot and before it could come to a stop, boys were piling out, hopping around on one foot trying to pull their wetsuits on, frantic to get in the water. It resembled a circus clown car act. Yanking surfboards of the roof they jumped the seawall and ran into the surf. It was freezing cold, onshore and the waves were small, but they were stoked to the gills. That__is__surfing. Fundamental, visceral, the best. If those kids ever stop feeling that way, they are done.
My timing was perfect. The following spring, 1962, the Beach Boys released their first record and the sport became a nationwide phenomenon. If you surfed you were suddenly “Cool,” even if you weren’t. Funny.
As with all surf spots, there were the locals. Kids you saw on a daily basis, checking out the waves and deciding if it was good enough to surf now, or maybe later, was it better at Saint Andrews, maybe Oceano, if the tide was out; perhaps a run down to Refugio or El Capitan. As boys will do, we would spontaneously take off for some distant place without giving it a thought. Who has a little gas money? Anyone who did could go. Maybe for the day to “C” Street in Ventura where the dirt parking lot right at the edge of the water had some old telephone poles to keep the your front wheels from running over the edge and into the water. Or maybe the Rincon, the best surf in California, where you had to park right on the edge of the freeway, opening the drivers side door carefully so it wouldn’t be removed by cars and trucks whipping by, staggering the car with their blast of air and flipping a surfboard or two over the guardrail to the rocks below. We lived on hope, Twinkies and chocolate milk.
Nobody locked their cars. I didn’t seem necessary, there was little to steal. Except towels, yes towels. John Steele was the master towel thief, the back of his woodie was the home of a smelly pile, taken from anyone who was reckless enough to leave theirs on the hood of the car or hung on the handrail to dry. Johnny’s car was saturated with the odor of slowly moldering, still wet terrycloth, warm with decay at the bottom, not unlike the nuclear pile at the lab in Los Alamos. You could have extracted Penicillin from it. Jealously guarded, towels helped to stave of the bone chilling cold before wetsuits. Seawater at Pismo dips into the high 40’s in the winter. Walking with Harry Hoover down to the water, frozen sand crackling under our feet, Knee paddling out to the lineup using only our fingertips, anything to stay out of the water as long as possible. So awfully cold. In the font seat, motor idling, those old heaters going full blast trying to warm feet and hands which were literally purple with cold. Going to the Seaview for a cup of coffee after, eat a donut from the plastic case on the counter. All better now, right? A small price to pay for a wave.
In 1965 I made my first trip to Hawai’i, going home to Kailua on O’ahu with a college friend and spending the summer at Waikiki Beach. Richard got a job at McWayne Marine, owned by the then state Senator Hiram Fong and I worked part time for Nathan Napoleon at the Halikulani Hotel beach services in Waikiki. The two of us tooled around in a 1959 bug eye Sprite, which, if loaded with Nathan’s son Nihi hiding in the trunk, would agonizingly make its way up the grade to and from the Tavares house in Kailua town, which was on the opposite side of the mountains from Honolulu. The old Pali road was a two lane switchback then, unlike the bustling freeway of today.
The Hawaia’n families who ran the beach services at the hotels there were very old fashioned, get your hair cut short every week by the Japanese girl barber in the basement of the Reef hotel or else. This was my introduction to the scissor cut, dressed with a straight razor, so unlike the old barbers in Arroyo Grande, Kelly and Buzz, who hacked away with electric trimmers, in Buzz’s case, I’ m sure he used the same ones to trim the bushes at his house on West Branch Street.
Mr Napoleon, always mister, never Nathan, was a big man and a former California Highway Patrolman who had returned to the islands to take over his fathers business. The families that worked the beach had done so for generations and do to this day. I became a friend to his son and was welcomed into their home and a life I had never seen in Arroyo Grande. I never saw a potato on that table, only rice . This was something entirely new. My only real experience with rice was Uncle Ben’s, hardly the sine qua non of the rice world. This spelled, then, the end of my meat and potatoes world. There were hundreds of ways to prepare fish, fruits that were so good they make your mouth water and they grew everywhere, bananas, passion fruit, papaya and mango ripe for the picking on every street corner. There is a saying in Polynesia that they had to invent war so they would have something to do besides sit around and eat. They weren’t far wrong. At my house you could step out on the front porch and pick fresh Papaya for breakfast. In the rear, banana trees. I once lived in a house in Makiki that had three Mango trees. There was so much fruit we had to haul it away in 30 gallon trash cans. We could not eat them fast enough.
On Waikiki, each day you put out the folding chairs, umbrellas, got the surfboards out of the lockers, put the paddle’s in the Koa wood outrigger canoes and helped pull the big Woody Brown sailing catamaran up on the sand to ready the day for the guests who would soon arrive. For me, the best part was an introduction to local culture and the people who made it so interesting. In the 60’s Hawaii was a segregated society. Whites ran the banks, big plantations, and shipping companies. The Japanese were state legislators, medium sized business and the labor unions. The Chinese were spread across most areas as they were the first immigrants to be brought to the islands in the 1840’s. The native Hawaiian’s worked labor jobs and were the police. Like many cities and states you could travel from one ethnic enclave to another where customs were as different as night and day. Growing up in Arroyo Grande in the fifties and sixties I never gave much thought to that kind of thing. Our little town was so small and the schools I attended so homogenous that it never occurred to me other kids where any different than me. I surfed with Filipino, Japanese, and Black kids every day at Pismo. On the islands it was Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, Peruvians, Aussies, Brazilians, and South Africans, all these distinct cultures to learn about.
Surfing itself had little time for ethnic or national division then, there just weren’t enough surfers to make any place too crowded. Besides, I have always been fascinated by people who were unlike me.
In 1968, when I moved to the islands permanently, I left all my old surfing buddies behind. Five years after high school they were married or in college, following a career and the surf life gradually left behind, in most cases, for good.
For many years I lived a life most of them could only imagine. I had a house near Haleiwa on the North Shore of O’ahu at that time the destination surf mecca for the entire surfing world. Home of Sunset Beach, Wiamea Bay, The Banzai pipeline and other equally near perfect wave sites. There were few fall, winter and spring day where perfect warm water waves could not be found. I was a AFL/CIO union carpenter, made a good living and had a reasonable amount of time off in the winter. It rains a lot, so lots of days off.
Leaving in the dark for work made it difficult to know what the surf was like. You could hear it from my house and the number of decibels or the amount of ground shake gave you some idea of its size but the work day had to pass before you really knew. A sight never to be forgotten is the view out the windshield as you top the high saddle just north of the little town of Wahiawa and look down on Haleiwa bay, seeing the surf conditions for the first time that day. Excitement or disappointment being your lot. If it looked good it was just four miles downhill to my house, grab your trunks and a surfboard or two, it was necessary to have more than one to suit the many conditions you could encounter on your drive along the coast. Turn left from Achiu Lane onto Kam highway then drive through Haleiwa, past the IGA store, Country Surfboards, Matsumoto store where they had good Hawaiian style shave ice and could make you a custom shirt or pair of trunks, cross the old bridge over Anahulu Stream and then along Kamehameha Highway past the old Army Air Corps airfield past Jocko’s, Chun’s reef and Laniakea up to and around Wiamea Bay, turn off on Ke Nui drive, a dirt road actually, then a quick stop at the public access by John Steele’s house to check out the Pipe, Backdoor, Off the Walls and Log Cabins, maybe another drive to Stefan Schweitzer’s place to check Pupukea and Gas Chambers, then to Rocky Point and finally the bay at Sunset. I surfed them all. Not bad for a boy from cold, foggy beach break Pismo Beach I thought.
I recall paddling around the lineup at Sunset or Pipe thinking about the friends I had who had dropped out of surfing and wishing I might surf with them again. We had some good times in the water as teenagers. The camaraderie of a shared delight. Surfing is not a team sport. My high school coaches looked down on surfing as something that losers did. Regimentation is for football or baseball. It allows for the shared experience, but none of the, ” Do this, do that” of team sports. As kids our entire social experience in the surf world was what we did together.
Besides the surf conditions which had the effect of neutralizing the social aspect of being in the water together, surfing in Hawaii requires that you paddle constantly to stay in the spot that you must take-off from. There are currents everywhere resulting from the vast amounts of water moving around the surf itself. The area where the best location for catching a wave is pretty small and the currents push you around so you must work to maintain your position. Constantly looking towards the beach and watching the relative positions of houses on the shore in order to “line up” the proper spot to be in. You must keep one eye on the other surfers around you in order to judge their skill level, their familiarity with the surf spot, and aggressiveness, plotting the pecking order so you can be in the perfect spot. If you can lay a psych job on someone, all the better.
There is no thrill like being in the perfect spot for a takeoff at big Sunset, paddling hard, using all your skill to force your board to go fast enough to begin the free falling slide down the face of the massive wall of water. Once moving you can hear the first sharp hiss of water against fiberglass as the board picks up speed and begins the run down the moving face of the water that can only be likened to a living thing. Sliding swiftly to the bottom and pulling a turn much like a fighter pilot does in a High G turn. Turning at the bottom, using the energy of the wave to fly up the face, and then the near weightlesness as, near the top of the wave, you snap the turn downward again. dropping to near vertical, heading down again, looking ahead, trying to gauge the exact moment to begin the run towards the end of the wave. There is no perceived sound, in the midst of all the movement and crashing of the wave behind you, you move in a bubble of silence. At Sunset, the last section of a good wave hooks back towards you as you approach and the timing needed to fly through the tunnel formed by thousands of tons of moving water arching up and over your head can only be learned by not making it out, smashed, tumbled and crushed by the self destruction every wave, ever, goes through. Adrenaline is addictive.
These swells are formed by winter storms in the Bering sea, three thousand miles northwest of Hawai’i. They are deep ridges of energy, each traveling as an underwater pulse, barely noticeable in the open ocean, just a ripple at the surface. An invisible wave, traveling over the north Pacific abyssal plain which averages over 14,000 feet deep. As this wave of energy approaches the Hawaiian Emperor Seamount, whose exposed mountainous tip form the Hawaiian Islands, the lower edge of the energy wave begins to drag along the shelving bottom of the sea forcing the excess energy to rise from the surface and form visible swells. What is unique about the North Shore of O’ahu is this shelving bottom rises very quickly, nearly four thousand feet in just a few miles. This forces the enormous amount of energy in a pressure wave straight up, as the drag on the bottom is so minimal that the wave can’t slow down but must rise. The water just offshore from the Banzai pipeline and Sunset beach is more than a thousand feet deep. These particular conditions are what creates such massive waves. The prevailing wind blows straight from the shore, perpendicular to the surf causing the wave to stand up longer making for nearly perfect surf conditions.
The term waterman wasn’t in common use in those days but we all certainly fit the bill. We dove the deep water off of south point on the big island. I could cast a throw net, a beautiful thing, hand made of the finest line used to catch reef fish in the early mornings and evenings when the sun was off the water. We sailed. We sailed the islands for no other reason than to see what was over the horizon. Polynesia invites you in. The ancient Hawaiians were a water culture and it always seemed strange to me that people who lived there worked in high rise buildings and wore suits to work.
You had to be a strong swimmer because in the 1960’s and 70’s no one wore a leg rope in large waves. A wipeout meant a swim to the beach to retrieve your board. The more chances you took, the more you swam and it wasn’t just the swim itself, no, you had to stay in the whitewater to get to the shore. Crashing in a wave can be rough enough but the act of getting to shore can be just as perilous. White water, or the broken wave itself can be many feet deep, a churning, spinning whirlpool where, as it goes over you, can pick you up and completely disorient you. It goes dark, the water over your head is suddenly not a foot deep, but ten or fifteen feet deep, increasing the pressure in your ears to painful levels. Your arms and legs are yanked and pulled away from your body, you can be not only held under for minutes but sometimes held against the coral bottom, unable to move because of the water pressure as it rolls over you. When you surface, if you’ve been down long enough the next wave is likely to be breaking right on top of you. Luckily each wave that passes over, pushes you in towards the beach. A small section of a wave of these dimensions weighs hundreds or thousands tons and. its all moving adding to the dynamic. Add that the wave itself is rushing at 15 to 20 miles and hour toward shore and you, the surfer can be moving as fast as 30 mph. So, moving in at least three different directions at once you must know your business. The good part is that the better you get the less likely you will have to experience the long swim in. The question has always been, are you strong enough, can you hold your breath long enough, can you swim, are you loose enough. As a friend was wont to say, “Don’t______Be______Afraid.”
On the other hand, the water is warm, low eighties in the winter during surf season. The offshore breeze is always balmy and fresh. Friends with a common interests are all around you. Nobody I ever knew talked like Jeff Spicoli or Ted Logan. That part of surfing is a commercial construct. Avoid it all costs.
Lest you think that it’s too dangerous don’t forget that women do it.There weren’t many women surfers in the late sixties and early seventies but they were about to break out in a big way. My friend Sally Prange started surfing big Sunset in the seventies and went on to be one of the best women surfers in the world. I’ve always admired her for that. Not easy in the face of a male dominated sport filled with aggressive, ego driven men. Part of the social fabric of the north shore, she practically grew up in the water. You are surrounded by it. It would be hard to avoid.
What I have learned is to become a citizen of the places you travel. Meet the local people, eat the local food, speak the language, immerse yourself in the culture and you will find that people everywhere have the same cares and needs. There are museums and libraries full of books on any place you might live. Nothing will seem strange if you do your homework. Eat Poi, the two fingered kind for me, Lomilomi Salmon, Swordfish Sashimi, pit cooked pork, pipi kaula, Portuguese sweetbread, malasala, and the semi-official state food, Spam. Spam, a million ways to cook it, one for each culture. I’ve lived with Egyptian Muslims, Samoan Catholics, Fijian Hindus, Japanese Buddhists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and I’ve found that the basic tenants of each religion are faith and caring. We all got along just fine. It’s not necessary to make someone over into your own image.
My mom and dad at that kitchen table where I grew up never seemed to, nor want to understand what I did. It might have been the Lassiez Faire way we were raised. They seemed content to let us find our own way and didn’t plant many road blocks. Maybe that was all in my own mind, my dad wasn’t emotional, at least not visibly. There are only one or two times when I saw him shaken by an event. I don’t think my father ever asked me one question about surfing or traveling and I always felt he was disappointed in my choices. He always said that you “could live your life in San Luis County and never see all there is to see.” He once asked me, “what is it that you do over there?” But he wasn’t really interested in an answer. A determined child is difficult to sway. Remember the Norman Rockwell painting “Breaking Home Ties?” The boy, with his chin up looks to the future and the father, leaning, his elbows on his knees, looks the opposite direction, into the past. It’s my favorite Rockwell. It perfectly illustrates the severing of home ties and the infinite promise of the young.
The prevailing wisdom then was that surfers had no ambition. They lived day to day, not caring about tomorrow. They let their hair grow, they didn’t wear shoes, they in dressed funny, clothes from thrift stores for goodness sakes. Look at the cars they drove, junkers and hand me downs. The local paper even published an article with a list of words or phrases used by surfers. It explained each one in all seriousness. The problem was, they all came from Hollywood movies, made up by screenwriters and were almost never used by people I knew. It would have been embarrassing for us.
We were, and are, real people, just like you. We had jobs. My neighbors in Haleiwa were professionals, a nurse, a stockbroker, an eventual university professor. On one side a anti-war activist, on the other, a Vietnam veteran brought together by a common bond. Writers, photographers, surfboard builders; roofers, architects, international dealers in Persian rugs, airline stewards and engineers. The principle of Sunset Beach Elementary school surfed. I have a friend who is an internationally renowned marine geologist. We were all young and living in that wonderful place. Our bond was the water.
Sometimes living that life was almost too wonderful to believe and I wished I could share it with those whom I started out with in foggy, cold and flat Pismo Beach. Surfers would just pull up to the beach and sit, drinking it all in. The soft Hawaiian breeze, The sparkling sand with the keiki frolicking in the shore break where a tourist from Iowa might drown, the endless sky peppered with towering cumulonimbus clouds drifting down from the Koolaus, the brah’s, doing the same as you. Because of those, as I waited and watched the approaching walls of water, pushing themselves high and higher as the rushed towards me, I would say to myself, this one is for you Terry, you Andy, and for you Phil. All yours baby.
Clockwise from upper left: John Steele, Pupukea. Sally Prange, Haleiwa, Mike Shannon, Sunset. Mike Shannon Sunset.
Read William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days, a surfing life” It’s a great book. Published by Penguin Press, N.Y. 2015
…And Susan Casey’s “The Wave” Doubleday, N.Y. 2010