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A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By  Malcolm Gault-Williams

This Chapter Updated:  21 February 2005

FRAN HEATH: The Forgotten Hotcurler

A Chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS Collection

Fran Heath Bodysurfing Makapu'u, Late 1930s

Aloha and welcome to another chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS collection!

This chapter is based on an article on Hot Curl surfer Fran Heath that I wrote in 1996 for Longboard Magazine, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997. All photographs of Fran are courtesy of Juliet Heath, prior to her passing in the late 1990s.

Fran Heath surfed primarily in the 1930s and '40s and is the influential Hot Curl surfer who, I think, is most overlooked out of all the Hot Curl guys -- that's why I've dubbed him "The Forgotten Hotcurler." Read on and see what you think.

Fran Heath high school photograph signed to his wife-to-be Juliet, 1930s

Before the Elephant Guns, there were the Hot Curl surfboards. And, a quarter of a century before the Coast haoles normally associated with first riding the big surf of O`ahu came along, the Hot Curl surfers rode both the west and north shores of the island. Of these, no one surfed them with greater style than did Fran Heath. "Fran -- it was like he was part of the board," Hot Curl legend Wally Froiseth described his fellow Hot Curler. "I always admired that. When you saw him on a wave or were with him on a wave... he just seemed to be part of that board; so much a part of it, it was just like one thing."

The Empty Lot Boys

Fran Heath was the oldest of the Hot Curl group. Like most of the Hot Curlers, he lived in the Kahala section of Honolulu, a coastal strip just on the other side of Diamond Head crater from Waikiki. Fran would have been native born except for the the visit of his mother to relatives on the Mainland. The Matson steamship company refused to take her back on board for the return trip. Mrs. Heath was far along in her pregnancy and, in those days, the passenger ships between Hawai`i and the West Coast only averaged a speed of around 11 knots. The typical trip between Honolulu and San Francisco could take between 14 and 16 days. Thus, Francis R. Heath III was born in Oakland, July 13, 1917.

Fran started surfing about the age of 12, at the very start of the 1930s. He was a member of the Outrigger Canoe Club early on, beginning his surfing life on an 8-foot redwood board. Favorite spots to surf when he was first underway included the old pier in front of the Ala Moana Hotel, Sandy Beach and Black Point.

"The beach was there. The surf was there," Fran said with a smile when I asked him what had originally attracted him to surfing. He was not alone. Doug Forbes, Hershel "Herky" Best, Gene and Wally Froiseth, Frank Addison, Lex Brody and John Kelly were all surfers Fran first rode with. I asked him who out of that group he surfed with the most.

"Probably Kelly. We lived close to one another and each of us grew out of tide pools right next to each other. His was at Black Point, on the Diamond Head side and mine was more over toward Koko Head. When you're a kid, you get to checking out the neighborhood and you know where all the other kids are near you. Kelly was not only near, but he surfed, too.

"The average board was 8-to-10 feet long before the Hot Curls. Of course, Tom Blake's hollow boards were quite a bit longer and they were rising in popularity at the time." But, Fran and his buddies "weren't hot on" Blake's hollow boards Fran said, "because they were too bouyant and -- they were great, but -- they had a habit of leaking."

Partially-hollow boards were a different story. Fran was the first of his peers to have a semi-hollow, ordered in 1936 from Pacific Systems Homes. The board arrived from the Mainland in early 1937. This board would later become the first Hot Curl.

Speaking of the surfers they hung with, Fran's friend and fellow Hotcurl Legend Wally Froiseth recalled, "We were what was known as... the 'Empty Lot Boys'... You know where the big banyon tree is in Kuhio Park? Well, that used to be a big empty lot. Prince Kuhio's home was right next to it... That banyon tree was all jungle. The banyon tree's hollow, so, if we didn't have time to paddle the boards back, we'd just put our boards in there -- put our boards in the middle of that tree. Nobody'd take 'em in those days, anyway, but, you know, you can't just leave 'em on the beach. So, we'd get 'em in there. No problem."

"Leaving the boards at the beach without fear of theft," was just the way it was in those days, agreed Fran, but, "We did run into a little problem on heavy tourist days when the Beach Boys' supply of rental boards ran out. When we came for our boards we found they had been rented to some unsuspecting tourist. We then had to swim out, find our board and transport the tourist to the beach. There were some rather interesting confrontations as a result of this activity."

The Late 1930s

"Dad Center," was Fran's immediate response when I asked who were his early influences. "He was interested in canoes a lot. We all were, but he actively promoted it."

Dad Center had been surfing Waikiki since surfing's revival, prior to World War I. In fact, he had ridden along with Duke Kahanamoku the day Duke caught his now-famous 1 3/4-mile ride in 1917 -- the longest single ride in recorded surf history. Dad later became the canoe coach for the Outrigger, coaching not only Fran, but others who would go on to make names for themselves in the surfing world -- like Rabbit Kekai. Not unimportantly, Dad Center both owned a good deal of Waikiki and was the main connection for redwood shipped over from the Mainland.

"Duke and I were very good friends," Fran added, mentioning The Father of Modern Day Surfing as another key influence on him at the beginning of his surfing days. "We were both in the Outrigger together. Of course, he was very respected and I was just a kid, but that didn't get in our way."

"When we first began surfing in the early '30s," Fran said of the Empty Lot Boys, "we were led to believe Waikiki was the only place waves could be surfed. When John Kelly, Herky Best and Dougie Forbes moved to Kahala and Black Point, it became obvious to us when walking home on Diamond Head Road, that there were some fabulous surfs both off Black Point and Diamond Head.

"Our best access to these surfs was from Kelly's house where we would carry these boards -- then weighing around eighty pounds -- over our shoulders, down a steep trail to a ledge where we would launch and return... We soon found out these waves differed from Waikiki, especially Brown's surf, as they were harder and steeper."

Not long after Fran had his semi-hollow Pacific Homes board in Hawaiian waters, it was cutdown by Kelly to make the first Hot Curl shape. The year was 1937. "We're out in this big surf at Brown's," Fran told me, "and we couldn't hold" onto the face of the waves. "That's when the cutting was done."

"Fran's was the first cut down," Wally told me. "Kelly cut his down," meaning that Kelly first cut Fran's semi-hollow. Wally mentioned he had a copy of the original letter Dougie Forbes had written Pacific Systems Homes, ordering the board for all of $28.

"These modifications were made in Kelly's workshop," Fran noted. "Which was first I can't say. But they all hit the water at the same time." The modifications to the redwood plank essentially amounted to a V tail that held the boards onto the face of the wave similar to the function skegs perform, today. Both eliminate a board's tendancy to -- in the vernacular of the day -- "slide tail" or "slide ass."

"It brought the weight down, also," Fran pointed out. "The redwoods we had averaged about 80 pounds; after the cut, they were closer to 72." The average redwood board length was between 10-foot 6-inches long, 20-inches wide and upwards of 90 pounds in weight.

"Another feature of these boards," Fran added, speaking of the Hot Curls -- but it was also true of the redwood boards -- "was that we had not learned of wax as a non-skid coating. Thusly, riding a wave on these boards was akin to standing on a wet piece of plate glass in wild motion. Also, we did not have lanyards [leashes]. Hence, a wipeout meant a long swim to the beach, sometimes across a very unforgiving reef. One guy who was noted for his wipeouts tried a lanyard at Castle Surf. It darn near tore his leg off."

As to the name for their modifications, John Kelly recalls: "Wally Froiseth shouted out 'Hey it gets you into the hot curl,' and the name stuck."

Island Style

In talking with Fran about the Hot Curl days, I found him modest as to the role he played. So, I asked Wally about this oft-forgotten Hot Curl rider.

"Great surfer; great surfer," Wally replied nodding his head. "I used to admire his style. He had a neat way of -- I don't know, there was just something about him; the way he surfed. He was one of those guys who wanted maximum speed across the wave and -- try and make it as far as you could... Most of the time, Fran and all the rest of us -- we wanted to get across... I don't know, but unconsciously I probably tried to emulate him. You know, when you admire someone doing something -- you want to improve however you can -- so, you know, I'm not afraid to learn from somebody else. He was just -- smooth. You know, like the way you catch the wave and stand up... It was just like fluid motion. Beautiful."

"I remember one time," continued Wally, "Kelly, my brother, Fran and I went out to Mo-kapu. Big surf. At first, we threw our boards off the cliff, paddled out on the left side, and surfed over there all morning. Then we came in for lunch. About 1 o'clock, when we're going back out on the right side, Fran went out first. So, John said, 'Ah, let's wait and see...' Cuz, then we were gonna surf what they call Pyramid Rock. So, we wanted to surf on the right of Pyramid Rock, rather than the left side. 'Let's wait to see how Fran does.' So, we waited and Fran started catching waves -- just so beautiful, you know."

"You see," Wally emphasized, "in the old days, part of the enjoyment with us was watching other people surf. It was part of what we called the 'Island Style.'"

Makaha & The North Shore

Although Duke Kahanamoku and others occasionally rode big surf at Waikiki in the 1910s and '20s, the first group of surfers to actively seek big waves wherever they might be on O`ahu was the Hot Curl crowd of Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, Fran Heath, Doug Forbes and a little later Russ Takaki, George Downing and Woody Brown.

"In those days, you didn't have the numbers of surfers you have today," Fran emphasized. Thus, the Hot Curlers who had been driven to improve their boards for riding big surf began to look outside their realm of Waikiki and Black Point for surf spots that would challenge them further -- unknown places. "The idea, then," said Fran, "was to get the biggest wave you could; to get in the curl; to get in the tube."

It was then that the Hot Curl guys found Makaha. According to Fran's recollections, they weren't surfing Makaha solid "until '38 or '39, about the time Wally got the job as lighthouse keeper at Barber's Point. We started going to Makaha all the time. We'd try to bring other guys out with us, but one of three things would happen. If the surf was good, they might go out with us and have a helluva hard time out there. If it was really good, they'd usually end up sitting on the beach. Of course, if it was flat, they'd give us a hard time about our 'exaggerations.'"

In the modern era -- that is, the Twentieth Century -- the first ones to ride the North Shore were the surfers who rode it in the late 1930s and early '40s. It all began at the same time The Empty Lot Boys were getting heavy into Makaha -- 1938.

"Whitey Harrison -- he and Gene Smith went out to Haleiwa one day," Wally recalled. "This was, like, around '37 or '38... It was a big day. And they both almost drowned. So, Gene Smith was telling us about this. 'Oh, Christ! You ought to see these waves!' So, we go out there... Sunset Beach was good..."

Shortly after they first started to hit Makaha, Froiseth, Kelly, Heath and a few other stalwart comrades tried Sunset Beach, on the North Shore. "It was a year or two later, when we first started to go to the North Shore," pinpointed Fran. "We first tried Waimea in '39 or '40. That really separated the men from the boys!" Fran's eyes shone, remembering those first days at the spot that would become synonymous with big waves on surfing's famed North Shore. "It took us a while to figure out we could handle Waimea. Even after we began riding it, I never took a left slide."

"Who exactly started going out to the North Shore?" I asked Wally. "Well, like I say, Whitey Harrison, Gene Smith... My brother and I, Dougie Forbes... Fran, of course; Kelly. There were really only a couple of guys who went North Shore after Whitey and Gene. It was just too much for the other guys..."

With the Hot Curl "modifications proven out," Fran said, "we were then in a position to meet the challenge of the stronger, steeper, and most unforgiving North Shore waves... The North Shore is unpredictable. The waves there can come up within an hour's time... and the rip tides. Oh, man, you gotta watch out for those."

World War II & After

"In the early part of World War II," Fran recalled, "John Kelly and I served aboard the U.S.S. Calcedony, a converted yacht. We were assigned to escort and patrol duty. The Island-born Captain permitted us to bring our boards along. We were then able to try out such virgin surfs as Midway, Palmyra, Christmas and Canton Islands. Midway was by far the best, with a long right slide on the eastern side of the island."

Toward the later part of the war, both Kelly and Fran were assigned to UDT duty. The Underwater Demolition Team was the predecessor of today's Navy SEALS. Fran admitted that the swimming and diving was not a problem; it was the demolitions. "We had to learn all about explosives. I mean, we were handling explosives strong enough to blow up an entire building -- in our case, powerful enough to sink a metal-hulled ship.

"We considered using surfboards for reconnaissance missions," recalled Fran. "That was Kelly's idea. But, boards are too easily spotted from low-flying aircraft and there's no protection if you're spotted, so that idea was scrapped." They were some of the first to use the Lambertson Lung in underwater demolition. This "most primitive self-contained rig," as Fran put it, "enabled you to swim underwater without leaving the telltale string of bubbles typical to the scuba."

From the mid-'40s into the early 1950s, Fran, Wally, Kelly and an increasing number of others surfed O`ahu's big waves on progressively advanced equipment. "After the war," recalled Fran, "Gene -- Wally's brother -- got a job working on a radio construction site there, at Makaha. He'd give us a call when it got big."

By this time, both Woody Brown and George Downing had joined the Hot Curlers as full-fledged members. Woody had come over at the start of the war. "George started after the war," recalled Fran. "He wanted to take some pictures of me at Koko Head... We got to be friends and he said... 'What about Waimea?'"

"We also were probably the first ones to consider surfing Kaena Point by tow-in with a motorized boat," remembers Fran. "No one was willing to risk their boat for that and none of us was willing to sacrifice our boards... We did do tow-in's at Shark Bay."

In 1953, Honolulu photographer Skip Tsuzuki took the famous Associated Press photo of Buzzy Trent, Woody and George Downing riding a 15-foot wave at Makaha that went world wide. "That's the first big wave that was ever photographed that had world wide distribution," Woody told me. "After that, of course, people started getting gung ho over big waves... California surfers started coming over, after that picture... that drove everybody crazy... So, they all wanted to come out here and see for themselves."

"Our first experience with California surfers," recalled Fran, "was that they then were used to the softer, gentler Southern Californian beach breaks. Their initial experience with North Shore waves rapidly rising and closing out on them came as an very obvious shock. We had to talk quite a number of them back thru the white water to shore."

Through the 1950s and the waves of assaults on the North Shore by more and more Coast haoles, the Hot Curl surfers continued to ride waves all over the island -- espeically Makaha and the North Shore.

Fran Heath bodysurfing Makapu`u, late 1930s

Later Years

As the Hot Curl guys grew older and were superceded by younger surfers from both Hawai`i and the Mainland, most all of them still continued to surf, stay close to the ocean, and carry on as tribal leaders to surfing's development.

The exception was Fran Heath. After surfing through most of the 1950s, Fran dropped out of surfing at age 40, at about the time of his marraige. This probably is the reason why, out of the original Empty Lot Boys and old time O`ahu surfers in general, he is kind of like the forgotten element in the Hot Curl mix.

Fran had been drifting away from surfing beginning back in the early '40s. "What happened with him is, he surfed in the '30s and then about the time of the war, he started to shy away from it," his friend Wally recalled. "I don't know exactly why. Maybe he was busy with his father's insurance business... At one point, he told John Kelly and I he got kind of bored with surfing. Then, after the war, we tried to get him interested again, you know. But, he was sort of a loner, in a way. So, he did a lot of bodysurfing and, you know, an individual thing rather than a group thing. Through the years, he kind of moved away from Kelly and our group to some extent. He was there, but not as much as the rest of us."

"Well, I became interested in other things," Fran explained. "I found my work took me away from the beach and my son was growing up, then. He didn't take to the ocean like I had. I found myself wanting to do the things he wanted to do and these took me further away from riding the waves like I used to do."

Fran continued bodysurfing, fishing and boating -- both power and sail. His wife Juliette had praises for her husband's ability to surf waves even with a Boston Whaler. From the glow in her eyes, telling of one particular instance, I got the impression Fran did this on big days as well as small. Woody Brown had brought the Polynesian double-hulled canoe design into the modern era by developing the catamaran in the 1940s. One catamaran he built was bought by Duke Kahanamoku. "In the latter years [of Duke's life]," Fran said, "I crewed for him on his Woody Brown cat Nadu." In speaking about his long friendship with Duke, Fran added that when Duke "became too ill to sail, I followed his wishes and continued to race the boat."

Continuing to bodysurf, Fran was one of the first to do so at Pipeline and Waimea. "Buddy Adolphsen surfed with us when I was young," Fran began telling of a memorable bodysurf at Waimea. "Later, after World War II, he became a sergeant in the police force. When he was stationed on the North Shore, he devoted himself to lifesaving. A lot of people don't know, but Buddy was responsible for many a save on the North Shore before they had lifeguards there."

"Anyway," Fran continued, "this one time I was bodysurfing Waimea when it was pretty big; no one else out... After a while, I noticed fire engines on shore and a lot of people congregated. I wondered what had happened, cuz I hadn't seen anybody else out riding those waves that day. "When I came in, swim fins in hand, Buddy met me on the sand, shaking his head; a little agitated, I'd say. 'Goddammit, Fran, I should have known it was you!' he said to me. 'Please, in the future, before you go out alone like that, stop by the fire station and let us know.' They'd all gotten worried about this lone body out in the big surf that day..."

The Fulcrum of Time

At the end of my interview with Fran and his wife Juliette, Fran took me over to Wally's place to show me his Pacific Systems semi-hollow Hot Curl which Wally had recently refurbished. It's a beautiful board; beautiful in materials and beautiful in shape. I was also struck with the heavy weight -- at least by today's standards. At one point, I was concerned about Fran. I mean, the guy's an octogenarian and walking around with a cane. How could he lift even half the weight? Well, that day he hefted his end of the board; no problem. Outside, under the Honolulu sun, he gave me directions on slinging it over my shoulder so we could take a picture of it.

At one point, this Hot Curl legend clearly got frustrated with my lack of expertise handling his board. "You don't know how to carry a surfboard," he said, almost scolding me while cradling the semi-hollow in his arms. Fran showed me how to sling it over my shoulder with one hand in a perpenticular fulcrum. It was then that I fully realized what it was like back in the days of the Hot Curls, when Fran, Wally, Kelly and them slung their boards on their shoulders on a daily basis. It was the only way you could carry a redwood board.

Lost in time is not only this practice, but also the Hot Curl surfboard's place in the rack as the grandfather of today's big wave guns. Contemporary board design for what Buzzy Trent originally labelled the "Elephant Gun" still reflects many Hot Curl principles, including forward V, tail V and pulled-in gun plan shapes.

So it goes for the Hot Curl guys, themselves. Nearly forgotten or overlooked, it's The Empty Lot Boys who were the first surfers in modern times to regularly ride the biggest waves the island of O`ahu has to serve up. They rode all the island's shores -- including the North Shore -- at least a decade before the arrival of those who would later get the kudos for it.

And... riding high in the curl of a fast moving monster wave of half a century and more -- in and amongst the over-looked and the near-legendary -- is one of the greatest of the Hot Curl surfriders, Francis R. Heath, III -- The Forgotten Hot Curler.

Related Resources

TOM BLAKE: The Journey of A Pioneer Waterman

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