FRAN HEATH: The Forgotten Hotcurler
A Chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS Collection
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
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
"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
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."
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."
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
"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
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
"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
Fran Heath bodysurfing Makapu`u, late 1930s
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
"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
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.
TOM BLAKE: The Journey of A Pioneer Waterman
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