Always click on the LEGENDARY SURFERS icon to return to this homepage. LEGENDARY SURFERS
A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By  Malcolm Gault-Williams

This Chapter Updated:  17 October 2004

John Heath "Doc" Ball

Surfing's First Dedicated Photographer

Doc Ball

"When I started [in 1929], there were probably 15 or 20 [surfers] around the whole [California] coast. But, they were mostly all in Southern California where the water was warm."

-- Doc's estimates of the number of surfers on the U.S.A. Mainland in 1929

"We had surfin' to take care of everything. Long as there's waves, why, you didn't have to pay for those."

-- Doc, talking about surfing during the Great Depression

In 1998, I had the honor of interviewing Doc Ball, then at age 91. Subsequently, much of that interview appeared in an article I collaborated with Gary Lynch on. Printed in LONGBOARD magazine, Volume 6, Number 4 (August 1998), "Doc Ball, Through the Master's Eye" contained not only Doc's story, but a number of images he took during the 1930s.

Doc Ball was tremendously influential in the growth of surfing in California, especially between the 1930s and 1950s. To his very last day, December 5, 2001, he remained a source of inspiration to all of us. Read his story and those of his surfing breathern contained herein, to find out what it was like before there were skegs on surfboards; before there were surf magazines or movies or videos; and of a time when surf photography was synonymous with the name "Doc Ball."

Photo courtesy of Doc Ball. Self-portrait.


  • John Heath Ball
  • The Bull Squid
  • 1st Surfboard & Na Ali`i
  • Early Heroes
  • Early Influences: Johnny Kerwin & Rusty Williams
  • Kodak Folding Autographic
  • Palos Verdes Surfing Club
  • Surfing The 1st Half of the 1930s
  • Hollows & Swastikas
  • The Water Box
  • The Wonder Board & Keystone 16mm
  • "Beach Stuff"
  • Surfing The 2nd Half of the 1930s
  • Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships, 1928-41
  • Multiple Methods of Surf Photography
  • First Surf Posters
  • Surf Culture
  • World War II & A Speed Graphic
  • After The War
  • Christ, Garberville & Tom Blake
  • Eureka Days
  • References

  • In surfing, today, there are some tragedies taking place. Most of the ones we're familiar with have to do with destruction of surf habitat. Yet, there's one of a photographic nature that few of us realize. Doc Ball's photo collection, film archives, and historical material - most of the film stuffs belonging to the Father of Surf Photography - was swept away in a flood in 1964. Yet, because Doc gave copies of most of his images away - approximately 900 of them - it is entirely possible to reconstruct his archives by copying Doc Ball photos from the collections of others. It is our hope that, after reading Doc's story contained herein, someone will come forward with the clout and the money to do what needs to be done to round-up Doc's collection for surfing's future generations.

    John Heath Ball

    John Heath "Doc" Ball was born January 25, 1907, in Los Angeles. Born into dentistry, Doc grew up in Redlands, California, the son of Genevieve - a natural child psychologist -- and Archibald E. Ball, DDS, a graduate of the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. As a boy, John Heath Ball had an exposure to photography early on.

    "Most of my lifetime, I guess," he told me, "I'd had a camera for some reason or another... I started with a little thing about four or five inches; maybe less than that; a little tiny camera box that they made. I guess it was for kids or something. It was black and white stuff. Take it on bike hikes and everything. That was when I was about eight years old. I got started 'photography' that way."

    "That's really early," I said.

    "Yeah, man, that's getting way back."

    Doc's introduction to the Pacific Ocean came early, at Catalina Island, "at age 4," Doc wrote in notes he made to the draft of this chapter about him. "I was taken along with my parents on a Redlands Elks Club party. On arriving, my mom decides to take a swim in the little bay. She also carried me out there and met another club member, Jake Suess (owner of a grocery in Redlands). He says, 'Let me take little Jack. I'll teach him to swim.' She handed me over to him. He wades out to hip depth and plops me down in that cold H20. I went clear under before he grabbed me up. And I start screaming 'It's salty!' Anyway, that did not blot out my interest in the old salty, as our family vactioned at Hermosa Beach. I learned to bodysurf, here. Also, to make a few dimes catching and selling sand crabs to be bait for fishermen."

    Doc's water direction was kept alive, back in the Redlands during the school year, when he later became a junior lifeguard at the Redlands Municipal Pool. Duke Kahanamoku visited the pool as a master of ceremonies for an inauguration and made an impression on Doc that was never lost.

    By 1924, Doc held the Redlands High School pole vault record of 11-feet 6-inches, using a bamboo pole. He continued playing sports in school when he played left end on the University of Redlands football team (1928). "The next wild experience here," Doc wrote, "was learning how to do a one-and-a-half flip over from the 20-foot high diving platform. It was a blast!"

    Following his father's profession, Doc enrolled at the University of Southern California Dental School in 1929. "This is where I learned to put my hands in people's mouths," Doc recalled, "and not get bit." It's also where Doc got his nickname.

    "By this time," Doc added, "I also set another record. A 20-foot exhaust pipe for my strip-down Model T Ford (rode the thing on the gas tank) - was given the thing for cleaning up a friend's backyard of weed overgrowth. Weeds had almost swallowed the old T. It had no body or fenders or front tires. I drove it home and got it in shape to drive. When they did some repair work on the Kingsbury Grade School roofing was when I got that 20-foot pipe - put the end of it on skate wheels and attached it to my Model T Ford. Got a blast when classmates went to look at the skate wheel towing attachment. I would pop the thing [pop the clutch] with a backfire which caused them to jump sky high."

    The Bull Squid

    Doc's enrollment at USC Dental School brought him in closer proximity to the ocean. About that year, Doc recalled:

    "Well, that's when I went down to USC Dental College. I had a little canoe I used to ride up in the Redlands area, in the lakes and rivers and whatever - canals [even]. So, I figured, 'why not?' [try it in the ocean]. Oh, we had lived in Hermosa Beach, there, in the summertime, way back [beginning in] 1920-21. So, I knew the beach and I was interested in salt water and so -" he laughed, "I took that canoe, went out and paddled around; finally found out I could catch some waves with it!"

    When we think of "canoe," nowadays, an image of a nicely constructed, mass-produced, well-marketed product. Back then, canoe could mean something you bought, but most likely meant something you made. Doc's was a custom job he called "The Bull Squid."

    "I made it with bicycle rims - wooden rims, in those days," Doc told me. "The canoe was mostly made - what they had were some [train] car strips that they would use for packing oranges; great big orange boxes in the flat cars in the freight trains; just big long strips [of wood]. They just fit together perfect.

    "So, I made the sides out of wood and put a little canvas covering over the front and back and that kept the waves from crashing over both the bow and, ah --," laugh, "stern.

    "Anyway, it was a pretty good little surfing canoe; 6-foot, 6-inches long."

    With The Bull Squid, Doc not only spent time sliding the surf, but diving for abalone. The rest of the time was spent on classes and studying.

    "At that time," Doc told me, "part of our study was dissection of the human body. My pardner for the 'D' class was male and our cadaver was a Martha Birmingham. We thoroughly dissected head, neck and arm - tracing out blood vessels and nerves. Quite an experience, finding out what we were going to deal with in the future."

    1st Surfboard & Na Ali`i

    "Remember your first surfboard?" I asked Doc.

    "Pretty much," Doc replied. It wasn't mine, but it was one we could use. There was a guy who came down to the beach, there, to go surfin'. He'd been to Hawai`I and he brought this board back. A big 10-foot redwood. He didn't know what to with it during the week, cuz he knew he'd only come down on the weekend. So, by that time I had another buddy whose mother and father owned a restaurant right on the beach - right on the cement walk, there, on the ocean front.

    "We went in and made a deal with them. If the guy would let Norm [Brown] and I use his board during the week, they'd let him store it in their restaurant ('Walt & Mize Hamburgers'). It was kind of an attraction! It helped them out and it helped us out. That was the first board."

    Encouraged by Sam Apoliana, a Hawaiian classmate, Doc went on to build a plank-style surfboard. Doc carved it out of a large slab of redwood, hewn with an adze.

    "Then," Doc told me of this development, "Norm and I decided we better have one of our own, so we went down and got some lumber -" Doc paused and asked me if I knew what an adze is. Of course! "You have to stand with your legs spread pretty good," Doc cautioned about use of the adze. "Some of the guys we'd been told -- in the logging industry - they'd pretty near chopped their ankle off.

    "It's a horizontal [blade, as opposed to an axe's vertical]. Well, we hacked us out a couple of boards with that. That was really the first one [we made ourselves and were our own]."

    In the late 1980s, Doc passed this same adze on to big wave legend Greg Noll, appointing him as "keeper of the flame." As for Doc's first surfboard when he first hacked it out, he colored it white and decorated it with copper sheeting in the shape form of a shield with the words "Na Alii," Hawaiian for "The King." Copper studs kept it solidly pressed to the board's surface. "In time," Doc said with some regret, "it was stolen out of our Hermosa Beach house backyard."

    "Then ole Norm," Doc told me, "he decides he's gonna make one after Blake's type [hollow paddleboard]. He started making 14-foot paddleboards. I bought one of those from him and that was my board for a long time."

    "You liked the increased flotation?" I surmised.

    "Oh, definitely," Doc agreed. "Yeah!"

    Early Heroes

    Like many surfers of his time, Doc revered Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the man who was primarily responsible for the rebirth of wave riding in the Twentieth Century. "He was one of our heroes in that time," Doc told me. "He came here and toured around a little bit, but I didn't get to see him too much."

    About a year or two after he got started surfing, Doc had an opportunity to surf with Duke down at Corona del Mar. Fifteen years later, Doc Ball would eulogize the Corona del Mar bell buoys and jetty in "In Memoriam [to] Corona del Mar -- Famous 'Bell Buoy Rides' and 'Jetty Surf'... are now become a treasured memory.

    "We who knew it will never forget buzzing the end of that slippery, slimy jetty, just barely missing the crushing impact as the sea mashed into the concrete. Nor will we forget the squeeze act when 18 to 20 guys all tried to take off on the same fringing hook. And do you remember the days when you waited near that clanging bell buoy for the next set to arrive? Corona Del Mar's zero surf was hell on the yachtsmen but -- holy cow -- what stuff for the Kamaainas. Yes! Those were the days."

    One of Doc's most vivid memories of Duke was in the early 1930s, at a surf contest at Santa Monica:

    "They had a big thing at Santa Monica - a whole gathering of surfers giving out awards from the contest they'd had," Doc recalled. "Ol' Duke was in there. And, son-of-a-gun, when I got in there and sat down, here's Duke. He's sitting right in front of me." Doc was laughing about it as he remembered the day. "And I said, 'Duke... Duke... Duke...' [trying to engage him in conversation]. Never even turned his head. Finally, I just went out and --" here, Doc broke out into fluent Hawaiian, most of which I didn't catch, but, when translated means 'To the uprighteousness of the State.' -- "And, man, he whipped around like a shot!" Doc laughed some more, then told me they got into active conversation. "We had a blast..."

    A hero more accessible and even a close friend was Tom Blake, inventor of the hollowboard, the skeg and the precursor to the sailboard. "He was my surfin' buddy for all those years," Doc told me of the 1930s &'40s. "We rejoiced together in the picture shootin' and everything."

    Early Influences: Johnny Kerwin & Rusty Williams

    I mentioned to Doc that I'd heard there were only about 30 surfers in Southern California at the end of the 1920s.

    "That sounds a little extra, to me," he responded. "When I started, there were probably 15 or 20 around the whole coast. But, they were mostly all in Southern California where the water was warm." I asked Doc who the earliest surfers were that he could remember.

    "Some of the local guys. Johnny Kerwin and his family, Jim Bailey [and] lifeguards. They had a big pier there [Hermosa], ya know. You go out there and that's where you run into the lifeguards. Most of the time, some of these other guys were out there; goin' fishin' or just checkin' the situation out."

    Most respected of these lifeguards was Rusty Williams. "Anytime the waves got good, why, he'd be out there. He was the one who was always telling us to watch out for the pilings on the pier."

    About Johnny Kerwin, Doc said, "He was one of the first, there, at Hermosa Beach; the Kerwin family. He had three brothers and a sister... We used to get together to go surfing, abalone diving, lobster diving and, boy, you name it. His folks had a big bakery down there at Hermosa Beach and so that's where we went to get all our cookies, bread, cakes... it was really an 'in' thing.

    "He was a real friend," Doc told me. "Still is."

    Kodak Folding Autographic

    Technically speaking, John "Doc" Ball was not the first person to photograph surfers. Evidence of this can be seen by perusing the Bishop Museum's archives on surfing, in Honolulu. .For instance, there are shots taken of surfers going back to the late 1800s. Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumiere invented the motion-picture camera in 1895 and by 1898, motion pictures of surfers at Waikiki were taken by Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb and the .

    Photographs of surfers continued to be taken through the first two decades of the century - the beginning two decades of the rebirth of surfing. Surfer, inventor and philosopher Tom Blake took a number of photographs, many of which can be seen in his first book Hawaiian Surfboard. And, in a notable milestone, Blake had the first surf layout printed in a 1935 edition of National Geographic. DeSoto Brown is an expert in early Hawaiian photogs and still works at the Bishop Museum. Don James, who also began surf photography in the 1930s - like Doc Ball - shot many a photo between the '30s and 1960s.

    The significant role Doc Ball plays in surf photography, however, is that he was the first truly dedicated "surf photog." His surfing experience was framed by the camera's lens. Sure, he surfed, but more than that, he took photographs of surfers, surfing and surf culture. And he was the first to take this approach as his primary focus.

    In 1926, Doc had been given a Kodak Autographic camera by his father's dental assistant. "My dad was a dentist," he reminded me, "and his office gal brought in a folding Autographic. She didn't want it, anymore, so she gave it to my dad and he gave it to me. I took that down to the beach, there, and when I went to school."

    "How about when you first started shooting surfing?" I prompted him.

    "I started that after we started going down to the beach. I said, 'Oh, man, I gotta take a picture of some of these guys.' That's when I started using that folding [Kodak] Autographic."

    One of Doc's earliest surf-related photographs was taken the same time he started riding waves with a canoe then a surfboard. Around 1929, Doc took some pictures of his mother on a board at Palos Verdes Cove. "My mother was a beautiful chicken," is how he put it to Gary Lynch, "you have to admit it, a natural child psychologist. She raised us right," he added in appreciation.

    The year 1931 was when Doc really hit a turning point in his life; a turn that would unite his recreational time with both surfing and photography. At the start of the year, the Los Angeles Times printed a sepia-toned, full spread rotogravure photograph of four surfers at Waikiki. Taken by Tom Blake with his new waterproof camera housing, "Riders of Sunset Seas" grabbed hold of Doc's imagination at the same time it provided viewers with a unique perspective of waves and surfers at an angle never seen until then.

    From that point on, "Doc became dedicated," Gary Lynch wrote, "to the pursuit of artistically recording the California surfing scene."

    About the Kodak folding Autographic, Doc told me: "You could sign the thing and it registered right on the film; had a little place down at the bottom of the camera case. I used to carry that out to the Palos Verdes Cove... I finally got to the point where I carried it in my teeth with a towel around my neck, getting' drowned an' everything."

    "Doc started," Gary wrote, "producing photographs of surfers surfing, their boards, cars, girlfriends, parties, surf board construction, living quarters, club houses and just about all activities related to this new breed of Californian. Comedy often played a part in the composition of Doc'' photographs."

    Palos Verdes Surfing Club

    Doc graduated from the USC Dental College in 1933. Shortly afterward, on Monday, March 19, 1934, he opened an office at 4010 1/2 South Vermont Avenue, in Los Angeles. "He rented a second story, five room suite above a movie theatre that then stood at that address," wrote Gary. On a surviving photograph of the office and theatre beneath, the marquee clearly informs us that the movie 'Algiers' was showing, starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. One room was dedicated to working on his patients and one room served as his bedroom, office, darkroom, and laboratory." A third room constituted the Palos Verdes Surfing Club, after it was formed in 1935. The landlord gave Doc the first two months rent free, due to the Depression, and charged forty dollars a month thereafter.

    "In those days," Doc told Gary, "I didn't have enough money to rent another building to sleep in. We made our own boards and swimming trunks, camera tripods, and copy stands. We bought very little. It was good for you. After all that, you really knew how to get there from here. It was a do-it-yourself age."

    I asked him about the depression; how did it effect them as surfers?

    "Well, as far as surf was concerned: not really. Of course, we had a little trouble getting' gasoline, but then it was 7-cents a gallon in those days. Imagine that?"

    "Nope, I can't."

    "Well, that's the way it was. It [the Depression] kept us kinda limited in certain ways, but we had surfin' to take care of everything. Long as there's waves, why, you didn't have to pay for those. All we had to do was buy the gas to get there."

    A year after he got going in his dentist practice, Doc got together with Adie Bayer to found the Palos Verdes Surfing Club. "He was one of the big ones," Doc told me, referring to Adie Bayer as one of the top surfers of the era. Bayer was a champion platform diver, swimmer, tennis player, as well as surfer.

    "He was real energetic and everything," Doc affirmed. "He helped do organizings, too."

    Because it organized the first annual Pacific Coast Surfing Championship, the Corona del Mar Surf Board Club was probably the first surf club to organize on the Mainland, "the largest club of this kind in America," according to The Santa Ana Daily Register, July 31, 1928. Chuck A Luck Ehlers claimed the honor for the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club, saying that it was the first, in 1934, when "the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club was formed. They had about 18 members. The old ones plus Don Grannis, Ted Davies, and others."

    The following year was "A banner year," Chuck A Luck recalled of 1935, when, to the south, "the Palos Verdes Surfing Club was formed -- with Tulie Clark, 'Doc' Ball, Hoppy Swarts, LeRoy Grannis, along with transferred surfers Matt Davies, Jim Bailey, Johnny Gates, Tom Blake, Gard Chapin and others."

    I tried to pin Doc down on this one. How he remembers it is that Johnny Kerwin got the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club going "a little after we formed. Palos Verdes was one of the first ones that organized. After that was Hermosa and then Manhattan and then Santa Monica. From there on it went up the coast and kept going after that."

    "PV was the first?" I tried to clarify, noting his "one of the first ones" phraseology.

    "I think so."

    "Then Hermosa?"

    "Palos Verdes started in '35," Doc reiterated.

    I asked Doc if there were any significant differences between the surf clubs that sprang up in this period. "Not especially, as far as I know," he responded. "They all had their little banquets here and there and times of celebration; same things we did, too, in our Palos Verdes [club]."

    Doc was being typically modest in his comparison of the PVSC to other surf clubs. The fact was that the Palos Verdes Surfing Club was more sophisticated and organized than any of the other clubs early on. It's organization would be impressive even compared to today's standards. Importantly, Doc's photography played a large part in establishing the PVSC as the dominant surf club of the 1930s.

    "We also had, among the clubs," Doc added, "the Catalina Island-to-Santa Monica Paddle Race. It was on those 14-foot paddleboards. Whew! That was a long paddle, but [at least] it was a relay."

    "On hollowboards?"


    Soon after forming, the Palos Verdes Surfing Club moved its headquarters into one of the rooms Doc rented. A small room that separated the clubhouse from the dental office was Doc's storeroom, bedroom and darkroom.

    "The interior of the club room," reconstructed Gary from Doc's personal photographs, "was elaborately decorated with photographs of all members with their boards, trophies won by club members, surfing paintings, a president's desk with gavel, and a set of shark's jaws that housed the club creed."

    "I as a member of the Palos Verdes Surfing Club, Do solemnly swear:

    "To be ever steadfast in my allegiance to the club and to its members,

    "To respect and adhere to the aims and ideals set forth in its constitution,

    "To cheerfully meet and accept my responsibilities hereby incurred,

    "And at all times strive to conduct myself as a club member and a gentleman,

    "So help me God."

    For non-members, entrance into the PVSC club room was by invitation only. The club had a sargent-at-arms and no smoking was allowed in the club room. "We forbid any cigarette smoking in the club," Doc explained for me. "There were some that did, though. One was [Gene] Hornbeck and another was Jean [Depue]. They never did have any cigarettes when they came to the club, but once in a while, outside, you'd catch 'em. Finally, Jean - he tried to go out Hermosa Beach in the big surf and he couldn't make it out; couldn't punch through like the rest of us. He ran out of breath. That slew the cigarettes on his behalf; never touched 'em again."

    The PVSC went on to organize paddling races, paddleboard water polo matches, and surfing contests. It's influence even went far beyond Palos Verdes. "When the surf was flat there in Southern Cal," Doc said of the surf safaris club members would take and the PVSC influence on the rebirth of surfing in Santa Cruz, "we'd make these trips out around, up the coast and down. One of them went up to Santa Cruz. They'd not seen that activity (surfing) up there [before]! Our guys were the ones who initiated it in Santa Cruz."

    E.J. Oshier was the main PVSC guy to help get surfing going again in Santa Cruz. "The sport quickly took hold at Long Beach, Corona del Mar, San Onofre, Dana Point, and many Santa Monica Bay areas," confirmed Duke Kahanamoku, "like Redondo, Hermosa, Manhattan and Palos Verdes Cove. To thousands and thousands it has become a way of life."

    Surfing The 1st Half of the 1930s

    In his limited-edition photo collection, later to be (thankfully) reprinted for later generations of us, Doc documented "'How All This Started.'" Below the title, the photo shows Doc Ball, "snapping one in the good old days when the camera was carried out by holding it between his teeth. Towel was there just in case ." The photo below it, entitled "Straight Off," featured "Paddleboards, hats and paddles, constituted the cove surfing gear back in 1934."

    "Life was grand around the California beaches even though the Great Depression had drained the savings and expectations of many," Gary wrote. "for as little as $15-$25 one could build a hollow board or plank style surf board, sew a pair of swim trunks out of canvas and feel like a king at the beach. When the swell was small, Palos Verdes Cove provided food as well as recreation for the surfers. A number of interesting photographs taken by Doc demonstrate that a paddle board could be used as an abalone diving platform. Green abalone were abundant and the limit was twenty a day. Diving for abalone in combination with fishing made for a pleasant existence. Driftwood still existed on the Southern California beaches and a warm fire often was the centerpiece for the daily gatherings."

    One particular time stands out in Doc's memory and it was less than pleasant. "I was diving for abalones and every time I get down there - oh, about 8-feet of water - I had an abalone beneath a rock. The thing was anchored there pretty solid. Each time I'd get my iron in there to loosen him up, he'd get re-anchored. I stayed down and stayed down - I plumb ran out of air! Man, I began to black out and so I just dropped everything and came up and started to inhale a little water before I hit to where my surfboard was anchored up there. I kinda flopped over onto the board and here comes this guy around the corner, at the Palos Verdes Cove.

    "'Hey, Doc - What're you tryin' ta do? Drown yourself?!'

    "Holy mackeral! Then it hit me; what was happening. That was a wild experience.

    "I had another one, too, down diving like that when a big shadow come over the top. I look up and there's this great big - 6-7-foot, white belly - leopard shark came swimming across. Holy cow! I got outta there!"

    Hollows & Swastikas

    Up until Tom Blake began drilling holes in redwood boards in 1926, surfboards had weighed the same since early on in the 1800s. Further innovations in surfboard design and components continued during Doc's time.

    Blake's "Hawaiian Hollow Board" - the board that had begun this period of innovation -- became known more commonly as "Blake's Cigar." Even though it was nearly laughed off the beach, at first, almost every surfer in California and the budding East Coast began turning in their old spruce pine and redwood planks for the lighter, "Blake-style" boards. "The trend [in surfing] soon changed," noted a surfside analyst of the late '30s, "due to its [the hollow board's] extreme lightness, strength, durability and the greater ease in gaining speed, with much less effort." Older kids and women could now surf much easier.

    Delbert "Bud" Higgins, a Huntington Beach lifeguard of those times, described the solid boards during this period. The "redwoods were really too heavy, about 125 pounds, plus another 10 pounds or so when they got wet." Yet, Higgins, who was the first man to ride through the pilings of the Huntington Beach Pier while standing on his head, swore by the old boards, saying they were, "so big and stable [that] you could do almost anything."

    By 1932, Blake's production boards helped reduce the average weight of a board from between 100 to 125 pounds to a lighter 40 to 70 pounds. Steering and stability were a problem, though, as the boards tended to "slide tail" or "slide ass." Except for simple angle turns -- accomplished either by dragging one's foot "Hawaiian style" off a board's inside rail, or by stepping back and tilt-dancing the board around and out of its old course and into a new one -- the hollowboards were still awkward and cumbersome.

    Tom Blake was the one who came up with the solution to this problem, too. Although it would take a decade to be completely embraced, keels on surfboards eventually were universally accepted. The first one appeared in an edition of the Honolulu Advertiser circa 1935-36. The famous photograph of Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake shows the first fin on a board.

    The fixed fin -- or skeg -- was invented by Blake in 1935 in an effort to solve the problem of the hollow board's tendency to "slide ass." This innovation allowed surfers to track and pivot more freely and gave the board more lateral stability. As a result, terms like "dead ahead," "slide ass," "all together now, turn," and "straight off, Adolph," gradually began to be heard less and less.

    Pacific Ready Cut Homes, a.k.a. Pacific Systems Homes, in the Los Angeles area, was one of the first companies to produce commercial surfboards. Their Swastika model surfboard combined redwood with balsa to help lower the weight. Made of laminated redwood and balsa which could be milled and joined with waterproof glue -- a relatively new product -- the wood was combined so that the lightness of the balsa ran down the middle and the strength of the redwood went to the stringer and rails. Varnish protected the outside. The boards sold for around $40 bucks. There were also "14-footers, shortened, and with a square tail. We dubbed them 'slanchies.'"

    "Well, that was right after guys got a little worried carrying those big redwoods down [to the beach]," Doc told me. "They had to walk a quarter of a mile. They had to figure out sumpin' to make 'em lighter. Instead of making 'em hollow, why, they put this balsa in there to do it and it helped a lot!"

    Although most boards continued to be custom made by surfers themselves, Swastikas became the most widely used production solid board of the period leading into World War II. They featured full rails with a square upper edge and rounded lower. A typical board length was 10-feet long, 23-inches wide, and 22-inches across the tail block. They were called Swastikas because of the distinctive logo the company used. After 1939, when war broke out in Europe and the ancient symbol was equated with nazism, the swastika insignia was discontinued.

    An example of a Pacific Systems Homes Swastika model surfboard is in the Surfer magazine collection, in San Juan Capistrano. It's solid balsa with redwood stringers and rails. It features a nose piece and tail block for strength and protection. The 10-foot, 1-inch by 22-inch board is doweled for rigidity and durability and weighs 45 pounds.

    During the course of its years manufacturing boards, Pacific Systems employed a number of well-known surfers, one of whom was Whitey Harrison, another of Doc's surfin' buddies. Production pay for a shaper was $100/month for 4 boards/day.

    "He was a well-loved person," Doc acknowledged. "He was one of our surfin' guys that could really handle the board in big waves. He could really ride that big stuff at Dana Point. I got pictures of him, down there, doin' his stuff. He was in the water most of the time," meaning he made his livelihood the sea. "Son of a gun, if I remember right, he went out and cut - what was it - a cottonwood tree and made him an outrigger canoe out of the thing; like they have in the Islands... that was a big job."

    The Water Box

    By 1937, Doc's reputation as a surf photographer was well established. That year, he built his first waterproof camera housing. The watertight "shoots box" housed Doc's replacement for the Kodak folding Autographic - a stripped down Series D Graflex. Not only could he get closer to his wave sliding buddies, but the images were clearer.

    "By that time," Doc told me, "I made a water box. I got a stripped down Graflex Series D Graflex camera -- 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ -- and put a water box around it. So, that way, you could open it up and make your shot and then shut it up real quick and it didn't get all wet." Doc laughed. "That thing really did work. I got some terrific shots with it."

    Doc's water box had a large brass handle attached so that when he was caught inside, large sets would not wrest it from his grasp. Although the Graflex was big and bulky compared to today's camera bodies used for surf photography, it used large format cut sheet film - 3 ¼ X 4 ¼ -- which made for sharp enlargements. "I traded the chief of photography in the Los Angeles fire department arson squad for one of my Graflex cameras," Doc told Gary. "I made him a three-unit gold inlaid bridge."

    The Wonder Board & Keystone 16mm

    In the late 1930s, Doc shot a small amount of 16mm movie film and, later on, some 8mm. "I finally got rigged-up with a Keystone. It was a 16mm. Take that out on the board and I got - man, I just got pack after pack. I've got it here in the house, all stored up... it's got some wild stuff in there."

    Doc didn't pursue this aspect of his photography, but what he did shoot documents the heydey of prewar Southern California surfing. The film, itself, contains a unique segment shot from a bi-winged airplane. "During the aerial photography shoot," Gary wrote, having seen the footage, himself, "Doc turns the camera on the pilot. With his leather cap slapping in the wind, the pilot's eyes grow wide from behind his goggles and a large grin appears on his startled face. Other notable footage includes Martha Chapin, sister of pioneer surfer Gard Chapin, and step-aunt to Mickey Dora. Martha stands in front of an enlarged map of Los Angeles wearing an eye-catching swim suit. Looking like a Hollywood film actress, she points out the way from Hollywood to Palos Verdes Estates. This was a promotion device for the new Palos Verdes Estates subdivision. It should be mentioned that on this rare footage is recorded an astonishing look at what the surfer sees while sliding a comber. While surfing on a wave with his hollow board, named 'The Wonder Board' because of its paddling and surfing qualities, Doc hand-holds his 16mm camera while filming. On the deck of the board, the Palos Verdes Surf Club logo is clearly visible along with Oscar the surfing gopher snake. With water splashing off the rails and ocean whizzing by, the club'' pet snake lies on the nose of the board, head and upper third of body erect, apparently enjoying the ride."

    As for Gard Chapin, Doc said, "He was kind of a wild guy; lived in Hollywood. He had a sister, Martha. He'd bring her down and we got her to surfin'. Oh, God, he'd go down San Onofre [a lot]... He was quite a guy, alright. I think he finally committed suicide or sumpin'."

    In addition to The Wonder Board, Doc had a Blake paddleboard that he would always regret trading for a skateboard, later on. It was called the "X-1" and was a chopped-down foam paddleboard originally shaped by Tom and Doc. "Dog-gone-it, I did the worst thing I've ever done when I traded my paddleboard [the X-1] - he [Blake] gave it to me after he left the country [for Hawai`I]. I traded it to a Keith Newcomer, up here [in Northern California] for a skateboard. It was really a good skateboard!" But, not as valuable or with the sentimental value that the Blake board had had.

    As for the original Wonder Board, it's now in the hands of Doc's old Palos Verdes Surfing Club member Tulie Clark.

    "Beach Stuff"

    Demand for Doc's photographs by fellow surfers, surfboard manufacturers, newspapers and magazines continued to grow. "When arriving at distant surf breaks such as San Onofre," Gary wrote, "Doc was besieged by the crowds, demanding a look at the most recent prints that he had produced in his small darkroom. Amused by the interest (which at times became a burden), Doc on one occasion handed a group of young Nofre surfers his newest spiral bound photo book titled Beach Stuff and stepped back to record the image with his new Graflex camera. The photograph that resulted still survives and clearly shows the enthusiasm of the group. Piled head over head, shoulder to shoulder, everyone eagerly scanned the pages looking for that special image that would portray them as masters of the rolling comber. 'Obviously these boys were interested in surf photography,' smiles Doc. A surfing book with photographic illustrations was inevitable. There was no way to satisfy demand without one."

    The Los Angeles Times published many Doc Ball photographs. "Doc became friends with many of the Times photographers and the newspaper often relied on Doc's images when huge storm surf or surfing contests made news at the beaches. His creative eye caught the imagination of many. Eventually Doc's photographs would find their way into Life magazine, Look magazine, Encyclopedia Britannica, news magazines and papers, art galleries, national and international photography competitions, surf board brochures, advertisements, documentaries, foreign publications, and National Geographic magazine."

    Surfing The 2nd Half of the 1930s

    Surfing continued to gain in popularity, as demonstrated by not only surfing photographs making it into newspapers, but articles about surfing, as well. One such recognition of the interest in wave sliding was a September 1936 newspaper article by Andy Hamilton entitled "Surfboards, Ahoy!"

    The following year, Doc documented notable big swell conditions:

    "This is Big Surf," wrote and photographically documented Doc of March 13, 1937. Pete Peterson "of Santa Monica" is identified riding the "wave of the day." Also featured: LeRoy Grannis and Jean Depue.

    "Pete Peterson - he was one of the big ones who could really paddle. He was expert at taking gals up on his shoulders and everything and riding. He was one of the big surfers in those days... He was a big wave rider. He used to be able to cut across a wave almost like they do, now; get in the tunnel and get out; just an extraordinary surf hound. That's what we thought."

    As for LeRoy "Granny" Grannis, aka "Scrobble Noggin," he continues to be one of Doc's best friends to present day. Most notably, he took up the photographic banner that Doc started and became one of surfing's great photographers after Doc gave it up. "He'd get shook up every once in a while," explained Doc about LeRoy's nickname of Scrobble Noggin, "and he'd get an ornery look on his face [at those times]."

    Later on in 1937, Doc documented more big surf, this time at Hermosa: "Twenty Footers Roll In" shows Doc, himself ("having deserted his Graflex"), on a big, sloping overheader on Turkey Day, 1937. Another of Doc's bro's, Kay Murray was also out that day. "He was a big guy; an athletic instructor; taught classes on body building and exercising."

    The following month, there was more big surf. In "Storm Surf of December 12th, 1937," Doc's photo, "Taken during a drizzling mist... shows the cove in the throes of a zero break. Johnny Gates vowed 'he'd get a ride on one of those or else.' Credit is hereby extended him that he did reach the half way point, only to be wiped out by a monstrous cleanup and forced to swim in through devastating currents, rocks, etc., to retrieve his battered redwood plank. Purple hardly described his color when he finally got out of that freezing blast."

    "Zero Break at Hermosa," wrote Doc of the term used for maximum surf. "Perhaps twice a year this remarkable surf will hump up a good half mile offshore and keep all 'malihinis' on the beach. Strictly for the 'kamaaina,' this stuff comes upon one out there with a long steamy hiss, and fills him at first with the apprehensive thought of, 'Mebe I better wait for the second one.'"

    That winter swell continued to crank out good sized surf. January 7, 1938 was "The day when the newsreel boys came down to shoot the damage done by the big seas -- packed up and left when we came out with our surfboards." Surfers identified: "Tulie" Clark, Hal Pearson, Al Holland, Adie Bayer and Leroy Grannis.

    Tulie "was one of our big guys in the surfin' club," Doc said, laughing at the thought of his old friend Tulie Clark. "We got together a lot of times at Hermosa Beach... we'd always stack our boards all together in the back of my car or back 'a his, or whatever, and take off for where we thought the surf was up!

    "He was one of the guys... not poverty-stricken, but very down, financially, in his early days. Everybody used to get after me about him: 'What are you doing - a doctor! -- messing around with those bums; those surf bums?!' Holy cow; about flipped my lid!

    "The guy winds up being a millionaire - got a big house down at Palos Verdes Estates; lives in Palm Springs. He went from a 'surf bum' to a millionaire."

    Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships, 1928-41

    Ten years after the death of George Freeth -- "The Father of Southern California Surfing" - one of the first and certainly the first most notable Mainland surf contest took place at Corona del Mar, on the east side of Newport Bay. That first Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship (PCSC) took place on August 5, 1928, the same year the stock market crashed, and continued each year through 1941. Doc Ball was the primary photographer documenting the PVSC for most all the length of its life.

    The first PCSC trophy "was first won by Tom Blake in 1928 at Corona Del Mar," wrote Doc Ball in his classic collection of early California surfer photos, California Surfriders, 1946.

    The original trophy was not much to speak of, so, later on, Tom Blake had a nicely embossed trophy cup made in order to pass on to succeeding winners. Blake donated this trophy "to be the perpetual cup for the above mentioned event. Winners since 1928 are inscribed on the back of it." A good photograph of it appears in Doc's book. He added that, "World War II precluded any possibilities of a contest from 1941 through 1946."

    The Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships became an annual event, dominated for 4-out-of-9 years by Pete Peterson. Peterson reigned as California's recognized top surfer during 1932, 1936, 1938 and 1941. Other early winners of the trophy included Keller Watson (1929), Gardner Lippincott (1934), Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison (1939) and Cliff Tucker (1940).

    Cliff Tucker recalled the 1930s surfing days as a time, "when a man could still be arrested at Santa Monica Beach for not wearing a top." That is to say, for wearing trunks, only. As for the contests, they were serious business, too. "If you were in a contest situation and a guy took off in front of you, it was your obligation to show no decency. You either went right through him or otherwise mowed him down."

    "For years," Tucker said, "surfing was the biggest thing in my life. I remember thinking that if I couldn't ride a wave again, I couldn't live. I really thought that there was nothing else in the world that I'd rather do."

    "He was a member of our surfin' club," Doc laughed at the memory of Tucker. "Yeah, he was a wild one. He's the one that got the picture in there (his book) where he got the axe and took about 40 stitches in his leg. He was out of the water for a few days!"

    Multiple Methods of Surf Photography

    "Through the years," Gary Lynch wrote, "Doc tried many methods of surf photography. Holding the camera by hand, by teeth, strapped to body parts and surfboard, and shooting off piers and rocks, from airplanes and towers, automobiles and trees, from boats and rubber rafts and cliffs and caves, Doc tried to expand both perspective and perception in the minds of his viewers. The main objective was to keep the camera dry while making exposures close enough to provide a large clear image on the negative. Salt water, dust, sand, and bright sun light became intruders, always lurking close by and waiting for a chance to foul the shot.

    "Although the main object of surf photography was to enlighten the viewer to the rewards and pleasures of sliding on a rolling liquid mound of natural origins," Gary continued, "two Doc Ball photographs come to mind that demonstrate other facets of the life of a surfer."

    Mentioning that incident of Tucker and the 40 stitches, Gary continued: "With pools of blood as a backdrop, one such photograph reveals the innermost composition of famed daredevil surfer Cliff Tucker's leg. With his leg filleted to the bone by the metal fins that were once screwed to the rear of the enormous boards and resembled medieval weapons, Cliff Tucker lies on a bench waiting to be transported to the hospital where some forty stitches later he could once again use his leg to support his torso. Tucker was noted for breaking boards in half along with assorted body parts. The Los Angeles Times newspaper once declared in an article published the night before a San Onofre contest that, 'Cliff Tucker is the most daring surfrider on the California coast.' Another photograph, lighthearted on the surface but with overtones of impending doom, shows a Palos Verdes Surfing Club member in a drunken stupor being helped to his feet and taken to a waiting car. The reason for such overindulgent merriment was that the young healthy surfer, in the prime of life, was to enter the armed forces the next day. With WWII raging, everyone knew that his chances of ever surfing or seeing his friends again were uncertain."

    First Surf Posters

    "Doc also created surf posters using his photographs," Gary wrote. "These quality posters used the images of surfers and waves to beckon all who viewed them. The majority of these posters announced that the Palos Verdes Surfing Club was holding a Hula Luau. Hawaiian music, food and drink, female companionship, and of course, the newest surfing photographic images to leave the darkroom were the rewards if one attended the event. These posters, photographically printed, one by one, by Doc, and ranging in size from wallet size (used to gain entrance to the event) to 8" X 10" posters, have become the rarest California surf posters for collectors to obtain."

    Even the Zamboanga club featured a Doc Ball poster. "That was a place where they had one of my pictures in there," Doc told me. "They got excited about it. I gave them a print and they had it blown up to a 5' X 6' or something like that and put it up on their wall."

    The picture was of Jim Bailey and his surfing cockerspaniel Rusty. "A real friendly guy," Doc remembered of Jim Bailey. "He was one of our originals from Hermosa Beach.

    "Movie gal gave him that dog," Doc continued. "Then, I got that picture of them out there at Palos Verdes. They published that over in England and France and, son of a gun, the English guys were all over me about torturing that little dog. That dog, [actually, would] about scratch your ears off trying to get on your board to go out and ride!"

    Gary Lynch continued his writing about Doc's surf posters and post cards: "Fine glosssy photograhically printed post cards that the Palos Verdes Drug Store published also boasted Doc Ball surfing images. These post cards were sold inside the drug store to help promote the new subdivision being built in the area. Action shots of surfers such as Hoppy Swarts or Tom Blake caught the eye of the customers as they passed by the post card rack, demonstrating the pleasures of beach life."

    Doc had high praise for Hoppy Swarts. "He was one of our big guys in the place [PVSC]. He's the one who had that characteristic finger tips thing riding a board. He'd have 'em all stretched out. You could tell who it was just by lookin' at his hands while he was ridin'." Doc laughed. "Yeah, he helped us organize the club... also judging on contests and all that kind of thing. He was a graduate from Occidental College. That's where he was going when he got stuck on surfin'."

    I asked Doc what was the most memorable moment he recalled of Hoppy. "When I got [shot] him comin' right, next to the pier, there." Doc laughed. "Oh, he was real active... I always used to try and get him to grab one of those big waves out there cuz he could handle it pretty good.

    "Those days, we had to steer with our feet; stick your foot in the water, either right or left, whichever way you wanted to turn. He was an expert at that."

    Surf Culture

    Doc Ball set himself apart from many surf photographers by shooting images of surf culture, along with actual wave riding. A perfect example is a shot Doc made of the 'Nofre crew still sleeping. The caption read: "Six A.M. of a 'flat' day and everybody still in the bag. Had the surf been humping they probably would have stayed up all night." "When it was good down there," Doc told me, "you couldn't deny. You could go in and stay all night on the beach. Now, you gotta pay a fee and can't [even] sleep on the beach. If it was good on the weekend, why, that was it!"

    He shot night time photos, too, like the night of April 9, 1939, around a bonfire: "Super surf... kept the boys in the water til dark. Tired but surf satiated they are seen warming up here prior to carrying their waterlogged planks up the trail." Another shot showed a "Pre-war device for warming up in a hurry what gets coldest while shooting these pictures," showed a surfer - none other than Doc, himself -- squatting over a small burning tire on the beach.

    I asked Doc about music. "What were you guys into?"

    "If anything," he replied, "they had a guitar or ukelele [for get togethers at the beach]. In our surfing club, whenever we'd have one of our [more formal] get-togethers, we'd hire a band from Hollywood. They'd come over and do the dance music."

    "What kind of roles did women have in surfing, in those days?"

    "Mostly, if they had a boyfriend in it [surfing], they'd come down and eventually they'd say, 'Hey, let's get out in the water together.' So, they'd have a tandem ride and finally started to get in the real deal." Tandem riding was a common sight, particularly at San O. In "Tandem Rides Are Popular With the Boys," Doc Ball showed a picture of "Benny Merrill and wahini slicing along neat as anything. Most of the female sex, however," Doc noted in 1946, "prefer to sit on the beach."

    Mary Ann Hawkins was a woman surfer of the time, as was Ethal Harrison, at Corona del Mar. Ethal later won the Makaha Championship in 1955.

    Doc remembers Mary Ann Hawkins the best. "She was one of the first surfers down there at Palos Verdes Cove," Doc attested. "She was a friend of E.J. Oshier, at the time, and he got her into the water there. She got excited. Then she was about to get a job with the movies, but she needed a portrait or photograph, so I took a picture of her down on the rocks, there, in her bathing suit at Palos Verdes and she got the job."

    Patty Godsave was another. "She used to ride tandem with one of the guys," Doc said, "either Pete Peterson or E.J. Oshier." Marion Cook was yet another. "I don't remember too much about her," Doc admitted to me. "We called her Cookie."

    World War II & A Speed Graphic

    On April 19, 1941, less than a year before the United States entered the war, Doc married Evelyn Young, an attractive registered nurse. Their first child Norman was born in 1942 and their second child John Jr. followed in 1943.

    "When the United States declared war in December 1941," wrote Gary Lynch, "it broke the back of the California surfers' life-style. The California surf clubs disbanded and almost every able bodied man enlisted in the armed services. Many of the fascinating personalities of the 1930s would never be seen again. The war took some of the best men surfing had to offer, leaving a trail of waste and broken dreams. If not for the persistent efforts of Doc with his camera we may never have known what the life and times of the first wave of California surfers was like."

    World War II certainly "Shut it out for a while," Doc emphasized of the effects of war on wave riding. Doc, himself, joined the Coast Guard and became ship's dentist on the U.S.S. General Hugh Scott, AP136. "His photographic skills soon became known," Gary wrote, "and he was given a new Speed Graphic camera. As the official ship's photographer he photographed much of the South Pacific."

    "During September 1944," Doc recalled a memorable moment during the war, "I got a big surprise. While I was out on the South Pacific someone said the new issue of National Geographic had my surfing photographs in it. Sure enough, there they were."

    Doc credit's Owen Churchill for helping provide some enjoyment during those war years, through his invention of the Churchill swim fins. "He was the one that did it," Doc told me when I asked him if it was Frank Roedecker or Churchill who invented the swim fin. "He came over here during World War II and I got acquainted with the guy. I got a couple of original fins from him." He invented the swim fin "just before World War II," Doc added, saying, "I think he was more of a diver than an surfer. He was of French origin, I believe... We'd take 'em [swim fins] aboard ship. When I'd get out into that hot water of the South Pacific, why, I'd go diving and swimming and riding a wave or two; body surfin'. They were somethin' else!"

    After The War

    After the war, "It just kinda exploded, again," Doc said. "Guys'd get back and they'd been hungry for surf. It'd come natural that you'd want to get back... The ones who survived - we had an outlet and surf was it."

    "Thank goodness for that," I said.

    "You better believe it," Doc concluded.

    Surfer servicemen "started coming back in late '45 and early '46," Duke Kahanamoku recalled. With their return, "surfing once again took an upturn. But it was slow, for the military returnees were occupied with finding jobs or returning to their interrupted education chores."

    "And when the war ended - Boom - we were back in the environment," noted 1940s surfer Dave Rochlen recalled. "It was devotion, like seeing a girl again... like, 'I'm never gonna leave!' We gave ourselves over to it entirely. I think it was because we spent four or five years in the war and we had survived. And it had all been bad. Now there was no question about what had us by the throat. It was the ocean. Everything else was secondary."

    One of the ones who survived to get back to the surf, again, was John "Doc" Ball. His was one of many families to regroup and attempt to restart life where it had ended in 1941. Doc opened a dental office in Hermosa Beach and, rejoining his wife Evelyn, concentrated on raising their two sons, "Norman (man of the sea) and John (God has been gracious)."

    It didn't take Doc long to get back to his surf photography. "Demand was still so great for Doc's surfing photographs," Gary Lynch wrote, "that he published the book, California Surfriders 1946. The idea behind this was to satisfy the California surfers, giving many a portrait in the book as well as showing the major surfing locations." California Surfriders 1946 was published in a limited edition of 510. "Original cost for the first edition," Gary noted, "was $7.25 a book. Doc kept a complete and detailed list of who bought his book. This list still survives and provides an astonishing array of Who's Who in the world of California surfing. Names only hard core surf historians would recognize such as Bob French and Jamison Handy to other more familiar names like Preston Peterson and Peanuts Larsen fill the pages. Now in its fifth edition, this book has become popular world wide and is often a starting point for the novice surf historian."

    "Oh, Peanuts!" Doc livened even more than he normally was at then mention of Peanuts Larsen. "He was one of the main ones down at San Onofre [before the war]. He lived in Laguna Beach, at that time, so he went to surf down at San Onofre and any time it looked good at Laguna. That son-of-a-gun - I loaned him some stuff to publish and he never gave it back! Well, I forgave him for that. Old Peanuts - he was quite a guy."

    The fifth edition of California Surfriders 1946 went out of circulation and Jim Feuling copied the original and has published Early California Surfriders in 1995. The images used for this latest edition were shot from the pages of Doc's first edition and then enhanced by computer.

    "He did that without my permission," Doc admitted to me with a laugh. "That's a classic [speaking of the book, not the publishing without prior permission]. It's patented. So, I told him as much as he'd printed it, we needed to get the message out for surfers, anyway, and keep it going [knowledge of the California surf heritage]. And, so I said, 'I won't sue ya or anything.' So, he sends me a royalty, now." That kind of reaction, on Doc's part, is typical of the man. As Gary puts it, Doc is the quintessential "troubadour of good will."

    "By the mid 1940s," Gary wrote, "Doc Ball's photographs had been published world wide. National Geographic (September 1944), Encyclopedia Britannica (1952), photography magazines, news magazines, art galleries, and newspapers were among the places a Doc Ball photograph could be found."

    An image Doc labelled as "The Mighty Ski Jump Roars in -- December 22, 1940" shows "Al Holland, Oshier, Grannis and Bayer riding the 30-foot grinders that arrive here on an average of twice a year and rattle windows over a mile inland with their heavy concussion." Doc, writing in 1946 in the third person, added, "This picture published in an Australian magazine, made its appearance in far away Noumea, New Caledonia. Was discovered there by a very surprised Doc Ball," during a WWII trip to Noumea.

    Christ, Garberville & Tom Blake

    "In 1950," Gary wrote, "Doc was almost killed when he drove his new Ford Woody into a eucalyptus tree. It was during this period that Doc first received and followed Christ."

    "Which caused me to start bible reading, cover to cover - my first time ever - because I had a vision, you might say, of me standing before the Judgement Seat of our Maker and He asking me, 'Doc, did you read my book while you were down there?' Having no sort of excuse, I just flipped and reading cover to cover began. Took one full year to midnight the last day, but I finished the job."

    "In 1953, the pressure from the Southern California population explosion resulted in the Ball family's exodus to Garberville, California, where he opened up a new dental office." "Plus, the words of the Book [Bible], Genesis 12:1. Also, the surfing at Shelter Cove attracted me." Although he was now in Northern California and inland, "This move," Gary wrote, "provided him with a more peaceful environment in which to live and work."

    Along the way, Doc had a chance to surf with his long-time surfing bro Johnny Kerwin at Shelter Cove, 35 miles south of San Francisco and 18 miles from Garberville, a spot they had first surfed during the war. "We were spoken of as being the very first ever seen doing that in the Cove," Doc said. "They had a Shelter Cove Surf Club, there," Doc recalled. "They had a room - a kind of shack - right on the beach where you could go in and get your clothes changed; get your swimsuit on and get out in the water."

    The 1953 surf session with Johnny Kerwin remains a special memory to Doc. When asked about his surfing life, Doc always mentions it. "Kerwin came to visit us in our new location," Doc explained to me, "and he brought two boards along with him."

    Photographic tragedy struck in 1964, when a devastating flood ravaged the Ball residence. The flood resulted in the destruction of Doc's negative and photographic print archives; approximately 900 surf-related photographic images. Due to the fact that Doc gave hundreds of his photographs away during the 1930s, it would still be possible to reconstruct most all of his archives should someone come forward to take the task on. Much of the location work has been done, already, by Gary Lynch.

    Doc's friendship through these changes never altered. They would still make time to hang together. After "we moved north - Tom Blake lived on the East Coast [by this time], up there in Minnesota I think it was - he used to come out West," Doc told me, "and just come out and have some fun with the surfers and get re-aquainted again. Every time he'd come up, why, he'd stop here at our place. We'd keep him overnight a couple of days or so.

    After Blake wrote Hawaiian Surfriders 1935 (aka Hawaiian Surfboard), "he gave me the last copy he had on that and then every time he'd come by, he'd sign it, again, with the date he'd visited with us; kind of a treasure, there."

    I asked him when Blake, who died in 1993, visited.

    "That's a hard one," he admitted. "It was after 1971, anyway. We moved to Eureka, here in '71 and we kept him over in the place here."

    I asked if he surfed at that time.

    "I don't think so. He might have gone in a little down at Shelter Cove. The water's warmer down there, but he was getting pretty up in the age, then. Wow, what a guy!"

    Eureka Days

    In 1971, Doc retired from dentistry and moved his family back closer to the beach, to Eureka, remaining in Northern California. "With more time to spend on hobbies," Gary wrote, "Doc soon became infatuated with bird carving. A combination of skillful maneuvering of his hands and fingers in the dental trade, and a life long love of birds, has produced one of the West Coast's finest bird carvers."

    I asked him when it was that he stopped photographing.

    "I guess when I lost my camera," Doc replied. "I went out, one day, up here, at Eureka. I was going to the North Jetty cuz the surf was huge out there that day. I took my camera - Grannis gave me a Nikon camera with a - it had a great big telephoto lens. I rushed out to my truck, there, set the thing down on my rear bumper and rushed back to the house - I'd forgotten something - went and got that, got back in the truck and took off. I got to the North Jetty and reached for the camera box and nothing was there. That thing just spilled off somewhere. I've never heard anything about it..."

    "What was one of the last shots you took with the telephoto?"

    "I got one here; one of the last ones I ever got with that telephoto. Patrick Edgar out at the North Jetty. There was this great big - must've been a 22 or 23-foot big ole overhang comin' down; soup on both sides. It was obvious he was gonna get the axe. I call it 'Neptune's Breakfast'."

    "How 'bout the last time surfed?"

    "Last June, when Grannis came up," Doc was ever quick to reply. I asked him about his skateboarding:

    "That's how I stay in shape," Doc declared, proudly. "You gotta keep your reflexes sharpened up. That's one of the best ways to find out how old you're getting."

    For 18 years, Doc did the local surf report. More importantly, Doc has wanted to share the Christian experience with others, serving with Gideons International. Because of that, Doc regularly visits "churches, community organizations, care homes and schools, helping to provide both young and old with a positive direction and a meaningful future."

    "To this day Doc Ball is still a dedicated beachcomber," wrote Gary after visiting Doc on his home sand. "Every morning at daybreak he can be found at water's edge, checking the tides and swells. Such activities also help provide him with a supply of driftwood perches and body parts for his hobby of bird carving."

    "Latest rage," Doc wrote me in reviewing the draft of this chapter about his life, "is knife cleaning up of common driftwood. It's amazing what images will appear when it's cleaned and developed - knifed down to the original stuff. It is full of very fascinating images. It also makes the clock go like lightening."

    "There is always an exciting ending with each visit to the Ball residence," Gary attested. "As you depart, you get into your car and start to pull away from his home. A glance back at the front porch reveals a smiling Doc giving you the 'thumbs up' and yelling, 'Hang in there.' Returning the gesture, you feel privileged he has given you his blessing to enjoy surfing, and most of all, to keep the tradition alive."

    As this surfing elder and Early California Surf Photog quoted in ending his classic California Surfriders 1946 - aka Early California Surfriders - so do I feel compelled to end this look at Doc's life with the same cry:

    "When Old King Netune's raising Hell

    and the breakers roll sky high,

    Let's drink to those who can ride that stuff

    And to the rest who are willing to try."

    Sources Used In This Chapter:

  • California Surfriders 1946
  • Chuck A Luck" Ehlers
  • Cliff Tucker
  • Dave Rochlen
  • Delbert "Bud" Higgins
  • Doc Ball Early California Surfriders
  • Gary Lynch
  • Hawaiian Surfboard
  • Hawaiian Surfriders 1935
  • Honolulu Advertiser
  • L.A. Times
  • Leonard Lueras
  • LeRoy "Granny" Grannis
  • National Geographic
  • Surfer magazine,
  • The Santa Ana Daily Register
  • The Surfer's Journal,
  • Tom Blake

  • Related Resources

    TOM BLAKE: The Journey of A Pioneer Waterman

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