John Heath "Doc" Ball
Surfing's First Dedicated Photographer
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
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 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
Surfing The 2nd Half of the 1930s
Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships, 1928-41
Multiple Methods of Surf Photography
First Surf Posters
World War II & A Speed Graphic
After The War
Christ, Garberville & Tom Blake
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
to do what needs to be done to round-up Doc's collection for surfing's
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
"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
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
"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
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
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?"
"Oh, definitely," Doc agreed.
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
"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
"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
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
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'
"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
"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
"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,
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."
"Palos Verdes started in '35,"
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."
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.
"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
"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."
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
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
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
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,
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
"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
"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
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
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
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."
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
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
"You better believe it," Doc
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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!"
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
"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
"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
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
and the breakers roll sky high,
Let's drink to those who can ride
And to the rest who are willing
Sources Used In This Chapter:>
California Surfriders 1946
Chuck A Luck" Ehlers
Delbert "Bud" Higgins
Early California Surfriders
Hawaiian Surfriders 1935
LeRoy "Granny" Grannis
The Santa Ana Daily Register
The Surfer's Journal,
TOM BLAKE: The Journey of A Pioneer Waterman
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