A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By Malcolm Gault-Williams
This Chapter Updated: 3 March 2007
Surfing Year 1960
"In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day,
the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts."
For the world of surfing, the previous year 1959 was a disaster in the sense that the movie Gidget resulted in the immediate over-population of Southern California's best point break, Malibu and increased numbers of kooks in the lineup at other surfing beaches. Looked at in the long run, Gidget and the other "beach movies" that followed it caused surfing to become popular to non-surfers before the sport and the lifestyle were even clearly understood. The new breed of poser surfers found themselves wanting to be kahunas on the beach and live the lifestyle they'd only seen through Hollywood eyes.
In 1960, there was a media shift
back to serving real surfers. While Bud Browne,
Greg Noll, Bruce Brown, John Rohloff and John Severson were making surf
films for surfers, the big significant media event for surfers in 1960
was the publication of the first surf magazine...
Early Surfing Publications
The first text and photos printed with the surfer in mind were books. Ron Drummond was the first one to publish a book on bodysurfing, in 1931, entitled The Art of Wave Riding. A few years or so later, in 1935, Tom Blake published his landmark book Hawaiian Surfboard, the first book on surfing. This later volume is still in print, under the title Hawaiian Surfriders, 1935.
The first newsletter published for surfers was Ye Weekly Super Illustrated Spintail, the publication of the Palos Verdes Surf Club. A bulletin for club members, it was edited by Doc Ball, who provided his own photographs. Ye Weekly Super Illustrated Spintail had a press run between the years 1936-40.
"Whipping up in mid-channel, the giant crackers surely reached the awesome height of 20' at times," wrote Ball in the August 8, 1937 edition. Writing about the big south swell to hit Flood Control, at Long Beach, and the club's surfari there, Ball continued: "Wild man (LeRoy) Grannis, when attempting to look where he was coming from, got caught in the hook and was snatched from under himself in a whirling mass of soup. Fire-Hose Feister, while doubling up with fits of laughter at the sight of Grannis, (also) got gobbled up in short order."
Doc Ball pasted up about 200 of these typewritten editions between 1936 and 1940. One-to-three pages each, Ye Weekly Super Illustrated Spintail was notable for its surf shots. Following World War II, Doc Ball went on to publish the first fully illustrated book on surfing, California Surfriders. This book contained many of the shots he had taken in the pre-war years and is a classic.
"Next to surf riding," Ball encaptioned one picture of a bunch of the Palos Verdes club members pawing at an edition of Ye Weekly Super Illustrated Spintail, "they like pictures of same which, all told, is the reason for this book." The initial press run of California Surfriders was 510 in 1946, directly following the war.
Fifteen years later, the first surf
magazine came out in 1960, the product of surfer John
THE SURFER, Spring 1960
John Severson said he first thought of producing a surf magazine in 1949, when he was 15 years-old and a surfer since 13. The lack of potential buyers, in terms of numbers, caused him to initially decide against it.
Severson's creative edge turned, instead, toward film, in 1957, while he was in the Army and stationed on O`ahu. That year, following the lead of first Bud Browne and then Greg Noll, Severson made a 16mm film called Surf. Fred Van Dyke took it on the road and showed it on the budding high school auditorium circuit in California. After finishing his stint in the Army, the following year, Severson made his second film, Surf Safari, and took it on the road, himself.
"One thing was immediately apparent," he wrote, echoing Doc Ball's observation of years before. "Surfers would devour any image of wave or surfer." The posters promoting his movies would vanish quickly from the telephone poles they were stapled to. Surf shops had waiting lists for the extra posters Severson started dropping off after his showings. These surf posters were 8 X 10 glossies that sold at the showings for a buck a piece.
"In '59," wrote Matt Warshaw in an article on surfing magazines, published in The Surfer's Journal in 1996, "the magazine idea resurfaced. There were a few thousand potential readers now, maybe lots more." Severson came up with the idea of an "annual" to help promote his thrid film, Surf Fever. Calling the black and white booklet with a two-color cover The Surfer, Severson reasoned that if sales went well, he would make another one, the following year, to go along with that year's cinematic offering.
"The first edition needed to be ready to distribute by Easter of '60," continued Warshaw, "when Severson would begin touring Surf Fever. He took a few new photographs for The Surfer, but mostly relied on blow-up prints from his film stock. He grouped certain photos together ('Toes on the Nose,' 'Rincon,' 'Waimea Bay -- the Heavies'), wrote captions, made spelling decisions ('kuk' instead of 'kook') and sold 12 advertisements (two full-page at $400 each and 10 partial pages). He had-lettered the cover logotype and spent months playing with layout and design. He remembers crouching on the living room floor of his two-bedroom Dana Point apartment in December of '59, surrounded by the 36 pages of artboards that would eventually become the first issue of The Surfer; high on creative energy one moment, then nearly frozen by the publishing version of stage fright."
"The 26-year-old had invested heavily on himself. Each page of The Surfer was given life by Severson's money, ego and aesthetic. He photographed and developed the cover shot of Jose Angel at Sunset, for example, then shamelessly tilted up the left-hand corner during the design process, effectively doubling the size of the wave. (The Pat Curren shot on page 16 of the first issue was runner-up for the cover.) He shot virtually all the other pictures and added twelve of his own drawings...
"The Surfer was clearly self-serving. It was also technically crude... the quality of images in general fell short of Doc Ball's standard in California Surfriders.
"But The Surfer was so friendly and generous, so perfectly in tune with its subject matter and so thoroughly stoked that the flaws nearly disappear... [that first edition] remains unique."
"The first one really was different from all the others," Severson noted, "and actually came out pretty much just how I'd hoped.
"It was simple. I liked all the white space and all the artwork. It was trying to be an art piece, really. But total surfing."
The first issue of The Surfer -- later changed to simply Surfer -- contained many images that continue to be republished to present day. Like, the shot Bud Browne took of Mickey Muñoz doing the "quasimoto" and the one Severson shot of Kemp Aaberg at Rincon (his favorite) with Warren Miller's 1,000mm lens. Perhaps the photo that would gain the greatest notoriety was the one Severson put on the inside back cover. It shows a surfer paddling out alone at Hammond's Reef with offshore winds causing the right hander to feather brilliantly.
"I got that picture early in the process," Severson remembered. "What a shot! Here was a guy going out all by himself to these perfect waves, and I remember... I remember..." Severson drifted off in his recollection, genuinely moved. "Oh, wow. Yeah, I mean, that photo really was the one. So I put it aside and came back later when I had some time to really work on it."
John Severson closed the first issue of The Surfer with this Hammonds shot, writing below it: "In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts." That refrain has been adopted by succeeding generations of surf-stoked wave riders.
Leonard Lueras, in Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure, wrote that "because it filled a yawning need as the first ideas forum published by and for surfers, The Surfer was well received."
"When I created SURFER Magazine in 1960," wrote Severson in 1995, "I thought I was filling a photo need. But more likely, there was a huge information vacuum, and I was merely the first entrepreneur sucked into the tube..."
Severson started the mag with $3,000, 36 pages and a pressrun of 10,000 copies sold for a dollar each. "In early spring," wrote Warshaw, "Severson and his brother drove to L.A., loaded the magazines into John's VW van, turned around and began hand-distributing to surf shops and bookstores. Severson took stock a few months later. Five thousand sold. Five thousand for the archives. No loss, but virtually no profit. A few months passed as Severson worked on his fourth film, Big Wednesday, and considered his next publishing move. He finally decided against a second photo annual in favor of a quarterly."
"A decade later," noted Lueras, "Surfer
was a slick monthly with a paid circulation of nearly 100,000. In 1970
The Los Angeles Times called Surfer magazine 'the only magazine of national
consequence published in Orange County."
Surfer's Annual and Reef Magazine
Hard on Severson's heels were two other publications that came out in 1960 but which were short-lived. One was Greg Noll's Surfer's Annual, a 46 page photo collection that featured 16 year-old cartoonist Rick Griffin. Griffin would be hired by Severson the following year and go on to create the cartoon surf character "Murphy." Later, Griffin would be a leader in the development of psychedelic poster art. His best known material is probably the cover work he did for The Grateful Dead in the 1970s.
In August, September and October 1960,
attempted to become surfing's first monthly. Edited by Pat Anderson and
David Goldman, Reef magazines sold at the affordable rate of 35-cents.
When Mike Doyle's first trip to the North Shore ended, he returned to Southern California in the Spring of 1960 to take up lifeguarding at Manhattan Beach. Before he did so, though, he surfed Swami's a bunch with Rusty Miller.
"I'd surfed with Rusty at Swami's several times," wrote Doyle, "but the first time I ever saw him out of the water was at a party in Palos Verdes. He'd been wearing a tweed coat and slacks, and was smoking a pipe with his arms crossed, looking very much like a professor of history, which was what he wanted to become at the time. He had a freckly complexion, kind of a bent nose, and reddish-brown hair. I remember thinking, This guy's really got his act together, going to college, dressing like a professor. He made me feel like a goofball.
"Rusty lived with his parents on the
bluff in Encinitas, just a half mile or so from Swami's. It was kind of
strange going to Rusty's house. His father was extremely overweight, and
every time I saw him he was sitting in a chair in the living room smoking
cigarettes. Rusty's mother had a deep, raspy voice, and she chain-smoked,
too. The ceiling in their house was stained brown from all the cigarette
smoke, so it was easy to imagine what the insides of their lungs looked
"Rusty and I surfed at Cardiff Reef that morning," continued Doyle, "and I explained to him the problems I'd had with my surfboards in Hawaii that winter and how badly I needed one of Pat Curren's designs.
"Rusty said, 'You know, Curren just opened a surf shop here in Encinitas. You oughta stop by and see him.'
"I tried to explain how terrified I was of Curren.
"'I know what you mean,' Rusty said. 'He scares me, too. But I still think you oughta go see him.'
"That afternoon I stopped by Curren's shop on D Street. I parked around the corner and sat in my car for a few minutes, working up my courage. When I finally got out and walked around the corner, I saw a sign on the shop window: Be back sometime.
"I peeked in the window, and in the dim light I could see a row of Curren's big guns standing against the back wall, like dark tiki gods. I stood there trying to memorize their shapes, trying to capture that one magical line. But I knew it couldn't be done.
"I started walking away -- then stopped. Right there on the sidewalk, drawn in grease pencil, was a full-scale drawing of Curren's template. It was about 9' 6" -- just my size -- a masterpiece of art and design, right there where people could walk on it, spit on it, or make off with it. I stepped inside those magical lines, then looked down at my feet to see how the water flowed over and around me. It was a miracle!
"But how could I get it off the sidewalk and into my hands? I knew right away what I had to do. I ran up D Street, across the Coast Highway, then up the hill to the Mayfair market, where I bought ten feet of butcher paper and a felt pen. I ran back down the hill to Curren's shop, unrolled the butcher paper over the template, placed rocks at all four corners to keep the paper from blowing away, then got down on my hands and knees, and began tracing the lines.
"I had most of the template on paper when I realized somebody was watching me. I looked up and saw Curren standing on the street corner. His forehead was all twisted up in anger, and his eyes were scrunched down into mean little slits. I wasn't sure if he even recognized me. Should I try to explain myself? Or should I just run for it now, while I still had a chance?
"Curren stared at me for a long time, putting it all together: the North Shore, the Quonset hut, the kid with the lousy surfboards. Finally, as he fumbled for the keys to his shop, Curren said, 'You didn't have to steal it, Doyle. Though I have to admit that's kind of flattering. Just don't forget to tell people where it came from, all right?'
"As he disappeared through the doorway,
I saw a smile on Curren's face."
Paddling, Surfing & Lifeguard Competitions
The Summer of 1960 was when Mike Doyle earned his second nickname of "Ironman," by winning the first Ironman competition. More than any surfer of his time, he got into competition in a big way:
"In those days every little beach town up and down the coast had its own summer beach festival... Since I was training every day to stay in shape as a lifeguard, I used to enter all those contests as a fun way to check my level of conditioning. If there was a paddleboard contest anywhere in Southern California, I was in it. If there was a rowing contest, I'd enter that. And, of course, I was in the surf contest, too. In no time at all, I'd collected a whole garage full of trophies.
"Looking back on it now, I'd have to say I went to the extreme. I became a contest junky. But at that age, nineteen, I craved the recognition..."
"Competing in paddling contests taught me that I had certain natural talents -- broad shoulders, long arms, and fairly large hands... Paddling races also taught me a lot about the psychology of competition. There were a few great big guys who were just animals at paddling, but they didn't know how to compete. I would plan each race ahead of time, then stick to the plan. If it was an eight-mile race, I'd stay with the pack the first couple of miles, then make my move on the third mile and power out until I'd buried them. I'd be almost exhausted, ready to die, but the guys behind thought I could still keep going, so they'd quit, at least in their minds. And when they gave up, I could slow down and conserve my energy for the rest of the race.
"I really loved competing in paddling races -- much more than I ever loved competing in surf contests. Paddling had a finish line, which made it real."
Mike Doyle admitted that "some of those first surf contests were so bad, it was kind of funny. Usually the judges didn't even surf. The local president of the chamber of commerce would get his mother-in-law, who was a gym teacher, and his brother, who was a fan of big-time wrestling... And they were considered qualified to judge a surf contest, even though none of them had ever been on a surfboard before. The judges had no concept of wave selection, wave positioning, or style. So if some guy in the contest did something really silly, like stand on his head, the judges thought that was just fantastic and the guy would win the contest. It was ridiculous, and the surfers knew it.
"Even the surfing trophies were ridiculous. In those days it was hard for the contest organizers to find surfing trophies, so they used to take a basketball trophy with the basketball player jumping up to make a one-arm dunk. They'd cut the basketball off his hand, cut under his feet at the base, then lay him down on a small, hand-carved paddling board. It looked like a basketball player being carried out on a stretcher."
"The truth is, I never felt that surfing as a competitive sport made much sense. Surfing is very difficult to judge because there's an act of god that influences how each wave will behave...
"But probably the worst thing about surf contests," continued Doyle, striking a blow, "is that they're contrary to the very essence of the sport, which is freedom. If you make up a bunch of arbitrary rules that are supposed to define good surfing, the creative freedom of surfing gets destroyed.
"I wasn't the only surfer of my era who felt this way. There were a lot of great surfers -- Kemp Aaberg, Lance Carson, Phil Edwards, and Mickey Dora -- who rarely entered contests. If a big contest was being held at Malibu, they'd much rather go down the road someplace and surf by themselves all day."
"As a young man," Doyle admitted, "I was caught in the middle of all that. I wasn't against competition -- I loved competition... But in a surf contest, I never felt there was a fair way to decide who won.
"After I got a little older and began competing every winter in world-class surfing contests, the judging became somewhat better. But I still never felt the contests had any real validity. I competed because surf contests were my free ride. How I placed in contests one year would determine whether of not a sponsor would pay my way to Hawaii the next year. If I hadn't competed in the big surf contests and done well, I would never have been able to spend half the year traveling and surfing. So in a way, competing in surf contests became a job."
This is probably true for many of the
professional surfers who compete, today.
Greg Noll on the Mainland
At this point, in addition to
his wintertime surfing of big waves on O`ahu's North Shore and filmmaking,
Greg Noll was getting into production surfboard making. He tells a humorous
story about Rick James and his cut-off thumb:
Ricky James' Thumb
"Ricky James was an excellent shaper who worked for me for several years before he started his own board shop," Noll began. "One day, in our old shop on Pacific Coast Highway, Ricky was sawing center strips for boards and talking to one of his buddies at the same time. I was about fifteen feet away and I told him, 'Ricky, goddammit, pay attention to what you're doing.' He says, 'I am, I am.' He's telling stories to this guy and the saw is whining yeoooow, yeoooow as it cuts off center strips.
"Suddenly I hear the saw stop and Ricky yells, 'Oh, God!' I rush over, and there's his thumb on the floor. He had sawed it off almost at the base. I grab a paper towel, scoop up the thumb and take Ricky to the hospital. All the time we're driving, I'm talking to him, trying to keep him from going into shock.
"'Do you think they can sew it back on?' he asks me.
"'Oh, yeah, they got modern-day medicine, no sweat, Rick. Just settle down, everything is going to be just fine. They'll sew it back on. You may have a little scar but everything is going to be O.K.'
"I'm driving and he's sitting on the passenger side and the thumb is between us, on the seat. While we're talking, Ricky keeps looking down at it as though the thumb is a third person in the car.
"As soon as we get to the hospital, they take Ricky into Emergency. I've got the thumb and Ricky is clasping the stub and the doctor walks in. Ricky says, 'I'm so glad you're here. Are you going to be able to sew my thumb back on, Doc?'
"The doctor had the worst bedside manner of any doctor I've ever met. He says, 'No, it wouldn't do any good. We could sew it back on, but it would just turn black and fall off in a few days. There's no use in even trying.'
"Now Ricky is really going into shock over the whole situation and he says, "Doc, please. I don't know what my girlfriend will think of me. I don't care if it works or anything. Just sew it back on so it looks good. I don't care if it works.'
"The doctor talked to him for a while. Of course, they didn't sew the thumb back on. I saw that a nurse had the thumb and was going to dispose of it. I said, 'Do you mind if I take that with me?' She thought it was kind of an odd request, but she gave it to me. I didn't tell Ricky.
"After they got Ricky bandaged up I took him home, gave him a couple of beers and left him there to relax. Then I went back to the shop and mixed up a nice, slow batch of resin in a Dixie cup. Dropped the thumb in it. Let it set up, then took off the Dixie cup. It was absolutely perfect. Looked like a paperweight with a thumb suspended in it."
"Ricky was off work for a while, so we used the thumb as a sort of novelty item. In the inner shop, we stuck it in the showcase where we had fins, wax, skateboard accessories and... a thumb. People browsing in the shop would look in the showcase and say, 'Hey, take a look at this fake thumb.' Then they'd take a closer look and say, 'Jesus Christ, this isn't a fake. Look, you can see dirt under the fingernail.'
"The thumb got to be such a conversation piece that guys started coming in from all over the place just to see it. I came into the shop one Saturday and there must have been eight or ten guys shoulder-deep in the showcase, trying to get a glimpse of the thumb.
"Meanwhile, Ricky gets wind that his thumb is on display. I hear he's mad, so I put away the thumb for safekeeping. He comes in asking for his thumb. We had a giant argument about whose thumb it was. I said, 'I found it.' Ricky said, 'I don't care. You're not supposed to put a guy's thumb on display.'
"We used to freak out people, especially girls, with the thumb. We'd say to a girl, 'Hold out your hand. I want to show you something.' And we'd put the thumb in the Dixie cup in her hand, remove the Dixie cup and watch a hundred expressions go across her face. She wouldn't know whether to drop it or throw it or what.
"Ricky and I argued about The Thumb
for nearly two years. I still have it. It's buried in a box somewhere."
Da Bull at Redondo, Winter 1960
Sonny Vardeman, Lieutenant, Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors recalled Greg Noll surfing the Redondo breakwater earlier that year:
"One day during the winter of 1960, the surf broke about twenty feet at the Redondo breakwater. Greg and I and a few of our friends had been out riding a few big waves the previous day. In fact, one of our rides appeared in an early issue of SURFER magazine. The following day, the swell was huge. We couldn't get off the beach, so everybody backed out.
"Everybody, that is, but Greg. He went out inside the breakwater where the boats were moored, then paddled out and around the jetty to get to the break.
"On the way out around the jetty, a
giant set came and almost caught Greg between it and the seawall. He just
made it over the top of the wave. Had it broken, it would have slammed
him into the seawall. The set was so big, it rolled over the seawall and
tore a number of boats loose from their moorings. It had to be twenty feet.
He finally made it to where the peak was breaking. After about forty-five
minutes, another giant set came. He paddled for one of the bigger ones,
caught it and rode it half a mile back to the beach as we all watched from
shore. Greg had put himself in a very precarious position along the breakwater
jetty. But he was very determined to ride the wave, come hell or high water.
When he was that determined, he usually accomplished whatever it was he'd
set out to do."
Malibu in the Summer of 1960 was
a far cry from what it had been. With the onslaught of the beach movies,
crowds came to Malibu and beaches, in general.
The foam and fiberglass didn't help, either, making wave riding within
anyone's grasp who wanted to try it.
July 7, 1960
Early in the summer. "Twilight.
A fire burns brightly on the beach," wrote C.R. Stecyk, "and the crowd
rapidly diminishes out in the water. Lance
Carson gets a long five across the point, and the fireside crowd hoots
in appreciation. Bob Cooper takes
off on the next wave, and perfectly emulates Lance's ride causing the beach
spectators to scream wildly. Lance responds with a howling ten. Cooper
covers this and adds a kick stall on the inside section. Carson comes back
with a kick stall to heels. The audience grows wilder with each rider's
next move of one-upmanship. The pair of surfers never falters and never
repeats any tricks as they continue to match one another under the light
of a full moon. Finally, after two hours of flawless finesse surfing, Lance
and Bob leave. No words are spoken as none are needed. Fun was the function."
September 19, 1960
Edwards, in 1960, is -- according to C.R. Stecyk -- the "reigning monarch
of the surf media." When he visits Malibu, Lance Carson crawls on all fours
and imitates a mad dog in Edwards' steps. Phil visits with Toni Donovan,
"the object of his affection," and his old San Onofre surfing brah Mickey
October 3, 1960
"Gordon Duane," wrote C.R. Stecyk,
"an enterprising manufacturer from Huntington Beach via Compton, arrives
with the cast and crew of his cinema epic Sacrifice For Surf. While
Gordie films, the point provocateurs scrutinize the uniquely elaborate,
multiple curved, wood inlay sticks which members of this roving band possess.
The incredible craftsmanship of these boards is apparent, yet Duane's boroque
design sense baffles many. Gordie's manager is gruff and intense as he
refuses to elaborate on his artistic intent or offer any purported functionality
for diamond patterned and curvilinear inlays. Insiders speculate
that Duane's aggressive standoffishness is the natural result of having
recently suffered the loss of his on-the-sand factory/shop at the foot
of the H.B. Pier in a disastrous fire. Gordie first heard of the fire when
he called in to confirm that certain boards in the glassing room had gotten
done and was told... 'Yeah, they're done OK, well done!' (Perhaps if they'd
known that Gordie was also advised that the last known person to be seen
leaving his shop before the fire erupted was none other than a prominent
south coast surf industry figure that happened to smoke the very brand
of cigarette that firemen said was the likely cause of the blaze, they
would have better understood Gordie's unfaltering mistrust of his fellow
man.) The film Sacrifice For Surf remains an underground legend,
largely because of the sequences captured that day of Dewey Weber cavorting
and careening across ten foot Malibu faces."
Mike Doyle and Big Wednesday
"That fall," wrote Mike Doyle, "John Severson told me he wanted to make his first surf film in Hawaii [his fourth, Big Wednesday, which was shown in 1961], and wanted to use me as the featured surfer. He said he would pay for my trip to Hawaii that winter and cover all my expenses while we were working on the film. I couldn't believe it -- I could pocket all the money I'd saved working as a lifeguard that summer!
"In December, John and I already had our tickets to Hawaii when, at the last minute, he told me he wanted to take along an airline stewardess he's met just a few days before... to hard-core surfers, having a girlfriend in Hawaii was considered a big drawback because it cut into your surf time. But John was paying for my trip, so how could I object? Still, something about the glassy look in John's eyes when he talked about this girl made me uneasy."
Here, Doyle, in the retelling of the story, has a little fun at Severson's expense: "When I met John's girlfriend, Louise, at the airport, I could see why he was all hot over her: she was a tall, pretty blonde, with a curvaceous figure.
"In Hawaii we rented the Quonset hut right on the beach at the Pipeline, where Buzzy and his bunch had stayed the year before. I retreated to one of the smaller back bedrooms and let the two lovebirds take over the front of the house. But that back bedroom became my prison cell. From the first night, and every night after, I lay in there listening to John and Louise making passionate love. I couldn't sleep. At dawn every morning I would peek out my window and see huge waves breaking on the beach. I was dying to get out there and surf, but I couldn't because John and Louise wouldn't stop long enough for me to slip through the front room and out the door. And of course we weren't getting any work done on our film."
"After a few days of that," continued Doyle, "I knew I had to get out of there. When John and Louise cooled down enough to go buy some groceries, I slipped out with my surfboards and went over to Kawela Bay, where the guys I'd lived with the year before had rented a house again.
"What a joy it was to be with my surf buddies again! I forgot about Severson and the movie we were supposed to be working on. I just went surfing every day and enjoyed the life of a beach rat.
"Later that winter, Severson cooled
down just a bit, and we finally got some work done on his film. He and
Louise got married not long after that, and they're together still."
Winter 1960-61 on the North Shore
The usual cast of characters started
assembling on the North Shore as the
winter surf season got underway, the traditional season of the makali`i.
"At one time," recalled Greg Noll of how the season began for him, "both Peter Cole and Jose Angel taught at the Punahou school in Honolulu. They had to drive past Waimea about six o'clock every morning on their way to work. We had a deal worked out where they would call me in California if it looked like a big day was coming up at the Bay. I kept all my stuff packed and left my big-wave board at Henry Preece's house. Since Hawaii was three hours ahead of California time, I could catch an early flight from the Mainland and be in Hawaii, in the water, by early afternoon. Alan Chang would pick me up at the airport.
"I only had hit Waimea on a few occasions the very day it was coming up. Usually I'd arrive in Hawaii and take several weeks to warm up. Catch some waves, break in easy. It's quite a transition from four-to-six foot California waves to twenty-foot-plus waves in Hawaii.
"One particular morning, Jose calls me and says, 'Jeez, Greg, it's coming! You'd better get over here!'
"I caught the earliest flight I could get. Alan Chang picked me up, took me to Henry's to get my board and we headed for Waimea."
"It had been six months since I had been in the Islands," continued Noll. "This was the first day of the winter season. I paddled out just as a giant set rolled in. I saw Peter scratching for the first wave. He dropped down and looked like an ant as he smoked across the face of the wave. I thought, 'Christ! That wave looked bigger than normal.' It was.
"I kept paddling out, spun around and took off on the next wave. It was even bigger. I remember thinking to myself, 'Goddammit, I'm not going to let Peter get away with this.' It was straight up and down and I was late getting into the wave. The ass end of the board dropped out from under me and I free-fell from top to bottom. I ate it somethin' fierce.
"I think it meant more to me to psych out Peter than it did to make the wave. Peter was a hell of a waterman, but he had some shred of sanity. Jose would practically kill himself before he'd let anybody get the best of him. And Ricky was usually too smart to get sucked into these head games. Each one of these guys was interesting and complex in his own way, and I just loved to mess with their brains."
"The first time I paddled out at Waimea that winter," wrote Mike Doyle, "the waves looked impossibly big and fast. I watched another surfer dropping in on a fifteen-foot wave, and I thought, God, that's impossible! It was so intimidating. The North Shore really is a whole different level of surfing.
"But after a week or two, I was back in the groove again. I was thinking fast, and after a while a fifteen-foot wave just didn't look that big anymore. Besides, I was riding the boards I'd made from Pat Curren's template. This year, not only did I have the experience, but my equipment was as good as anybody's."
By then, Fred Van Dyke was a veteran of the Waimea scene and he had this to say about the winter of 1960-61: "Waimea was well broken in, but not dominated. Sammy Lee, Peter Cole, Rick Grigg, Pat Curren, Kimo Hollinger, Dick Brewer and Greg Noll were the stars. We were all still mostly wiping out at Waimea, but having fun, and the boards were getting better, especially Brewer's with his special eye for board lines. Foam definitely overtook balsa, but broke more easily."
"I surfed Waimea one day that winter when it was at least twenty-five feet, maybe thirty," recalled Mike Doyle. "It was the biggest I'd ever seen it, and there were only about a dozen guys out. Every surfer has his bad days, when he just can't do anything right, and every time he takes off, he gets creamed. But I'll always remember this one day, because I could do no wrong. Other guys were going over the falls, and boards were crunching all around me. But I'd take off and angle right, hang high at the top of the wave, then drop down twenty feet and swing around into the curl. I felt so calm, I kept wondering if I was doing it right. It seemed so simple, like surfing a three-foot shore break back in California. But when I looked up at the waves, they were huge."
"I had one bad day at Waimea that winter I'll never forget, though," admitted Doyle about the other side of the surf. "It was late morning, on a fifteen-to-eighteen-foot day -- big, but not monstrous -- with choppy surface conditions. There were also four-foot wedges coming in at an angle from the north and breaking. The surf was decomposing, and it was about time to go in, but I wanted to catch one more good tide. I was sitting right off the point, which can be a bit tricky. If you lose your board there, the waves will carry it right into the rocks. I paddled for what I looked like an average wave, but as I dropped in, it reared up to about eighteen feet. As the wave passed over the boil, it churned violently and, in classic Waimea fashion, the top of the wave pitched way out. Before I was completely in the wave I could see it was going to get nasty, so I sat back on my board, trying to stall out. But I was too late. The wave hit me in the back and threw me over the falls while I was still sitting on the rear of my board. I had no idea how to bail out of something like that, but as I was free-falling down the face of this eighteen-foot wave, I swung my right leg over the board and rolled off to the side. To my surprise, when I hit the water, instead of being pounded to the bottom, as on most bad wipeouts, I was pitched out like a beach ball. I bounced along in front of the white water, thrashing and spinning, unable to dive under or break away. Luckily, I was able to suck a little air through the foam. The white water drove me in about 150 yards, in a course parallel to the rocks, but only about ten feet away from them. I could very easily have been dragged along the top of the rocks, in which case I would have been ground to hamburger. When I was finally able to stop myself, I saw that I was right in front of the rocks. As I watched in horror, the waves crashing on the rocks tore my board into a hundred pieces. Slowly and carefully, I eased myself away from the rocks, and swam all the way to shore.
"It's odd how, out of thousands of waves and hundreds of wipeouts, one wipeout like that has stayed with me for years. Not because it turned out so badly, but because if things had gone just a little bit differently it might have been the end of my life."
In Fred Van Dyke's overall assessment of the North Shore that winter, "... Phil Edwards, Mike Doyle and Mike Hynson are tearing the North Shore apart. It's the year of hot dogging. There's a de-emphasis on big waves in movies. Nose walking, head dips, 360's and carving down the face dominate.
"Phil is the hottest on the nose. Doyle is all grace and poise, like a Greek god. He can ride a long hot dog board on a big wave or small, and it looks easy. Hynson is the head dipper and carver of faces, using a newly-acquired wide stance. He looks strong.
"... Greg Noll does an ad with all the best riders sponsoring his boards. It's a full page layout, a regatta of surf stars...
"Buzzy Trent began stoking a guy named Dick Brewer into shaping a few boards. Brewer showed real promise. He opened the first surf shop in Haleiwa and sponsored the Haleiwa Open Surfing Competition sometime later.
"A fire marshall threatened to close
Brewer's shop down because it was a fire hazard, until Brewer shaped a
board for the marshall's son. He never heard from him after that. Sometime
later Brewer gave then President Lyndon Johnson a surfboard when he visited
the islands. That was Brewer."
Mickey Dora on the North Shore
"Mickey Dora showed up in Hawaii that winter," wrote Mike Doyle. "His reputation in the world of surfing was growing, but more as a personality than as a big-wave rider. He was great back in Malibu, where he was the king, but when he came to Hawaii he showed up with all the wrong equipment, like it didn't really matter to him, or like he was trying to make a mockery of big-wave riding. I don't think Dora ever got the thrill from big waves the way others of us did. I think it was the surfing lifestyle that intrigued him more than anything else. He didn't fit into mainstream society, with a steady job and a little house out in the suburbs; but at the beach, Dora always felt at home.
"Dora had been surviving by doing stunt work in Hollywood -- awful movies like Bikini Beach Blanket, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. But the movies didn't pay enough to live the kind of lifestyle he wanted. Nobody got paid to surf in those days, no matter how good he was. So Dora had to hustle. You might say Mickey Dora was the professional surfer of his era."
"One day," continued Doyle writing about Dora, "when a bunch of us were in Honolulu, Dora grabbed me and said, 'Come on, Doyle, let's go to dinner.'
"I figured we'd run down to some hot dog stand, gag down a few tubesteaks, then get back to the beach. But Dora had something else in mind. He took me to the Royal Hawaiian, one of the grand old hotels on the islands -- very beautiful and very expensive. As we walked into the lobby, with huge candelabras hanging from the ceiling, I started thinking to myself, This place is way out of my league. It wasn't anything at all like the Busy Bee Cafe, where I usually ate in Honolulu and where two dollars would buy you all you could eat.
"But Dora was right at home. He'd been groomed very early to feel at ease in that kind of place. He said, 'Excuse me for a second, Doyle, I've gotta go see if somebody's here.' He walked over to the registration desk and asked if Mr. So-and-So had registered yet. While the woman at the desk checked the registration book, Dora peeked over the desk and scanned the names in the book.
"We took a table laid out with white linen and crystal and real silverware. Dora just glanced at the menu, then ordered a full dinner, with hors d'oeuvres, fine wine, dessert, and a liqueur.
"After dinner the waiter brought the check on a leather tablet; it came to just over $200. Dora glanced at the check quickly, then looked up at the waiter and said, 'I'll sign for it.'
"I had to gag myself to keep from laughing. But to my surprise, Dora signed the check, the waiter folded the leather tablet and said, 'Thank you very much, sir.'
"I still didn't quite get it yet, but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.
"On the way out of the lobby, I looked over at the registration desk, and then the whole thing became clear.
"I didn't say anything to Dora, and
he never mentioned it to me again."
"One night," wrote Mike Doyle beginning a story of another famous surfer of that time, "we had a big party at our house at Kawela Bay. We invited everyone we knew on the North Shore and told them we'd have the food, but bring your own beer. There were hardly any girls living on the North Shore then, so our party was mostly a bunch of guys trying to prove they could drink more beer than the next guy.
"One of the guys who came to our party was a merchant marine named Henley, from Oceanside. He didn't really surf, but he hung around with the surf crowd when he wasn't out at sea. He was about 220 pounds, heavily muscled, crude, and pushy. The guys from Oceanside at that time were known to be very heavy partiers, and Henley was as heavy as any of them.
"As soon as he walked in the door, Henley shoved his way through the crowd to the food, grabbed all of it he could, and started shoving it in his mouth. Nobody said anything, because the guy was really big, and besides, we didn't want to see our party turn into a brawl. When the food was all gone, Henley shoved his way into the kitchen, went to the refrigerator, and pulled out a beer."
"Just then," continued Doyle, "Ricky Grigg walked in. Ricky was six inches shorter than Henley, sixty pounds lighter and, unlike Henley, gentle by nature. But Ricky wasn't afraid of anything. He said, in a friendly way, 'Hey, that's my beer.'
"Ricky looked him in the eye, then said again, 'That's my beer.' And he snatched it out of Henley's hand.
"Henley grumbled something, then moved away. Ricky had backed that ape man down, and none of us could quite believe it."
Grigg was always doing things like that," Doyle went on, "which was
why I was kind of in awe of him. He had won the Catalina-to-Manhattan
Pier paddling race way back in 1955, he rode
the hell out of the biggest Hawaiian waves, was a tremendous diver, and
could hold his breath underwater for something like three minutes. But
he was more than just a water jock. He seemed to have more focus in his
life than most of us. He was going to school at Scripps Institution of
Oceanography in La Jolla, he knew he wanted to be an oceanographer, and
he went after it with energy and discipline. Although he was already one
of the best big-wave riders in the world, surfing to him was still just
a form of recreation. But everything he learned in school seemed to help
his surfing, too. He had a real understanding of the ocean, which gave
him confidence and a power of survival in the water that I don't think
any of the rest of us had. He understood how the ocean bottom affects waves,
how rip currents could be used to the surfer's advantage, how the weather
patterns can be used to predict surfing conditions. He really understood
hydrodynamic design and was able to perfect his surfing equipment to compliment
his abilities. At a very young age, Ricky had become a master waterman."
Robin Grigg & Mike Doyle
"Ricky had a sister, Robin, who was in Hawaii that winter," wrote Mike Doyle, "and I thought she was just as impressive as Ricky. She was blonde and lovely, athletic, had a pretty smile, and was a good surfer. She was about ten years older than I was, a nurse, and a lot more sophisticated than most of the people I knew.
"Robin took a personal interest in me. She used to ask me what I wanted to do with my life, other than surf. What kind of books did I read? What kind of music did I like? She drew me into her circle of friends, which included people who didn't always have salty eyebrows and sun-bleached hair. Most of them were well educated and , to my surprise, they seemed to like me and accept me, even though I was a water jock with some pretty rough edges."
"At first our friendship was a brother-sister thing," continued Doyle, "-- or so I thought. Robin was probably always one step ahead of me. One evening Robin and I were down at the beach in Kawela Bay, having a good time goofing around together. There was a full moon that night, and we swam out to a raft in the bay... That was the beginning of an affair that lasted the rest of that winter. It was my first romance in Hawaii -- a thrilling experience in itself, but even more so for a twenty-year-old kid lucky enough to have a beautiful and mature woman to teach him the proper way to have an affair.
"Robin used her age and wisdom to influence me in a positive way. 'Suppose that within the next ten years you become the world's greatest surfer,' she said. 'What happens in the ten years after that? There's a whole new generation of little gremmies back there in California learning to surf. Ten years from now, they're going to be surfing better than you. Do you want to spend the rest of your life proving you can still keep up with them?'
"I think I was fortunate to have somebody
like Robin help me see what my future might be like. She helped me understand
how important it is for young athletes, no matter how good they are, to
resist the tendency to let sports become their whole identity."
Sources Used In This Chapter:
C.R. Stecyk ~ Doc
Ball ~ Fred Van Dyke ~ Greg Noll ~ John Severson ~ Leonard Lueras ~
Gault-Williams ~ Matt Warshaw ~ Mike Doyle ~ Ron Drummond ~
magazine ~ The Los Angeles Times ~ The
Surf Shop, Online Store and/or Donations
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Copyright © 1992-2007 by Malcolm Gault-Williams... Aloha Nui Loa!