A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By Malcolm Gault-Williams
This Chapter Updated: 15 March 2008
About LEGENDARY SURFERS and Malcolm
Including His Surf and Non-Surf Writings
Over the course of the past 11 years or so, I've received hundreds of emails from fellow surfers wanting to know about LEGENDARY SURFERS and my writing in general -- how did I get started, what's the plan, when will the next volume be out, why do I focus on just the old guys and gals, who am I, etc.? Well, in the Christmas 2005 issue of the free LEGENDARY SURFERS Newsletter, I described what I called my "homespun in the digital age" approach to surf history:
... The phrase came to me when I was writing about LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 1 in Summer 2005. I thought that for a one-liner, it described the character of what LEGENDARY SURFERS has become. Since LEGENDARY SURFERS began, an increasing number of writers - "surf writers" - have taken up the rich and inspiring history of papa he'e nalu (riding waves on surfboards). This is a brief note about one of them.
My name is Malcolm Gault-Williams and, amongst other things, I write about the history of papa he'e nalu. My first introduction to surfing was forty years ago when a 1966 SURFER magazine cover grabbed my attention. How the waves at Waimea just glistened in the sunlight! Not long after, when I became a lifeguard, I knew some guys who surfed, but, since I was on the north shore of Long Island, New York, and the waves were on the south shore, I found myself at the right time but the wrong place. Afterwards, when I went off to college in Corpus Christi, Texas, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, I finally began surfing on more or less a regular basis.
Like most surfers then - as it is to a lesser degree, today - I was clueless about the history of the sport and it would be years before I even heard the expression "Aloha Spirit." Even so, some of my fondest surfing memories are of those early 1970's days living in Port Aransas, in a community of about 1,500 people (outside the tourist season), surfing the sand bar waves of the Gulf, but doing it with a small core of good friends who remain so even to this day.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, if you were a surfer in Texas, you had instant camaraderie with any other surfer. If you had a board strapped to your vehicle and you were passing another strapped road cruiser, it was a given that you would wave, as would they. The vehicle occupants coming from the beach would always give you the thumbs up or down, indicating wave conditions. You did the same because you were part of this tribe of surfers - whether you thought of it like that or not - or even thought about it at all!
As fun as those surfing days were on The Island (Mustang Island, South Texas), my happiest years of surfing came a decade later, long after I had moved to Santa Barbara, California. My older son Das started to get stoked on surfing, so we became surf buddies and surfed together whenever we could. Both of us are fond of telling the story about whenever the waves were really good (winter season), I'd call-in sick and go pull him out of school. All his friends would make comments like, "I wish my dad was like yours!" Well, of course, the deal was that as long as Das maintained a grade point average of 4.0, I'd take him out of classes as many times as necessary in order for us to lock into the natural flow of a great swell. It was my son really making it possible, not so much his dad.
To this day, we surf together whenever our schedules sync. We have logged more hours together in the water with each other than anyone else we've surfed with. Of course, we surfed with others, too. At first, it was my son's friends from junior high and high school; a group we dubbed "Team Duct Tape," as that one product was common to all our gear and vehicles. Later on, I fell in with a group of co-workers not far from Rincon Point. Both Das and I are members of the resultant surf club the "Ryncon Ryders," a semi-active group comprised mostly of people who work with computers, ride waves, and hang out together several times a year.
I consider that I reached my peak as a surfer riding well in good-sized surf during the period 1995-2003 (ages 47-55). I'm pretty proud of that, although I've never ridden anything bigger than about 15-foot. As for range of size, above about 8-feet I have to gear down to a bodyboard, otherwise I'm not completely in control and unsafe to those around me. I've ridden some awesome days on my bodyboard at Rincon and The Overhead, however - days when most people sat on the beach or looked from their cars. I also had memorable surf at Hanalei, on Kaua'i, on a day when lifeguards closed the beach.
"6 Months to Live"
I didn't always write about the history of surfing. There was a time when I spun records in relative freedom at American radio stations as a freeform disc jockey. There were later days when I moved into radio engineering and management. Then, there were dot.com days when I made my living solely via computer.
There came a time, however, when I had to confront my future and ask myself: "If I only had 6 months to live and had to make money somehow, what would I most want to do?" Surf! The answer came swiftly with a swill of my favorite brew. Ah, but I've always sucked as a surfer. True, I love it like a calling, but - in all truth - I've never been a very skilled surfer. OK, scratch the pro ticket. I'm too old, anyway. What else do I like to do? Well, I like to write, but - up to that point - I hadn't made any money at it. Hmmm. What about writing about surfing? That could work! So, in a major career change, I decided I'd do whatever I could to make some money at something I'd like to see me doing on my deathbed. Morbid, yes, but it still makes sense to me.
At least when it's time for me to go, I can look back and try to reassure myself I was doing what I most wanted to do or at least working toward it - which, come to think of it, was a big theme of my hereditary father's. He kept telling me that when I got out in the world, I needed to work at things I liked to do. It was only years later, when I had the maturity to look back on not only my own life, but his, too, that I saw that he had been stuck in a job that he could not have loved very much in order to provide for his family. His encouragements to me were an echo of what he was telling himself. He couldn't change his situation, but he encouraged me not to fall into the same trap.
Oh, I've worked at jobs I didn't much care for and, still, to this day, I can't say I live 100% from my surf writing - far from it, actually. But, I keep working toward the day when that's all I do to make money. Someday, I will be able to show my dad what I've done. Meanwhile, I dedicated my first book on the early history of surfing to him, LEGENDARY SURFERS, Volume 1.
LEGENDARY SURFERS, Volume 1 has been ten years in the making. It is not so much a surf book as it is a history book, covering the very beginning of surfing history, 2500 B.C. to 1910 A.D., through the life of Duke Kahanamoku. A colored cover paperback, 7.5 inches X 9.25 inches, it's 358 pages long (145,950 words), with over fifty black and white historical images. Chapters include: The First Surfers; Traditional Hawaiian Surf Culture; Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards; Legendary Polynesian Surfers; Mo'ikeha and Sons; The 1800's: Surfing's Darkest Days; The Ka'iulani Board; Surfing's Revival; Bronzed Mercury: George Freeth; and Duke Paoa Kahanamoku.
My writings about surfing's legends, culture, heroes and heroines has been an evolutionary process. Early on, I decided to have lots of quotes from people who actually went through the things I was writing about. As time went on, I further decided rather than have the quotes embellish the stories, to have the quotes actually drive them. What resulted is writing in support of the quotes, not the other way around. In a way, I just write to connect the dots, clarify and provide detail missing in the quotes. It is a bit of a different approach and a bit mechanical, but it gives a "talk story" feeling to my writings that I feel fit logically with the genre.
Another thing that just kind of developed organically was letting loose my penchant for diction. Although I don't get to do them nearly as much as I would like, when I do get out into the field (or the beach) and conduct one-on-one interviews, I listen not only to what is being said, but how. Some of the most appreciated testimonials have come back to me from famous surfers I've interviewed who gave me a thumbs-up on my knack for capturing language - or at least spending time to do so. Years ago, when I asked Wally Froiseth to review what I wrote about him and the other Hot Curl surfers of the 1930s and '40s, I'm quite proud of what he wrote back: "I think you've got it like I said it, even with the local talk when we're among friends. Thanks for taking the time." Then there was the comment that San Onofre mainstay E.J. Oshier wrote me after reading an article I had written about surfing's first dedicated photographer Doc Ball. He said when he read the piece; it seemed he could hear Doc's voice. Wow, this kind of feedback is like gold to a writer!
Along with the recollections of those who were there and recording the way they talk, I've striven for depth of coverage and accuracy. Many times the essence of a story is in its details, so I generally will not write unless I'm given enough space (word count) to present the little things as well as the big. As for accuracy, no one ever gets it quite right, but we all try. I rely on footnotes to settle many issues related to accuracy and was one of the very first surf writers to use footnotes in my published articles.
At first, I figured to write for surfing magazines, but as time has gone on, the Internet has made it possible for me to present my work to the whole world - at least those who seek it out. So, along with doing the traditional writer thing, I also self-publish. Since I've been writing about surfing's history for more than a decade and uploading my stuff to the Internet for about as long, I have one of the oldest surfing websites on the Net. While my work has appeared in a number of important surfing magazines, I'm more alternative than mainstream; a self-published writer who operates outside the norm without agent, without publisher; rarely a bar code to be seen.
A high point in my writing occurred when I had the honor to be one of the team of people who worked on Gary Lynch's TOM BLAKE: The Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, published in 1971. Working from Gary's lengthy correspondence with Tom, as well as all the material passed on to Gary from Tom, I both wrote the book and laid it out. When it was finished, we knew we had raised the bar of what a surfing biography should be. There are now less than 500 copies still available at www.TomBlakeBiography.com and, by the way... The price has remained the same at the website, but the book is selling for over twice that amount at places like eBay.
In addition to this significant accomplishment, I have been rewarded by magazines printing my stuff, people coming to LegendarySurfers.com to read the free chapters there, and the select few who take their interest in surfing history to a higher level when they buy my for-sale writings. Over the past decade, my website has been used by surf veterans, gremmies and millions of surfers and non-surfers. Currently, the site averages 58,640 user sessions a month. What's a user session? It's when someone with a unique address (computer's IP address) enters or reenters a web site within a given period. User session figures are sometimes used to indicate "visits" or "visitors" per day. While this is not exactly so, user sessions are a better indicator of total site activity than "unique visitors" or "hits," since they not only indicate frequency of use, but are specific to IP addresses. So, for LegendarySurfers.com, that's an average of 2,600 user sessions a day; a combination of near that number of people and the number of different sessions they have in the day.
Traffic at the website is nowhere near the kind of volume that corporate surfing sites get, but I'm only selling a small portion of my writings and giving most of it away. Let's face it, surfing history is not a big thing with most surfers and far less so for non-surfers. Those of us who write it and read it are a rare breed.
Future writing projects and plans? I will continue to add further historical volumes at the same time as I write for the best surf mags. My goal is to bring my writings on surfing history all the way to the present, but I know my chances of accomplishing this are slim. The online material currently only goes up to 1966. Seemingly worse, my second volume ends back at the end of the 1920s. How long will it take me to bring surfing's history to the point where I can write about such things as tow-ins and wave machines? It will be a while!
Meantime, I try to emulate my surfing hero Woody Brown. I can only hope to live as long and in such good health and mental well-being as Woody. I also strive - every day - to have as good a vibe. If you don't know about Woody, pick up a copy of the video "Surfing for Life" or go to the chapter I wrote about Woody posted at the LegendarySurfers.com website.
When I can't surf, I write and do family time. Through my writing, I get to meet and sometimes help add some stoke to surfers who are as interested in surfing's history as I am - some even more! What a blessing the Internet has been for me to be in email contact with many of my readers, elders of the tribe, and other surfers around the world. I hope this stays part of my reality right up to the day I kick-out for good.
Thank you for reading my stuff!
I've been writing most all my life -- mostly autobiographical stuff until the 1980s, when I shifted course to use what little writing talent I have to advance certain political views. My most notable works in this area are DON'T BANK ON AMERIKA, a history of the Isla Vista Riots of 1970, a number of influential articles on East Timor and West Papua in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (now known as Critical Asian Studies), Cultural Survival, and newspaper articles in The Guardian.
LEGENDARY SURFERS began in the early 1990s, following a career change from broadcasting to computers. The original intent was to record the oral histories of legendary surfers who were advanced in age and get those down before the legends, themselves, were gone. THE SURFER'S JOURNAL Editor Steve Pezman had a nice thing to say about this endeavor. This goal remains a modis operandi for me.
The website began as a spin-off to the oral histories; a place to list some of the history of surfing. It has evolved to be a place on the Internet where you can get detailed information on much of surfing's history up until -- at least at this point -- the late 1960s. Many of the subjects covered in LEGENDARY SURFERS are unavailable in any other single source or location -- either in print or on the Net -- certainly not in such great detail.
I began at the beginning because that was most logical to me. I have been advancing the history collection forward and am now roughly at the start of the shortboard era, late 1960s. My intent is to continue to bring the collection forward to the present. It is amazing what one can learn when s/he starts at the beginning.
Since the mid-1970s, I've been based in the Santa Barbara, CA area. I use 3 different boards, depending on conditions. For general conditions (surf in the 2-5 foot range), I ride a Yater Surf Tech wood laminate 9' 10" longboard (aka "The Bandido Board"). When size goes up a bit (5-8 foot), I have a thick-foam Becker 9' 6' semi-gun I call "The BubblePuppy" that's great for down-the-line Rincon. Above 8 feet, I'm just not a good enough surfer to perform well and safely. So, above 8 feet, I gear down to a Mike Stewart model bodyboard with Churchill fins. I've never ridden anything above about 14-feet (Rincon and Hanalei Bay), although I wish I had.
I always enjoy receiving email from my readers and respond to most of you who write. Quite a number of you have been helpful to this whole LEGENDARY SURFERS effort and I thank you for the assists and the interaction. May they continue!
Malcolm's Surfing & Non-Surfing Links
LEGENDARY SURFERS Volumes
LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 2
About Volume 2
LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 1
About Volume 1
LEGENDRY SURFERS Chapters in Electronic Form
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LEGENDARY SURFERS Recommended
Resources on East Timor
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Copyright © 1992-2008 by Malcolm Gault-Williams... Aloha Nui Loa!