On Feb. 2 I celebrated a golden anniversary as 50 years of surfing passed beneath my feet. It started with a borrowed board until I bought one of my own, a used 9-foot-6-inch Wardy with two wedged redwood stringers encasing a swatch of condensed tinted yellow foam. I was too stoked to notice that my new board weighed about 30 pounds. It didn’t matter; I was a real surfer now and my life would change in some predicable and some unpredictable ways.I had first attempted surfing three years earlier, after seeing “Gidget” at the Gar-mar Theater in my hometown of Montebello, with my neighbor Robert Vermont. All we talked about on the two-block walk back to my house that day was surfing and how hot Sandra Dee was.Robert had a secret he knew how to build a surfboard. He helped me tear the tracks from the plywood that carried that boring old toy H.O. Railroad around in a circle. Then he plugged in his dad’s skill saw and cut two rectangular “surfboards,” before squaring off the noses. We painted them with the extra yellow enamel that was lying around the garage.
At the beach our new boards didn’t float well, so we used them as skimboards. It was endless fun. Turns out Robert was on the right track and had actually made alaia boards, those finless, thin craft recently revived by surfers like Tom and Johnny Wegner and considered by some to be the fastest boards in the water.
But from the first day of riding my Wardy, I knew I would never return to surfboards made of plywood. The thrill of paddling out, catching a wave and beating the whitewater to shore, was just too great.
My next two boards were made by Hansen. Next came a flurry of different boards: A Velzy Bump, a Hobie Phil Edwards Model, A G&S Hynson Model, a Jacob’s Donald Takayama Model and a Harbor Cheater among them.
I was in Hawaii in 1967 when surfboards shrank from 9-foot plus, to 7-foot plus and shorter. My first shortboard was a Dick Brewer mini gun with a Buddha painted on the deck. I lost track of that board 30 years ago and pray that it didn’t suffer the indignity of having a leash plug routed into it, or rotting in some Riverside landfill.
By the late ‘60s I tried making my own surfboards, hacking down the masterpieces of craftsmen like Phil Edwards in order to ride the latest thing. Phil recalls a time when his board-making was at a peak and he was building long and beautiful boards in Hawaii. He lowered his tone as he told me the story about the guy who came into his shop, raving about the newer, smaller wave rockets.
The guy then lifted one of Phil’s masterpieces from the rack, something equivalent in my world to a Stradivarius violin, and thrust it from the tail, into the air, where it came back and landed, hard, on the floor, shattering the tail and severely damaging the fin. Phil, along with other master craftsmen, figured it was time to move on.
Sorry about the ramble. Not sure what it was really for or what I really learned in the last half century. Maybe that the old will again be new and not to disregard the works of the masters. Or maybe it’s just to have fun while you have waves and youth and sunshine. You tell me.