Artist Wade Koniakowsky presents surfing pioneer Woody Ekstrom with a painting of him and his legendary surfboard. Photo by Morgan Mallory
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Tougher than lumber

Jack “Woody” Ekstrom is an original, a surfer since the 1940s, a board builder and a big wave charger. The surfboard in the adjacent painting by Wade Koniakowsky has some history to it. It was a combination balsa and redwood and Woody felt he was swindled when he paid $7.50 for it. That didn’t sink in until after he found out that the board’s previous owner had found it on the beach, drifting in the tide.

While he might have overpaid for that board, nonetheless he rode it in waves from 1 foot to as big as California waves ever get.

The year was 1947 when Scripp’s Institute of Oceanography predicted a massive north swell about to slam into the California Coast. Experience informed Ekstrom that the waves would be too big for most spots, but that La Jolla Cove could hold any size wave. True to prediction, the swell hit, with waves larger than anyone could remember. Ekstrom was padding to the outside break alone when a wall of water darkened the horizon, ripped his board from his steady hands and drove it into a small grotto, a section of beach known as the Hole.

After clearing ocean foam as thick as snow from the surface, Woody began the treacherous swim toward his beloved surfboard, and his best bet of making land. There was a lull in the waves when he spotted the board near the rocks as the ocean roared to life again, and a massive set came rumbling down the point. Realizing that the entire force of the Pacific was descending upon him, Woody dove for the ocean’s bottom and hung onto the rocks.

He had lost sight of his friend, Bill Isenhouer, who was riding the inside section known as “Devil’s Slide.” Without Woody’s knowledge, Isenhouer, who nearly drowned that day, had somehow survived and made it to shore. Woody himself was dangerously near the rocky cliff as crowds on the above began screaming that another set of waves was about to break. By the time the set was finished he was alive, but exhausted and no closer to making shore.

When the whitewater cleared, Woody was visible, fighting for his life in the merciless cauldron. He took another set on the head, surfacing to see the rock sepulture that most figured would be his final resting place. Already, his mother had been alerted that her son had drowned in the biggest waves to hit La Jolla in her lifetime. The tide was dropping when suddenly Woody’s foot landed on something that felt like a step. In the calm of he moment, he noticed something he had not seen before — there were steps carved into the cliff face.

He had just enough life left in him to stroke toward the ragged shore, dodging the waves that threatened to crush him on the rocks. Fueled by adrenaline, he ran up the slick steps as the waves chased him to the safety of higher ground. His surfboard was in splinters, but he had not been broken.

Later that week, a friend from Scripp’s told Woody that the set waves at the Cove that day had reached an unprecedented 35 feet! When asked his thoughts on surviving the ordeal, the teenager smiled and replied, “I was worried that I was going to die a virgin.”