By Michael Kew
Sakau in Pohnpei
Extracted from the roots of a pepper shrub, sakau contains 14 natural painkillers that tend to numb and sedate the drinker.
Sorrel in Jamaica
Typically consumed around Christmas, the red sepals of the sorrel plant—mixed with ginger, water, sugar, and occasionally wine or rum—provide several health benefits
Seagull wine in Greenland
A newly dead gull is stuffed into a corked bottle that is filled with water. The bottle is left in direct sunlight until the contents ferment. Drink and repeat. Or don't.
By Michael Kew
CORNVILLE IS A GREAT NAME for Cornville, but I saw no cornfields there. A dusty wash of early-winter rural life, something you’d expect to see in Kansas—or Arizona. Most cars were full-sized American pickups, most folks were missing a few teeth, and I half-expected to hear random mid-day gunfire.
Cornville was originally named Pitchner Place, when it was just a post office and a clutch of tiny homes on the banks of Oak Creek. Later, the name was switched to Cohnville, after a family named Cohn who once lived there. But when the official place-name papers returned from Washington D.C., they listed "Cornville," so the town’s residents accepted the name.
‘Cornville’ sounds better than ‘Cohnville’ anyway, and it is also more appropriate, because the town is full of hicks, and it did remind me of Kansas, not that I’ve been there (yet). I could live in Cornville, a writer’s paradise...if only there was a beach at nearby Cottonwood, instead of chain stores and toxic industry.
“I bet there’s a strip club here,” I said.
Soon Jerome appeared from the mist, a grim and sooty burg on the side of Mingus Mountain. It was late in the day and the sky was dark, augmenting Jerome’s sinister feel, which appeared to be a town of antique shops and historic markers, remaining for tourists, which were few today.
“I feel a very, very bad vibe here,” Kristen said. “It just looks like the houses are going to fall over at any moment. This place has ghosts, for sure.”
I didn’t see any, but I did smell grilled meat floating up from a pub called the Haunted Hamburger, so we walked in and sat at the bar. The bartender was a scrawny, crazy-looking man who grinned constantly and wore yellow-framed glasses. He drank beer while he worked. He was hungover. The pub was festooned with Christmas lights, and there was only sign which read No Sniveling.
“What are you guys doin’?” the bartender asked.
“Hungry,” I said.
We each ordered burgers; I scribbled notes, Kristen yakked with the drinkers. Next to me was an impish Elvis impersonator, who said nothing. Next to Kristen were two fat men from Green Bay, Wisc., and one fat man from Tempe. The Green Bay men were tipsy and chatty.
“Green Bay has the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the Republican party,” one said.
“Are you a Packers fan?” Kristen asked.
“Oh, you bet. Our whole state shuts down when the Packers play. Even the criminals stop robbing banks.”
“Boy, I don’t want to know how long the waiting list is—”
“I own two shares of the team—”
A man resembling a miner walked in and sat on the empty stool at the end of the bar. He was mustachioed, tall, muscular, wore filthy overalls, a frayed baseball cap, and black work boots. A small button pinned to his overalls read Fuck ‘Em, Then Ask Questions.
With an unsubtle whistle, he summoned the bartender for whiskey.
“I’ll have a quick shot, no Coke.”
He looked at Kristen, the only woman in the room, then at me, since she had her hand on my leg.
“Where are you guys from?”
“California,” I said. “She’s originally from Scottsdale.”
“Oh yeah? What are you doing in Jerome?”
“Just having a look around. We were just in Cornville.”
“We drove through in after we went to Montezuma Well,” Kristen said. “I’d been to Cornville and Clarkdale before, years ago.” (Clarkdale is five miles north.)
"You went to Clarkdale but not to Jerome?" he asked.
“I guess I was too scared to drive up the hill.”
Then the jokes began.
“How can you tell someone’s from Cornville?” he asked. “They’ve got less than three teeth. How do you tell a 14-year-old girl from Cornville? When she says, ‘Git off me, daddy, yer crushin’ my smokes.’”
A female bartender walked in and sat next to me, apparently to relieve our bartender of duty. Her T-shirt said Knotty Pine Lounge.
Our bartender said to me, “Any time a girl’s shirt says ‘knotty’ on it, I like it.”
She stood and slapped him; everyone laughed.
October, briefly, in Southern California. Surfing by Devon Howard, Ross Bushnell, Kyle Albers, and Trevor Gordon. Surfboards by Josh Hall, Deepest Reaches, and Ryan Lovelace. Music by Johnny McCann.
By Michael Kew
NO POSTAL CODES. Five-digit phone numbers. Solar power. The cornstalk rustle of palm fronds overhead. The soft whoosh of surf outside a thatched buia. The sublime ambiance of this atoll where North and South Pacific meet makes the term “modern conveniences” laughable.
I KNOW AMERICA is light-years distant when I meet Tebau, the mayor of Marakei. He’s wearing only a smile and a dark purple sarong. We’re standing on a muddy dirt road in the village of Rawannawi, and in my pocket I’m jingling a clutch of Australian coins, the currency used here. It was useful back on Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati’s 33 coral atolls. But in the outer isles, cash is fairly useless. “Here on Marakei, we can survive without money,” Tebau says with a wink and a nod. “We can live off the sea and land — fish and coconut palm. Everything else is just luxury.” This is when I recall that Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bahs) is on the United Nations’ “Least Developed Countries” list. Which makes it simple. Which makes it special. Which makes it the perfect place to dismiss the modern world.
POWER OF SUN Solar panels can be found on the 21 inhabited atolls. No wonder. Kiribati crosses the equator and has a mean annual temperature of 81°F. The nation of islands is the only one in the world to straddle all four hemispheres.
SIP SAP When listening to stories from locals you’ll probably have a glass of fresh toddy in hand. It’s made from coconut palm sap, and the sweet variety may be the best you’ll ever taste.
ON YOUR SKIN For a lasting and true scent of the islands, grab a few bars of Atoll K33 coconut soap, sold only on Tarawa. It’s one of the few goods actually produced in Kiribati.
CARRY Kiribati uses the Australian dollar, but on the remote outer islands, you’ll find that smiles and conversation with the locals are more practical when it comes to obtaining a fresh coconut or succulent fish.
DO Smile and say hello (mauri) to everyone you meet, unless an i-Kiribati beats you to it (and they probably will).
DO NOT When sitting, avoid pointing your feet directly at anyone. It’s a sign of disrespect and uncleanliness.
By Michael Kew
HIS FEET PLANTED in the past, present, and future of surfboards, Santa Barbara’s Lauran Yater knows what makes a great ride. Influenced by his father (Reynolds Yater) and other S.B. foamsmiths like Bob Duncan, Marc Andreini, and the late Bob Krause, the vibe into which Lauran, 55, was born—his dad’s famous surfboard factory—couldn’t have been more convenient. Evident, of course, with one glance at his shapes, or while he's trimming Rincon on the wave of the day. Or night.
KEW: Was Rincon your first home?
YATER: It was right when my dad came up, and my mom was pregnant with my sister; my dad came up here to check the area out and see if it was worth living. Stayed up here for six months or something, and decided, yeah, it’s a bitchen deal—let’s do it. So he called her up, she moved up here within six months of that, and then a couple of years later, I was born—1960 in Cottage Hospital. So they’d been here a few years. My first memories of my first house would have to be Summerland and then Rincon.
Your first home was in Summerland?
And your dad had his red surf shop there....
Yeah, there’s a bunch of pictures of me there, sitting on the porch in diapers and a Yater T-shirt.
What was your life like as a child?
I had a good life, middle class, parents really caring. My dad worked really hard, so he brought home the bacon and my mom made sure that we got out into the wilderness and did things and got into sports—YMCA, flag football, whatever it was—taking us to church. Typical things.
Where did you go to school?
I started kindergarten in Carpinteria and then went to preschool in Summerland. Actually, it’s still there, but it’s been rebuilt. I went there, then I went right on over to Montecito Union, went through that, then Summerland for junior high, then Santa Barbara High School. I picked up a job working in the showroom at my dad’s shop in ’78. Picked that job up in my last year of high school; we got a really good year of surf that year. That winter was just phenomenal, so I had to make up some credits, and I was taking nine classes my last quarter of high school so I could graduate.
Most people were taking two because they’ve already got so many credits. I wasn’t really good in school; I was good in art, but not that good at all the math and all that stuff. So I did restaurant training and started working pretty hard. Worked at Chart House after school and then bought a car and started working for my dad in ’78. I was right out of high school when I went right into that job. I got my car from the guy who had the job before, and I started shaping that year.
Were you working with Marc Andreini, Kirk Putnam...?
Andreini was there. Putnam was the guy before the guy who I took the job from.
What is your earliest memory of the ocean?
I’d probably have to say Summerland Beach, Montecito area, Carpinteria to Montecito. A lot of Carpinteria when I was a little kid, when I was really little, and then a bit of Hammond’s, and then we moved down to Rincon. In between all of that, we’d go up to the Ranch on weekends. So I was at the beach a lot.
How did you get into surfing?
Obviously, I grew up in a family that was beach-oriented—both of my parents surfed, so it was inevitable that I’d pick up a board and try it. This guy, Greg Tice, he was also a manager at our shop, in our showroom. He’s now manager of Sotheby’s in Montecito real estate. He made the first board that I ever rode. Usually they know you’re going to trash your first board, so they give you something that’s not worth too much. (laughs) It was the first board he’d ever shaped. I don’t know if he shaped any more after that. I don’t think I ever stood up on it. A couple of years later, I got sick and stayed home from school for a couple of days, and the second day, my dad came home and asked me what my favorite color was. I said lime green, and he knew that that was my favorite color, and he had this board in the shop that wasn’t selling and had been at the window for three years. So he brought it home and gave it to me, and we went down to Butterfly Lane in Montecito and caught what seemed to be a foot-and-a-half wave to me. I caught about three of them and it just scared the shit out of me. Going down the face so fast, not even standing up, so I took that thing and put it in the garage and let all my older brother’s friends borrow it. A couple years later, my friends started to learn how to surf, so I thought maybe I’d try it.
You’re how old then?
This would be grade school, so fifth grade or so. Eight to 10 years old, just messing around with some old longboards. Go down to Fernald’s or go down to the sandspit and try and catch a few waves and stand up. Later I was at the beach one day in Carpinteria, and there was a really good west swell. This is before the leash was invented. I was sitting on the beach—our house was a block from the beach—and I’m watching these guys get just really good rides. It was kind of high tide and everyone was losing their boards and I’m saving their boards. I saved this one guy’s board just from hitting the rocks and he comes running up the beach, he grabs the board from me, and he’s just got this look in his eyes and thanks me, then runs back up the beach. And I knew I was missing something here. I’d just gotten old enough to know that I was really missing something. I could tell by the look in this guy’s eyes, and I went home and I said, “Mom, I’ve got to learn how to surf, and that’s it.” I got another board, my third board‚—it was a 7’0” round-pin, and I just kept trying.
One of your dad’s boards?
Yeah. Nice board. He shaped it for me.
Do you still have it?
No. I wish I did, but it’s long gone.
Do you believe that your surfing and eventual shaping came from your genes?
There’s no doubt about it. I surf a lot my dad—he knows how to trim really well. He can find the trim spot on the board and come from behind, and that’s what he’s known for. All the guys I’ve talked to who’ve surfed with him in the old days. In fact, I was out surfing one day on a west swell and I got locked into this really good tube and it just got completely dark. I closed my eyes and I finally made it out, I had long hair in those days, I pulled my hair back and went into another one and did the same thing, just went completely dark and I’m in there trimming, and it opened up again. I came out and kicked out. Geardon Smith, an artist who lives in Hope Ranch, looked at me and said: “You know, for 20 years I’ve been looking for a guy who surfs like your dad, and I finally found somebody. It’s you!” (laughs) And I asked him, “Well, what is it?” And he just said it’s the way he trims and he makes a wave really well. He rides the top third of the wave—that’s what a trimming surfer does. That’s what Pat Curren did and still does.
How about your shaping?
I was working in the front room selling surfboards. I’d gone through the process—I was an artist—of grabbing scraps of foam and shaping them down into a surfboard and laying up the bottom, doing a cut-lap then laying the deck up, cutting up the bottom shaping a little fin. I did the whole thing on a scaled version about that big, and I started making skateboards. Clark Foam used to sell slab stock, real high-density, but there wasn’t a big enough market for it, so I stopped doing it. Didn’t make any money. So I’d gone through the process of laminating and I knew how to do it, and I just got a hair up my butt. I’d been doing a lot of ding repairs, and I said I want to shape my own board. My dad said, “Sure, Lauran. Here you go—here’s a blank.” It was right when Ian Cairns was on the cover of Surfer doing a layback turn, ’77-’78. I made a 7-foot swallowtail. I think I used my dad’s templates at that point for that board. Just pulled him around, he kind of gave me some ideas. Tim Boller helped me out a lot, and Andreini, Bob Krause. I had all those guys to run over to and say, “Hey, how do I do this?” It was really neat. It was a good time to start. So I made a board, and as I was doing it—most of these guys were using a power planer, and my dad had just picked up using a sander. He said, “Why don’t you try this?” He handed me this sander as I’m knocking the rails down, so I ended up with really low rails, but they were round enough at the bottom, and the thing worked unreal. The first board I made just went completely unreal. I was doing any kind of turn I wanted to do, and the board would always come back underneath me. So I was ecstatic. Of course, I told all my friends, “Have me make a board for you!” So I got all of my friends—probably six, eight, seven of them—to get copies of that board, just different sizes. And none of them worked very good. (laughs) Mine did. But it kept me going because I realized I had to learn something.
Did you have a logo?
I used my dad’s, and then I had a friend draw one up in the same outline, just changed the inside and put my name in it.
What was it like working in the shop?
It was a real easy deal. It didn’t open until 10 a.m. and it’d close at 5 p.m. If the surf was over six feet, we’d close the doors. It wasn’t real busy; all we did was sell surfboards and wax.
This was on Gray Avenue?
Yeah, 208 Gray.
What happened to that first board you made?
Somebody stole the board from me. It was the middle of summer and we got this phenomenal swell. Everywhere was breaking. Every pointbreak was perfect, every backside of a point had surf, every frontside. It was just one of those windswells where it was glassy, four-to-six feet, for a week straight. And I borrowed all these old boards and none of them worked very good. So between losing that board that worked so good, making all these other ones for my friends that didn’t work. And I’d try them myself—they’d maybe go off the lip good, but they wouldn’t cut back, or they’d tube-ride good, but they wouldn’t cut back. There was always something the board wouldn’t do. The first one did everything perfectly, so it was a challenge. I just kept going with it, being an artist, liking to work with my hands. I loved it.
What happened after that?
I ran the front of the shop for about four years. And then I started doing labor in the back—there was more money in that. Glassing, sanding, just whatever was available, whoever wasn’t showing up to work. I was taking orders for myself and then working on my dad’s boards as full-time work.
What were the designs?
It was all shortboards then. They were single-fins and were getting shorter at that time, so when I first actually started surfing, boards were getting larger, all the way up to 7’11” by the end of junior high, and then they turned around and started getting smaller. When I got on the scene, a seven-foot board was about standard, give or take three or four inches. My dad was doing shortboards but I was doing them a little bit shorter because I was lighter. We all tend to kind of shape boards like they’re for us. There’s a little bit of that in every shaper. They were all single-fins. Marc Andreini had just come back from Hawaii and he was doing these really bitchen double-winger rounded pins. I bought a lot of boards off other people because I had a lot of good shapers around me.
Seems like the perfect place to be for an aspiring shaper.
It was a good deal. It was great. Just as an instance, Stan Klugy had a shop up the street and they’d come over to our shop and show us a new trick, they’d glass a board in 15 minutes and they’d show us how they did it, how they added more catalyst and how they worked quicker and how they did their cuts. So we were sharing secrets, and we all kept the prices the same, whereas nowadays there’s all this undercutting and everybody’s trying to get a niche because there’s so many boards out there. It’s cutthroat compared to the way it was when I grew up.
Do you take credit for any design?
Most shapers tend to shape boards for their area, and that’s basically all I’ve done. I’ve gone to Hawaii, seen what it’s like, but I don’t surf over there. I’ve learned all the stuff I’ve learned off of other people and just gone to what I like the looks of and tried to do my version of what I think a good board is.
Pretty much. There’s some reefbreaks I like and there’s some longboarding I like to do; some beachbreaks I also like. You start making quivers of boards, and a quiver is a selection of one type of board, but most people think a quiver is just a bunch of different boards for different types of surf, and I’ve got a ton of those. That’s the only way to keep stimulated these days because it’s so crowded. You’ve got to have a tool for all the different spots so you can go out and have a fun day once in a while.
Is Rincon your favorite spot?
Oh, they’re all my favorites, you know? I surf there more than anywhere because it’s such a long wave, and it’s a good one.
What is Rincon to you? Is it a staple?
Absolutely. I grew up there as a kid. It was crowded when I started; there were days I’ve counted over 300 people in the water, and you still get that today. Every now and then this crowd shows up, and it’s over 300 people, and I’ve counted that many back when I was a kid.
How is that possible?
It’s amazing. Really amazing. But if you get out onto the point in the middle and the tide’s low enough, you can see everybody in the water and just start counting. I counted 365 one day, I think.
What are your hobbies?
I like fish. Freshwater, mostly, but I’ll do saltwater. Besides that, hiking, but it’s pretty much surfing. A little bit of snowboarding.
Who are your surf influences?
Tom (Curren) when he was younger. The guy who owns the meat market in Goleta, Paul, a really good surfer, just a neat longboarder, and this was an era when nobody was longboarding. I had a best friend who surfed a lot better than I did, John Bennett. There was a local group of people that I looked up to that surfed good. And then of course there were the magazines and all the pros—Shaun Tomson, Rabbit Bartholomew, guys like them.
Who are your shaping influences?
Like we were talking about earlier, there was a whole group of guys around. At the beginning it was my dad, Marc Andreini, Bob Krause, Bruce Fowler, and Bob Duncan, and then it ended being mostly Bob Duncan and my dad who influenced me the most.
Just the stuff they were doing. Duncan taught me a lot about rocker.
Did your access to places like Rincon and the Ranch enhanced your development?
The only places I could really go as far as surfing different places being an advantage, I think definitely it teaches you new things—surfing a beachbreak compared to surfing a long pointbreak are two completely different things. If you can master both of them and mesh them together, your ability is better.
What is your specialty?
Point surf, mostly. I would do a lot more reefs if we had more, but we don’t have many. We’ve got a few. It’s mostly points.
What are the best aspects of your shaping ability?
I probably spend too much time in detail, as far as what I get paid for, so the customer gets his money’s worth. There’s no doubt about that. A guy can bring in a favorite and I’ll spend three days duping the thing to get it to work better, not by mistake, but by doing a really good copy. Just paying attention to detail.
How has your father influenced you?
His longevity and his strength, showing up and working, always being there.
So more of his human side and not his technical shaping side?
Yeah. Just what a good person is. The way he’s lived his life. You don’t have to look too far to see where people make mistakes, and he doesn’t make many. When he makes one, it’s a bad one, but it’s not detrimental.
What’s in store for surfboard design?
There’s so much new stuff on the market right now. If you go to the tradeshows, there’s 20 types of softboards. It’s unbelievable. There’s all this new construction and it’s all on a new learning curve because they’re all just starting to make boards with it and figure out how to make the boards feel as good as we do with polyester. It’s interesting. The fact that several years ago, the surfboard designs went wide open as far as you can walk down the beach with anything and it was okay. In fact, it’s cool to switch boards and ride something different during the day—go from a longboard to a twin-fin. It really opened things up and made everything kind of more relaxed. It’s neat, because now everybody’s working on all this new stuff. There’s not a whole lot of new designs that are coming out of it—they’re just getting perfected a lot better. I couldn’t ride a concave board for years because my stance is so damn tight, and they’re making them so narrow. Well, now they’ve relaxed that a little bit, dialed in the rocker so well, I got on one a couple of years ago and just went, “Wow, wait a second!” I’ve got this narrow frickin’ stance and I can’t surf off both feet, so I’d spend all this time working up this speed, I’d get a turn off and I’d have to work forever again to get that speed. It wasn’t working. So I stayed with vee bottoms, flat bottoms, and played with different rockers.
What distinguishes your shapes?
My dad and I both shape boards for the type of waves we have around here, like Rincon and whatnot, but also kind of a little bit like we surf, so we have a little bit of a relaxed rocker on our boards, we both do. That’s something that gives you a lot of speed. We also like to have a lot of curve on the outlines, so our boards have a really nice aesthetic look to them.
Any funny Renny stories to tell?
All his friends really tease him about being super anal. They’ll go backpacking and when he’s not looking, like he goes off to take a shit or something, they’ll go over and take his backpack and turn it upside down, empty all the pockets out and leave it in a pile. Because he’s got everything so checked out. I think Gordon Clark’s thing on him is he’s so checked out, he puts serial numbers on his turds before he flushes the toilet. (laughs) So, something along those lines, I guess, but he really is. He’s so checked out. When he gets a motorcycle, he’ll take the thing apart twice—everything—take the engine apart, crack everything, put it all back together, take it apart again, put it back together, so if he gets stuck out in the desert, he knows how to deal with what’s what.
How do you differ yourself from your dad?
Good question. He’s more stern. I guess I’m a little more looser, more of the artist type, a little more floatier, whereas he’s just really solid. Extremely solid. I take after my mom more.
How are you similar to him?
The surfing style is there. I enjoy working like he does. At this point, I like doing things and making things and going places. I don’t like stagnating any more. I don’t like turning on the television any more. I used to watch a lot of television. I can’t stand it now. As you get older, time is more precious and you want to do more with it.
What’s your best surfing memory?
Rincon, full moon, two guys out, they left. I got nine waves in a row, all in about 45 minutes. Maybe even 20 minutes. Probably double-overhead, and I had paddled out right as the moon was coming up. The winds are finicky there at night. It can be glassy all day and then you go down at night and there’s this south bump coming through it. Can’t tell until you get right on the beach. Or it’ll blow offshore down the creek, and then that’ll come around into the cove, so you’ve got this sideways chop coming at you. But occasionally it’s on and it’s right and it’s good. It has to have some size. It’s boring if it’s kind of small, but if it’s big enough, lit up enough, it’s a bitchen deal. I’ve surfed a lot of places at night, and I’d been chasing a good night at Rincon for three years straight. This one night, I ran down there and everything seemed right. There were a couple of guys out; this one guy surfs with a glow necklace. I see him out a lot. He likes to surf it when there’s no moon, which is kind of strange. Anyway, I get out in the water and I recognize one of the guys, and he says, “Gotta be careful. I just got my knee compressed to my chin down on the inside. The lip hit me and just slammed me really hard.” So I take off right at the top of the point. I look at the wall and it’s going; all of a sudden, it bends, and I’m, like, "OK, cool," and I cut back and lined up and it went over me and I’m in the tube and it just started periscoping down and back and down and back and a little water would fall through it and clear up and come back. I kicked out and just went, “Unreal!” I went back and got up and got another one, then another one, and another one—I got nine in a row, and they all did the same thing. They all periscoped better tubes than I’ve ever had in the daytime, for sure. Deep and just beautiful. The ninth wave sucked me over the falls three times. Just worked me. I came up and I went out and got another small one and—BAM—it sucked me over again. I realized it had started howling offshore and it was sending a bump around and just wiped it out. So in that short period of whatever it was—25, 45 minutes—I got nine waves that had just radical barrels on them, in a row, and it was the best session I’ve ever had in my life to date. And I’ve surfed there where you go in the water at sunrise and I don’t get out until sunset. I’ll snack on the beach walking up the point, maybe do a 15-minute break on the beach once or twice, that’s it. I’ve had some good days, but nothing like this. I’ll never forget it. My best session ever, anywhere, and it was at night.
By Michael Kew
CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN pledged the third part of his first chapter in “The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs” to the atolls atop the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge, a 2,350-kilometer-long plateau in the north Indian Ocean. But Darwin never went: “My description is derived from an examination of the admirable charts lately published from the survey of Captain Moresby and Lieut. Powell,” he wrote, “and more especially from information which Captain Moresby has communicated to me in the kindest manner.”
Northernmost archipelago of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge, Lakshadweep is scattered across the Laccadive Sea, about 300 miles west of mainland India. Beyond India, Lakshadweep is virtually unknown, with almost no Western tourists, sparse infrastructure, limited access, and a largely uncharted surf-spot potential. Swells here are usually well-organized, since they come from far away, and since prevailing winds are westerly, the east and southeast coasts of the islands are nicely groomed and are the best places to score waves.
While a study of Google Earth imagery will reveal a lack of likely set-ups, Lakshadweep does offer the savvy surf explorer some interesting options, especially if approached via liveaboard boat, which, if you’ve got the time and cash, is the best way to do it. The atolls aren’t graced with the sort of epic wave variety as the Maldives, and although mainland India has lots of potential, it’s still dirty, polluted, crowded India. In Lakshadweep, the locals don’t live in slums or use the beaches as toilets.
OF EARTH'S 195 COUNTRIES, just five are pan-atoll: Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and aside from Tokelau, a New Zealand dependent, they are sovereign. Kiribati and Tuvalu are on the United Nations’ “Least-Developed Countries” list. The smallest Asian country in population and land area, Maldives was on the list until 2011, when it became the third-ever nation to graduate to “Developing Country” status. Still, in terms of surf tourism, Maldives is mature.
“The reefs of the southern atolls,” Darwin gathered, “are more constantly exposed than the northern atolls to a heavy surf.” In the north, lung-shaped Male’ beats as the heart of Maldivian surfing, and most of the archipelago can be defined by consistent, shapely, and user-friendly waves that peel over fairly forgiving coral, in 30°C water, in front of coconut palms or fancy resorts or a chartered yachts, beneath straight sun.
Darwin: “The smaller atolls in this group differ in no respect from ordinary ones; but the larger ones are remarkable from being breached by numerous deep-water channels leading into the lagoon; for instance, there are 42 channels through which a ship could enter the lagoon of Suvadiva.” (Suvadiva is the old Sanskritized name for Huvadhoo, the world’s 10th-largest atoll [Darwin called it “noble”], with at least 12 of those 42 channels offering great surf spots for much of the year.)
Seceded from the rest of the Maldives in 1959 till 1963, Huvadhoo, Gnaviyani, and surf-rich Addu (Darwin spelled it “Addoo”) formed a sovereign nation called the United Suvadive Republic. Reason being was that, back then, the Maldivian government up in Male’ ruled with centralism, and residents of these three southernmost atolls were pumped by the then-recent independence of neighboring Sri Lanka and India. (Maldives shed England in 1965.)
BALD BRITISH SURFER, late-30s, squinting at the pink sunset, gripping his fifth can of San Miguel beer at a white plastic table on the oceanfront deck of a Maldivian resort, watching dozens of fellow surf tourists hassling each other for the nice lefthanders here, 39 years later: “Mate, can you imagine being that Aussie bloke who shipwrecked here and found all these bloody waves with no one around?”
In the early ‘70s, Tony Hinde spent time in Sri Lanka before he and a friend boarded a yacht captained by an American. Captain America. The plan? Somalia, thousands of kilometers and a world away.
Instead of Africa, the crew wrecked on Maldivian coral. Salvage consumed the next two months. Meanwhile, the Australians found fun waves on Male’. Later, the guys left for India, but soon Hinde returned to the Maldives—for him, the seed was set. “Hardly a sunrise goes by that I don’t thank Allah for that shipwreck,” Hinde once said.
The Maldives proved fateful for Hinde, who in 2008 died surfing Pasta Point, ironically the same spot where in 1990 he’d established Tari Village, the nation’s first surf camp, exclusively represented to the world by Atoll Adventures, which he also founded. Humble little Tari Village is now the four-star Chaaya Island Dhonveli, “…the perfect destination for the discerning pleasure-seeker…one of the world’s best resort hotels,” according to its website.
NAVEL OF THE INDIAN OCEAN, yet aura-opposite to Maldives, the Chagos Archipelago is mostly bereft of surf, land, and infrastructure. It is the world’s largest nature preserve, some 648,000 square kilometers. Of its coralline structures, Diego Garcia is the most famous, an American military base (Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, its lease to expire in 2016). The base is the sole development in what constitutes the British Indian Ocean Territory—the six Chagos atolls, with more than 1,000 islands, a land area of 60 square kilometers. The Great Chagos Bank, in the middle of the archipelago and mostly underwater, is the world’s largest atoll structure, an area of 12,642 square kilometers. If it was all above water, Chagos would have many surf spots.
“In the Chagos group there are some ordinary atolls,” Darwin wrote, “some annular reefs rising to the surface but without any islets on them, and some atoll-formed banks, either quite submerged, or nearly so.”
Also unfortunate: the only way to reach Diego Garcia is via the USA or UK militaries, but you won’t be able to surf there since surfing is illegal, even for the people stationed there. Which is unfortunate too considering it receives near-constant swell. There is a confirmed left-hand gem off Simpson Point, the atoll’s westernmost nub, plus several shapely nicks in the surrounding reef. All blow offshore in the prevailing tradewind.
Elsewhere, surfing could happen at two of the other Chagos atolls—Salomon and Peros Banhos—publicly accessible by boat only, but windy and very fickle.
Beyond Diego Garcia, there are no airports or towns of any kind, no facilities, no indigenous residents—none because, in a major crime against humanity, about 1,700 of them were forcibly evicted to make way for the Navy base. They and their descendants now live in urban squalor in England, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
For the past few decades there has been a pointed quest by the islanders to get themselves back to the Chagos. In another study last year, the UK government again hired independent consultants (which included no Chagossians) to assess resettlement options and risks. In recent years, several online petitions have circulated and failed—not that they could accomplish anything, anyway.
The most recent one is on Avaaz. At press time, toward its goal of 3,000, its petition had received 2,841 signatures. Darwin’s isn’t one of them.
By Michael Kew
THOSE EYES. Round, black, soothed by salt air and mossy, spicy, rotted-earth tang of tropical rain forest.
Goodbye. A chance encounter with a South Pacific beauty. Dressed in white, off solo to evening church, flower adorning her left ear. She broke from the beach with a final back glance, casting another soft smile as I waded into the lagoon for a swim.
Tofa soifua—yes. Forgotten? No.
Dusk now. Coconut palm fronds sweep over the beach as I pick barefoot over coral and lava, drawing deeper into the 87°F sea. First immersion and I’m away from the North Pacific and all of its frigid reverences, springtide gales, woods, white sharks, hypothermia. One-third of Earth is Pacific, larger than all lands combined, and here was its lower half—a warm wet, unlike the March gray I’d abandoned in California days prior.
As was the rough midnight drop through the clouds into Faleolo Airport, Apia. Last off the jet, through the emptied Air New Zealand rows and farewelling stewardesses, I pressed straight into Upolu’s sublime stickiness—another warm wet, this one nosed with sweat, bloom, and soil. Entrance to the unspoiled heart of Polynesia.
"THERE IS A TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE HERE IN SAMOA." Lots of Samoan, they know how fishing. They’re the people who not afraid about the ocean. But the people who not know how to fish, they afraid about the ocean. But Samoan island is still same as the Hawaiian people—they like ocean.”
Magenta floods the early sky as I converse with Vai, resort employee and one of Samoa’s native surfing handful. We are aboard the resort’s 34-foot aluminum twin-hulled vessel engulfed by the absolute essence of morning: sunrise at sea.
South shore’s Aganoa Point. Built of jagged black lava, it is robed in rain forest, further softened by summit mists and verdant skylines spilling to the ocean. Daylight reveals empty triple-overhead lefts detonating against deep-set lava reef. Stand-up barrels for anyone with experience and a pintail. With a leap of courage over the gunwale, we are surfing.
Nine hours later, I swill a lager and muse about the virtual nonexistence of native Samoan surfers. Saia describes it this way:
“Many surfers from overseas ask me about any Samoan surfing before. They try to find the history—is there anyone here in Samoa who took place in surfing? Well, there’s a legend story about the one Samoan surfing. It is a true story. We use it here now for our speeches.
“So, in American Samoa, there’s a village named Afono. One day, the people wake up in the morning and look out to the ocean. There’s a man who’s surfing the waves, from the reef, going back beyond the reef, go back…like that. And the people stand on the beach and wave their hands. They try to chase him. ‘Who’s that man? Get off! Get off!’ Like that. So the man run away from that island of American Samoa from the village of Afono and stay here in a village on Upolu. The village is very straight from American Samoa to here.
“At that time there was a very big fight in the villages here on Upolu. That man came and lived here in this village where that fight happens. All the villages, they prepared for a fight. So this man included in this group. They don’t know who he is, where he from. When the fight ended, he’s a different man. This a man who won the fight. But this a man from Afono, from the village of American Samoa, so they chase him out.
“Afono villagers, they know the stories about the fights here. They know that’s the man they chased out from their village, so there’s a Samoan proverb which means Afono missed their blessing. They’re lucky from this man. That man surfing, the one who surfing is a very hero man. And I know that this history of surfing is a very long time ago took place. Because there’s a man in American Samoa who surf. He’s a hero man, know everythings. Good in a tide, in a ocean. When he go out there, he know how to surf. When he go on land, he know how to fight. He’s a hero.
“That is the story and history I know from long time ago. Lots of Samoans, they know it. We have a special proverb like if you missed something, or you just throw something away, the people say, ‘Ah, you missed your blessing’ or ‘You missed your lucky.’ They missed chance to learn surfing.”
POLYNESIAN TRANQUILLITY comes with a sinking sun into palm silhouettes. Four more breaststrokes and I can’t touch lagoon bottom. Stop and tread water, blink the eyes clear and see the girl vanish into riotous vegetation, from the beach back onto the coral road. It was a pleasant stroll. A detour.
Many attend church at this hour. Others commune in social centers, rugby fields, dinner mats in spartan homes. Down at the resort, now a faint glow to the east, Saia serves cocktails. “I surf the waves with my eyes,” he said to me earlier, pointing to his face then to the ocean. One day, he claims, it will be with a surfboard. Still treading, I think of this and look south. Dim horizon fuzz grows pale with broken swell hitting the barrier reef. No surfing out there.
The girl is gone and so is the sun. Twilight resplendence suffocates all else. Here, just offshore Salamumu, I drift on my back, ears filled with muffled wave energy. Close the eyes then open them to the evening star. I try to envision these people at war once with Tonga, or with the rough sea and reefs in fishing canoes, with the Christian white man invasion, with natural disasters, with the tattoo needle. All overcome. For now, it is Samoan idyll.
By Michael Kew
I hoped to not need blood on Réunion. Sharks there take plenty.
But it’s always interesting to land on an island amid a gala you know nothing about. For me, in St-Denis, it was the Globule Festival:
The festival is to celebrate life. Goal is to celebrate around this simple, generous and supportive as blood donation. A gesture that allows to treat each year in France more than a million patients. While the need for blood products increases faster than the number of gifts, come to discover or extend your knowledge on the wonderful world of blood donation.
I circumnavigated. Marveled at the lava flows in the southeast. Acres of sugarcane, pampas grass. East-northeast was sparse, lush, less trafficky. South was congested and not nearly as pretty.
Near sunset there appeared lush scenery on the Plaine d’Affouches, behind La Possession. Coconut plantations below. Stark white homes on the green hillside.
Few people spoke English. For dinner I walked to a snack bar at La Prachois in St-Denis; used my phrasebook to order a jambon (fries + ketchup + cheese melted on top) for 3 euros, plus three Bourbon beers.
I was struck by the fact that France (5,700 miles northwest) instilled this. The architecture, the language, et al. If Réunion was never a French colony, it might be like, what?—it’s hard to say, because most islands nearby were all French colonies, from Madagascar to Comoros to Rodrigues.
Next day. Early. Sunny. Breakfasted on strong espresso and croissants, fresh pineapple, yogurt, pineapple juice, cheese, baguettes.
The surf was pumping, the weather perfect—blue sky, light wind, not muggy, not hot.
The sets were inconsistent—a 15-second swell from the southwest. The lineup was not pedestrian. One guy was truly ripping; from afar, I figured he was another Réunionnaise star like Boris le Texier or Jeremy Flores.
“Man, that guy can really surf,” I thought.
Turns out he was some guy filming on site for the “Modern Collective” film, which I learned this morning after randomly browsing Surfing magazine’s website.
Some guy named Jordy Smith.
By Michael Kew
What’s beyond that gate? Off to the right fork?
“Oh, she’s just a grower,” Paul said. “She wants to be left alone.”
He walked me to a few trailers, a small cabin, and a mobile home. All were for rent, month-to-month, and available now. Each had its own unique view and quirky '70s vibe. Only one piqued me.
“How much for this trailer?”
It was $285 per month, plus a $75 cleaning deposit and monthly expenses for gasoline for the small generator, and propane for the refrigerator, stove, and water heater. The water was drawn from a spring reputedly tainted with agricultural runoff. Officials warned to not drink it.
“We all drink it,” Paul said. “We put it through a filter, and nobody’s ever gotten sick.”
Right then, through the trees, 1,700 feet above a whitewater triangle, I peered into sanctuary.
The rain was ubiquitous, continuous, monotonous, formless. Then the sky cracked late for a soft pink sunset over the sea beyond the rivermouth, where I sat and watched rights peel along the new sandbar, occupied by gulls and seals. A rare wave, also one of the most dangerous. Still, the rivermouth comforted me. Some places are like that.
By night I had made another fire, crackling and spattering while I sat on a log and sucked cheap merlot from the bottle. Only the rash of crickets were heard, the occasional frog, the shoosh of wind through the woods. Warm smoke from fir buffeted my face; the torquing oranges and yellows the only things visible. There was immense value to such peace.
The next morning, I found a locked gate. Perhaps karma for me not paying the camping fee the two nights I stayed in the desolate campground. Perhaps because authorities don’t want people stranded down there in winter.
I saw a ranger and asked him about it. He said not to worry, that surfers go to a spot nearby that was a better than where I was headed.
“It has a lot of reefs and shorebreaks—just terrible things,” he said.
He told me where to go and walk, so I did. Parked at another gate, stuffed my wetsuit/booties into a plastic bag, grabbed a towel and surfboard, and hiked.
The ranger was right.
One-hundred-and-eighteen years ago, on this grassy terrace of cows and trees, a palatial hotel was set for construction. Its decadence was to surpass all of California’s elite lodgings, well-advertised to the world’s well-heeled, set to arrive en masse to enjoy the crème de la crème this side of Marseille.
There was also a town to be built here, an “Exquisite Summer and Winter Resort”—luxurious cottages were advertised, with wide boulevards and leafy promenades, close to the Southern-Pacific railway, yet to be laid. And, of course, there was the blue sea and its allure, sparkly with sun.
From the town’s promotional brochure, circa 1887:
The sea beach is a clean white sand and gravel; and gently sloping into the ocean affords better opportunities for enjoyable sea bathing than can be obtained elsewhere. Along these clean shining sands are strewn wondrously rich salt sea algae and often the cliffs are carved into fantastic caves and coves of great beauty.
But nothing was built, credited to a number of reasons, primarily the developer’s gift for over-dreaming and under-doing. Hence the hotel and town became nothing but a draftsman’s paper city.
Today, one would have to look south for the mentality required to blueprint 54 giant luxury homes, 16 of them blufftop, precisely where I stood one fine winter day.
PIT VIPER POINT
Dusk brought fog from afar, the blues and greens of a late-October day gone within seconds. Hours before, a spontaneous hike to a surf spot warranted shoes and long pants and shirt: rife with poison oak and sharp twigs and ticks and other pests unseen. (I am immune to poison oak.)
The reef was almost working, with occasional glimpses of glassy surfability. The peak would pop and trip, pitching yards from black boulders, completely hidden, surrounded by perhaps a half-dozen more unridden surf spots.
Pre-fog, sunny heat drew sweat as I pondered the afternoon’s options: tide, wind, swell, light. Nature photography is an unending pursuit—at times it is enough to drive you mad.
Later, beneath a black, drizzly sky, I focused on sound. The surf was a white noise, the air damp and still. Again the fire cracks, the wood burns, the smoke rises. Some logs are louder than others, some burn slower, reluctantly.
Writing in a forest aside the sea on a cold mid-week night harks of a different aura, a different era—pure life. Purity undiluted by trappings of today.
Drunkenness stems pensiveness and its threads of epiphany, steadfast without influence, snuffed temporarily by headache and sleep. Dizzily pissing into a bush under the stars accelerates the desperation of a wholesome doze, those precious eight hours I rarely catch.
And then it was dawn.
It was at that moment I realized that somewhere in the modern world, far from here, roared the insanity of morning rush-hour traffic—drivers commuting to jobs they may or may not like. But as I sipped my instant coffee, trying to identify birdsongs above, the world was gone.
Gale warning today; already gusting to 33 knots in the channel. Sole chance for surfing existed at a delightful little pocket beach at the mouth of a creek. There I found a painfully inconsistent right-hand reef riddled with kelp and boils. Swell was a mixture of west and north, about head-high, but hollow and hidden.
Lunched on stale doughnuts just up the coast. Sea and sky coalesced as four shades of blue, the lower two turquoise then darker, the upper baby blue to azure.
I fell into conversation with a scruffy fisherman who called himself a “sea gypsy”—but his boat was wrecked. He and his wife collided with another vessel inside of a fog bank two days prior, and he was attempting to repair it and sail south tomorrow.
He asked me about the surf here, and about my colorful board.
“Found it,” I said. “The airbrush is supposed to scare sharks.”
The sea gypsy rattled off all the things wrong with his sailboat. Then: “I’m gonna get to San Francisco, fix it, then sell the damn thing so I can get a bigger boat. Sailed that thing to Hawai’i once. Just came down from Seattle.”
His fleshy face was sunburnt and stubbly. His head was bald. He wore coke-bottle glasses, a blue beanie, sandals, gray sweatpants and a green flannel shirt. His voice was loud and obnoxious. His wife, who I saw later, had blue hair and tattered clothes. She smiled often.
Turns out he was a tattoo artist, and skin art was his primary source of income.
What did he do? Tattoo fish?
Spilled half of my lunchtime beer onto the van’s carpet floor, soaking some mail and my laptop bag. So the van smelled like a brewery, fouled by wet booties.
Met a bubbly little hippie girl named Alyssa who pulled into the same turnout. She was from New Hampshire, living here for the summer. Soon headed to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, then to Santa Cruz for dance school. Tomorrow’s her 21st birthday. I told her my 25th fell a couple of weeks back.
“Oh, I just love Leos,” she gushed. “We’re such sun people, aren’t we?”
Her skin was a soft, smooth olive brown. Long, thick, blonde hair, large-breasted, with dull hazel eyes in a round, smiling face. Bouncy, loose voice. Tight shorts, tank-top, sandals, shell necklace, bracelets, rings. Just back from yoga down at the famous Esalen Institute, where patrons enjoy hot springs and massage under the stars, high above the Pacific. Alyssa worked there part-time, so she’s granted key-access.
She handed me a card with her name and phone number written on it.
“Give me a call when you come through again; we can go down there.”
Now…backed into another turnout, this one for sleep. Cliff and sea at the rear; sun blocked by an offshore fogbank. The spaces between cars grow longer and quieter, and the sea fills the ears—as it should.
PRAIRIE FERN FALLS
Spring rain douses the car’s roof. Not another sound. Life seems at a stand-still here in the rain forest, though the woods evolve constantly. The ground is awash in green ferns and clovers, crowding the wide tree bases. Above, old-growth Sitka spruce limbs twist heavily with beards of clubmoss. To my left, six elk graze in dense undergrowth.
The rain intensifies swiftly, then stops. Again it falls, feeding the 200 inches of annual rain this place receives.
The only thing dry here is the inside of this car, where I lounge with the seat eased back, taking in the ancient tranquility, bringing sleep.
Awakened by the hoots of an unseen owl. At dawn I strolled along a trail, snapping photographs in misty solitude. Salmonberry, once the subsistence of Indians, flourishes thick at thigh-level, with herbs, ferns, lichens and fungi…moss everywhere, surviving on moisture and air-borne nutrients, never penetrating the tree bark. Fallen trees are unique nurseries, providing a foothold for saplings, ferns, herbs and…more moss. The dripping big-leaf maple trees are the most lush, drooping over the trail.
Aside from the random bird and gurgling stream, the forest is silent enough to hear the high-pitched ring in my ears. The streams are pure, healthy, swirling mirrors of the woods above. I took a drink.
Hiked down the steep trail and headed south over deep black sand, which was difficult to walk on. Tide was incoming. I approached a creek and admired its nearby surf spot. There the waves broke not far from shore, all rights. A gnarly, rocky reef. The swell was a clean 10 feet at 17 seconds; the day was cloudy and windless. I was intimidated from paddling out because it looked ominous. I wasn’t prepared—hungry, thirsty, paranoid. Returning was never a question; nature redeemed me on sunnier days, in spirit and in time—wilderness time.
By Michael Kew
On your first day in Canada, you might find yourself mapless in a 4X4 pickup on a signless, snow-flanked logging road. This road has many forks and it badly disorients you.
Later, you might pull up to the head of a desolate fjord. It’s a ways down, at the base of a cliff. You can see a pebbly beachbreak, a flawless right point, and an enticing left rivermouth, but despite epic scenery and proximity to open ocean, these possibilities are lake-flat while, outside, the exposed coast is bombing. Slabs galore. A jet ski would be useful, but trailering it out atop that road would have banged the thing to bits. Having nowhere to launch it is another issue.
That, and being alone.
On your second day in Canada, you might deal with unruly swell. Aside from finding a surfable spot, it might be a chore getting to that swell. Beyond the small dark town from whence you drove, there is scant pavement but many remote harbors, overgrown hiking trails, and little else but steep cliffs, impassable alpine ridges of rock and snow, and dense forests that average 20 feet of rain annually, pelted by furious winds and enormous seas.
On your third day in Canada, you might find yourself walking on one of those overgrown trails, its slick mud linked by the crossings of four waist-deep creeks. You are in black bear territory. Dense, wet foliage smothers much of the path, so most of the hike is done in your 6mm fullsuit and 7mm booties while holding your surfboard and pack over your head. After an hour or two, you spy a through-the-trees vista that exemplifies the northwest surf experience: a gray Pacific, jagged black rocks, and some variation of rideable surf that, depending on your attitude, might not justify the risk.
For most surfers, Canada is a cruel and unusual place.
“My reality here is that it takes a lot of effort to find good waves,” Raphael Bruhwiler confided to me from his home in Tofino (ironically voted “Best Surf Town in North America” in 2010 by Outside magazine). “If you’re not prepared, you can die very easily, and if something goes wrong, you’ve got to stay warm. Lately, we’ve been wearing drysuits because, if you fall out of my boat, you can survive. If you fall out wearing a lifejacket, you’ll die in about 20 minutes since the water is so cold. And drysuits protect you from rain — you never get wet, which is really necessary until you’re actually surfing.”
A gritty soldier of British Columbia (Canada’s westernmost province), Raph needs no introduction. You’ve seen his name in surf magazines. His wetsuited frame in slab-barrel shots. Ads for his surf school. His woodsy “Innersection” thing on the interwebs. During the 2010 Winter Olympics torch relay, for a global audience, you saw him proudly hoist the flame as he surfed toward the white Tofino sand. Besides Pete Devries, his dear friend, Raph is arguably Canada’s most famous surfer, almost unilaterally pegging the Maple Leaf Nation to the world surf map.
Thing is, Vancouver Island waves aren’t what the world wants them to be, especially since the best waves have no roads to them, and good boats with good weather can be tough to orchestrate. Contrarily, whatever Tofino’s beachbreaks lack in quality and character might be redeemed by their carpark-access for anyone with wheels or a thumb. But you don’t visit Vancouver Island to surf those beachbreaks. They suck.
“There are still so many spots to discover,” Raph says, “but it’s such a huge and rugged stretch of coast that it’s hard to be at the right place at the right time. If I had a ton of money, and if I had a helicopter or a floatplane to buzz around in, there would be many more spots being found.” (laughs)
Once, he was my seatmate on a less esoteric kind of flight.
“Better put your jackets on!” the Air Canada Jazz stewardess had yelled over the noise. “It’s a bit breezy out there!”
We stepped through the Dash 8’s door and were nearly blown off the airplane stairs. The wind was sharp, the air freezing. Black storm clouds loomed. Behind the tiny airport were jagged, snow-covered mountains, and in the distance lay one of the world’s most feared waterfetches, wicked that day, smeared white by a southeasterly gale.
“At least it’s offshore somewhere!” someone yelled over the din.
This was expected. Daily, for weeks leading up to our departure, I’d monitored the island’s weather online, and the forecasts were repetitive, like the one posted the day of our arrival:
Storm warning continued. Wind warning in effect.
Tonight..Rain. Amount 20 mm. Wind southeast 50 to 70 km/h increasing to 70 to 100 overnight. Low plus 5.
Thursday..Rain. Amount 20 mm. Wind southeast 70 to 100 km/h becoming south 40 to 60 in the afternoon. High 8.
Thursday night..Rain. Amount 10 to 15 mm. Wind southeast 50 to 80 km/h. Low 8.
Friday..Rain. Wind southeast 50 to 70 km/h increasing to 70 to 100 then becoming south 30 late this afternoon. High 10.
On the bus heading to town, a filthy fisherman with an odd drawl promised us that there was a giant wave “just like Maverick’s” that broke out in front of a fishing lodge his friend worked for, out on the west coast.
“It breaks best when the winds are about 70 knots onshore,” the fisherman said. “Just comes up out of nowhere and boom, this huge roller, taller’n a totem pole.”
“Which way does it break?” we asked, eyebrows raised. “Left or right?”
“Oh, just straight in, right toward shore.”
Outside our motel, we were mocked by passersby; one woman thought we’d brought oversized snowboards. Three loggers in the café next door thought we were hippie tree-planters from the large city of Vancouver. Apparently, tree-huggers/planters were not particularly admired out here despite the island’s forests being logged at twice the sustainable rate.
Still, we would not be digging holes for cedar saplings.
“You guys are here to go surfing?” the loggers asked, laughing at us. “Good luck!”
Down at the harbor, another local said we were out of our minds, that if we wanted to go surfing, we needed to go somewhere like California or Hawaii. He suggested that we start drinking whiskey instead, joining him at a nearby cocktail lounge, where there would be “guaranteed fights.”
While the offer of drinking and fighting proved nearly irresistible, we declined and repaired to a dingy Chinese restaurant where we checked the online forecast and brainstormed between forkloads of MSG. Nearshore buoys reported a 27-foot windswell. Heading seaward in a boat was undesirable. As they often did in Canada, for surfing, things looked bad.
“It’ll probably get worse,” Raph said.
“Hopefully it will blow 70 knots onshore,” I said.
This was not Raph’s immediate home turf. We were not near the apple of his surf eye, a rogue slab deep in the inclement wilds of Clayoquot Sound. Clayoquot, by the way, was derived from the name of the local First Nations (i.e. Indian) band called the Tla-o-qui-aht, which translated as “changing” or “different.”
Gazing out at shifting clouds and horizontal rain and distant snowcaps, listening to the wind shriek past the dirty restaurant windows, we could almost relate. We’d found fun albeit gutless waves at one lefthand rivermouth, but really, until then, searching for waves, we’d driven an average of 150 miles a day, very slowly, with no music, in a rented four-wheel-drive truck, progressively coating the cab’s floor with food wrappers and empty water bottles. In the truck for hour upon hour, fidgeting and farting and letting the comedy flow freely. Let’s see what’s down that road became the theme, the driver (me) repeatedly and abruptly veering the truck off the main road and down sketchy singletracks in dense rain forest, usually leading to an impassable hole or horizontal tree, or to another flat beachbreak, or to the cabin of a reclusive family or an incoherent, loudmouthed hippie who didn’t want us there.
Other locals were more cerebral (search “Vancouver Island surfers hanging out with our Orcas” on YouTube).
“Yeah,” Raph says from Tofino. He’s just returned from another camping trip to his beloved slab. “I’ve had a few close encounters with orcas.
“But I think they know that humans taste like shit.”
By Michael Kew
November 2014: my Carpinteria possessions are stuffed into a 10x10 storage unit off Via Real.
The future: a riverside cabin six miles north of California. Three-month (minimum) lease.
The transfer: 14 hours from Carp to Brookings with a carload of basics—one fatbike, one surfboard, three cats. I’d planned to ping south a month later, pack a U-Haul, return to Oregon, and push my domestic goods into a 5x10 storage unit till I found an unfurnished cabin in coastal rainforest. Meanwhile, the surfboard—a white 7’0” Ryan Lovelace single-fin “Kegg”—would bridge the gap. Just a few no-quiver weeks, right?
Backstory: in May 2014, I asked Lovelace to craft the Kegg (portmanteau of Kew and egg), a wide, thin hull for a variety of surf—small, medium, mushy, hollow, almondy, weak, strong, long, short, rights, lefts, reforms, reefs, points, bullish beachbreaks. A one-board quiver, you might say.
But this was not the Kegg kismet. I’d aimed to plug it into my foam-fiberglass gyre, ranging from a 5’2” finless to a 9’11” fish. In the 805, I rode them all—sometimes a few the same day or in the same hour. Easy to do at loyal right points. But to a simple man like me, the quiver seemed superfluous.
August 2015: my stuff is still in the storage unit, near Ophelia, Lovelace’s merry bus/home that’s parked on a communal Highway 150 knoll. I’m still in the furnished cabin, 730 miles north, and I’m still riding the Kegg. It has no dings. I have no other surfboards here. It’s been a chance, 10-month, one-board era—the fourth in my surf life.
One-Board Epoch 1—Encinitas, 1986. A brown 6’3” Surfboards Hawaii four-channel, two-wing thruster, found in the used rack at the old Sunset store (now a bike shop) on First Street. I rode the 6’3” exclusively for one year. It was my first surfboard.
Then came many Channel Islands shapes as my dad’s friend (Tom Curren’s stockbroker) could swing deals on custom Merricks. Growing up, Montecito family trips were common, with fluorescent-wetsuit jaunts to the Ranch. At my Encinitas middle school, full of surfers, no one knew about Channel Islands.
During high school, I chose local, buying boards from Gary McNabb and World Core, chased by the many Matt Muhlethaler basement creations that crept through my collegiate Isla Vista-Arcata years. In 1997 I again went local, placing orders with Humboldt foamsmiths Allen Main and Brian Kang, capped by a blue-yellow zigzag-striped shape I found while hiking.
One-Board Epoch 2—Lost Coast, 1998: A rotund 7’6” Raisin with three pink fins. Like a trans-Pacific relic from Japan, it lay thrashed and half-buried in sand at the mouth of a creek. “Finders, keepers!” the friendly shaper, Ben, later said with a laugh. He fixed the dings for free. The Raisin surfed well in myriad waves, so I shunned my other boards for two years.
The zigzag airbrush repelled sharks, Ben said. He gave me a black long-sleeve Raisin shirt; I gave him six-packs of fresh Red Nectar Ale, a perk of working for Arcata’s Humboldt Brewing Company. Ben lived near Whitethorn but was originally from Santa Barbara, to where I remigrated in 2000.
One-Board Epoch 3—Goleta, 2001. A family friend gave an 8’0” Todd Kay tri-fin “T8” model to my dad, but he didn’t surf it. So Dad leant it to me; I rode it for 18 months. When Dad reclaimed the T8, my quiver infusions flowed from Fletcher Chouinard and Dave Parmenter. Next were piles of customs from Marc Andreini, Mr. Lovelace, and Kyle Albers, plus one-offs from Larry Mabile, Gregg Tally, and Connor Lyon.
Today, amid One-Board Epoch 4, I enjoy the lack of choice, the autopilot ease. The Kegg lives in my car. It has simplified things. No thoughts wasted, no debate on what to surf. Epoch 4 could last for a while.
Yet old habits die hard. Next week, I’m getting a 5’3” fish that Joe Curren shaped for me. After that? Carpinteria.
By Michael Kew
“Chuck Corbett has 17 surfboards and not one pair of shoes.” —Dave Parmenter
That was in 1993, the year Parmenter surfed with Corbett on Kiritimati in the central Pacific. Fifteen years later, in 2008, Corbett has 26 surfboards…but still no shoes, socks, reef booties, or sandals. He can’t remember the last time he’s worn anything on his feet. Yvon Chouinard calls Corbett the “Atoll Man,” and on a sandy atoll like Kiritimati in a country like Kiribati, you don’t need much foot protection. Surfboards, on the other hand, can come in handy.
An atoll is a flat, coral-ring island partially or completely enclosing a lagoon, the lagoon usually being linked with the open ocean via at least one reef pass. With luck, and if it is exposed to reliable swell, the pass is blessed with tapered bathymetry, in turn producing surfable waves along either side of the reef leading into the lagoon.
Of Earth’s 194 countries, only five are comprised entirely of atolls: Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kiribas’), and aside from Tokelau, a dependent of New Zealand, they are all sovereign. In the United Nations system, the Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu are on the official ‘Least Developed Countries’ list, but in terms of surfing, the Maldives are largely colonized, while Tuvalu remains obscure, one of the ‘Least Developed Countries’ in the surf-travel genre, even if its surf potential is low. Tokelau has zero waves, and the Marshall Islands—which have a small surf culture—were recently dissected by Martin Daly, his Indies Trader IV now running luxury charters there between November and March.
But what of Kiribati? Only one guy knows. No other surfer besides Tony Hinde (of Maldives fame) deserves to be called an “Atoll Man,” because Chuck Corbett has spent the last 30 of his 52 years probing the surf potential out amongst Kiribati’s 33 remote atolls, themselves split into three groups—the Gilbert, the Phoenix, and the Line islands. Kiribati’s total land mass is just 313 square miles, but its total sea area encompasses 1,370,656 square miles, straddling the equator for 2,010 miles. That’s a lot of surf real estate for one man.
Of the 33 atolls, only Tarawa and Kiritimati have regular (once weekly) international air service. The others are reachable solely by private yacht, or, if you’ve got months to burn and a thirst for adventure, you could try one of the rusty inter-island freighters that come and go infrequently. Or you could do what Corbett did: move there, start an export business, start a family, and renounce your native citizenship—for the sake of surfing.
Satisfying a longtime urge, last January I flew from Honolulu to Kiritimati and surfed with Corbett at the same wave he’d shared years before with Parmenter and Chouinard, a fast right-hand reef pass that bowled and pinwheeled into the lagoon. Later, on his fine refurbished S/V Tuaraoi, a 60-foot cutter which he and a business partner had planned to use for charters in the Line Islands, I chatted with Corbett about all things Kiribati, particularly its waves, perhaps rarest in all of Oceania despite its location—even if you live there.
How did you end up in Kiribati?
I first went to Hawaii in 1973 from Costa Mesa, California. In high school I was socially dysfunctional because I couldn’t communicate with anybody except surfers. I became a surf Nazi, perhaps even more so because being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness kept me away from drugs, drinking, the wildness of youth. I was quite polarized being a surf Nazi.
What got my ticket to Hawai’i was winning a Robert August surfboard at the Huntington Beach Theatre in 1972. It was custom, and I had it airbrushed with dolphins and stuff, which was the ‘in’ thing then. For my ticket, I sold that board. I went to Hawai’i and was supposed to come back, but didn’t. I was 16.
I spent the next four years surfing on Oahu and working odd construction jobs to survive. I became sort of disillusioned with the crowds and violence—there was a lot of violence in the ‘70s, compared to today. I’d met someone who had photos of that left on Guam, and there was this opportunity to go to Guam as a volunteer to build a church for Jehovah’s Witnesses, some branch office, so I jumped on that. Got to Guam and waited three months before we had waves there, but when the waves finally did come, Guam was a paradise for barrels. Lots of hollow waves there. Real shallow.
I spent a year and a half there, and toward the end of 1978 I was looking at going either to Indonesia or Tahiti. Then I met this family on a yacht who were traveling around the world, and they described this good right-hander in Kiritimati, and they said the reef felt like popcorn, because of the hard seaweed on the reef. And so I was real interested to go there.
The other determining factor for going toward the Gilberts was while I was on the North Shore sanding surfboards for Tom Parrish, I overhead Joey Cabell and another guy talking, and all I remember hearing him say, apart from talking about the Tuamotus and sailing, was, “…and there’s a good left on Fanning.”
And so in March 1979 I took off for Christmas Island, but I had to get to Christmas to get to Fanning, and to do that I had to go to Nauru and then to Tarawa. I spent a week in Nauru, surfing there. Nauru has fun surf, but most of the waves are kind of sucky and shallow. On the way from Nauru to Tarawa, I met some oceanographers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and right then and there I got a job with them diving, because their diver had gotten meningitis.
Where did you go first?
We arrived on the island of Tarawa, and from there we got set up. First we went north to the islands of Abaiang; we skipped Marakei, but we went to Butaritari, and we visited the island of Makin. Then we did the central islands, which was Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, and then we went back to Tarawa. Our third trip was to the southern islands, which were Arorae, Tamana, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tabiteuea, and Nonouti. On Tabiteuea I surfed where you couldn’t see the land because the reef was 15 miles out. It was fun, head-high waves. The ship was there, of course, but what was neat was being totally out of sight of the land and riding waves. To get into the lagoon, the ship had to go where there was a channel through the reef, and there was almost always something there, some little wave that I could ride. To get better waves, you’ve got to off to the ends of the islands, where the trade wind swell might wrap around, or, if it was wintertime, catching the wrap on the northwest swell. The other season we have is El Niño…every year over there, they almost always get a westerly season, when the trades reverse. The eastern shores of the atolls all have a much gentler slope, so you can surf it on most tides. Then it becomes a matter of finding a bend in the reef that’ll make waves.
Over the next three or four months, I got to visit most of the islands in the Gilberts with this MIT team. They were studying counter-equatorial ocean currents, but it was a really difficult job. I saw their engineer break down and cry because it was so hard to get things done. We were on this government freighter that would go to the islands and do freight; MIT chartered it to go between the islands for retrieving the instruments that had been set down in the channels the year before. I was loving every minute of it, surfing at the stops and seeing a culture not effected by the outside world. I got to go diving and surfing on probably 12 of the 16 atolls.
Did it feel like you were really finding some new unridden waves?
I was just having fun surfing. I never thought anything about being the only one out there. I was looking for waves and surfing wherever I found them. What was kind of interesting was that after being in Hawai’i in the ‘70s, where you could get beat-up easily, I learned to keep a profile that avoided getting in trouble with the local people. That really helped me in the Gilberts. The other thing that was totally amazing was experiencing their traditional dance and life that hadn’t changed even since Robert Louis Stevenson’s written descriptions of it in 1888. Their culture hadn’t changed at all, and you can still see that today. To hear them sing, the emotion of it brings tears to one’s eye.
I was looking for good waves, but I wasn’t on some search to find the perfect wave. I knew Fanning had a good wave.
Working in the Gilberts, what struck you as far as Kiribati compared to Guam?
It’s true that I left Hawai’i for Guam because I was disillusioned with the crowds, but living the Gilberts, I forgot all about that. I was stuck surfing alone. On the outer islands of the Gilberts, it was like going back in time. All the houses were thatched, you’d get water from a well. You used large breadfruit leaves for plates and ate with your hands. People wore very simple clothes. To make canoes, the locals would cut down a breadfruit tree and they’d wait five years for it to try. Then they’d hand-hew the log with an ax until it was roughly square, and with a handsaw they would cut planks a half-inch thick, 12 to 15 feet long. They would sew the planks together using the sap from the breadfruit tree, and they would fit the planks together until they were water-tight.
The locals think that their islands are paradise. They’re satisfied with what they have. To be ambitious is not only looked down upon, but the collective consciousness of the culture will apply pressure to keep people from being so. This is because they live on very small islands with very limited resources, and they developed an egalitarian society, where all people are to be equal, and the equality works to the low end of the spectrum rather than the high end. Over generations, if someone wanted to be industrious or ambitious, those people were kicked off the islands.
But if it wasn’t that way, Kiribati could be very popular like the Caribbean. It keeps it uncrowded and prevents business from going, and it’s always going to be this way. Any sort of business that someone from the outside wants to do is always going to have tremendous difficulty.
Nobody’s working to make the nation better or protect it or to save fish for their children. Alcoholism and violence against women are major problems. The only future I can see is that Kiribati will continue to be a welfare nation and depend more and more on nations to help them out. We’ve seen the tunafish stocks decrease by perhaps 70 percent in the last 20 years. The crunch is coming, when there won’t be enough fish for the people. There will always be reef fish, but it’ll continue to get harder and harder. Gone are the days when it’s possible to catch tuna every day when they’re in season. There are 185 purse-seiners out there, each one taking thousands of tons of fish daily, slowly cleaning the ocean out of tuna and other valuable pelagic fish.
What about the islands’ leaders?
They get that way by not being leaders—by being quiet in the longhouse, by, if they have something to say, by saying it for their church, for whatever side they’re on, whether it’s Catholic or Protestant. Here, the government and decisions are made by consensus, and someone who’s a born leader will never make it as one. They’ll be shunned.
Kiribati had been a British colony for more than 100 years. In a sense, the British were good because they were quite tight-fisted with money, and it forced these islands to remain self-sufficient. When you compare it to American Micronesia, when there was a problem, Uncle Sam would just throw large amounts of money at it, and so you wound up with a lot more corruption and stuff like that. The British were more like minimalists, and that really helped so that the people of these islands retained more of their culture than the surrounding islands. I went to a dance once in the Marshalls, and it was supposed to be traditional, but they were wearing jeans and sweatshirts, dancing to Filipino music.
There are really no white people or foreigners living in the outer islands of Kiribati. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one who has stayed on an outer island for years. The reason there aren’t more is because of this vast difference of cultures, thoughts, and ideas that they run into this brick wall, and they just say ‘screw it.’ They arrive here, they become very infatuated with the place and the beauty, and they want to live here and stay, and they last a few months. In the capital (Tarawa), they may go a few years. Really, the only way to live is without money. It’s part of the paradise equation, and you’ll corrupt it with material things and money. If you have only time to share, you’ll get along with everyone, but if you have more things then they do, and you’re part of their society, people want a little piece of what you have, and everywhere you turn, you’ll be chipped away at until eventually you’re either equal with them, or you’re fighting with them. So people will move here and wind up, in effect, having to build a wall around themselves to keep their Western ideas.
Have you abandoned yours?
No, but since now I live on a boat and I’m offshore. Before I had the boat, gradually I went from living in the middle of the society to the fringe of it. Being on a boat, I kind of have everything here, and it’s not as visible to people ashore as to what I’m doing and what I have. But through the things I’ve learned, it allows me to, if I choose, it allows me to still be a part of any of the communities or villages, I can. It helps to be on a boat. I’m on the fringe now.
I was ready to go after about four months in the Gilberts. I really wanted to get to Christmas Island, but one day I was walking down the street on Tarawa, and there was this great big commotion, and there was a large guy beating a young girl. He was hitting her with a 2x2 piece of wood; when that broke, he grabbed her by her hair and was kicking her. Instinctually I just jumped over the fence and ran over to grab this guy to stop him. He ducked when I jumped, and I wound up hanging on his back upside down with my legs around his head—quite comical. We fell down, the girl was running away, and shortly thereafter I was running away after her. The man got on a motorbike and was chasing us through the bush, around coconut trees and through taro pits, and eventually we got to a point where we got back to the main road, and there was a minibus going by. We got on the bus, and the man stopped the minibus just before we got to her village. I thought he was going to beat the shit out of me, but he was still upset with this girl. He reached right over my head and grabbed her by the hair. I was holding on to his arm with both of my hands, and he was pulling the girl over the top of me. Suddenly the police came on, and there was all kinds of yelling and stuff. The lowdown was that the girl was 18 at the time and was free to go, and that was her uncle. The police stopped him right there, and the bus went on, the people erupting in just hysterical laughter. I wound up being with that girl and marrying her. She was my first wife. I have two children with her, one a travel agent in Tarawa, and the other a student in Suva, Fiji.
We hid out on one end of the island, and when a small ship was going up to her home island of Makin, we jumped on and went and met her family.
On Makin I had to find a way to survive. There was a British guy and a Kiwi there, and the British guy was the former district officer for the British government, and they were trying to develop businesses on the outer islands. They got a little banana business that I took over. I started buying bananas from the northern islands, and I had a 125cc Honda with a sidecar, and I would sell bananas to the stores and hospitals and schools on Tarawa. I had this route, and it was quite social—I got to visit the different expats and stuff. It rains a lot on the northern islands, and I would go up there and work with people on propagating bananas, encouraging them to grow other things—cabbages and papayas and pumpkins. We tried all kinds of things.
We knew there was a market for shark fins and sea cucumbers, and gradually we started buying shark fins. On any given day, there’s may five or six hundred native fishermen throughout the Gilberts who paddle on canoes and fish for their daily food. A percentage of them would catch sharks, among the fish, which they would bring home and eat, so I developed this business in which we encouraged people to keep the fins from the sharks. Before, they would throw them away. We built this little business up, and it evolved to where I was going around the country on these cargo boats, buying shark fins, and a few years later, buying dried sea cucumbers from fishermen. It was quite lucrative. The last year I did it, the gross income was $640,000. But that was because I enjoyed going on the ship—I got to surf, I got to have fun at each little port I was in. I would go in with a bag of money buying these things. We were able to load sea cucumbers by the container-load.
Who was buying them?
Sea cucumbers are traditional seafood in China, so they would go through Hong Kong and be distributed from there.
A sea cucumber is a slug, like a snail, and depending on type of sea cucumber, you’re boiling them or blanching them. The trick is to dry them so they don’t rot. You might smoke-cure them first for a few days to lower the water content quickly, and then dry them. Because in China they want to reconstitute them so they’ll look fresh for the soups they make with them.
How did you get a license to conduct business in Kiribati?
In order to stay there for more than four months, you have to apply for a thing that’s called a foreign investment. I was married, but Kiribati didn’t have a visa for people to stay there, so I had to apply like I had some big business, when in reality it was just this little business we did there. Actually, the first application was for doing handicrafts. I was buying mats and hats other things, and I actually sent them to Hawai’i on the first time around. From the Gilberts, there was a ship going up there, and on its last time doing so, I put about $8,000 worth of mats and stuff. I went around the whole state of Hawai’i selling handicrafts from the Gilbert Islands. But on the last time the ship was there, they had left without paying their port fees or something, so the ship was impounded for about three months, and then after that, they never ran that ship again. It was a local ship out of Nauru.
While you were doing the shark fin and sea cucumber business, how did surfing fit into that?
I had a Town & Country 5’10” twin-fin, a 7’2” round-pin singlefin, and a boogie board. Everywhere I went, I brought those boards, and if there were waves, waves were my first priority. In my business, when I’d arrive at the various islands, my work would be done in two hours, so what was there to do for the next three days while the ship was loading cargo? I was out looking for waves.
What were some standout sessions or surf spots?
On Tarawa, on its east side during westerly winds, there were a couple of places where there was more of a point setup where the wave would peel longer. There was Millionaire’s Point, which was an area where the reef’s a little bit deeper, and it’s a nice right that holds to well over double-overhead. That would be quite consistent in the winter, and we caught it on many good days. Another wave where the Chinese have since built a tracking station, we called that Prison Point because they were going to build a prison there, but never did. There were these chunky, bowly lefts, and in my 10 years there I did it really good once, when I was getting like five barrels on one wave. At the northwest end of Tarawa was a place called Naa, an actual pointbreak where north swell and tradewind swells wrap around. The wave could be five different 100-yard-long setups, or it could be waves where some days you could go 500 yards on one wave. It could be really long, just stringing the sections together. Other places with nice waves was on the island of Marakei. There was a nice right there that broke into a man-made channel. On the northwest passage of Abemama, there was winter surf there. And I can’t think of the name, but there’s also an island where they have a left point that breaks on south swells. Unfortunately the Gilberts rarely ever get south swells.
Again, the ship only stopped where there were channels, and they had a reef-blasting team. I had the privilege of watching waves being created on Tarawa. When they built the causeway, they blasted a channel through a flat reef that made really nice rights and short lefts on south swells. When they blasted the channel out, it was about 70 feet wide and then as it got toward the reef edge, they flared it out at a 45-degree angle—presto, a surf spot! And they’ve done something like that on almost every island in the Gilberts. If I had access to explosives, the government would really like that on some of the islands up here, on Fanning and Washington. What they want them for is so that the villages have a small canoe pass to go out, and if we had access to the explosives, we could help the government put canoe passes in. We’d just go around and look to where there might be a wave, and we’d help that wave out a whole lot. It’s not very hard to do. But the problem with explosives since 9/11 is buying them and moving them.
Living in the Gilberts, you can find world-class waves, but it’s not someplace to go for a surf trip because of the inconsistency and quality of the surf compared to other well-known places. In general I would describe the waves as being mediocre, but if you live there, you’ll catch some good waves when the swell and wind coming from the right directions, and suddenly, magic happens.
The main problem is that, except for the northwest pass on Abemama, all the reef passes are on the west or southwest shores of the atolls, and winter swells never have enough west to wrap in. South swells are rare. Tarawa should get surf on its western passes from south swells, but because of the screen of island groups to the south, it doesn’t.
But I was happy with all the surf I was getting in the Gilberts. I was hanging out with guys who were drinking, and I’ve never been a big drinker, but when you hang out with guys who drink beer, you get fat. I got to the point where I had to start jogging. I put this mental image of a left wall, with Santana playing in my head, and in 1992 I was able to make my first trip—after living in the Gilberts for 12 years—to Christmas Island from Tarawa on Air Nauru when Air Nauru was flying back and forth. I knew where the wave was on Christmas; I actually put my motorcycle on the plane, got off with the bike and my board, and went straight down to the point. There were waves that day, and I wrote in my journal: “Holy shit, I’ve been in the wrong islands for 12 years.” It blew my mind that there was good surf right there. I surfed two spots, and after sunset, I came in and I found a place to stay. I was talking to some guys who were on the beach drinking, and told them I needed a place to stay, and they found one for me, just a local house.
At the time, Christmas only had about 2,000 people, and it had 60 miles of paved road. It was really fun to get on a motorbike and just go full speed. There were thousands and thousands of land crabs. You couldn’t drive without running them over. Now, you don’t see them, but that’s because the human population has gone up to 10,000.
Christmas isn’t a native island where people have lived there for thousands of years. It’s a government-owned island, and nobody is from here. To the government, Christmas was just a place to grow coconuts. They had a small hotel that was barracks from the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the British were last here, and the government used that for its officers. Gradually the island became known as a bonefishing heaven, and fishermen started staying in the government hotel.
Even though Fanning is a non-native island, too, the government set up five villages, where they moved native people to—330 families from the Gilberts. The Line Islands were originally inhabited by Polynesians from 1,200 years ago until 600 years ago. Then the islands were rediscovered by Captain Cook in 1774, and it was 1798 when Captain Fanning got there. People were coming here from the Gilberts, but only on four-year contracts as coconut plantation workers. Fanning and Washington were first owned by a rebellious French priest, and later by a private family, who sold it to the Burns Philip corporation of Australia, and in 1983 Burn Philip sold those two islands for $2.4 million to the Gilbert Islands, and they decided to move people from the Gilbert Islands up to there. They set both Fanning and Washington up with villages, and they made them into traditional-style islands.
Did the people want to resettle there?
About a third of the people were people the government didn’t want. Maybe they were criminals.
It was about two months before I went back to Tarawa, and then I went back and forth between Christmas. I surfed Christmas the following winter, 1993-1994, and in March 1994 I caught the ship and went to visit Fanning for three months. I brought a duffel bag of clothes, some money, and a surfboard. It was an overnight trip, and the next morning, as soon as the island came into sight, I could tell there was an overhead early-season south swell, and as we got near the pass, I could see lines of waves breaking down the point. That was good and exciting but it got really nutty when the boat turned to go up into the pass, and I was looking right into the barrel of the wave. The tide was still coming in, and I saw this wave that pitched out and just stayed open all the way to the end, like half a minute long. Absolutely perfect, peeling, hollow left. I had to ask the captain first to see if he’d get into trouble, then I was off the back of that ship. I jumped.
I surfed until the tide starting getting low. That afternoon, I was sitting on the beach, and the tide had just changed. I was watching the wave, and it was quite amazing. Looking at the wave, it looked like it was too fast to make. The board I had was a 7’8” thruster funboard, and I was only able to make about a third of the waves, because I’d get to a point where I couldn’t go any faster and the wave would pass me. It was just absolutely mind-boggling how good the wave was. I screamed and yelled and had a good time. Three days later, I went by bicycle up to the north end of the island, to Whaler’s, and I had no expectation of getting any surf up there. But Whaler’s had surf, chest-high waves, in a magical setup that had a left and a right peeling into a channel.
It was paradise. Plus there were tall, slender coconut trees, grass everywhere, puddles of water because it rains a lot. Where Whaler’s was, there were these abandoned cement buildings that were built in the 1920s for the cable station, tall and grand, and although it wasn’t being taken care of, it was all there, including the swimming pool.
I would’ve gone to Christmas and Fanning many years earlier, but I was into the routine with marriage and kids and stuff, and there was no plane flying back and forth. To visit Christmas, the turnaround would’ve been about nine months if I took the boat. You get off the boat on Christmas, and you’d have to wait about six months or more before another boat came. It just wasn’t practical to do that.
On Christmas I tried to get business going with sea cucumbers again. The following year I was able to go up to Fanning and Washington islands. On Fanning I wound up renting a room on a side of a store. It was totally bare—no kitchen, no toilet, no nothing. It was a for storing sea cucumbers. I kept it for several years. From there it was a 20-minute walk out to the point. When I got to Fanning, I realized that it was the place I wanted to live for the rest of my life.
What about your wife and kids on Tarawa?
In Tarawa, we had worked our way up where we had a very big cash income, and she was at the height of social popularity. She’d go to government functions, government parties. They had a handicrafts exhibition in Canada that she got to attend. But suddenly I wanted to live on Fanning, some hick island in the middle of nowhere.
So if Fanning didn’t have that left-hander, you wouldn’t have moved there.
You moved for the wave?
Absolutely, and I paid for it with my soul and the pain of not seeing my kids grow up, of not being with them and for them. I gave my business to my wife and went to absolute zero. Lived as a beachcomber. I felt rich if we had milk to put in our tea.
On my on freewill and accord, I went down to Suva, Fiji, and in December 1993 I renounced my U.S. citizenship. They advised against doing it for a variety of reasons, none of which included 9/11 because it hadn’t happened yet. But now when I go through an airport, I have the same red flags as any Al-Qaeda member has because I fit some sort of profile—‘You renounced your U.S. citizenship!’ But I’m still American. My dad was a World War II veteran. I did for one thing only, and that was surfing, because I wanted to live on Fanning and surf for the rest of my life. Period.
From 1993 until 1999, when some guys in a yacht called the Good Life showed up, surfing Fanning was two-dimensional: me looking at the wave, or me riding the wave. I’d never seen anyone ride it.
Fanning is a place I can continue surfing for the rest of my life. If there was an open transport, like if the government put a plane there, I think surfing-wise it would just be another crowded surf spot, if the world had easy access to it. I’ve kind of turned on a beacon in a world that gets smaller and smaller—what I’m hoping for now is to develop something for Fanning so that the good wave on Fanning can be viewed as a resource that can earn money for the local people. Natural resources are the sovereign property of the people, and Fanning has a good enough wave that can be a resource. We’ve been working with the local government saying that by charging for or leasing out the spot, they could generate half the revenue that they currently receive for their government. People who pay this revenue could capitalize on it, or they could be like the early guys who got in on the Ranch, and they could hold it for themselves. But opening it up so that backpack tourism could come in, you’d have big social moral changes. I can’t help but think back to Nias when it was a slum of surfers. I picture Fanning being like that, unless something is done. We’re the stewards of the future. We can be like ostriches, stick our head in the sand and wait for our ass to get kicked, or we can try to take charge over which way the future’s going to go.
I have no aspirations to become rich. I’m truly interested in the welfare and long-term well-being of the people. I’m worried about what I see with the fish, I’m worried about the environment, and I’ll sometimes write harsh letters to government people, complaining or stating how I think things should be. Some people take offense to this—who the hell am I to say this? Or they think, ‘How are you trying to trick us?’ I tried to get a little hotel going on Fanning, and I had no ownership in it. It was owned by the people. I set it up as a public company. But people felt that somehow I was going to trick them.
When did you surf the Phoenix Islands?
I stayed on Kanton Atoll in 1990 and 1993. Our idea was to set up a shark-fishing operation, and we hired 12 people from Arorae, the southernmost Gilbert island. We wanted to make dried shark meat, skins, collect the liver oil, utilizing every bit of the shark, including bones. The only thing I didn’t use were the teeth, which I really regret.
Why Kanton and not the Gilberts?
Nobody lived there and you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing sharks. You go out to the beach and look out and see 50 small reef sharks swimming around in the lineup. In the Gilberts, I never had a sharky experience. There weren’t nearly as many sharks there.
Kanton is one of the most remote places on Earth. How did you start a business there?
We got an advance of $20,000 from our associate in Hong Kong and bought a couple of boats and enough supplies to last six months. We took a freighter there, paid a diversion fee for them to come back and get us, and set ourselves up to stay there. I lived there for three months and 11 days. In the wharf area, there were some metal buildings, and we just camped out in those. Our drinking water was ground water. There were several different wells, and if one well was too brackish or salty tasting, we’d try another well. During my stay, we were always able to get enough water to drink. It didn’t really taste good to drink straight, so we always had it as tea or mixed with instant coffee.
But the bottom line was it was too difficult to do business on Kanton. Logistically, the whole thing was just too hard to do. And if you got sick there, you’d be done. I was getting boils that were the size of golf balls, and they’d break and leave a quarter-inch-deep hole, but you couldn’t lance them without slicing through your flesh. I think it was from the water we used for bathing had lots of staph in it, and that would get into my skin.
How did you make the days go by, it being just you and those eight other people?
It was terrible. There was nothing to read—unfortunately I didn’t think that far ahead, to bring books. I had a few surf magazines. I did a lot of exploration around the island—there was a lot of old stuff to check out. I had bags and bags of Coke bottles from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s.
What was that like?
Food deprivation—everything deprivation. Because it was only the people I had to associate with, and there was nothing else. Very few palm trees there because it’s a desert island, more so than Christmas is. Basically, our diet was fish and rice. Sundays we’d have corned beef.
There are lots of old buildings there. In the 1930s the first Clipper seaplanes flew there, and the New Zealand companies built a small hotel for these trans-Pacific flying boats that would land in the lagoon. The first trans-Pacific jets would stop there for refueling, and then the U.S. built a large military installation for the Apollo mission. There were scientific buildings that had rows and banks of scopes and giant antennae arrays. Hundreds of broken-down trucks. Telephone poles and wires, paved roads, a few slipstream trailers that are just sitting there. It was a military outpost, but the Gilberts took it over in 1983. There was a caretaking group of eight families and three policemen, a mechanic, a weather officer, a school teacher, a district officer, and a doctor.
As far as the seven other islands in the Phoenix group, they’re all uninhabited. Three of them were inhabited in the 1930s, but that was abandoned in the ‘60s because the droughts are too rough in times of La Niña.
What’s the Phoenix surf like?
Kanton is the only island with surf. It has one passage with a small island in the middle, a split passage. It has a very user-friendly left on the south side that breaks on south swells. There was an old ship that was aground at the very end of the left, called the Calvin Coolidge at the time. It was kind of a fun wave. It has good shape and doesn’t section out. You could go for about 60 yards or so, and you’d run into the ship, but with higher tides and smaller surf you could go around the bow of the ship and get another 50 yards on the wave. I surfed it about 15 times in three months, maximum size around 8-foot faces. Every other time I’ve been to Kanton, on other trips across Kiribati, there wasn’t any surf.
The bottom is coral rubble, no coral heads. The bigger waves break further outside, and the water turns really milky blue because of the fine sand. When it’s bigger, it was really frightening because you’re sitting there, and you could get eaten. It was way more fun when it was head-high and you’re in clear water where you can see the bottom and stuff. I was more afraid of having some giant fish biting me than a shark.
There’s also Spam Island in the middle of the passage that has a right and left. The north side of the main passage is steep, shallow, and gnarly.
Do you think you’re the only person to have ridden it?
I think if some yachtie was a surfer and they had a board, they’d surf it. It’s a wave that asks you to surf it when it’s breaking. It’s a nice little peeling left. I think the because of the number of sharks, I don’t think other people would have surfed there. And you’d see like 100-pound trevally tearing apart fish, barracudas that were five feet long. Everywhere you’d look, you could see splashes of the war going on between fish. There was a yacht that visited, and fish ran into the boat, chasing other fish that the guy on the yacht had caught. It’s a full-on battle zone, all around the island—fish eating fish. It’s a very robust ecosystem because no one really lives there, and that’s what National Geographic’s expeditions there in 2000 and 2002 were all about—that there is no other place like it on the planet. National Geographic and the New England Aquarium are trying to put a deal together to protect those islands from commercial fishing, to set 100,000 square miles around the Phoenix Islands as a No Commercial Fishing Zone.
How about in the Gilberts?
In the Gilberts, I’m sure I was the first and maybe the only person to surf the waves.
Who would want to visit the Gilberts for surf?
It’s for the person who’s not out to score epic waves, like going to Tavarua or some other big-name spot. There are lots of waves in the Gilberts, and if you have the time and you can go and hang out on an island.
There’s a whole screen of islands to the south, so not much south swell gets through. Other downsides are there are perhaps well over two dozen absolutely world-class reef passes with perfectly curved edges, prevailing offshore winds, but there’s absolutely no swell. Maybe once a year. They face west, and you have to wait for the right cyclone to be bashing the Solomons, or at the beginning of a westerly season, there may be westerly windswell. In fact, I got really good surf on Makin Island, a really good, hollow, tube-riding left, safe to surf, and a very user-friendly right, on a swell that was coming before the westerly winds arrived. I got one whole day, and the next morning I was out, and then after that, it was onshore. The storm had arrived. The left was difficult to take off on because it came out of such deep water. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was hard to make the drop. The guy was reported, and although they were able to stop him from flying, they weren’t able to fire him. It’s forbidden in writing, but in practicality you can drink and fly with passengers to the point of insanity. Thank God there hasn’t been a bad plane crash yet.
The inter-island ships are often irregular, and the planes of Air Kiribati don’t always fly. I witnessed a pilot who was so drunk that he needed assistance getting into the plane. On the way back, he did not stop at the island that he was supposed to stop at for refueling, and he just made Tarawa, but he ran out of fuel and wasn’t able to taxi to the terminal.
As far as more people surfing the Gilberts, maybe if transportation gets better, people could see the swells and fly in to Nikunau, which has a decent south-swell left, same with Abemama. But with the other waves, no, it’s never going to happen. It’s too hard. There’ll just be occasional travelers and misfits.
The Gilberts are a great destination for someone who is looking for a cross-cultural experience with a traditional culture that hasn’t changed at all, that retains itself. That’s a little bit hard to see in other places. Usually they’re organized, like dances at a resort, but in the Gilberts they do it for themselves.
If you went there to surf, you’d be the only one around. For atolls it’s a beautiful place, a beautiful experience. The vast number of islands to choose from. The niceness of the people and how sharing they are, their joy of entertaining visitors, because they don’t get visitors very often. If the person has the education and the time, another way to surf the Gilberts is through the Peace Corps. The only thing is, you don’t get to choose which island to get to work on.
Paradise is a state of mind. Paradise is what you make of it.
By Michael Kew
“We’re a small brewery with a big heart. His heart is larger than yours or mine.”
Mark Camarillo is seated aside me and his wife, Hanna, on the back deck of their home, sipping pints of pale ale made by their 26-year-old son Matt, to my left.
“Matt’s heart enlarged because it had to work so hard,” Mark continues while admiring Peavine Ridge, facing his 1-acre slice of paradise here on the Winchuck River, 3 miles east of the Pacific and a stone’s throw from rare, non-Californian redwoods. It’s this green, serene view that spawned the name for Misty Mountain, Oregon’s southernmost brewery, just 2 miles above the Golden State.
At the opposite end of their property, inside Matt’s garage-size brewhouse, is a digital, single-tier, 20-gallon MoreBeer! BrewSculpture system.
“I love brewing on it,” Matt said. “It’s easy, but very effective. I like the control and smallness of it. After about six months, my recipes were dialed in. I feel comfortable with where we are.”
Pouring legally since February, Misty Mountain has gotten great feedback at 2015 beer festivals, including those in Seaside, Gold Beach, and Lakeside. (Next is the Wild Rivers Music Festival at Brookings’ Azalea Park, August 15-16.)
Matt drew the Misty Mountain logo and devised beer names inspired by his love for Warhammer, a fantasy tabletop wargame of heroic miniatures. Not fantastical, however, was his congenital bicuspid aortic valve disease (BAVD)—his aortic valve leaked.
A normal aortic valve has three leaflets that open and close, regulating flow from the heart to the aorta, preventing blood from flowing backward into the heart. With BAVD, the valve has just two leaflets, causing reverse leakage, though the defective valve can function for decades with no symptoms.
“You wouldn’t have known there was anything wrong with him,” said Mark, a retired police officer who served 28 years in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Matt had a normal Southern California childhood, engaged in football, volleyball, skateboarding, wakeboarding, and racing motorcycles. Later, he homebrewed beer with his dad and cousin while employed as a bottler at Bayhawk Ales in Irvine and Hangar 24 in Redlands. At both breweries, he said, “I wanted to be pulled away from the bottling line as much as possible so I could learn about the whole art of commercial brewing. It was mind-blowing and intriguing and I wanted to know more about everything, how much I could learn each day.”
But, inevitably, his fatigue levels spiked. The symptoms came.
“It felt like something inside was stabbing me,” Matt says. “It was intense but would go away quickly. At first, it wasn’t debilitating, and it didn’t happen often until after I visited my parents here.”
Coincidentally, their Winchuck neighbor is a retired surgeon who referred them to a Portland cardiologist.
“The stars aligned,” Hanna said. “It was meant to be.”
“Matt went to the cardiologist, who took one look at his heart and said, ‘The time is now,’” Mark said. “I didn’t have any gray hair until that.” (laughs)
Matt’s aortic valve was to be replaced with a prosthesis. On March 4, 2014, he endured open-heart surgery at Portland’s Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. His four-month recovery period “felt like an eternity,” tainted by minor bleeding and an arrhythmia that required cardioversion, an electric shock to his heart to restore its normal beat.
“They had to jump-start him,” Mark said. “That was stress on top of stress.”
Afterward, Hanna said, “we were talking beer right away. Matt’s brewing is very much a labor of love, part of his recovery and our new lives here.”
Twenty-five years ago, when Matt was 1, the Camarillos hit Oregon and put a down payment on a ranch in Deadwood (Lane County). Mark applied to and got accepted at the local police department, but the couple couldn’t sell their Southern California home. Everything fell through.
“Still,” Mark said, “we told ourselves we’d someday be back in Oregon, because it’s just too beautiful. This is the way the environment is supposed to look—not full of houses and concrete and freeways. You’re supposed to hear birds chirping instead of cars roaring by and music thumping. This is how you’re supposed to live.”
Twenty years later, after retiring from the Orange police force, Mark was working at a BMW motorcycle dealer when the Oregon bug again bit. “Hanna and I said to each other: ‘If not now, when?’”
Within a week of its listing, their home sold. While Mark stayed in Orange with their daughter, who was in high school, Hanna parked the family RV in Honey Bear Campground, near Ophir, and house-hunted.
“I had this thing with the Rogue River,” Mark said. “I wanted to live where I could see it.”
Eventually their search broadened to include Chetco and Winchuck rivers; 3.5 miles up the latter, they found home.
“For years, we had wanted to start a brewery,” Hanna said. “We didn’t know when or how or if we could, but this property seemed perfect because we could grow hops and pretty much whatever else and be self-sufficient. Also, our water is superb.”
“We want to keep our beer local and use as many ingredients as we can produce here,” Mark said. “We’re not rushing anything—staying true to one barrel at a time and caressing every process in the whole brewing spectrum.”
“One barrel at a time,” Matt said, grinning. “I feel like we’ve found our niche here.”
Misty Mountain recently gained a lease for a taproom in Harbor, near the Chetco Valley Historical Society Museum. Directly off Highway 101, the location boasts convenience and an ocean view, and will offer seven year-round Misty Mountain beers—Black Gate IPA, King Under the Pumpkin Russian Imperial Stout, Buckland Brown, Grey Pilgrim Pale Ale, Sea of Ruin Imperial Red, Long Bottom Lager, Rivendale Saison—plus fruity seasonals and specialty brews, including cider made from Hanna’s homegrown apples.
As for brewmaster Matt, he’ll be on meds for the rest of his life— Coumadin, a blood-thinner, and metoprolol, a beta blocker—but he’s found a fresh, post-surgery verve.
“I’m super lucky to be here—probably as lucky as I can get. It’s a magical place. I feel immersed in the wilderness out here. I want that to reflect everything about our beer. I want it to be a magical experience, because brewing is what changed my life.”
He’s from Seattle, actually. But, still. It’s not easy to plant your planer into the boutiquey surf bubble that’s the Ranch to Rincon. You’ve got to be creative. You’ve got to be savvy. You’ve got to have a master plan. Lovelace, (29 in 2015), does not.
A Dialogue by Michael Kew
[Originally published in Slide in 2011.]
So, what is this place?
[With a large pair of scissors, Lovelace is trimming fiberglass cloth around a freshly shaped 5’10” blank we’re standing aside.] It’s 132 Garden Street, the old Radon boatyard where they made all the urchin diving boats and shit. It’s been a part of the surfing and boat-building world in Santa Barbara since the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. There was a decently-sized label called Rippin Stix that made surfboards out of here back through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Afterwards, this little room got passed down through a couple different hands, including a ding-repair guy named Aaron, until I started sharing it with Damien Raquinio, a friend of mine. He had it for awhile. Then I got it, and I’ve been here for four or five years. It’s got some good energy, and as far as I can tell, that’s the reason it hasn’t or won’t be sold anytime soon. The ground is super toxic. The dirt’s all contaminated, and it’s only a block and a half from the main beach in Santa Barbara. Stearns Wharf is right there. In order to build on this property, you’d have to dig, like, 30 feet deep and remove and replace all the soil. I don’t think anybody really wants to do that.
What’s your rent?
I pay $144 a month for this, what, 9-by-11 room? The two rooms next door belong to a surf school [Santa Barbara Seals], but this whole building used to have surfboard-building stuff. There were three or four racks set up out there [points to the gravel street], and there’d be a bunch of dudes sanding boards. Dust just billowing out of the whole zone. I really wish I could’ve seen that. I want to do that. Well, not really. I guess I shouldn’t.
You feel a sense of history here. It’s womblike.
Definitely. Not so much as far as inspiring my work, but knowing that this has been a hub of small-scale Santa Barbara surfboard-building. It’s the last hideout. In this room, I’ve been able to learn pretty much everything I know about surfboards.
Where were you shaping before?
Damien and I had a room over on Mason Street, across from the Channel Islands retail store. It’s since been knocked down. We had to get out of there so they could crush it. Before that, I made boards in garages, on patios of apartments I rented.
When are you moving out of this room?
I’m supposed to be out of here in two weeks. It’s not going to be a surfboard-building spot anymore — it’s been shrinking since the old days. Now it’s going to be storage for the surf school.
You have a newer, larger shop gestating over by More Mesa.
Yeah, I just need to gather some money for the insurance, but I’ve been working on that place since December. It’s pretty much done. It’s an old greenhouse. From 1942 until 1995, it was a cut-rose operation for bouquets and stuff like that. It was 22 industrial greenhouses all connected to each other, so you could walk down the middle of them. My space is where they kept all the tools and stuff, but that building has been defunct since the mid-‘90s, so it’s falling apart. Broken windows everywhere, overgrown weeds. [Pours resin into a plastic mixing cup.] It’s pretty funky. So that place will be cool. It’ll be a change, for sure. That’s important.
What else is important to you?
Learning, but I don’t quite know what about. Sometimes I feel like I’m not learning interesting new things all the time because I’m so saturated by this. I’m not reading the news so much. I’m not involved in the latest politics. I’ve sunk into my little world of our friends and the surfing and the boards and everything. I don’t feel like I learn a lot, but, at the same time, I’m learning tons and tons and tons just about living as a fucking human being. [Laughs] That’s difficult enough. Just learning about myself and the way that I conduct myself, which is reflected in my surfboards, because my boards change whenever I do. [Picks around the room, looking for something.]
What are you looking for?
Extra cups. I scrounge for them because I don’t like wasting a bunch of new ones on what I know are just going to be shitty cups again.
How green of you.
I try. [Sarcastically] Well, I was raised in Washington, where they care about the environment. Naw, I do care about the environment, which is why the new shop is going to be awesome, because it’s a fair amount healthier than this boatyard.
So, who is Ryan Lovelace today?
Who am I? I guess [His cell phone rings, upbeat Indian music] I would characterize myself as someone with a pretty funny ring-tone on my phone. [Looks at it] A call from Verizon Wireless? I’ll call them back. So, who am I? I am a surfboard builder first. Wow, that’s weird. When asked who I am, I say I’m a surfboard builder before I say anything else. I guess that says a lot. I see myself as more of an artist than a surfboard builder every day, because I look at boards pretty differently when I think about what I’m trying to accomplish with each one. I guess we’re all trying to accomplish something. [Mixes a cup of blue pigment]
What designs are you into right now?
I’ve gone through hulls, kind of what people know me for. It’s funny because hulls are what I have loved for years, and I still do. I won’t ever dislike hulls. But there are other things I want to do when I surf. I’ve been on this trip for awhile lately that’s more based on the transitional period, meaning the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, which I guess would be characterized by McTavish and his vee bottoms and his work with Greenough. Unintentionally, I’m following the path of modern surfboard design in my own experiments, going from one thing to another and adding different things, but, in the same breath, my boards aren’t the same as anyone’s.
What separates them?
That’s a really hard question. [Mixing a cup of yellow pigment] If I was to try and look at it from a third-party viewpoint, I take old-school templates, do a lot of wide-point forward— [A foul odor forms]
Did you fart?
I did. And that’s just haunting, isn’t it? [Laughs] But, basically, I take the old lines that those guys were drawing, then take what we know about surfing and different styles that people have when they surf now, and I mix them in with those boards. So, modern foils and more modern rocker curves mixed with older templates. Modern curves in very non-modern shapes.
How are they modern?
I’ll use more high-performance rails. I’m not doing huge, boxy downrails or anything super turned up, or too much vee. Those guys back then used so much fucking vee, it was crazy. I’m using small vee panels, really light areas of vee in the board, not necessarily running off the tail. [Mixing a cup of blue pigment] Just using different areas of it and using what we know about it, what we’ve learned about it from the past 40 years, and making a more modern surfboard with it that’s not overdone. They were just trying anything back then. Boards would progress, and two weeks later they’d have something completely different, which was awesome. It’s what I tend to do now. They didn’t really sit down and pick apart each individual aspect — like make one exact board over and over again, with tiny adjustments to figure out what’s doing what. Those guys would do this, and it’d be radically different, then they’d do this, something else radically different. I’m able to look at what they did and apply what I know about surfboards now to those and make those kinds of shapes work like modern surfboards, not like old dogs. Not all the boards were dogs, of course, but you can watch old films and you can tell that they could bog pretty fucking hard.
So you’re 1967 meets 2011?
But you generally avoid thrusters.
Every surfboard has its place. [Mixing a cup of green pigment] I’m not that curious about some boards because I don’t surf them that way. I don’t surf a thruster the way a thruster needs to be surfed, so I can’t really make them work that well. But I do have some customers who do, so I’ll make them a thruster, but it’s not going to be a really chippy thruster. [Pulls his latex gloves off, nods toward the unglassed board on the rack that we’re standing next to] It’s going to be like this thing. More nuggety.
Tell me about this board.
It’s a small version of the board that I’ve been obsessed with for the past four months, which, before I left for Australia, was a transitional-style board that came off of “Innermost Limits of Pure Fun.” I had this idea of what I wanted the surfboard to do just by watching that film and checking the templates out, studying frame grabs I’d take from when guys were walking down the beach. [Points out the door to Herbie, his brown daschund chihuahua] Check out Herbie — he’s all sleepy. Aw, little puppy. Um, so I was really into this certain idea of that one board that Kyle Lightner and I were looking at a few years ago. I was starting on that trend of thinking and ended up going to Australia after I shaped what I thought was my perfect board. I surfed a bunch with Jordan Nobel, who shaped Note Surfboards down there. He lives near and knows Wayne Lynch pretty well, so Wayne gave him an “Evolution”-style template. I rode the board that Jordan made from that template, which was a bit more modernized, had modern rails, thinner foil, and that thing was so fucking fun, even in bad waves. So I came back here pretty much knowing what I wanted my board to be. [Fills another cup with resin] I took the idea of his board, because I didn’t trace it while I was there, and what I remembered of it and made an 8-foot, wide-point back, rather hippy, with a really narrow round nose and a wide, round tail. An “Evolution”-style board, pretty much. When that film came out in 1969, surfing had progressed quite a bit [Dons a new pair of latex gloves to glass the 5’10”] from the “Innermost Limits” period. I find it funny that I went from following “Innermost Limits” to following the movies that came right after it, because my board design has kind of taken on the same line that they took. It’s cool because I’m like…well, it sucks because I look at it and I’m, like, “Sweet! Now I’m gonna do this, because this board works like that.” Then I realize and I’m, like, “Shit, these guys already did that.” [Laughs]
There is nothing new.
Never. Not at all. I guarantee that someone’s shaped a board like this somewhere before, but I feel like it’s new because it came into my head recently and I’m like, “Yeah-yeah-yeah!” And I have the fire for it, and I guess that’s how boards get revived. But all of the sudden, you realize somebody else did it.
What is this board?
[Grabs ventilator mask hanging from a nail in the wall] Okay, so, this board came down from the 8’0” that worked really well.
V-Bowls, which came from Kyle Albers’s board, D-Bowls, a longboard I was making last year. [Puts mask on, which muffles his voice, so he speaks louder] I rode that 8-footer and it was really, really fun, and I knew that that template was so balanced. Here, let me close the door real quick. [Closes the door to limit light so the resin doesn’t cure prematurely] That template was so clean and so balanced and so flowy that I knew that I could put it in any size board that I wanted to. Alter the foil and rocker a little bit to match the style of the fin set-up, and it would work. So I’ve been making them now. I’ve gone from 8’0” to 7’9” to 6’7” to 6’3”, and this one’s 5’10”. Each one looks like the same board, but they’re all going to surf very differently, depending on the fin template. I’ve made mostly single-fins; this one is a 2+1. I made a five-fin that’s super high-performance, full-on shortboard rocker and shortboard foil, and you look at that and you’re, like, “Wow! I haven’t seen one of these.” And then you say, “Oh, wait — Laser Zap.” Those boards Cheyne Horan rode in the ‘80s. This is just a refined version of that. So there is absolutely nothing new. Even though I wasn’t thinking about those boards at all after I drew it out, I was like, “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” It’s kind of defeating, but the boards still really differ when you get down to the small details. [Adds catalyst to resin, pours a small amount in a circle on the blank] I guess I’m talking more in generalities in terms of template and idea, the wide-point placement, but if you actually look at the fine details, this board is totally different — the concaves and the roll and the rails, the rocker, the fins. It’s got its own steez to it.
Tell me about your resin-dot logo. When we were in India, Craig Anderson called it the “best logo ever.”
Does he want to ride for me? [Laughs] A few years ago I made the first She Hull, and I was really stoked on it. Kyle Lightner and I were going to go take a bunch of pictures of it in the park at sunset, but I was rushing. I put a bunch of catalyst in the resin when I dropped the fin box [Adds catalyst to light blue pigment, pours onto blank] As you know, catalyst heats resin and makes it super hot. Well, I finished that board and set the resin cup down on the board, then left for about an hour. When I came back, I tried to pick the cup up but it had melted onto the board and delaminated a perfect circle on the bottom [Adds catalyst to dark blue pigment, pours onto blank] above and to the left of the fin box. I got really pissed off [Laughs] because now this board was screwed up with a huge delam on it, and I was supposed to take pictures of it right away. [Drags a yellow squeegee up and down the board, smearing the pigments together, excess resin drips to the floor] So I grinded off that section of the board and made a perfect white circle on the bottom of a dark blue board, and that board worked so well, it was ridiculous. It changed the way I thought about surfing and surfboards and my shaping, because suddenly I was making something out of pure inspiration instead of out of what I thought people would buy. That board really set the tone for how I made my boards, and since then, I’ve figured that some of the power of that board’s inspiration was in that circle somewhere. So I’ve made resin dots on every board since. [Refers to the board’s abstract pigment job] How’s this thing, dude? Pretty fucking sick! [Laughs] While I’m not even paying attention! Lost in my own thoughts and suddenly this thing happens. Fucking sick, dude. [Still laughing, dragging squeegee] Ultimate sea monster board.
Yeah, it does. I haven’t really made an oceany-looking board in awhile.
The top is going to be a solid color?
Yeah. I’ll probably use this dark blue. Or maybe that seafoamy teal. We’ll take a look at it from a distance when the bottom dries and see what’s up. So, basically, the resin dot was just a symbol of me following my passions instead of following what I thought the surfboard marketplace was dictating.
Which is what you’re grappling with.
Yeah, somehow, still. But I’m a lot closer because I haven’t cheapened myself and I haven’t made anything but what I want to make, and I’ve been decently successful. I’m trying to refine all of that. [Squeegees the cut lap around the rails and onto the deck] Taking what I’ve learned in the past year or two and simplifying it and not trying to make a big brand with all this shit. I don’t want to do a T-shirt line or anything — I just want surfboards, man. I just want to make fucking sweet surfboards. I do like T-shirts and I’m planning to make some, but not with the boards, not Point Concept shirts, not a brand.
Like your boards, you’re transitional.
Things always have been changing since day one of my boards, and every board is a little different from the last, and I don’t usually tend to copy an exact board, ever. I’ll do variations. I’m going to be between shops — I have been between shops for a few months now — but I’ll really be between shops if I don’t get this More Mesa shop figured out soon. I thought that I had to make a bunch of surfboards to make a living from it. Not full-on production, but just endless surfboards. I was trying to simplify it for myself when I was in Australia — to get some head space, asking myself about why I like doing this. I don’t make any money from it, really. Just barely scraping by for the last few years. I was trying to think why I put myself through it. I just really enjoy making boards for all my friends, and I can’t do that without selling boards to other people, so what I want to do is go back to focusing on custom boards. Still make shop boards, maybe, here and there for one or two shops. But I want to focus on developing different designs and if somebody wants to come to me and order a custom one, that’s fantastic. They always do. I get orders pretty constantly. But I want to consider myself as more of a freelance surfboard builder then a production builder. Not that I’ve considered myself to be a production builder before, but….
Why do you make surfboards?
I can’t really stop. I tried to a few years ago for a little while, but I couldn’t. I love surfing so much and I don’t feel like I could surf without building my own boards. [Finishes cut-lapping and rinses squeegee] It’s just too ingrained in my life, building stuff that I use is paramount to me. I grew up building all kinds of shit. I don’t really see doing it a different way. I have to feed my addictions. I like building surfboards as much as I like surfing them. [Removes latex gloves] I have to “go to work” and come to the shop, but I’m itching to get out here every day, literally.
Lovelace opens the graffitied shop door. Afternoon light floods the room and our eyes adjust. We step into the outside world and sit on a shaded piece of ground as the now-colorful board dries on the rack. Lovelace removes his shoes, finds a razorblade, and uses it to scrape dried green resin from his soles. Herbie the Dog sleeps on the cool pebbly dust beneath Lovelace’s car, a gray 2003 Honda Element that has three Point Concept Surfboards decals on the back of it.
Why are you shedding the Point Concept name?
When I started and was running Point Concept by myself, it was difficult to get stock boards into shops because most shops don’t buy them from you. They take them on consignment, especially when you’re a small-time guy. I needed some capital to get those boards out there, so I decided to take on some business partners. Over the year-and-a-half we were together, we had a difficult time meeting in the middle on how things should happen. They wanted to steer the business in ways that I didn’t want to go in order to chase profit margins — machine shaping and having other people finish the boards from there and outsourcing the glassing, too; T-shirt fashion lines and a large logistical structure for what was a very small operation. What I think they saw as freeing me from the labor of shaping and glassing, I saw as destroying what I wanted my life to be about. People stress communication for a reason, and, eventually, through months of disagreements and a whole lot of tension, the relationship failed. I left the company to them in July and went back to basics, because if I’m going to be making a shaper’s salary, I want to do it on my own with my pride intact.
What else have you been doing all summer?
Basically being homeless, living out of my car and sleeping on my girlfriend’s bed. I had to go through that phase of trying to make a larger business, a real brand, out of my surfboards to realize that that’s not what I want out of them. I don’t want that to be linked to my surfboards. They’re pure to me. They have an intention behind them and I feel close to them and I don’t want to build a business on the back of that. I want to keep it really fun. Obviously I do have to have some kind of business surrounding it to make sure I can keep doing it, but I don’t want to try and build a brand out of it, so I’m unbranding myself and refining my intentions and what I want out of this. Making the boards that I want to make and not be told that I have to do it one way because my brand says so, or that I have an image to uphold.
What’s your image?
I don’t know. I’m sure I get pigeonholed as some retro, groovy shaper, but my head’s been in it for so long now that I don’t see it as retro. It’s consumed my entire everyday life, and my life isn’t retro.
You don’t take a lot of measurements when you shape, do you?
I measure the length and width when I’m drawing out the template, and I’ll usually measure out the wide-point, or generally where I want the wide-point to be. If the curves changes it, that’s fine — I let the curve dictate what it wants to do. But I don’t really measure nose and tail dimensions. I don’t care about numbers too much aside from the very basic ones. I just want the curve to feel right and look right and have a natural flow and balance to it. I use my eyes to tell me if something is right or not. It’s more of a sensory experience and vision than it is a thinking game. I can brainstorm and think about a board, but it doesn’t really come to fruition until I put my hands on it. I had this board [Hooks a thumb back toward the drying board] in my head for the last week and a half.
I get really zoned-out when I shape. You can’t really talk when you’re shaping because the planer is so damn loud. I get in this weird zone and kind of meditate on it, and I didn’t realize that I do it till maybe a year ago. If I wear headphones and listen to music while I’m shaping, it’s a full-body high. It’s really intense.
What’s most important about a surfboard?
How it makes you feel. There’s the debate of form versus function, but it’s really all about how it makes you feel, because the form can be fantastic — you can stare it, look at the colors, lose yourself in it, and it’ll make you feel good because it’s your board — but you can get onto a wave and the color or look of the board doesn’t matter. Surfing is a very momentary, sensory experience. Everything is feeling. It’s nice to make pretty surfboards because I like the way that it makes you feel, and I like making surfboards that have a really sensible, purposeful form, because it also makes you feel real good when you surf it. So, putting the two together is the only way I want to make surfboards. I think a lot of people cut it short one way or the other, or they don’t tend to care about either one.
Some people just want to make a board that fucking shreds, and they don’t care what it looks like. That’s cool. I get that. A lot of times, that happens when I make boards for myself. Like, yeah, I don’t give a shit that that got smeared or this is weird, but still, with its imperfections, it’s perfect to me. There are guys who’ll make a clear board and just want it to shred well, and there’s guys who’ll make a really beautiful board and not quite understand what they’re doing in the form of it and the shape. They’re not making a functional board.
Are your boards functional?
You tell me, man. [Laughs] Fuck yeah. I wouldn’t make them if they weren’t functional. That’d be boring. I’d be an asshole shaper.
By Michael Kew
“We had a lot of problems with the boards. We would call them ‘sliding tails’, which means the back of the board would slide around in front and dump you off. The tails were about twelve to fourteen inches wide—just flat, wide boards. We got pretty disgusted with it; we were trying to get across and make the wave and not get caught by the whitewater. Sometimes we wanted to make longer and bigger waves, and these small, flat boards were just not getting across...so we came home and decided to work on it.” —Wally Froiseth
GENESIS: THE KAHALA BOYS, HAWAI’I
Four-year-old John Kelly arrives in Honolulu aboard the Matsonia, ending a weeklong sail from San Francisco. The family moves to Black Point, in Kahala, east of Waikiki; a year or so later, with an old ironing board, John dabbles in the neighborhood surf.
When he turns nine he is given an eight-foot redwood surfboard, custom-shaped by David Kahanamoku, brother of Duke.
“We discovered that the Hawai’ians had a very fine discriminating sense of observation in regards to board design,” Kelly said in 1989. “Now we have come to a point in modern times that the haole tends to be very subjective—I invented the first of this thing or I witnessed this event and therefore it originated with me. But the Hawai’ians, without any question of doubt from the standpoint of scholarly research, have much more to do with the development of surfing as a worldwide sport than any of us.”
Six-year-old Wally Froiseth and his family move from Los Angeles to Kahala. A few years later, he begins surfing at Waikiki and Kahala on a redwood surfboard given to him by Allan Wilcox, a family friend.
Originally arriving on O’ahu as an infant, twelve-year-old Fran Heath starts surfing around Waikiki on an eight-foot redwood surfboard. John Kelly becomes a good surf buddy, as the two live close to each other, in Kahala.
Tom Blake writes “Surfriding In Hawaii” for Paradise of The Pacific magazine, vol. 44, number 12:
“The Outrigger Canoe Club, built in 1907, is the center of surfriding at Waikiki. At the Canoe Club is to be found a row of some two hundred upright surfboard lockers filled with boards of all sizes, shapes and colors, the average being ten feet long, twenty-three inches wide, three inches thick, quite flat on top and bottom, and weighing up to seventy-five pounds. They are made of California redwood, white cedar, or white sugar pine, ninety percent being of redwood because of its lightness, strength and cheapness.”
In the early 1930s, on the Hawai’ian island of O’ahu, Waikiki is the global hub of surfing. Following his surf-ambassadorial trips around Australia and the United States, Waikiki’s Duke Kahanamoku is happy to arrive back at his home which, in his words, is “truly the world’s center for boardmen.” A friend of Tom Blake, Duke goes on to write: “A few more haoles were now coming to the Islands and witnessing the renaissance that was taking place. They became dedicated converts to the sport without any coaxing. To me, the surfing challenge seemed greater than ever.”
“When we first began surfing in the early ‘30s, we were led to believe Waikiki was the only place waves could be surfed. When John Kelly...moved to Kahala and Black Point, it became obvious to us when walking home on Diamond Head Road, that there were some fabulous surfs both off Black Point and Diamond Head. We soon found out these waves differed from Waikiki, especially Brown’s surf, as they were harder and steeper.” —Fran Heath
Fran Heath pays twenty-eight dollars for a semi-hollow 10’4” redwood plank, made by Pacific Coast Redi-Cut Homes, in Los Angeles, California. Neither Heath, Froiseth, or Kelly are proponents of Tom Blake’s pin-tailed hollow surfboards, which he innovated in 1929.
“In the ‘30s, most of the boards that were around then were just planks. The Outrigger guys all were into wide tails. Nobody was into chopping their boards down yet, except for this group of guys, they were big surf riders. Hot curls worked good any place with some juice, some power where you could race down the curl line. With the wider boards you could ride a flat, slow wave with no trouble. On a hot curl in those same conditions, you’d just sink.” —Wally Froiseth
Large south swell hits on a sunny summer morning at Brown’s, near Black Point. With sets up to fifteen feet, it was on his fourth consecutive wave where seventeen-year-old John Kelly finds himself ‘sliding ass’ (side-slipping) down the face, riding (or at least attempting to ride) his redwood plank. The board could not fit into the large wave’s concave face—it wasn’t built for such curvature; scientifically, it would never work. The board rode decently on the small, horizontal waves of Waikiki, but not at Brown’s that day, or the rest of the Kahala reefs during large south swells, which would resemble wintertime Sunset Beach—around Kahala, the surf was steeper and bigger than that of Waikiki.
“When we rode Brown’s surf,” Kelly said, “every wave was so steep that you would go to make your turn to get away from the crest, and we would slide ass down the face. The tail would come out of the water and be parallel to the rest of the board and start sliding sideways. Sliding sideways down the face of the wave—no forward motion. It’s the ultimate humiliation. We were sliding ass on every goddamn wave.”
Kelly grew frustrated with his equipment on this day of quality, challenging surf, and he knew he could ride it, but not on this wide plank board. So he and Fran went in, determined to make a difference, an act which would change their surfing lives forever.
“We came home at about eleven-thirty in the morning, and I took this ax and set the board up on two sawhorses, and I said hey! I’m goin’ to whack this board and however deep this ax goes, I’m going to cut that much off the side. I took my drawknife and recontoured the board to the point where the ax had gone in. We then sanded it down and varnished it and took it out into the surf about two (o’clock), and the varnish was still sticky.”
Kelly’s “vee shape” afforded a similar effect to that of a fin, digging into a large wave’s face, preventing the side-slipping that would inevitably end in a bad wipeout, a long swim, and possible reef cuts and board damage.
“We wanted to make changes, just the way any generation wants to make changes. We wanted more speed. We wanted to go across the face of the wave and stay clear of the break, instead of just dropping down and getting pushed in by the whitewater.
“This was the beginning of riding big waves,” Downing said. “Meaning that going down at an extreme angle on the top of the big wave—the crest of the wave. This is how they were able to accomplish this, by bringing the tail to a small tail and with the vee.”
Kelly: “I caught my first wave with the board and I felt this vee tail catch in the wave and it made a nice little groove in the wave like a skeg would have done ten years later. It held in and boom, right across under the crest and made it. We changed boards and we all got the experience that day, and rapidly, that became known as the Hot Curl board. You could get into the hot curl and stay there and not have it slide ass and humiliate you by slipping down the face of the wave.”
Downing: “The next step on the board was to make the vee a little more subtle until the point where it was no longer working, where it started to slide out again. When you took the the vee away, (the board) got more maneuverable, but it got to the point where it slid ass again. The combination was worked not only because the board was narrow in the back, but because of the vee configuration in the bottom that allowed the water to come to a point to hold the board in. The ratio between the width of the tail and the amount of vee is very important. Calculated drag is very important. Too much vee also causes you to slide ass.”
Kelly: “We made several of those boards, and pretty soon guys at Waikiki zeroed in on them. Among those surfers who rode big waves, especially at Castle’s surf, it became the way to go. Wally Froiseth shouted out, ‘Hey it gets you into the hot curl,’ and the name stuck.”
In the early 1940s, Woody Brown arrived in Hawai’i and eventually refined the Hot Curl’s V tail.
“You couldn’t ride big waves without the V tail and I liked to ride the big waves,” Brown said. “So, I had to whittle mine down. Wally helped me, he showed me. Then, I perfected it more and more. Because, I was interested in the speed….from my aerodynamics I knew that too steep a curl will suck air….the more you flatten out the curve, the faster you can go. So, with my boards, I’d flatten out the belly and get it flatter ‘n flatter. Well, that made it stiff and hard to turn, but it made it fast.”
Froiseth: “The technology was changing, just like it’s changing now.”
MARC ANDREINI: 21ST CENTURY REPLICATION
In 1963, at the age of twelve, Marc Andreini began repairing surfboards in Montecito, California.
“I would also find old boards and rebuild them—shape a new nose, new noseblock, tailblock, new fin, then I’d pigment the board,” he said. “Sometimes I was putting maybe six inches to the last two feet of the board, and it’s really hard to shape that thing to make it match the rest of the board. You really learn how to do a template, how you get the flat spots and how you get those lumps and bumps in the rails and all that, just by doing a ding. So that’s really where my shaping started.”
By 1968 Andreini was living in San Mateo, building surfboards in his father’s garage, eventually completing one per week—shaping, sanding, glassing, glossing, shaping fins, pinlining. By 1971 Andreini Surfboards was his official business, which drove him south.
“My dad said that if I wanted to build surfboards for a living, I had to get the hell out of the house and go find a job doing it. So I drove down the coast and stopped in every surf shop and asked them if they needed a shaper; there were only about five shops between San Mateo and Santa Barbara. The first guy who said yes was Bob Haakenson, who was running the Spindrift shop in Santa Barbara.”
Haakenson sold Spindrift to Andreini a short time later, affording the young shaper an entirely self-sufficient shaping business.
“I had no dealers; I only did custom orders locally, and since I could do all the shaping steps and was friends with everyone else, I helped everybody around town. I’d work a couple days a week helping whoever—I’d glass for Bradbury, I’d glass for Wilderness, I’d glass for Yater.”
In the mid-1970s Andreini partnered with Yater in Yater’s shop on Gray Avenue.
“I think we made three hundred boards a year between us,” Andreini said. “We made more boards than Al Merrick. We were the main shop. Now Al's shop does about eight thousand a year. In our era, you didn't need to make more than two hundred boards a year because there wasn't the demand—there weren't many surfers.”
Andreini and Yater split expenses and worked side-by-side seamlessly until Andreini moved back up to San Mateo in 1979. Aside from six years in San Luis Obispo (1998-2004), Andreini has remained in San Mateo full-time ever since.
“I moved up there thinking that I was going to retire from boardbuilding, but it was so much a part of me—I dream about boardbuilding every night, to this day, every single night. You always think about the next board and how you can make it better, and what you can do on the next one. How to tweak a design—a lot of it is cosmetic. How can you make something that’s really unusually unique or good? I think about that every day of my life since I was about thirteen. It’s never changed.”
“There are such beautiful properties to surfing on wood compared to foam and fiberglass,” he said. “It’s very much an unknown quantity because there’s no real way to make them and proliferate them so that people can ride and experience them, unless you’re back in the era of making your own.
“The way wood goes through the water is entirely different from foam—it’s a whole different set of design parameters, a whole different approach to surfing.
“Most of the used boards that were around when I was kid were made from balsa, and the wooden boards really worked better than the foam boards. They had a much better feel to them; they went through the water lower. They weren’t blobby corks like the foam boards were. They carved through the water, they were beautiful through the soup, and they had a real smooth, deep turn to them. I still ride balsa boards primarily.
“That’s what drew me to the Hot Curl, is having ridden balsa boards from the early 1960s until today, and I prefer them over foam. The whole idea of the ancient Hawai’ians riding a natural plank they shaped themselves, and the prowess that it took to ride those boards—it’s just really intriguing. It was the experience of gliding on a swell, going for a ride, being taken for a ride, as opposed to forcing a ride onto a way, which is what we do today. The mature surfer will gravitate toward the roots and the whole experience of just finding the energy of a wave and letting it take you.”
HOT CURL: 21ST CENTURY
“The guys who originally built Hot Curls are now in their 80s and 90s, and they’re pretty much bringing it all to a conclusion. I want to keep it going, because there aren't people who’ve really learned or made Hot Curls (whom I know of) after those guys.
“About ten years ago I saw a photograph of an early Hot Curl that was a pintail, and they'd actually shaped a keel into the bottom. When I saw that, it was the most beautiful thing—it's was like a piece of sculpture laying on the beach. I've always loved the idea of doing redwood boards, and when I saw that, I said, OK, now I know what I want to make—I want to make a Hot Curl like that, but there’s no wood to do it.
“I wouldn’t make one until I was certain that I could replicate exactly how and why Hot Curls were made, because I wanted mine to be completely authentic. Before shaping my first Hot Curl, I spent years looking into the boards, reading about them, planning, searching for the wood. I’ve never gotten to actually meet the guys like John Kelly or Wally Froiseth.
“So I finally get some wood together, spending ten years to find a source for lumber. Greg Noll and those guys, they're like on a mission from God to go get it. If anybody can find it, it's usually Greg. The guys who are known for dealing it, and I know who they are, are from Santa Cruz. I'm calling the same guys—we're all going to the same places for it because they don't allow you to harvest it anymore.”
“Joe Quigg made the famous ‘Gray Ghost’ Hot Curl that was made from foam. It was glassed at the Yater shop. It was built in the mid-‘50s, I think, for Bob Cooper. It was an exact replica of the ‘30s Hot Curls. It was glassed extra-heavy to make it feel like a wood board. Sam George has the Gray Ghost, and he rode it for six months, as did Phil Edwards, as did Bob Cooper.
“Because all of them went through the same thing I went through that you’ve been through with me—having to ride a Hot Curl. They had to see if they could do it. And all of them rode it for six months, determined that they’re going to learn how to ride a finless board.”
How do you make a finless board work?
“It’s a very beautiful concept, for some reason, that’s artistically in your thought process. You picture this natural board all one piece. It’s a design challenge to figure out how to make one work without a fin.
“The first template I made was off of a Hot Curl in Renny Yater’s collection. I thought, ‘Oh, this is perfect—I’ll get a beautiful Hot Curl template.’ I couldn’t remember Renny’s story on it, but I know he bought it from Flippy Hoffman, who acquired it in 1950. It was a balsa/redwood Hot Curl.
“After I made my first four Hot Curls, I was asking Yater, ‘Hey, what’s the story with that board again?’ And he says, ‘Oh yeah, I paid ten bucks for it from Flippy Hoffman and then I reshaped it.’ (laughs) I thought, ‘Oh shit!’
“But Roger Nance has a whole bunch of them in his collection at the Beach House. They were built in the ’30s and ‘40s. My template from Renny’s board is a little racier by an inch on each end, and that’s about it.
“There was a 10’8” redwood board that had been found aboard a ship—that one is in Roger’s collection. It was a real 1930s Hot Curl, so I made a template from it. I also made a twelve-foot template freehand, because when you do this stuff, you think about it every single day. You have a visual...you know exactly what it’s supposed to look like, and I spent as much as an entire summer working on a template just on paper before ever making it into a wood template. You draw it, you lay it out, you look at it, you sleep on it for a week. You go back, you change the lines—it really takes a long time, because the outline is where it all starts. Getting those outlines to be authentic to the originals is tricky—they’re so different from any modern surfboard, so no one had any template that you can use to even start making a Hot Curl template.
“I made my two templates off of two boards, and I’ve modified them and made different lengths and sizes. I made the templates because I want them to be precise, I want to recreate them, and I’m not just making one for myself. I’m making them as a profession, so I want them to look perfect.”
In late July 2003, living in the rural outskirts of San Luis Obispo, Marc led me to a heap of old, dusty, faded lumber stacked on the weedy dirt in his backyard. The stack consisted of one-hundred-year-old redwood sliced into in fourteen-feet-long, three-inch-thick, ten-inch-deep planks, some salvaged from a water tower in Woodside, Calif., most from a decommissioned PG&E water tower off San Luis Obispo’s Higuera Street.
“These are planks, but they’re the Ferraris of planks because it's all just 'plank techology,’” he joked. “You take these planks and run them through a thickness planer, which have been around since the ‘20s, to make them an even thickness. You glue them together with any sort of wood glue that has some sort of waterproof compound in it. That process sounds very simple, and it’s very elementary, but with the actual boardbuilding part, you take it a step further.
“What’s beautiful about it is that in the era when everything was made out of wood, they hadn’t developed fiberglass or foam—those were all plastics that came about just prior to World War II. In the teens and ‘20s, when the koa wood and the natural native woods were very rare, the California redwood was used because they made decks out of it. You could get it wet all year long—it rains on it, it dries, and it doesn’t really shrink or crack, or absorb much water. It’s light and it’s got a nice grain to it.
“Redwood cuts real clean and it’s soft, even-grained wood, for the most part. The clear-heart redwood, which is now an endangered species, has very few knots or rough grain, so it’s really nice to shape, and relatively light compared to any other hardwood by maybe fifty percent.
“First you select the length of board. Say you’re going to make it 10’6”—you find pieces of wood that are 10’6” or longer. You mill them all so they are the same depth, typically two-and-a-half to three inches deep, which gives you your thickness. Then you mill them as wide as you can get them. It was rare to get a four-inch-wide piece; most are two to three inches wide. You meld them so it’s like a stringer in a surfboard—a piece three inches wide, three inches deep, and they’re basically dead straight on the top and dead straight on the bottom, like a two-by-four.
“You stand them on end and then you pick the end that’s heaviest, and you let that be at the tail. Every board is different weight, so you pick your heaviest pieces to put on the edge, because you’re going to shape those thinner and lose weight that way. The lightest pieces go in the center of the board because they’re going to remain full thickness. That helps balance the board.
“You’re going to have about ten two-inch pieces, and maybe a couple of T-bands, which are three skinny pieces on each side. So you can end up with sixteen to nineteen pieces altogether, including the fin stringers.
“You want to put a heavy piece opposing the other heavy piece so the board isn’t heavier on the right side and lighter on the left side. I weigh each piece and measure the length of each piece, making a mark in the center.
“Then you set it on a fulcrum, and whichever end falls to the ground is the heavier end, and that’s the tail. You always want the board to be heavier at the tail than at the nose. The back end of the board has to create a lot of drag—Hot Curls are finless—so if the weight and the board’s roundness is aft, it creates drag at the back of the board. You take the planks and you center-balance them.
“For artistic sake and for balance, you take a piece that’s six inches deep and you split it down the middle to have two three-inch deep pieces. That’s called bookmatching. So now I took one piece of wood and made it into two, which now becomes a pair. I weigh all the pairs, and the heavy pairs go on the outside, the light pairs go in the center, and they all oppose each other, all balanced and matched as they go out to the rail.
“You think this all through when you’re selecting your wood and you’re preparing to cut them and mill them and glue them together. That’s how you start, with your wood selection, the lighter and the clearer the better, without heavy grain. Of the best pieces, there’s still a huge variance in the weight, as much as a twenty or thirty percent difference from one piece to another, so you want the heavy ones on the outside.
“By the time you cut your outline and shape your rail up, you’re going to take fifty percent of that wood off of the outside pieces, so you’ll end up with an even weight all the way across. After you’ve selected your wood and you aim them all the right way, you take a roller, roll wood glue on each piece, and slap them all together with pipe clamps, one every ten inches. It takes a half-gallon of glue to put a Hot Curl together; the blank weighs one hundred pounds.
“Let it dry twenty-four hours, then pop the clamps off and you’re ready to shape.”
“The first Hot Curls I made had chambered center pieces, and those boards took forty hours start to finish, of actually selecting the wood, milling it, hollowing out the center pieces, gluing it up, shaping it, and sanding it out by hand.
“But in a really good woodshop with good industrial thickness planers and sanders and all that, I could get it down to about twenty-two hours to make the blank and shape it. You basically just whittle on it with the hand plane until your eyes and body are tired, and then you come back to it a day or two later, and you look at it and work on it some more. The shaping part itself is at least ten hours, and most of it is just sanding the damn thing.
“I can do the planing work in about three or four hours. It doesn’t take a long time, but I’ll do all the rest of it by hand. Then there’s three or four days with the hand plane and the sanding block just tweaking it, shaving it. No measuring at all. I don’t care what the measurements are—it just has to look right. You basically just do it until it looks right to you. You want all the curves to have that nice elliptical shape, where there’s no break anywhere, or a lump, or a rise and a fall down the bottom line.
“All the rocker is shaped in from the bottom, and when you look at it, it looks it has enough shape to ride, which is amazing for us as shapers. Rocker is so important. The original Hot Curl guys did that—they made the bottom come up to meet the deck, which is just your basic dining room table.
“You can’t necessarily see the difference, but wood never looks like you worked on it. If I’ve worked on a wood board for an hour and a half and I come back to it the next day, it doesn’t look like I did anything. I suppose you could measure the difference if you were a scientist, but the wood does seem to expand somehow. So when you keep coming back to it, by the time you’re finished, it will basically hold its shape.”
From the raw lumber to the finished board requires roughly forty hours of hard labor. “You can't do it in a straight shot,” Marc said. “You're doing three or four hours at a time, and after that, you're just dead. Your fingers are just wrecked; you can't feel anything anymore. You're back is killing you and you just have to quit and return later. I ruined my back surfing Sunset Beach, and if I lift anything more than twenty-five pounds, I'm in pain for two or three days. So making these boards has been difficult because it's hard for me to move them. But once I cut it out, it gets it down to where I can manage it. And once they're shaped, they're fine.
“I still have all of my original shaping tools from 1970. I've always worked with the same sanding block, same Skil 100. I just take that plank lumber and I use these little tools…after the wood is milled, you have to size it then put it through a thickness planer so that they're all sized at the right thickness.
“What you do with these things to make them really pretty and balanced is you take the white board and you split it into two pieces, and that becomes a pair. Each board becomes opposed from the other one on the other side, so you can put your heavy pieces on the outside and your lighter pieces in the center, and they're all matched. It makes a finished board look really pretty, but it's for function, too. I hollow out all the center pieces before I glue it up so I can get all that dead weight out of the center, then I ban-saw the rocker templates out on them to see how they line up before I glue them. The board weighs about ninety pounds after the blanks are glued up.”
I noticed one of Marc’s Hot Curls featured a single-fin box, which struck me as running against the vintage of pure Hot Curl methodology.
“I put the fin blocks in just so I could experience the board,” he reasoned. “I could pull out and put a wooden plug in, but this one I made because I'm surfing it. I want to just learn about it. But, you know, a small fin in there made the board completely surfable, and then, see, you could really feel the thing.”
But did it then remain a true Hot Curl?
“I have a picture of an original pintail Hot Curl on the beach at Waikiki, with a keel shaped into the bottom,” Marc said. “That's why I did that, or I wouldn't have done it. I've seen the picture. Tom Blake invented the little tiny runner fin in 1935 and he put it on his hollow paddleboards as a stabilizer. But then some uncredited genius actually shaped a ridge into the back end of his Hot Curl, and when I saw that, I thought that was beautiful.
“The most aesthetically pleasing Hot Curls I’ve shaped have that keel, which is like a big ridge that drops out of the bottom. They do really work well; you can steer them and stand way back on them. They’re better than the flatter-bottomed ones that are just squared off.
“I’m only interested in making boards to use. I’m not a collector. I’m only now old enough where I’m actually interested in making some that you don’t have to surf, but I want them to be completely useful. That’s why they're chambered and they've got the keel shaped into them, and you can absolutely take them out and ride them. It doesn't have to be a wall-hanger.”
“I sand the blank down to 320 grit, because any sort of scratch beyond 220 grit will show up when you put the finish on it, and it’ll look like your kids were in there doing their homework on it.
“Balsa boards were always fiberglassed. Fiberglass was invented in the mid ‘40s, and that's when balsa became popular. When I started dong these Hot Curls, I didn’t want to put resin on them. It doesn't belong on redwood. There's nothing authentic about it.
“Greg Noll’s work is outstanding. He’s the Julia Childs of surfboard oil finishes. He dies with the family recipe. He would do these old koa boards, and he had a hand-rubbed finish on them which had a real satin look to it. I thought there must be a way to do the finish that enhances the beauty of the redwood, but it isn't resin—it's something authentic to the original period.
“There are two ways to finish a Hot Curl, and I’ve done both. You use either varnish or linseed oil. The really common method was varnish. Varnish is really beautiful material—it flows out like a gloss resin. You put one coat over the other and it’ll stick to it. If you really sand that board perfectly, and do a nice thick varnish coat on it, it flows out and really looks pretty. It’s kind of a honey color and it gives the board this warm, yellow hue over this golden brown wood, and they’re just beautiful.
“In the old days, you used linseed oil and things that would turn hard after a few days. You'd wipe it on thick, then wipe it off. The oil penetrates the wood and then it kind of gels and coagulates, and you build up enough layers and then it will have a coating. Stuff people use nowadays has a synthetic base to it. The old oil is very hard to find.
“I like linseed oil because it has a satiny, dull, organic look to it, and it doesn’t look like it’s wood with a coating on it. It looks more like your parents’ dining room table, where you can still see the pores of the wood through it.
“You don't need fiberglass and resin to make wood strong—it already is strong. That is where the strength comes from. So it's only these redwood boards that Steve Triplett does, because this is a guy who’s a master woodworker, so he can put a finish on a board that belongs on it.
“I could take a finished Hot Curl to a surfboard factory and they could fiberglass it and polish it, and it would look really outstanding and pretty and perfect, but it would be like taking an old Hawai’ian board and dipping it into plastic. Nothing authentic about that, which is why I’m doing this with Triplett, because it's more like the real thing. This is how they're supposed to be made, how they used to be made. But, of course, the crème-de-la-crème is actually surfing them.”
“Bob Simmons and Joe Quigg are two of the guys credited with inventing what we consider the modern-day longboard, which is a fin on the tail, wide hips—a hotdog board that you can whip around. Roundhouse turn, run up to the nose. Quigg did that in the early ‘50s, and they were made out of balsa, and they called them the Malibu board because that's where they rode them.
“The Hawai’ians rode those narrow, finless Hot Curls until about 1950. Simultaneously, the Malibu balsa chip board with the fin on it was developed in the late '40s, so the designs overlapped. All those pioneer guys went back and forth from Santa Monica to Waikiki, and even though they had a design of a surfboard that was better in many ways, the guys were intrigued with the romance of a Hawai’ian riding a finless redwood board in the Hawai’ian surf. It had an appeal.
“So all of those guys, at one time or another, actually built Hot Curls and rode them as experiments. For them, it was like us riding contemporary boards and saying,’I want to get a retro longboard.’ That's what they were doing: ‘Hey, we have these modern boards made out of balsa wood with a fin on them, but we want to do this retro thing and ride Hot Curls.’ Even Yater did. Same with Phil Edwards.
“I read an old interview with Phil, and he just had to do it. I think the ‘Gray Ghost’ is the one that Phil Edwards rode. It's the same board Sam George was riding. It's like eleven feet long and it's made out of foam, but it was glassed with triple glass to make it really heavy, and he rode it for about a year. He made himself ride it every time he went out, and he said it was really difficult.”
THE RIDE: CALIFORNIA TODAY
“…this key period of transition during which hot curl boards and their special style flourished remains an obscure, or at best, misunderstood phenomena. In truth it was the portal to modern surfing.” —Craig Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal
Central Coast, July: late afternoon, mid-week, mild, partly cloudy, roads of tourists, rolling hills of brown grass and black cattle. It could’ve been Orange County sixty years ago, or Los Angeles a hundred.
The Central Coast’s summer surf is sporadic, often junky, with occasional clean south swell rejuvenating rare reefs in Big Sur, San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos. After a late Mexican-food lunch in downtown San Luis Obispo, we motored west, eventually choosing Morro Bay’s Atascadero Beach for its smallish, mediocre windswell, empty, glassy, peaky, consistent—ideal for my first time riding a Hot Curl, or, more specifically, “Hot-Curling.”
Marc’s white Ford Econoline was big enough to house an entire quiver of Hot Curls. We brought one, the 9’4” he’d shaped in 2002, from San Luis Obispo water-tower redwood. He rode a self-shaped foam/fiberglass 9’2” Owl noserider, which he eventually sold to me.
Fitting into my damp wetsuit on the cold, hard sand, dusk approaching, the windless air cooling rapidly, Marc offered a brief tutorial, standing over the board I would ride, gesturing at its tail:
“It works best if you stand back there on it—it plants the tail into the face of the wave. Therefore the nose goes faster than the back of the board, and so when you get it on an angle, the nose is going faster than the tail, and you’re going to slide across at an angle rather than the back end trying to overtake the front end.
“You have to figure out how to make the board go where you need it to go, and the more time the wave gives you, the better. You're not going to be fighting to make sure it goes the right way; you have to let it flow.”
Woodsmoke from the nearby campground filled the air, stirring my own memories of sleeping in tents and cars along this rugged coast. Seagulls cackled and jostled; somewhere in the distance, a sea lion barked. All with the muffled roar of the waves we faced.
I lifted the board and waded into the surf. The water was icy—Morro Bay is five thousand miles from Waikiki.
The board was fairly light for a Hot Curl (fifty-one pounds) and dropped straight onto the water with a loud, flat crack, like dropping a coffee table into a swimming pool.
I started paddling: buoyancy was easy, stability was not. The finless tail wagged as I punched through whitewater, appreciating the board’s speed and fluidity but struggling to restrain its rear pivot.
Yet a momentum ensued and I earned stride, sluicing the water, head down, smelling the brine and woodsmoke. Once outside, I was able to admire the setting sun and its pastels cast onto the crags of Morro Rock to the south—ancient, yes, and appropriate for a trip back through time atop a modern Hot Curl, because Hot Curls are timepieces, their science and design precursors to the modern big-wave gun and, ultimately, tow-in surfboards.
What did Fran Heath and John Kelly and Wally Froiseth feel on that first drop-in? Firmer purchase in the pocket? Increased speed? A line-drive of effortless speed and flow? Surely a sense of oneness with the furling reef waves of Brown’s and Makaha, opposed to the soft contours of Waikiki.
Their scene was tropical, and their wood came from temperate rain forests in the Pacific Northwest. Old-growth redwoods are the world’s biggest trees, today reduced to a fraction of their pre-logging existence. Of course, Hot Curls were inconsequential, and the one I straddled was shaped from recycled lumber.
I caught my first wave easily and squatted in the whitewater straight to shore, feeling the plank’s firm grip on the water surface. It was fast and sketchy, but the instant my feet hit the deck, I was Hot-Curling.
Marc caught the next wave and rode it beautifully. Back outside, I asked him how he first fared on this rockerless, finless plank.
“I succeeded in riding a handful of waves on it at Pismo,” he said, squinting into the low sun. “I had to really stay back on the board. The first thing I did was I got up on it and it spun around so fast, I was facing out to sea instantly and I scared the hell out of myself.”
That was in wintry, overhead beachbreak—ideal size and steepness for the Hot Curl, but generally walled and closing out. Morro Bay’s summer sandbars were tapered, and once I balanced my weight and began mind-surfing the board between sets, waves became ridden from the outside to the sand. Recounting Marc’s advice (Plant the tail into the face of the wave—), I stood with an arc to my back, a slight bend to my knees, mimicking footage I’d seen of Blackie Makaena surfing toward Diamond Head at Canoes in Bud Browne’s Hawaiian Surfing Movies, circa 1950.
Morro Rock could be Diamond Head. Gazing south from Atascadero Beach, the arc of the beach down to the Rock resembled the view south from Waikiki. Sitting in the cold water on the Hot Curl, I could almost sense Blackie at Canoes, or Wally Froiseth out on a big day at Queen’s. The water and air were warmer there, and the men surfed over reef instead of sand, but Atascadero’s early-evening idyll—the backdrop hills, the lack of surfers, the campfires, the sun dropping through clouds into the gray sea—evoked a sublime immunity to the woes of modern surfing. There, under Marc’s tutorage, I could Hot-Curl undisturbed, sliding finless into the past, well before my time.
“It’s a really beautiful experience to ride a Hot Curl in any clean wave that's not a top-to-bottom closeout thumper,” he said.
Closeouts were rarely surfed sixty years ago. Frequented surf spots were quality, usually pointbreaks and reefs like Waikiki, Malibu, San Onofre. Beachbreaks like Morro Bay would have been ridden on smallish, clean, perfect days, like today, and the Hot Curl would have been the perfect board.
World War II, the draft, no wetsuits, no Internet, no cell phones, no crowds, no ocean pollution—life was different for the 1940s-era twentysomething male surfer. Futures were uncertain, often fateful. It was possible that a young enlisted man from southern California, summoned to O’ahu after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, found the Hot Curl: Waikiki, Makaha, and Brown’s were not far.
After Pearl Harbor, John Kelly was ordered to boat around and retrieve dead bodies—the adage “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” comes to mind:
“We would pick up dozens and dozens, lay them out for identification, then put them in boxes for storage. Every once in a while we’d bring a dead Japanese pilot in. We were using those double-size boxes, so you’d put two bodies in instead of one, and I remember laying an American sailor face-to-face with a Japanese pilot, and thinking: who the hell made the decision that these kids had to kill one another? These two boys had no grievances…the outrageousness of the whole thing, the waste—it just about took me over.”
Later, Kelly and Fran Heath served aboard the USS Calcedony ; the captain let them bring Hot Curls. Exotic surf was imminent: the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island, Palmyra, Midway Atoll—places far removed from today’s surf-travel map. Yet they are out there, suspended in time, mid-Pacific, soiled with rusty military leftovers, weedy airstrips, and the souls from untold casualties of war. Sixty years on, visitors remain rare, tourism unknown.
Surfing on a Hot Curl—a floating wooden timepiece—withdrew me to that era, years described to me by my grandfather, an army colonel who earned a purple heart in Germany. The frozen screams of Alcatraz were a world distant from Hawai’i and the tropical Pacific, yet the horror and challenge of warfare remained the same for Kelly and Heath, both assigned to Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) duty, an early version of today’s Navy SEALS.
“We considered using surfboards for reconnaissance missions,” Heath said. “That was Kelly’s idea. But, boards are too easily spotted from low-flying aircraft and there’s no protection if you’re spotted, so that idea was scrapped.”
Around the same time back at Morro Bay, the U.S. Navy was staging mock invasions with amphibious landing crafts at the exact beach I Hot-Curled with Marc. Morro Rock was being quarried for landfill and port improvements, notably harbor entrance’s two 1,800-foot-long jetties, built, at the Navy’s request, for better wartime defense purposes.
Angling shoreward atop the Hot Curl, balanced methodically, learning its rail and tail-suction nuances—I needed no defense. But what if I did? What if I was in my twenties just before the Pearl Harbor bombing, surfing wintertime San Onofre in a wool bathing suit on a Pacific Redi-Cut Homes 10’0” redwood/balsa, sharing waves with Guard Chapin, Lorin Harrison, and Dorian Paskowitz? Military service would’ve been certain, and I would’ve joined the navy, like John Kelly and Fran Heath.
Disaster would’ve also been somewhat inevitable—gunfire, shipwreck, bombing, hand-to-hand combat—against the Asian enemy. Or, in Kelly’s case, there could’ve been a lucid instance of oceanic abandonment: to break the monotony at sea, Kelly occasionally grabbed a rope and bodysurfed behind the USS Calcedony. One day, however, his rope snapped, and suddenly he was treading in the Big Blue, watching his ship sail away. He was soon rescued, of course.
More questions: What if he wasn’t rescued? What if he had been left in the middle of the Pacific, with no life vest, flotation, food, or drinking water? What if he was stranded within swimming distance of an obscure atoll populated with islanders who had never seen a white person? And what if that atoll had rideable waves, and trees to build a surfboard with?
Toweling off at Marc’s van in darkness on the side of the road, campfire smoke and sea salt in the air, Morro Bay’s lights winking in the distance, I asked him if he thought surfing’s halcyon days were over.
“In southern California, to an extent, yes, I’d say they’re over. But each generation has its own period of innocence and evolution—or revolution, I suppose.”
Sliding my hands along the contours of the wet Hot Curl, I realized mine had just begun.
1. Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, 1996.
2. Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Fran Heath, 1996.
3. Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with John Kelly, 1996.
4. Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Legends of the Hot Curl.
5. Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Woody Brown, 1994.
6. Stecyk, Craig. “Hot Curl,” The Surfer’s Journal, Summer 1994.
7. Warshaw, Matt. Above the Roar: 50 Surfer Interviews, p. 77.
8. Lynch, Gary. Interview with George Downing, 1989.
9. Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Froiseth, 1989.
10. Lynch, Gary. Interview with John Kelly, 1989.
11. Kew, Michael. Interview with Gary Lynch, 2005.
12. Kew, Michael. Interviews with Marc Andreini, 2003 and 2005.
By Michael Kew
Spencer Reynolds won’t paint burgers. But maybe he should.
They’re gorgeous things.
And he’s just ordered one, medium-well with extra avo, from Raymond Ross, friendly owner of the Vista Pub. Squinting in late-Saturday sun, the 41-year-old Reynolds sits opposite me in his jeans and blue coat, drinking Brookings-brewed beer at a varnished redwood table. We’re in the pub’s side patio on Chetco Avenue, the whoosh of traffic alternating with birds chirping from the green hedge that doubles as a fence.
On the black cinderblock wall by our table is Reynolds’ 4-by-4 painting of Natural Bridges, a picturesque spot 11 miles north. But it’s not the view commonly photographed. “It’s a little more dangerous to see,” Reynolds says. “You have to almost hang off the cliff to get that angle.”
The piece was commissioned by Ross, who has displayed Reynolds’ art since the pub’s birth in 2011.
“One chilly day, Raymond ran over to me as I was walking from the ocean after surfing. He excitedly told me that he was opening a pub and would love to hang my work inside. We didn’t know each other well at that point, but I loved his passion.”
Today, four years later, Brookings’ ocean-breezed air is still chilly. Hot food sounds great. But first: two more pints by Chetco Brewing; in 2013, Reynolds was hired to draw the company logo.
“Designing it was fun for me on a couple of levels. First, I love a good beer and thought it would be cool to make art for a brewery. Second, I grew up on the Chetco River, so I have a deep passion for this amazing place.”
After my third sip of Willa Nelson IPA, I ask Reynolds about something he’d told me a few weeks back, a morsel about his art being driven by an attempt to balance opposites. What does that mean?
“It can mean lots of different things,” Reynolds says [then, to Ross, approaching with our gorgeous burgers]. “Wow, that was fast!”
“Everyone in there is drinking beer,” Ross says, grinning before heading back inside. “The cooks are just waiting for orders.”
Squirting ketchup onto his French fries, Reynolds continues.
“So, yeah, opposites—there’s always some sort of opposing elements in my work. Could be a structural element versus a flowy element. It could be the physical materials, or metaphorically political, and a real desire to see those things get along. It’s not always something that I know that’s going to happen when I start a piece; rather, it’s when I finish a piece and I look at it and realize that the rule of opposites has come out of me again. No matter what I create, that always seems to be there.”
The rule of opposites, I posit, could apply not just to his work but to his base, firmly in Brookings, perhaps financially unsound for a full-time artist.
“There’s a lot of moral support here,” Reynolds says, chewing fries. “Often I’ll have to sell my art in other places—mainly Southern California, because that’s where a concentration of surf culture is. But as I expand into different areas, maybe that won’t be as important.”
I ask, “You no longer consider yourself a ‘surf artist,’ right?”
“Not anymore. I think I did for a time, but I want to broaden more, because the title of ‘surf artist’ is too confining for me. I want to do other things.”
He sips some beer, sets his chin.
“I don’t know. I just want to experiment, to play with paint and try whatever comes to mind. I feel like a jazz musician, improvising a lot of the time, seeing what comes out of me.”
Reynolds admits to being a kid enamored with surf culture, because the Curry coast had none. A 1991 graduate of Brookings-Harbor High School, he moved to Eugene for a lukewarm stint at community college, then to Port Angeles to surf, then to Seattle to prioritize his art. He attended the Art Institute and surfed rarely. “I was moderately scared of the big city—the big world—but I wanted to enter it.”
After six years, he did some traveling, eventually settling in Hawaii and Australia before returning to Oregon—Portland this time, where he met Stacey, now his wife, marketing director, and mother of Blake, their 3-year-old son.
“Stacey has lots of skills and abilities that I lack,” Reynolds says, wiping his lips between burger bites. “I’m the passionate dreamer side of the relationship, and she’s the realistic, mechanical side. She’s pretty essential for me not getting too far out in la-la land.”
In 2009, the newlyweds moved to Brookings.
“I really want to feel like I’m sinking into this place, to be firmly rooted,” he says. “I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’m a bit of an introvert, so I don’t feel as hindered here as I did in the cities, where everything seemed to suffocate me. I can really breathe here. But it took me years to get to this mindset. I wanted to be out everywhere. I didn’t want to be here for a long time, but I always knew I’d come back.”
There are plans for a Reynolds art gallery not far from where we sit.
“The commercial side of it to support your family is probably Spencer’s deepest desire—to be able to live off his art,” says Stacey, who’s just joined us from inside the Vista. “We’re constantly trying to navigate that—how we can bring art and creativity to everyone’s lives and make it accessible, especially here in the Brookings community.”
“People are excited that I can make a bit of a living as an artist here,” Spencer adds, “but it’s definitely a sort of bizarre element to where most people here make a living in a very practical manner.”
“Is art impractical?” I ask.
“It’s very practical,” he says. “It’s essential. A lot of people might argue against that, but art gives you a reason to live.”
A swig of beer and a pause in eating. He leans back in the metal chair, red-cheeked, aglow, optimistic about the future, about the second half of his gorgeous burger. Spencer smiles. Because here in Brookings, living is the reason.
This Saturday, June 27 (NOT Thursday, like the flyer says), from 5-9 p.m., Spencer will be at Bliss 101 in Encinitas, California. See flyer below for more details. If you love quality art, don't miss this event!
Click here to view a wealth of his artwork.
By Michael Kew
For a few blustery days each June, the world’s windsurf stage veers to Eagle Rock in Pistol River State Park, Oregon.
“Everyone loves to come here and sail, to rip it up, to take advantage of what we have,” Harbor's Luke Mathison said. “It’s a big playground.”
The bearded Mathison, a 20-year Curry County windsurfing vet, stood atop the dunes, buffeted by a near-gale, and smiled as he watched another professional windsurfer launch 30 vertical feet off another large wave.
“We’ve always had good conditions for this event,” he said, “but this year has been exceptional.”
For a Pistol River resident like James Lundin, the Wave Bash is akin to having the Super Bowl or World Cup in his front yard.
“It provides us with a great opportunity to watch some of the best sailors in the world perform,” he said, wetsuited, minutes before his final Grandmasters-division heat. “It inspires us greatly to try to achieve more than we already do. It also gives sailors the opportunity to spread the word about this area. It’s a nice place to come and hang out for anyone who enjoys recreation, because it’s not just about windsurfing here. There are lots of other things to do.”
Lundin’s good friend (and fellow Grandmasters competitor) Dwight Bode, who lives just north of Brookings, agreed.
“The Wave Bash is a great event that brings a lot of people out to watch what we really do out here,” Bode said. “People forget that it’s much more than just a beautiful coastline. People come from all over the world to sail here. It’s an epic place.”
Ted Eady, owner of Inn at the Beachcomber, provided lodging for Wave Bash competitors, plus barbecue soirees and fresh beer from Gold Beach’s Arch Rock.
“We’ve had a bunch of happy people here,” he said. “And I noticed there were more rooms booked by visitors who came specifically to watch the event. Anything you can do to put Curry County in some sort of international spotlight is good.”
Yet, ultimately, the Wave Bash is communal, grassroots exhibition, aided in large part by Pistol River’s Dana Miller, a windsurfer for more than three decades.
“It puts us on the map,” Miller said, grinning. “Not that the place isn’t already on the map—you can walk into a bar in Nepal and they’ve heard of Pistol River. It’s legendary in windsurfing circles. This place has everything going for it. It’s a windsurfer’s dream.”
It was my pleasure to be the editor of Chris Burkard's new project for Mendo Books. "High Tide — A Surf Odyssey," has just been published. For more details, and to order a copy, click here.
I CLEARLY RECALL the moment I first met Burkard. It was with a cheerful handshake in August 2006, beside the tidy desk of then-photo editor Peter Taras, inside the offices of the now-defunct Transworld Surf magazine in Oceanside, California. Burkard was Taras’s summer intern, commuting weekly 420 kilometers each way from Arroyo Grande and sleeping in his truck while absorbing the nuances of surf photography and photo editing. He was a few months away from his first-ever international trip (to Dubai/Oman), but his was an obvious talent just beginning to simmer. Nearly a decade on, I caught up with Burkard at home for a current glimpse into an artist mind that is now at a full rolling boil. —Michael Kew, Oregon Coast, February 2015
MICHAEL KEW: Your body of work is impressive, and yet you’re not even 30 years old. How did this occur?
CHRIS BURKARD: Traveling is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I didn’t set out to run a photography business—I wanted to see the world. That was all I cared about, getting out of this small town that I felt stuck in. I started going to these places that were really unique, but they weren’t fulfilling. We were going to the tropics, living that status quo, visiting places that were normally associated with surfing, but I felt suffocated. I had a draw to go to some off-the-beaten-path places, which ultimately led me to places like Iceland and Norway, getting further from my comfort zone. Those trips eventually became more like an internal journey than anything. To see how far we could go to push ourselves and to experience something new.
What do you try to capture?
Photographs are one-dimensional, right? They’re just flat, especially when you’re looking at them on a computer screen. Years ago I’d studied a little bit of two- and three- dimensional art, and one of the things I learned was how to use color as a way to make an image stand out and look three-dimensional using warm tones and cool tones to my advantage, pushing and pulling them to make an image feel deep. Lighting has always played a huge role in my work.
As far as my lenses, I tend to go a bit wider. Most of my surf work has been shot using 70-200mm or below. Those are the types of photos I’m the most known for, at least. For my landscape work and such, I love shooting super wide and getting close rather than trying to just zoom into subjects—I like to actually walk up and approach them. It’s a more intimate experience and that’s what I like about it—the opportunity to be close. All the moments I’m shooting are usually something that I’m personally involved in myself.
How has recently bringing two sons into this world affected your career?
I’m not as reckless as I used to be. When I used to travel, I wouldn’t care about the length of time I would be gone, but nowadays I’m trying to be smart about booking my trips. I’ve found that, in having a family, communication is the most important thing—it’s everything. It’s made for a lot of expensive phone bills, but it’s been worth it because I’ve been able to talk to my wife while on the road and make sure the kids are safe—that’s the role of being a dad who’s trying to travel for a living. There’s no way for me to stop seeing the world. That’s just what I do, so I need to figure out how I can make them feel safe and I can feel comfortable leaving them for periods of time.
What in your career so far have you wished that you could’ve done differently?
That’s a tough one. I think I would have traveled sooner to places that had initially inspired me. I was always so afraid to invest my own time and money into places I really wanted to visit. I chose to travel to places that my editors thought to be good, or to places that I knew the magazine could use. I was just playing it safe. As soon as I stopped worrying and carrying about all of that, I started to go to places where my work started to mean something to me. Suddenly it became fulfilling and not just a job.
What have been your most prominent ups and downs?
Probably the lowest point was in Russia, when you saw me getting walked out of customs in the Vladivostok airport and put into jail. (laughs) That sucked. It was a low point but also an eye-opener because being so young and suddenly realizing that, at 21 years old, you’re not invincible. You’re human and subject to the same treatment that everyone else is.
Besides my kids being born, one of the highest points was the opportunity I had to see the waves in Alaska. That trip to the Aleutian Islands was the best of my life. We were so far off the grid and so remote that we realized there was nobody but ourselves there to rely on. That type of self-sufficiency makes you feel alive. It’s really gratifying.
How do you stay inspired?
It used to be just by looking at photos, but nowadays I find inspiration in a lot of different places—through art, music, architecture—and also just by travel. I try to look in unorthodox places to find it.
What does photography mean to you?
It’s been a tool and a vehicle for me to see the world, and it’s been a way to inspire people as well as myself. Photography is a job and a business, which is great, but I’ve never been a good writer, I’ve never done journals or taken notes. All I do is take pictures of my experiences and, at the end of the day, at the end of my career, of my life, I’m not going to give a crap about how much money photography made for me; I’m going to care about the ability to share a lot of these experiences with my kids. A way of remembering (hopefully) a life well-lived.
What makes a good picture stand out from the average?
A good photograph is something that inspires people, that moves them, that makes them want to get up and go do something. That should be most important. It should have good light, great contrast, an emotional trigger. The real beauty of a good photograph is there are no real rules. You can look at something in a bunch of different ways and still make a beautiful image, because it’s really about the content.
Weather conditions can be critical for a successful picture. How do you handle these unpredictable forces?
Finding unpredictable weather is one of the best things someone can do. I used to live for those bluebird days, when it’s sunny and offshore, and those are killer, but they get old after a while. It’s so much more unique when you’re chasing storms and when you find yourself immersed in an actual storm, you realize that the weather and the light and the whole emotion of the situation is a lot more dramatic. That’s what I live for now. I’d rather be in a clearing storm than a sunny bluebird day any time. I’ve learned to embrace every situation. There’s no such thing as bad weather—there are just soft people and poor clothing.
What are your big future goals?
To be as good a father as I am a photographer. (laughs) I’m actually making a children’s book—that has always been a goal of mine. And this TED Talk has been another goal of mine for what seems like forever. It’s a huge, huge thing that I’ve been wanting to do because it’s a way of leaving a legacy behind, some of the things I’ve learned and gained from traveling, to have a global stage and present some of my greatest work is a really amazing opportunity. I feel super lucky.
Any wish-list locations you’d like to visit?
There are a lot. I still want to go to so many places in Canada and Norway and Iceland; these places are still just as inspiring as the first time I visited them. That’s the beauty of them. I’m a lifelong traveler—it’s not just something I’ve done for a career but because I love it.
Ultimately, with this photographic path you’ve chosen, what have you learned about life and the world?
In life, there are no shortcuts to joy, and for us to truly embrace anything that’s worthwhile, we have to be willing to shiver just a little bit. I’ve definitely done my fair share of shivering and it’s taught me a couple things. For my entire life I’ve been seeking these distant shores—as a little kid I was daydreaming about them—and then when I started traveling to them and I realized that you’re never going to get there by daydreaming or by flipping through pages in a magazine. You have to go and seek out your distant shore. It’s not enough to just dip our toes into what inspires us; we have to immerse ourselves.