Saturday, June 16, 2018

Mary Ann Hawkins (1919-1993)

Mary Ann Hawkins was the undisputed standout woman surfer of the 1930s, winning the women's division of the Pacific Coast Surfing Championships in 1938, 1939 and 1940. She was also attractive, prompting one surf journalist to write that she had “the figure and looks of a movie star” and was “grace personified in the water.”[1]

(Mary Ann and E.J. Oshier by Doc Ball)

Mary Ann was born and raised in Pasadena. Her father was a book-keeper and her mother a collector of antique dolls. At six years old, by her own recollection, Mary Ann was sickly and weak, so her parents enrolled her in a YWCA swim program. A couple of years later, it was Duke Kahanamoku’s swimming that captured her imagination. “I was about 10 when I saw Duke in the pool in Pasadena,” she recalled. “He was this big, beautiful Hawaiian man, making bubbling noises with his mouth and making everyone laugh. Duke would have been around 33. He fascinated me and I’ll never forget the first time I saw him.”[2]

“In 1929,” wrote surf writer Ben Marcus, “she won her first honors for all around swimming and diving with the Pasadena Swim Club and had buried her parent’s mantel piece with 37 first-place ribbons. In 1933, Hawkins competed at the Southern Pacific Association Swimming and Diving Championships and won the 880-yard freestyle, beating the old record by 8 seconds. In 1934, she broke the 800-yard record again, and also won the National Junior championship in the half-mile, and the 100 yard freestyle.”[3]

She recalled that at the age of 15, “because of my love for ocean swimming – ocean races more than pool races – my mother bought a little house down in Costa Mesa, near Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar. That was 1934.” That same year, Mary Ann competed with the Ambassador Hotel Swim Team in an 880-yard paddleboard race and won-against men.[4]

For a brief time, while hanging out with the likes of Tarzan Smith, Mary Ann was part of the Corona del Mar surf crew. While enjoying that status, she may have been part of the first surf expedition to San Onofre. “A group of surfers had come back from Mexico, and on their way back they had spotted San Onofre, and thought it looked like a great spot to surf. So they came on down to Corona del Mar and gathered up a second car load, including me, and the two car loads of us drove down to where they’d seen this fabulous surf. There was no road that we knew of to get in, or else it’s because you had to pay to get in, in those days… we parked on the road, and walked over fields, and went down the side of the cliff there to San Onofre, and surfed that way. And that was the beginning of San Onofre’s surf thing.”[5]

Mary Ann’s stay at Costa Mesa and as a regular at Corona del Mar was brief, as she and her mother moved to Santa Monica in 1935. Now solidly in surf mode, she got her own board, which was almost unheard of in California in the mid-’30s. Although girls were part of the beach scene, few took to riding other than tandem. Also, the weight of surfboards was considerable. They were so heavy that they had to be literally dragged up and down the trail at places like Palos Verdes Cove. At the time, Mary Ann probably weighed less than her surfboard. “I wasn’t very good,” she said modestly, “and I was always the only girl out there surfing.” At Santa Monica, she fell in the Palos Verdes Surfing Club, including Tulie Clark, Hoppy Swarts, Bud Morrisey, Barney Wilkes and E.J. Oshier and her surfing improved.

Mary Ann tried out for the Olympics in 1936, at the age of 17, but didn’t make it in for reasons unknown. Despite this, she never expressed any disappointment that she did not follow in Duke’s wake in competitive swimming.[6]

(Mary Ann and Bud Morrisey)

Even so, her swimming records were impressive. Mary Ann had started her swimming career at age nine and by the age of 17, she was the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) 500-meter freestyle champion. It is obvious she enjoyed surfing and paddling more, however. Between 1935 and 1941, “she was the darling of the California surf scene,” wrote Matt Warshaw, “winning nearly every women’s surfing and paddleboarding event she entered. She also served as a model for the next generation of California female surfers, including Robin Grigg, Vicki Williams, and Aggie Bane.”[7]

In 1939, Mary Ann “was invited to compete in the 1939 Duke Kahanamoku Swim Meet in Honolulu, where she broke the Hawaiian record for the 220 meter freestyle…”[8]

It was a big jump to make for an eighteen year-old woman, but she took the steamship ride to the Hawaiian Islands and competed in the Pacific Aquatic Festival.[9] She won the women’s half-mile and the 880-yard and broke a record in the 220-yard. More importantly for her, however, was the chance to surf Queens  and meet Duke Kahanamoku, who had inspired her as a young girl. “My very favorite surf spot in all this world is Canoe Surf in Waikiki,” Mary Ann declared many years later. “In 1939, when I was over there, Duke helped me in every way. He’d always have me get to his right, he’d coach me… Duke and his brother and I were a team together. He picked me to team with him, to surf against the Australians.” That surfing competition was cancelled, but Mary Ann came home from Hawaii with her most cherished memento: a photo of her shaking hands with Duke.[10]

From 1938 to 1940, Mary Ann reigned as the women’s division champion of the Pacific Coast Surfing Championships, and was also the paddleboard champion. In the late 1930s, aquaplaning was also a popular sport in southern California. The Catalina Aquaplane Race was a 44-mile pull from Avalon, on Catalina Island, to Hermosa Beach, and Mary Ann won that, as well.[11]

A teenage swimming, paddling and surfing champion in the 1930s, Mary Ann drew lots of attention going on into her 20s. She was featured surfing in a 1938 issue of Life magazine. Shortly afterward and after appearing in newspapers and magazines for her various triumphs and feats, as well as being the poster girl for Palos Verdes,[12] Mary Ann began to attract the attention of Hollywood. She was asked to double for Judy Garland, but was told she was too athletic to fool the camera – Garland was less than five feet tall. After trimming down, Mary Ann’s first role was an extra in the pool doing water ballet for Washington Melodrama in 1941.

Mary Ann doubled for Dorothy Lamour in Aloma of the South Seas (1941) and Beyond the Blue Horizon (1942), and then worked with Johnny Weissmuller in Jungle Jim (1948) and most of the 12 Tarzan pictures that ran from 1932 to 1948. She performed many stunts, including swinging from vines, swimming across burning rivers and putting her head in the mouth of a tiger.[13]

For a while in the 1940s, Tommy Zahn was a contract player at Twentieth Century Fox, dating Marilyn Monroe, Darrilyn Zanuck, and working out with Mary Ann. “She was a great diver… I mean, I’m speaking of platform and springboard. And she was, of course, this stunt woman in Hollywood. She could do just about anything – very well coordinated and easy to work with, a lot of fun to go surf with. She used to work out with me too, and give me a heck of a workout. Great swimmer.”[14]

After WorldWar II, Mary Ann became a regular at Malibu, riding a custom board made by Joe Quigg. “I absolutely loved it,” she recalled, “and that board seemed to pick up waves all on its own. Unfortunately that board was stolen… Then I had Velzy make me a board.”

Mary Ann Hawkins “was the marrying kind,” tying the knot four times. She went from being a Hawkins to a Morrissey to a McGuire to a Sears to a Midkiff. The fact that she had four husbands embarrassed her a bit and, unfortunately, helps obscure her total record of accomplishments. Her first marriage was to surfer/shaper Bud Morrissey and they had a daughter, Kathy. The first marriage ended in the late 1940s and in 1950 she married another waterman named Don McGuire. That marriage produced a son, Rusty, but ended in tragedy when McGuire drowned while boating to Catalina Island with a Hollywood stuntman named Paul Stader. The boat foundered about 10 miles off Catalina. Stader made it to safety, but McGuire did not, leaving Mary Ann with two children.

In 1954, Life Magazine did a feature on the movie Oklahoma which showed Shirley Jones jumping 15 feet from a burning haystack. Mary Ann McGuire broke her ankle doing that stunt – her only serious injury as a stuntwoman.

In 1955 Mary Ann married Fred Sears, a movie director with a long, decent string of credits including Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and the first full-length rock and roll picture Rock Around the Clock. That same year, while working on The Prodigal, Mary Ann Sears wore a costume made of 10 pounds of pearls and performed a fall from a 24-foot platform into a nine-foot diameter, six-foot deep pool on fire.

According to Mary Ann’s personal resume, in 1956 she doubled for Carole Baker and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant, and also had an acting role.

Her marriage with Fred Sears was short. A year after the marriage ceremony, Mary Ann was once again a single mother of two: Rusty McGuire and Kathy Morrissey. She moved the family to Hawai’i in 1956 to work on another movie. She surfed Canoes as much as possible and was hired to do a water show at the Hilton Hawaiian Village during a time when air travel was opening the Hawaiian Islands up as a world-renowned vacation spot.[15]

Mary Ann’s water shows featured special appearances by her friend Esther Williams, beachboy Sam Kahanamoku and Duke Kahanamoku.

Ricky Grigg’s sister Robin provided more detail about Mary Ann’s water shows and her use of the pool to teach swimming. Robin Grigg was one of the most accomplished water women of the 1950s. In 1959, she moved to O’ahu “with a degree in Physical Therapy from Stanford in one hand and a Dave Sweet surfboard in the other.”[16] Robin finished third in the Makaha Invitational that year and lived with Mary Ann for awhile. She lived in Hawai’i from then on. “When Mary Ann got to Hawaii, she befriended Henry Kaiser who owned what would become the Hilton Hawaiian Village,” Robin recalled. 

“Kaiser built her a special pool that was only two or three feet deep and was heated to 90 degrees. Mary Ann began teaching swim classes at Kaiser’s hotel and she specialized in teaching very young babies to swim. I moved in with Mary Ann and her two kids in a two-bedroom apartment on the other side of the Ala Wai Canal, near Iolani High School. I began working with Mary Ann, teaching swimming, and it was a lot of fun.”

Mary Ann also performed water ballet in an underwater swimming show at the Reef Hotel in 1960. “The swimmers could perform in a big pool that had an underwater window into the dining room,” Robin said. “That was popular, and Mary Ann also ran a weekly water extravaganza. I eventually left Mary Ann to start a Physical Therapy practice, but she continued with her swim schools and did very well.”[17]

She not only did well for herself, but also did well for thousands of novice swimmers aged six weeks to three years old. For thirty years, from 1956 to 1986, the Mary Ann Sears Swim School in Waikiki instructed thousands of babies to hold their breath while swimming under water and breathe on the surface. Comfort in the water came naturally to Mary Ann but she believed this affinity was natural to all humans, and she proved it by taking children as young as six weeks old from the bottom of the pool to the top, and teaching them what they instinctively already knew how to do.

“Who knows how many lives Mary Ann saved,” pondered surf writer Ben Marcus who wrote that she knew of at least three, “and who knows how many future surfers – known and unknown – she introduced to the ways of the water.”[18]

Mary Ann’s teaching babies to swim was once quite controversial. The National YWCA, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics all thought her practices with babies less than three years old would lead to ear infections, water intoxication and other viral infections. Their fears were never born out by the reality.
Over the years, her work with children drew the attention of writers both in Hawai’i and nationally. A notable article was published April 22, 1979, in the Sunday edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. It included a glowing testimonial from a parent:

“Barbara Elm, the ecstatic parent of a Mary Ann Sears student claims: ‘As the mother of an 18-year-old swimmer, I believe that no swim school teaches their students as rapidly, and as well, and as successfully at a young age… as Mary Ann Sears, who each year teaches countless infants to swim and graduates dozens of “water-safe” babies.’

“‘It is important to note Mrs. Sears’ credentials,’ Elm continues, ‘because a parent can’t be too cautious where the safety and well-being of his child is concerned.’
“Mary Ann Sears’ credentials would make one’s head spin.”[19]

On ABC-TV’s You Asked For It, Mary Ann held her breath for two minutes and fifteen seconds, setting a world record at that point.

By 1978, Mary Ann had married again, this time to Jack Midkiff. She and Jack moved to a beach house on the northern part of the the island, at Mokule’ia, where they lived happily for seven years. She still surfed, but less and less as she got older. Her last surf session was in April of 1983. She surfed that day to remember her son Rusty McGuire who – like his father before him – died in the water. Rusty had drowned in a tugboat accident in Alaska, shortly before. “The last time I surfed was out in front of my home in Mokuleia, to remember Rusty,” Mary Ann said. “I just felt that if I got out in the water again maybe I’d be closer to him, closer to God, because Rusty hadn’t yet been found… It was a beautiful day in April, but it was so lonely, because quite often Rusty and I had boogie boarded out there. So that was actually the last [time]… I was ever on a board, and when I caught a wave, I didn’t stand up because I wasn’t in condition anymore to do that.”[20]

In 1985, Jack and Mary Ann Midkiff moved to Tucson, Arizona. Retired there, she played golf, took it easy and “probably spent more than a little time in the pool.” She passed away, from cancer, at the age of 73, in 1993. Her memorial, held at the Outrigger Canoe Club, was attended by hundreds and she was eulogized by every newspaper columnist in the Islands.

“The most prominent thing that comes to mind in speaking of Mary Ann,” Tommy Zahn said in 1990, “is that there have been great swimming ladies and great board surfing ladies – there’s very few body surfing ladies, by the way. But, I think she is probably the finest – I was gonna say ‘water man!’ – water person of the last several generations. I haven’t seen of heard of anybody with her versatility.”[21]

[1] Warshaw, ©2003, p. 257. Quoting Jeff Duclos from an article written in 1999.
[2] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008, with special thanks to Gary Lynch, Robin Grigg, Malcolm Gault-Williams, Dr. Norman Ball and Kathy Merrill Kelley. Mary Ann quoted.
[3] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008. Mary Ann quoted.
[4] Hawkins, Mary Ann. Letter to Gary Lynch, March 15, 1989. Punctuation corrected. See also the chapter on Tarzan Smith, “Mary Ann Hawkins, 1934.”
[5] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008. See also chapter on Whitey Harrison, “San Onofre.” Mary Ann’s recollections would put the first organized assault on San O as being in 1934.
[6] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008.
[7] Warshaw, Matt. The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, pp. 257-258.
[8] Warshaw, Matt. The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, pp. 257-258.
[9] Warshaw calls it the “Duke Kahanamoku Swim Meet” and Marcus calls it the “Pacific Aquatic Festival.” Not sure of which one is the right title, unless they were separate competitions.
[10] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008. Mary Ann quoted.
[11] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008.
[12] See chapter on Doc Ball.
[13] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008.
[14] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. “Tommy Zahn: For the Pure Joy of It All,” ©2002.
[15] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008.
[16] Ben’s wording.
[17] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008. Robin Grigg quoted.
[18] Notes from Ben Marcus, March 2008.
[19] Honolulu Star-Advertiser, April 22, 1979.
[20] Warshaw, Matt. Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 258. See also Marcus, March 2008.
[21] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. “Tommy Zahn: For The Pure Joy of It All,” ©2002.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Virginia Beach Surf History

Aloha and Welcome to this chapter on the surfing history of Virginia Beach, Virginia, East Coast USA -- probably the most visited chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS Collection:


By Stewart Ferebee

Originally published in Virginia Living Magazine - 8/4/2011 (updated/corrected by Stewart on 1/27/2014)

John T. Ferebee, Virginia Beach 1944

Boards in arm, three teens in their twenties go cycling along the feeder road leading into the low-rise suburban sprawl of the Northend, past the balmy low-slung Live Oak grove and the frilly bejeweled Mimosa, speeding by, on windless endless days of summer. Light northwesterlies now hone clean the aquatic corduroy of an oily slick daybreak Atlantic, countering sideways with sideways, wind for swell. Drawing lines in their heads as they pedal in anticipation; there already in psychic momentum before they've ever even touched the water. This is what we pray for.

The story of surfing in Virginia Beach is one of dedication. Because in the grand scheme of things its not a place known for its quality surf by the world class standards of California or Hawaii, Australia, South Africa or Indonesia. The culprit is a 300 mile wide energy-sapping joy-killer of swell-reducing shallows known as the Continental Shelf which mockingly insinuates itself off much of the East Coast. Virginia Beach may not have the best waves but surfing here has a history—a formidable one that goes back 100 years and comprises multiple generations. And there is a story to go with the tradition—one of dedication by a handful of intrepid thrill-seekers in the early decades of the 20th century, and now, by modern throngs seeking their own stoke or recognition. Surfers here assiduously seek those small windows when the conditions are right; where light opposing winds compliment a maximum swell at optimum tide. And then just hope you don't get busted for missing work, skipping school or backing out of those plans you made with your sweetheart.

As surf journalist Matt Warshaw points out, “The jaded and enervated surfers sprinkled throughout California are nearly impossible to find on the East Coast, where waist-high waves are often treated as a gift, not an insult.” Marty Keesecker, a Virginia Beach surfer and surfboard shaper of nearly 50 years, is even more pragmatic: “There is something to be said for tenacity,” he says. “If you put the time in, and you drive enough, you’ll find something to ride. If you’re patient and you don’t expect a lot, you’ll have fun and it’ll be enough to keep you in the water for an hour or so. In Virginia Beach, you can’t expect it come to you, you have to go to it.”

Not a great deal is known about the strange, imported coffin-like parcel Walter F. Irvin brought back east from Hawaii in 1912 that would signal the coming phenomenon known as surfing. Irvin’s consignment, which must have flummoxed terminal baggage handlers upon his disembarkation in Tidewater, was a 9-foot-long, 110-pound redwood olo, Hawaiian for longboard. It was a gift for Irvin’s young nephew, James M. Jordan Jr.  According to brothers Jimmy and Shep Jordan in their 1974 book Virginia Beach: A Pictorial History, it was the first board of its kind on the East Coast: James M. Jordan Jr. was their grandfather. While the 1912 board was unique, it wasn’t the first hint of the sport of surfing. In the essay “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki,” published in a 1907 issue of The Lady’s Home Companion, adventure writer Jack London detailed the aquatic feats of early surf pioneer George Freeth and brought news of the Hawaiian art of wave riding to the new-century masses, writing: “I saw him tearing in on the back of a wave standing upright, with his board carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn.” Word spread.

In the following years, James Jordan would become locally famous for his exotic arm-paddled water-craft and wave riding abilities. For most eastern Victorians however, many of whom did not even swim, the spectacle must have all been taken with a novel whimsical shrug. Only as time moved along would the fact begin to resonate so thoroughly on a local level, that it was Jordan’s flag planted which might very well stake Virginia Beach as the birthplace of East Coast surfing. Imagining the vast spaces of that era’s oceanfront, imagining the scene; the place, the pace, the parcel itself; a lithe young man, soaked from the Gulf current’s warmed brine, hauling shoulder-hoisted the deftly balanced olo proudly in a terse and yet aloof sand-scrinching, midday jaunt, from waterline back up to cottage line. Toweling off, considering the tides; ‘Perhaps another go-out later,’ he winces through the a.m. glare. Victorian ladies stroll by the grassy beach-lined lawns sheltered beneath parasols, palming their hats gaily in the summer breeze. Genteel glances and leisurely nods; the casual elegance of a time which moved to a different time. ‘Come Josephine, In My Flying Machine’ crackles warped and softly from a distant Victrola.

In the 1920s and 1930s, amidst the cedar shake grandeur of the Virginia Beach cottage-hotel era, each little redoubt had its own stationed lifeguard. During that time, enterprising individuals like Babe Braithewaite, Hugh Kitchin, Dusty Hinant, John Smith and Buddy Guy would be the first to organize a formal beach service of lifeguarding and chair/umbrella/float rentals along theVirginia Beach oceanfront. The occupation known as “beach bum” was a long way off, but essentially those guys were pioneers of the surfing and beach subculture that would become a craze in subsequent decades, culminating in the cheesy fun of the late 1950s to mid-1960s “Gidget” era.

Thanks to the design innovations of paddleboard maker Tom Blake, surfing was attracting new devotees. Blake, a Wisconsin native who moved to Hawaii in the mid-1920s, revolutionized surfing by making hollow boards that were much lighter than the traditional, solid redwood and Olo boards, the kind Irvin brought from Hawaii in 1912. These new boards were much easier to carry and transport than the old ones, thus spawning surfing’s first micro boom. “Blake changed everything,” former Surfer Magazine editor Drew Kampion wrote in 2000. “He almost single-handedly transformed surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle.”

And it wasn’t long before a new crop of lifeguard/surfers and fun addicts began heading to the oceanfront from Norfolk and various rural Princess Anne County communities. One of them was a Chesapeake Bay harbor pilot, Capt. Robert Barrett Holland, who would head one of the most prodigious surfing families the sport has ever known. His son Bob Lee has been a prominent member of the Virginia Beach surf scene for more than 70 years—from the 1930s to the present. Now in his 80s, Bob Lee Holland is still surfing—and most notably not on “logs,” or the traditional longboards that are the preferred gear of the “old guys,” but on contemporary shortboards.

Bob Lee Holland’s children, Bobby, Johnny and Honey, all followed in their dad’s footsteps and set the bar for surfing performance and competition at the beach from the mid-1960s through the 1970s and beyond. Mary Sydney Barker, a niece, recalls that when she was very young, in the mid-1960s, “My grandfather, Capt. Holland, said to me, ‘When you can stand on an inflatable mat and ride the waves in, I will buy you your own surfboard.’ I surfed on the mats for a few years and when I was 12 he bought me my first surfboard—a 9-foot-2-inch Hobie. There weren’t many girl surfers around then; Becky ‘Bobby’ Mellot and I surfed at the North End with a girl named Leslie Thurston. We would surf in the mornings before the wind came up.”

In contrast, modern surfboards are very thin, short and relatively inexpensive—about $500 to $600. Contemporary surfers buy new boards fairly regularly. Jordan Brazie, a 23-year-old surfer-shaper who has been surfing since he was 12, owns 11 boards and uses all of them—“whichever is the most functional for the waves of that day,” he says. “You have to have a quiver if you want to surf all year.”

But in the early days of the sport, boards were cherished items—hand-made and regarded more like boats. Surfers personalized them with artistic touches much like airmen created nose-art for World War I-and-II-era planes. Hugh Kitchin whitewashed the name “Hugh Boy” across his board from rail to rail. Capt. Robert Holland’s board was emblazoned with the twin flags insignia of the Chesapeake Bay Harbor Pilot Association.

My late father, a Norfolk native, was an avid Virginia Beach surfer from the mid-1940s through the 1980s. He hand-painted the French word coquette (flirt), on his board in a two-tone gothic script. He began surfing when he was 15 then became a lifeguard at the Cavalier Hotel and Beach Club on 43rd Street. The majestic old structure, the most iconic landmark of the entire oceanfront, was built in 1929 (the same year brewery tycoon Adolph Coors threw himself from an upper floor), and of course it still stands today. One prays it always will.

Legend has it that my fathers introduction into surfing concerned one blustery December morning during the august years of World War II, following a saturday night which got so late it became the next day. A night which concerned pipes and tobacco, Lucky Strikes and Stan Freeberg records. And powerful, clear, amber liquid poured over ice into tall glasses. Fellow Norfolk native Mason Gamage of Algonquin Park was onboard for that weekend’s oceanfront festivities. Gamage, several years older than the rest, fresh out of the Coast Guard, was an outdoorsman and sailor, and already surfed. Nursing a hangover and yet full of bravado, Gamage and my father both paddled out into the cold stormy brown Atlantic conditions on two 13 foot wooden boards. In this modern world of high tech neoprene, the winter protection for a surfer, it is almost impossible to even begin to comprehend this anecdote, decades before the wide spread use of the now vitally indispensable cold water wetsuit. Nevertheless, a seed was planted; and as veteran surfer Mike Clark points out, "Once you get salt water in your veins, it is hard to stay away from it."

In 1950, my father forsook his beloved beach boy lifestyle in Tidewater to fly F-86’s out of Kimpo in Korea. He returned about five years later and began his career in the insurance industry, resuming his surfing on weekends. He met my mother, Ann Meredith Stewart, in 1956 and they spent their first date sanding old varnish off his Tom Blake surfboard at a place near Rudee Inlet on the oceanfront’s south end, near the Sandbox—a café and home for years to the annual and infamous Subway party. It was an epic, if charming, first-date faux pas.

“At that time,” says Mike Clark, “there was no inlet and no pier at the south end. We could walk over to Croatan at low tide. Later, in the 1950s, I remember the building of the Steel Pier 15 blocks south of the wooden pier. You can tell a real native when they say Wooden Pier; that is how we referred to them—steel and wood.” Clark adds, “Shooting the pier was a hoot. My dad bought our first board from Dawson Taylor at Fuel Feed Hardware, a Hobie. It was before the Smith & Holland shop opened. My brother and I shared the board.” Norfolk native Scott McCasky, a competitive surfer for more than four decades, also has fond recollections of the south end’s golden, post-war era: “Every day you were there, surfing at the steel pier gave you the undeniable feeling you were in the right place at the right time.”

Pete Smith, age 71, is a mid-century “grom”—an old-timer who still retains a youthful stoke. In recent months he has shared with me many anecdotes about the early days of surfing in Virginia Beach and the ways in which the scene has changed. Looking at photos from the 1960s, he can name practically every individual who surfed in that decade. In a shot taken in front of the erstwhile Mariner Hotel, Smith points out the different types of boards displayed by the diverse group of surfers in the picture: The first generation of wooden hollow boards are held by the guys in the back row, and the new fiberglass boards are held by the guys kneeling in the front row. Three Hollands are in the photograph, along with Scott Taylor, Frank Butler, Skip Rawls, Snooker Turner and Babe Braithwaite’s son, Forbes. Says Smith: “The early years were amazing, because there was just so much community stoke and you knew everybody. It was a really good vibe. There weren’t any crowds; you’d be looking for people to surf with just to have someone to hoot and holler with. It was that transformative era where the old wooden boards were still around but the modern fiberglass boards were starting to show up. It was just a really special time.”

Significantly, a Californian named Les Arndt, then stationed at Fort Story, is also in the group picture. According to Forbes Braithwaite, Arndt was from Malibu and worked for top board maker Hap Jacobs before coming east for his military duty. “Arndt was driving past one day with another soldier,” says Braithwaite, “and saw me going surfing, carrying Scott Taylor’s balsa-wood board. He yelled, ‘Hey kid where’d you get that surfboard?’” Arndt himself recollects that Forbes was about 12 at the time, and was walking across Atlantic Avenue at 49th Street. The chance meeting prompted Arndt to spend two years with Virginia Beach surfers, especially Bob Holland and his family, during which time he helped to get “modern Malibu surfing started in Virginia Beach,” according to Arndt.

How? Thanks to Arndt’s West Coast connections, the group started importing and selling what was at that time a rare and exotic item—modern fiberglass boards from California. The group stored them in a garage owned by Forbes Braithwaite’s mother. In 1963, Pete Smith and Bob Holland opened the area’s first dedicated surf shop—Smith & Holland—one of the first businesses of its kind on the East Coast.

Not long after, Smith wrote a letter to Surfer Magazine, in California, trumpeting the burgeoning surfing scene inVirginia Beach. He wrote the note on the letterhead of the Golf Ranch Motel on Laskin Road, which was situated on the southeast end of Birdneck golf course and owned, along with the Mariner, by Pete’s uncle, John Smith. Pete worked there. John Severson, then editor of Surfer Magazine, showed the letter to Hobie Alter who was the top California board maker at that time. Some months later, Alter showed up at the Golf Ranch Motel on a day when Pete was working. For Virginia Beach surfing, that was a monumental moment. Alter was on the East Coast pushing his boards, and he negotiated a deal with Smith and Holland to carry his boards exclusively.

The early 1960s were a pivotal time in modern surfing. In addition to the new availability of Hobie Alter’s boards on the East Coast, the first East Coast surf contest was started in 1962 on Gilgo Beach on Long Island. Bob Holland drove a group of Virginia Beach surfers to New York for the event, including Butch Maloney, Gary Rice and an 11-year-old whirlwind talent named Ronnie Mellot, a future Golden Gloves Army boxing champ, local board shaper and all around wild man. Many of the VB guys took trophies at Gilgo—they dominated the field. In 1963, with cooperation from the local chamber of commerce, Holland, Maloney and Pete Smith managed to move the pro-amateur surf contest to Virginia Beach, re-naming it the Virginia Beach Surfing Festival. Two years later they changed the name again, to the East Coast Surfing Championships (ECSC). 2012 will mark the event’s 50th year, drawing high-ranking surf talent from around the globe. While ever-increasingly upgrading its carnival-bling to include many non-surf stage-draws such as BMX biking, Jet-Ski antics, and even Cornhole contests (beanbag), presumably in hopes of enticing more diverse and consequently larger audiences, such distractions on the other hand, threaten a diffusion of what is still implicitly touted, according to what it’s very initials imply, as a surfing championship. Prophetically harking back to 1972 and Chuck Dent’s antic rant-alogue from MacGillivray Freeman’s classic surf film, Five Summer Stories, surf-culture and surfing itself often find themselves at curious odds. A hallowed tradition to some, a three-ring spectacle to others; the ECSC is the East Coast’s longest running surfing competition.

Even from its very early years, the ECSC attracted world-class surfers such as David Nuuhiwa, Corky Carroll and Mike Tabeling, along with the best locals. Near the old Cue South, Pete Smith would preside from atop a simple lifeguard stand at the Steel Pier site with nothing more than a clipboard, a visor and a microphone, uttering witty, surf-speak-laced Southernisms in his consummate, slow-mo Tidewater accent. “It was just a special time in those early days of the ECSC,” recalls Smith, “when some of the real hot West Coast and Floridian surfers started coming to the contest. It was such a thrill meeting some of those guys we’d seen in all the magazines, and getting to see them surf.”

By the middle of the 1960s, the West Coast-informed surf boom was fully realized here in the East. In 1965, the Academy Award nominated documentary surf film “The Endless Summer” opened at the madly mod, and very much missed, Buckminster Fuller-designed Virginia Beach Dome; the tragically decommissioned and dissected artifact of what would nowadays be considered a world-renowned tourism-draw of exemplary Mid-century modernism. Filmmaker Bruce Brown traveled with the movie in those early days and narrated live over a speaker system in his laconic west coast  style, as the mellow twang of The Sandals soundtrack played from a reel-to-reel tape machine. My mother and father were there on opening night. My mother recalls Bob Holland’s youngest son, Johnny, zooming around barefoot on his skateboard, the newest must-have accoutrement of 1960’s surf culture. Johnny would become a standout competitive surfer, one of the most gifted wave riders this area ever produced, competing in the World Surfing Championships in California in 1966 going neck to neck along the way in preliminary events with many of this areas best surfers such as Billy Foote, George Desgaines, Fred Grosskreutz, Jimmy Parnell, Bobby Chenman, Billy Almond and Nat Meakins.

In June of 1968, Sports Illustrated did a cover story titled “Surfing’s East Coast Boom.” The cover photo, taken from the steel pier looking south, shows visiting California and Hawaii legend Phil Edwards gracefully negotiating the micro-curl of a fun-looking right-hander breaking in the once sacred, now mythical, 75-yard zone between the north side of the First Street jetty and the south side of the pier. (Roughly 10 years later, the rickety Steel Pier would catch fire and be demolished, prompting locals to rename the popular surfing spot as The Jetty or simply First Street. Surfing Magazine once referred to the area as a “a two-block surfing insane asylum.”) Edwards is quoted in the article, speaking to the core of what surfing is really all about—beyond the contests, sponsorships and commercialism: “I think maybe the best surfer in the world right now is some little kid whose name nobody knows. . . who is riding out there by himself; locked in some curl somewhere, having the ride of his young life. God, it’s the neatest thing.”

Almost as quickly as the change in surfboards took place as the post-war 50s entered the Pop era, so did the Longboards begin to obsolesce at the dawn of the speed-conscious mind shift which presaged the shortboard revolution. Spearheaded on a local level by pioneer board shaper Bob White and his Wave Riding Vehicles quiver of space-aged teardrop foils, lines would be defiantly be drawn in the sand denoting stances in style and of generation gaps; and drawn in the water in ways hitherto unimagined. The area’s first nationally recognized surfer of the new high performance generation, was a lithe, flame-haired, scat-talking wild child named Jimbo Brothers. Something of a prodigy, a beach-blanket ragamuffin of Dickensian proportions, Brothers would dominate local and interstate competitions of the late 60s and early 70’s; a sponsored team rider since the 7th grade, profiled in Surfer magazine by the time he was 10. “One year the newspaper published a picture of me with my trophies and I was struggling to hold up the silver bowl and the wooden plaque at the same time,” says Brothers, now in his late 50’s. “And the caption read, ‘Jimbo had more trouble with his loot than he did with the waves.’"

As the swinging 60's dwindled and the existentially ambiguous 70's reached cruising altitude, the contemporary Shortboard milieu would dominate the kinetic surfing scene at both the Steel Pier and the Wooden Pier, as well as on early pioneering ventures to the sometimes world-class conditions of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As my brother Terry Ferebee would always point out, “You can’t really talk about surfing in Virginia Beach without talking about OBX.” Even for Norfolk boys Gregg Bielmann and his brother Brian, a future world-class, Hawaii-based surf photographer, early-era Hatteras road trips were instigated fairly often in hopes of scoring ‘Hassle-less’, crowd-free, proper surf. As the kaleidoscopic decade of changes pressed on, standouts such as Marc Theriault, Joe Marchione, Chucky Charles, Ed and Chip McQuilken, Bill Frierson, Ronnie Mellot, Ray Shackleford, Bennet Strickland, Allen White, Kurt & Tim Schmalz, Jeff Duff, Paul Darden, Ed Townes and Christian Binford would set the performance bar as surfboards would go smaller and more spearishly radical. Through Marshall McLuhan’s rear-view mirror, decade’s stack up in idyllic compression like so many Smithsonian diorama’s, where diverse transformations occur in time-lapse, all at once, both cultural and technological. Tail-ending the 60’s and front-facing the 70’s, a revolution in both surfboards and wetsuits will transpire; both, ironically, the by-products of the very military-industrial complex so derided by the inner circles of Vietnam War era surf culture bohemia. A cast of characters straight out of Tom Wolfe’s Pumphouse Gang rule the Steel Pier parking lot, that sacred ‘our turf’ zone consisting of stray dogs, ramshackle vehicles, surfer drop-outs, and fishermen-widowers. Al’s Surfshop beneath the ramp of the pier smells of resin, bloodworms, incense and wax; and nearby foosball tables rattle and clatter with roll-fake's, shout-out’s, shut-up's and crank-shots. While Trampled Under Foot by Led Zeppelin blares from the Jensen Tri-axles of Jeff Duff’s forrest green Karmann Ghia as it sputters its way off the Loop road towards fifty-cent tacos at Speedy Gonzales at Great Neck and Mill Dam. Dusk soothes everything, and in the days before video killed the radio star, BYOB surf movie nights at the ironically designated FOP hall (Federation of Police Hall) rounds out nicely the any-day of all-days, of the seemingly never-ending ever-present summer of the early-mid-late nineteen-seventies.

The most notable stylist and competitor of the late years of the decade’s new guard, was a 6-foot-4-inch paddling machine named Wes Laine who brought serious recognition to Virginia Beach and East Coast surfing in general. Laine placed ninth in the world on the pro tour circuit in both 1983 and 1985 competing in line-ups as far flung as Hawaii and South Africa. “Wes was the first Virginia Beach guy to make it in the big time,” says Tim Sullivan, a local surfer turned guitarist for the New York City-based surf music band, Supertones. “He paved the way for other East Coasters, and even 10-time world champ Kelly Slater.” Through Wes, vicariously, directly, or otherwise, The Free Ride generation found one of its exemplary representatives right here at our own beach-breaks. A local lineup was never more proud.

While competitions are one aspect of surfing, they do not figure extensively in the lives of most surfers, who simply surf for the sake of surfing—art for art’s sake as it were. “Are there any soul-surfers still among us; still expressing the original vision?”, as free-thinking local legend Chip McQuilkin once ruminated on the ever-encroaching influence of commercialism on surfing. “For without soul,” he warned, “there IS no vision.” Still, owing to Laine’s pro-circuit success, there was a sharp rise in competitive intensity among surfers at the beach in the 1980’s and 1990’s. By then it was not at all unusual for local surfers to explore Hawaiian-alternative big-wave training grounds such as Puerto Rico and Barbados, following in the footsteps of early 1970’s pioneers like Marc Theriault and Ronnie Mellot. Adding also to the area’s distinct identity was a continuing tradition of local surfboard making—niche-specific wave-tools better suited to the corporocity of Virginia's swellular vernacular than many of the imported shapes built in California or Hawaii. The same tradition is alive and well today, noting talented young shapers such as Jordan Braizie and his Valaric label, and Austin Saunders at Austin. Throughout the golden era of the shortboard revolution, Bob White, Rosi, Con, America, WRV, Westwind, Bearcraft, Seasoned, and Hotline all bore the local standard. The surfer-shaper reigns in the days before automation. 

As another era exerts itself inexorably towards the future, and another checkered decade comes jangling to a close—another balmy Tidewater day at the Oceanfront wanes, as Allen White smooths another wave to pieces.

As the 80s forced its way in on the preceding decade, some people stuck with the beach music program. With the pinks, the greens. And the Shag. Others moved on. Others still, never went there in the first place. Punk rock changed everything. So did the Thruster. The revolutionary three-finned board developed by Australian surfer-shaper Simon Anderson would hegemonistically dominate surfboard design for the next two and half decades.

The 80s new modernity was exemplified locally by the enigmatic, freeform genius of Pete Smith’s son, Pete Jr., known colloquially in surfing circles as simply “young Pete Smith.” As Les Shaw, the owner of Wave Riding Vehicles, says, “You gotta understand, the most unsung raw talent to ever come out of this area was young Pete Smith, with that stream of consciousness surfing style he had. He was just light years beyond everyone else in his approach.” Of the Blaster era and the early Quad, there were other dynamic standouts as well: Jon Klientop and Charles Kirkley dominated local ESA (Eastern Surfing Association) contests as well as ECSC events. Other notables of the era included Jay Monroe, Lad Swain, Rich Rudolph and Tommy Rainwater, as the culminating decade of the millennium would introduce a whole new crop of competitive upstarts, including Chris Culpen and Jason Borte who would go on to dominate in contests, both locally and nationally.

And what of today’s young surfers? Interestingly, a free-thinking new crew of stylists would seem to at least potentially defy Oscar Wilde’s maxim that youth is wasted on the young. Theirs is a teen milieu which seeks retrieval from the past in order to move flowingly into the future; its creed ingrained by a reverence to history, tradition, and for the old guys. Semi-pro longboarder Cam Fullmer, who is 17 and a senior at Norfolk Academy, for example, grew up at the Northend and was taught by resident local Bud Easton, whose daughter Kate is—like Fullmer—a team rider for Freedom Surfshop. Fullmer and his tight circle are primarily longboarders, a neo-retro discipline which leaves many diehard Thruster-era types in a state of bemused stupefaction. That’s because the longboard is, to all appearances, an aquatic reversion to the horse and buggy. But given the consistently modest surf at Virginia Beach, it is a tool which is actually both efficient and functional. And there are other implications—both philosophical and cultural—that reach down into the very core of the user. “It’s less jock-like, maybe,” says Fullmer of the longboard wave-riding technique. He often uses the word ‘motionlessness’ to suggest what it is he is after in his surfing. Of a slight generational gap past Fullmer, fellow Freedom Surfshop team riders Sam Cocke and Mikey Hansen likewise exemplify the super-soulful and stylish aesthetic of the new sincerity, ever-touting the merits of the old-school.

Contrary to some prior generations' nonchalance towards their predecessors, Fullmer speaks reverently about local, old-school veterans like Bob Holland, Mike Clark, Mike Kalana and Bobby Holland Jr.: “Mike is—what?—like in his 70s?” says Fullmer. Gesticulating with glancing, flat-hand motions the way all real surfers do, he adds: “I mean, he can crank a turn; he can cross-step to the nose; he can ride in the pocket and work it with his knees and just ride a wave like its supposed to be ridden…ride a board like its supposed to be ridden. Those guys are always the best ones to talk to. I’d rather talk to them than 99 percent of the surfers my age. They always have something good to say about surfing or about life.” Glancing around at the radically changing psychic contour of the ever-developing oceanfront, he says: “Old Virginia Beach must have been just the coolest thing.”

He would get no disagreement on that point from Dave Shotten, who opened Freedom Surf shop in 2005. Shotten, who by his own admission is an eternal grom in a 44-year-old body, laments the fact that contemporary surf culture has become homogenized. “It’s been diluted with Orange County propaganda that caters to a naive young audience who want conformity.” Freedom Surf sells imported boards yet sports a community vibe, selling gear relevant to the area’s surf conditions. “We are the new kids on the block,” says Shotten. “But at the same time we’ve been gifted a legacy and tradition that has been handed down from some of the original pioneers who put boards in the water in Virginia Beach. Our vision is to look back into the past and celebrate what a surf shop means. We’re about taking a different path.”

In truth, surfing at Virginia Beach has always been something of a different path. We’re not on the map of world-class surf spots, and never will be. But surfers here show their sincere respect for the sea, possess a core dedication to the art form we love, and stay ever vigilant for conditions that produce the best waves.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Ron Drummond (1907-1996)

Ron “Canoe” Drummond (1907-1996)

Ron Drummond was born in Los Angeles in 1907, raised in Hollywood. As a kid, his family summer vacationed at Hermosa Beach. It was during those seasons, in the 1920s, that Ron learned to bodysurf and then board surf. He was particularly into canoes and bought his first one around 1921, at the age of 14. On a dare from his brother, he dragged his canoe out into the surf only to have the canoe broken in two by a good sized wave. Undaunted, a tall (6-foot, 6-inches) Ron “Canoe” Drummond would go on to become known up and down the Southern California coastline, eventually canoe surfing waves as large as 15 feet.[1]

Ron was the quintessential “canoe surfer.”

“Well, I’ve been interested in canoeing ever since I was fourteen years old,” Ron told surf historian Gary Lynch in an interview eight years before his passing at the age of 89. “I remember my brother, Tommy. He’s older; year and a half older than I am. He says, ‘Aw, you’re dumb to try to go out in the ocean in a canoe.’ First time I brought a canoe down... we used to spend our summers at Hermosa Beach, and I brought the canoe down there. The next morning we went down to go out in the ocean in it, and the waves about six feet high, thick and curling. And I says, ‘I don’t want to take it out through that.’ And he says, ‘Oh, you chicken!’ So, I couldn’t take that, so we went out... Sure enough, one broke and right into the canoe. Broke the gunnels in several places, burst the hind end all out, and it took me about two weeks to repair it. That’s when he says, ‘Aw, you’re dumb anyway to try to take a canoe out in the ocean.’ That made me determined that I was going to learn to enjoy canoeing on the ocean. So, I think I’m the only one in the world, probably, that enjoys a Canadian-type canoe surfing and doing various stunts out in the ocean. It’s meant a lot in my life, canoeing. I’ve really enjoyed it. I remember, I said to Tom Blake, ‘I think I’ll quit canoeing and take up my surfboard again. I need to practice on surfing.’ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘forget the surfboard. That’s really something, something different. You keep that [surfing with a Canadian-style canoe] up.’ So, on his advice I kept canoe surfing. It is a great sport.”[2]

The tall, lanky Drummond became a track star while attending UCLA in the mid-1920s, specializing in discus and the shot put. Throughout his life he continued to swim, canoe, and bodysurf on into his mid-80s.[3]

“I knew [Pete] Peterson when I was a kid in high school,” Ron recalled of that era’s most noted Southern Californian surfer. “His father owned the bathhouse at Crystal Pier in Santa Monica; Ocean Park, I guess it was… I remember one time when I was in high school, I was down there body surfing. I was out catching the biggest ones, I guess they were about six feet high, something like that. All of a sudden I looked way out at sea and I saw this huge big swell coming. My Gosh! What is this?! I figured it was going to break on me, so I started swimming out so I could get out before it’d break. I was swimming out as fast as I could, and I was just in exactly the right place to catch it. So I said, ‘Well, here goes nothing!’ And I rode this one. It was an earthquake wave, and I rode it and I skidded right up on the beach amongst all the beach umbrellas and blankets and picnic paraphernalia and all that sort of thing, right up to the concrete wall at the edge of the dry, sandy beach… That was about ten o’clock in the morning… About three o’clock that afternoon another one like that came in. I was on shore then, but two waves that day came in. They were the results of earthquakes that day, I think down in Chile. I thought that was rather interesting.”[4]

“Then, the first – second – date I had with Doris [Ron’s future wife], it was right after the Long Beach earthquake, about 1930. I had to go down to Terminal Island, where I had been guarding for awhile, to get a surfboard I’d left down there. So, we drove down there. We drove all around and looked at all the buildings. The front of the big office buildings right down in the street, just piles of rubble and that sort of thing, from this earthquake. Then we went to the Long Beach Plunge for a swim and then we went from the Plunge out to the beach, and I looked out there. I saw waves coming in that were – crest of the waves were even with the deck of the pier! I don’t know, that’s about probably 30-35 feet high, I suppose. I’m not sure. But anyway, you know, a fellow’s got to show off in front of his girl, so I went out there, waited for one of the biggest ones, and came in on it. Went right straight down and then the long chute down this way, and then all this white water. Finally got out ahead of it so I could breathe, and I rode it and skidded up on the beach and nonchalantly walked up and sat down beside Doris. About a dozen people came over to talk to me, wondered who I was, never seen me before. I had a beard then.”[5]

“The first time I was on a surfboard, it was when I was a lifeguard,” at the Los Angeles beaches, Drummond recalled. “Let’s see, I guess it was before that. I met the lifeguards down there, I guess, before I was a lifeguard. And one of them had a surfboard, was rather thick… and was belled right up at the end, like that… And I tried it, and you’d come down on a breaking wave, it would hit and come right up. It wouldn’t pearl. In other words, that was the first surfboard I ever rode, one like that.”[6]

“I’ve always wanted to be an adventurer, you know,” Ron continued. “My father was an explorer… he’d been all over interior China, the Philippine Islands and all the out-of-the-way islands, and had skirmishes with headhunters, and all that sort of thing. Headhunters killed a lot of his men. [One time, they lost a guy] …and a fellow – native carrier that he had in his expedition – wanted to give him a Christian burial. So, Dad let them go in. They sneaked into the enemy camp – these headhunters’ camp [at night] – and they had their heads on poles and they were dancing around a big fire; real jubilant that they’d got these heads. So, the bodies were off in the dark… my father’s carriers got the bodies and my father took a picture of them carrying these bodies later the next day, stretched up, you know, like they put a deer on a pole: one end on one fellow’s shoulder and one on the other… they were holding their noses... hot climate... [the dead bodies] were putrid.”[7]

“But anyway, all I was going to say is, I wanted to be an adventurer, too. So, that’s why [when] I was studying mechanical engineering at UCLA… I just figured, well, [mechanical engineering] really doesn’t interest me... So, I heard that Eastern Canadian Mining Company was sending canoe expeditions out to unexplored areas to get the geology of it, so if they ever found anything that was favorable for the deposition of minerals, why, they’d send probably 40-50 prospectors in there. So, I saw the manager of this company when he came out to Los Angeles. I heard he came out every year on business. He’s a nice fellow. He sort of patted me on the back. He said, ‘Well, son, we only hire graduate mining engineers and geologists.’ So, that let me down. Anyway, the next time he came out I went to see him again. He said, ‘You’re really interested, aren’t you? You’re really enthusiastic.’ So I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what you do. You spend a year studying the subjects that I tell you to, and then we’ll give you a try on one of our expeditions.’ So, I studied mineralogy and geology and pre-Cambrian shield and blowpipe analysis and all that sort of thing that’d make me of some use to them, and then I got on with them.

“The result was, my career partner, Jack Barrington, had been the first white man on five rivers of northern Canada, and mapped them. We named them and our names [along with the names of the rivers]… are on the Canadian government maps now… I named one in Northern Manitoba, Barrington Lake, Barrington River... I found a needle hammered out of native copper, up inland from the northwest corner of the Hudson Bay, so I named it the Copper Needle River. That’s in big letters now on the Canadian maps, the Copper Needle River. I felt real proud of that.”[8]
In 1931, Ron was the first one to publish a primer on bodysurfing, entitled The Art of Wave Riding.[9] At 26 pages and a print run of 500 copies, the small book is one of the first books ever published about surfing. “One feels sorry for those who have not learned to enjoy surf swimming,” Ron wrote in his intro. “To spend a day in the sand developing a ‘beautiful tan’ is pleasant; but the real pleasure of a trip to the beach is derived from playing in the breakers.” Elsewhere in the book, Drummond defined “glide waves” and “sand busters” and step-by-step bodysurfing instructions. Understandably, this booklet has become a prize amongst collectors.[10]

“I started to tell you why I’m deaf,” Ron kept on track with Gary Lynch. “I got hit by lightning and it knocked me about 15 feet flat on my back, and I’ve never been able to hear good since. It was such a loud noise, you know, when you hear thunder way off how loud it is, but when it’s right next to you, why, it ruined the nerves in my ear, so I’ve never been able to hear well since.”

“When was this?” asked Gary.

“Oh, this was during the war, World War II, down in Port of Spain, Trinidad.” Like others of his generation, Ron was drawn into World War II, although he was already into his 30’s, age-wise, at war’s start. “I was unloading pillboxes and tanks and things like that from a ship, and the boom came up over that ship. It had a sealed deck, and then slings came down. I was just reaching for a sling to hook up a pillbox, and my hand was about six inches, I guess, from the sling. If I’d had it six inches farther – if I’d had a hold of that sling – it would have killed me, because it burned that sling almost completely through, three-quarter inch sling. Where it was up against the edge of  the bit. I was lucky there...  That’d be one of my close calls, I guess.”[11]

Drummond’s “close calls” did not keep him from seeking bigger and bigger surf to paddle his canoe into. During and after the war, he joined a select group of Southern California’s best watermen to ride California’s then-known biggest waves at the Tijuana Sloughs.

“Back in the early ‘40s I surfed the Sloughs when it was huge,” Lorrin ‘Whitey’ Harrison told Serge Dedina in 1994. “It was all you could do to get out. Really big. We were way the hell out. Canoe Drummond came down.”[12]

“We paddled out and the surf was probably about 20 feet high or so,” Ron remembered. “I looked out about a mile where some tremendously big waves were breaking. I asked if anybody wanted to go out there with me, but nobody did. So, I went in my canoe and paddled out there. I set my sights in the U.S. and in Mexico, and figured out where I wanted to be. One of the biggest sets came through and I caught a wave that was bigger than most. I rode down it when it closed over me. I was caught in the tunnel. Well I rode near 100 feet in the tunnel and just barely made it out. If that wave would have collapsed on me, it would have killed me.”[13]

Ron went into a little more detail with Gary Lynch, probably talking about the same wave: “Did I ever tell you about the big wave I caught in a canoe down in the Tijuana Slough? … Boy, that was a whopper. That was about forty feet high, I guess. I was right inside the curl. Boy, I thought I was never going to make it… That was [another] one of my close calls… I guess.

Dempsey [Holder] was the chief lifeguard down there…” On the day when Tommy Zahn and Peter Cole came out, after Dempsey had called them to get down to Imperial Beach pronto, Tommy and Peter paddled out, were amazed at the size of the waves and further amazed to find Drummond already out there… “out there where the big waves were breaking, ‘cause Dempsey talked to me later and he said I’m the only one that had ever ridden those big waves. They were about 20 feet high in near shore. That’s where he was, I guess.

“Well, a 20-footer is a good wave, but they’re about twice that big outside. None of the fellows would go out there with me. They’re scared of them. They can see they are just booming over thick like that… you could run a freight train through the curl.”[14]

Ron Drummond is generally recognized with having ridden his canoe in surf as big as 15-feet. He and his Canadian style canoe were featured in a 1967 issue of Surfer magazine. He also appeared in two surf movies: Big Wednesday (1961) and Pacific Vibrations (1970). He continued to swim, canoe and bodysurf into his mid-80s. In 1990, he appeared in a Nike ad featuring senior surfers that ran nationally within the U.S. He passed on in 1996, at age 89.[15]


[1] Warshaw, Matt. The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 168.
[2] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Ron Drummond, July 30, 1988.
[3] Warshaw, Matt. The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 168.
[4] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Ron Drummond, July 30, 1988.
[5] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Ron Drummond, July 30, 1988.
[6] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Ron Drummond, July 30, 1988.
[7] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Ron Drummond, July 30, 1988.
[8] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Ron Drummond, July 30, 1988.
[9] Drummond, Ronald B. The Art of Wave Riding, ©1931, Cloister Press, Hollywood, California.
[10] Warshaw, Matt. The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 168.
[11] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Ron Drummond, July 30, 1988.
[12] Dedina, Serge, 1994, p. 37. Lorrin Harrison quoted.
[13] Dedina, Serge, 1994, p. 37. Ron “Canoe” Drummond quoted.
[14] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Ron Drummond, July 30, 1988.
[15] Warshaw, Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 168.