A buddy of mine who spent his youth as a deckhand on his father’s commercial fishing boat out of Santa Barbara, and as a member of the Channel Islands surf team in the early 80s along with the great Tom Curren, once said that some of the surf crew in that era divided Rincon, roughly, by county affiliation: Ventura surfers got the Cove, east of the Rivermouth, and Santa Barbara County surfers got Indicator. Depending on the conditions of course, one group or the other would have a raw deal in such an arrangement and I doubt the division was strictly adhered to – although surfing was a much rougher pursuit in those days and frequently entailed fisticuffs. Fun, huh?
Since October, most days I’m driving the 25 minutes down to Ventura to shape surfboards out of a converted shipping container at Jeff Hull Custom Boats, where Hull and his crew build Radons – the military-looking fishing boats that urchin divers use in Santa Barbara and Ventura. They’re all surfers at the boatyard, and the similarities between the boats and the surfboard designs are seemingly endless. The factors of rocker (bottom curve), and plan shape (outline) serve the same function in a boat or surfboard, and a successful builder of either craft must have the ability to see the utility in a particular curve, or combination of curves. This ability is what Herreschoff, the much-lauded American yacht designer, called “boatsense.” I like the crew who work in the yard, I like their straightforwardness and the way they seem to enjoy their labor in the same way I do mine. And they all have “boatsense,” too. Standing 20 feet back from a vessel under construction, they’ll sometimes appear to just stare at the work for a time before moving back into it. It’s a matter of proportion they’re seeking, simply what “looks right.”
The two main guys (I don’t want to embarrass them by calling them out by name), besides Jeff Hull, the owner, have been building and doing major repairs and renovations on boats in Hueneme, Ventura and Santa Barbara since their teens. Between them, there is about 70 years of boatbuilding knowledge, and there will likely be more than a century before they’re done. With time logged surfing in Hawaii and across the Pacific – Polynesian designs inked up their forearms – they remind me that our coastline here is part of the Pacific Rim, and that we participate in the culture of this endlessly intriguing ocean before us each time we paddle out, swim or make a crossing. I may have mentioned before the strong sense I get on the backside of the Channel Islands, with its shimmering greens and blues, of the ocean there feeling like the Northern-most boundary of the South Pacific.
The poet Gary Snyder (I believe I’ve mentioned this before as well) has a notion of the land being divided by watersheds, and that there is a way that people of European descent can become “new natives”– that is, come to see the land and interact with it as an indigenous person does. While I appreciate the sentiment, I trust that Snyder being more of a scholar and more erudite than me, has worked out the implications of such a statement. Because, of course, the first thing I think of when I hear of white people calling themselves “new natives” (besides Kokopelli lawn figures, Birkenstocks and crystal collections) is gross appropriation to top off a gruesome inheritance of genocide. Although a brutal history underpins our “kinder and gentler” society (notwithstanding the reckoning with injustice that remains incomplete across the nation, and everyday instances of horrific gun violence), our more serene present day indicates the truth in Dr. King’s statement that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Like a lot of things in 21st-century life, I recognize a general cultural evolution from the days of my youth. Thinking back on what it was like to cruise through Ventura even in the early 1990s, with its sometimes-heavy vibe of Hell’s Angels and gangbangers, compared to the boutique and brewery scene there now, is the stuff of realtor’s dreams, what with the median price of a single-family home. My dad took me to the long defunct “Pike” amusement zone in Long Beach as a little boy in the mid-1970s, and I remember being amazed and a little afraid of the rough crowd of carnies and tattooed sailors. Huntington Beach was another coastal town with a persistent feeling of illicit activity – The Surf Theater a bacchanalian venue of discarded beer bottles clinking down the incline beneath the seats and pot smoke filling the air as Gerry Lopez and Rory Russell went barrel-for-barrel at the Pipeline on-screen.
I’m not sure what I’m getting at here, frankly. The nostalgia of a man in his 50s for the wildness of an earlier time? It can’t be that, because despite a streak of the wild man in me, I tend to make fairly conservative life choices, like avoiding fist fights and anything criminal, completing my Navy service with an honorable discharge, earning college degrees, etc. … I suppose what I’m wrestling with after all is the feeling of the past – colonial, racial, cultural – being so present in the social structures of today. And these structures are solidly built, seemingly impossible to reconfigure in more equitable ways. Every day I think of my ancestors and the historical factors that led them from West County Cork, Ireland, to Taranaki, New Zealand/Aotearoa, where they fought Ngati-Ruanui Maori for land acquisition. I think of ways I might connect with the tribe, then realize the best thing is to let it rest until I can offer something of true cross-Pacific reciprocation. In the meantime, I still marvel at the ocean arts that have come to us in boats and surfboards from the people of the Pacific diaspora.
Christian Beamish took leave of his position at Coastal View News in October 2020 to pursue his surfboard business, “Surfboards California,” full time. He continues his monthly column. The former Associate Editor of The Surfer’s Journal, Beamish is also the author of “Voyage of the Cormorant” (Patagonia Books, 2012) about his single-handed expedition down the coast of Baja California by sail and oar in his self-built Shetland Isle beach boat. He lives with his wife and two children in Carpinteria.