I push open the shaping bay door, emerging in my Tyvek suit, goggles and mask, covered in foam dust. My son Miles is standing there with a short length of two-by-four he’s found, and Natasha tells me he’s been there quite a while, “shaping” with his “planer,” making the high whine of the power tool as he takes passes on an imaginary blank. It’s the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen of course, a three-and-a-half-year-old boy emulating his dad in pure innocence. But there is also a weight to it that is as basic as his devotion, when I recognize that my influence on Miles is absolute and that the effects of my actions will reverberate all through his life. That’s how it’s been for me— my dad’s way in the world imprinted on every interaction I have, and mostly for the good. I know my boy is a kind soul, and I trust that is motivation enough to keep myself on the right track.
But to swim now in shallower waters, the influences of great surfers, and surfboard shapers for that matter, also ripple across the decades. I’ve been thinking recently about the evolution of the Hot Curl design, of John Kelly, Fran Heath and Wally Froiseth in old Waikiki in 1937. The boys were riding flat redwood planks, and the story goes that one morning in good, steep waves (perhaps at Queen’s, with its tight pocket and spinning tube?) their finless boards kept spinning out, “sliding ass,” as they called it. The surfers went to Kelly’s house and he took an ax and a draw knife to the tail of Heath’s board, narrowing the outline, and the result was that they could ride steeper on the face, right in “the hot curl” of the wave, Froiseth said. This became the prototype of big wave surfboards, and soon Froiseth and his pals were looking for surf over the rest of Oahu and making forays at the touchstone break of modern big-wave surfing: Makaha.
The way of surfing in that era—particularly into the balsa-wood boards that George Downing shaped for Makaha and beyond in the 1940s and early 50s—sparks my imagination with its direct lineage to boat building, and even to industrialized Hawaii (acknowledging the freighted history of that phrase), and the war in the Pacific. The connections and influences are multiple and ongoing: Downing went to live with his aunt who married Froiseth, and Froiseth became a father figure to Downing, who in turn adapted and honed the Hot Curl design into the true form of a big wave gun, complete with a fin, on his board “The Rocket,” and later “Pepe”—two of the most important craft in the wave riding world, and still in Downing’s possession.
I had the good fortune to meet George Downing in my Surfer’s Journal days, when he was over from Honolulu staying part of the summer in 2005 with the Pezmans who own the magazine. I was working out the plan shape of a 10-foot glider, influenced by another great, San Diego’s Skip Frye. The triple-stringer blank was propped against the wall in the Journal warehouse, and I was eyeing the outline I’d scribed in the foam with a pencil. George Downing comes through the door, and I explain that I’d met Skip a few years before in the Outer Hebrides at a small surfing festival we were involved in. Skip had brought these gorgeous boards—a 10-footer with a swallow tail and a three-fin set up, and a 12-foot pintail single fin—and he rode slate gray waves across the cold North Atlantic in the upright, regal stance of a Hawaiian chief, telling those of us in the festival that the influence for his big boards had come from Duke Kahanamoku himself and Duke’s tales of riding “Bluebirds,” giant waves on the outside reefs of Waikiki. Downing of course knew the Duke and Skip, and perhaps indulging me, he stoops down, squints one eye shut and raises his thumb in front of my blank to sight it from 10 paces out. He says, “Looks good, attack it!” and never have I felt more brought into the fold than in that moment.
Surfing, or contemporary surfing anyway, is young enough that many of us know or knew the pioneers of our sport. My own father worked for Pete Peterson in the LA County Lifeguards, who helped spread surfing and lifesaving across California from the 1930s on. Bob Simmons, another surfboard designer of inestimable influence, used to pick up my dad’s best friend after school and take him surfing at Malibu, and I still ride waves with his son. The past is just right there, but with the passing of our fathers and the warp-speed advance of information technology, it sometimes feels the old ways are slipping into a digital morass. Clinging too hard to the past has its own pitfalls, nostalgia tending towards a weepy way of being. But we do well to remember the good things that came before, the things that don’t require improvement like the wood hull of a sailboat, or the momentum of a well-proportioned glider.
I often find myself trying to reconcile what seem to be opposing elements: the toxicity of the materials of the beautiful surfboards we ride with the true and deep ocean communion they bring; the admiration and love I feel for Pacific peoples—for their voyaging and for their surfing—with my own family history of warfare with Ngati Ruanui Maori in 1868; the contemporary world itself, its manifest blessings with its nature-destroying industry. But there is something to just loving what we love—not irrespective of consequences of course (it is incumbent upon us to try and change what we can, at least in personal practice, in regard to what, and how, and how much we produce and consume)—and acknowledging and appreciating the influences that made it so.