“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.