Long Thoughts on a Summer Trip
Down Memory Lane
Bruce "Snake" Gabrielson
Golden memories of years past flooded my mind as I paddled out for that one last wave before returning home. I moved to Chesapeake Beach, Maryland several years ago from Southern California. My hometown is Huntington Beach where I was a pier regular for most of my life. Virginia Beach isn't my normal hangout, preferring Ocean City, Maryland, where I have become a local of sorts, but it is certainly a place where the older surfing crowd can feel at home. I had spent a week in Virginia preparing myself for an upcoming stopover visit to Huntington, and from there on to Hawaii on a business trip.
Looking around at the other surfers, I was satisfied to see that there were still just as many older surfers in the water as there were youngens. I'm only 48, but I still consider the under 25 kids as youngsters. I can still remember great surfing days and trips I took long before most of these kids were born.
It was high tide and only about 3 foot shore break, so my smaller board wasn't catching the outside lines easily like the long boards. I chided myself on not having brought a board equal to the conditions. However, the weather was hot from the recent heat wave, and my kids and wife were enjoying themselves, so I really didn't mind the extra paddling or the lack of good waves.
Every few years when I visit home, I see many of the old Huntington surf crowd and spend a lot of time in the water. This year would be very special for me. There was a longboard Pro-Am contest planned for the weekend I was in town, plus I was making my first trip to Hawaii after 20 years. My thoughts were filled with questions of who I might run into after so long and even if those who I once called friends would remember me.
Maybe we all reach a point, regardless of what sport it is, when we start to have second thoughts about our own personal decisions or commitment's over the years. The traditional mid-life crisis of the surfing set. Certainly most of the young surfers of today never saw (or even heard of) the many great surfers of 20 to 30 years ago. There are a few, like Corky Carroll and Dale Dobson, who still live in the limelight, but most have given up the glory trail of their youth and settled for the simpler life of their own local beach and immediate friends and family.
I spent the 4th of July on the mall in Washington D.C. listening to a concert and watching the National Fireworks display, then on to a busy week at work before leaving for Southern California.
Suffering Jet lag as usual, I spent Saturday morning visiting old haunts, what few are left, and bringing myself up to speed on local events. I hadn't been home for close to three years, and the changes to Huntington have been tremendous. Big new buildings catering to the tourist industry have had transformed Main Street from a surfers heaven into a Mecca for beach goers of all types. There are still many surf shops along the streets, but there are also lots of other shops as well.
Condos have become the order of the day downtown. Also, how about a weight room with sidewalk windows for those who need a workout, or a restaurant with live music and dancing every weekend. Jacks Surfboards used to occupy a corner shop in a now gone building but seems to have spread all over the place. I saw Jack's signs on both sides of the street and on more than a couple of buildings.
Not many of the old crew used to ride Jack's boards, but with all the glitter now, plus the "Surfing Walk of Fame" planned out front, he can't help but do well. My parents even enjoy visiting with Jack on a regular basis lately as he is close to their age and a real character.
I remembered as far back as I could about old Huntington, PCH, Main Street, and the downtown area. Way back before there were condos on the beach, nice parking lots and sidewalks, surf shops where you could watch your board being shaped and glassed and even back to when the old Surf theater showed regular movies. I even used to watch an occasional narrated live surfing movie there. Its all gone now, and with it an idealistic and pure atmosphere for surfers that will never be the same.
Even my old pier is now history with a fresh new set of pilings ready and primed to grow their own family of barnacles. The break, well its changed a lot also. We used to have a reef like break on the south side well out beyond where the outside break is now. It would only start breaking on very big swells, and often would funnel big left tubes clear through the pier before the T. Only a few of us would ever ride these monsters. A real big swell came through during the 1970's and virtually destroyed this break, leaving only a flat sandbar which generates thick close out giants during big swells now.
After an early morning trip to the beach Saturday, I pulled into the downtown area with my younger brother Carl to make my usual rounds to the locals who I can always find easily. Carl is a Huntington Beach High alumnus who surfed for and was a glasser at Wave Trek during the late 1960's through early 1970's. He usually likes to visit downtown with me just in case we run into some of his old gang.
My first stop this trip was at the International Surfing Museum on 5th street. This museum and support organization has really become the focal point for surfers of all ages. Before its existence, word of mouth, a few books, and some old surf movies was all our sport really had to describe where many of us came from. I'm a history buff anyway, and personally feel the artifacts that have been collected would have gone into antiquity had not this organization come along when it did to act as a safe haven for these heirlooms. When you realize how old those of us who remember the original longboard days are getting, its easy to see how soon it will be before only the museum will maintain a history of that earlier era.
It was a pleasant surprise to see a couple of my old friends come into the Museum while I was there. Gary Diss, a member like myself of Cal-State Long Beach's original surf team just happened to bring his daughters by to see the Museum. What a shock to see me standing around after nearly 15 years since we last spoke. Another long time local dropped by, someone who I surfed against for many years, Chris Cattell. Then to top things off, as I was leaving the Museum I walked into Buddy Lamas, fresh off the pro-circuit. Buddy sure isn't the little kid I used to see underfoot all the time. Nowadays he's much bigger.
My next stop was at George's Surf Shop for a visit with George Draper. He still looks much the same as he did years ago when he opened his shop. I could never figure out how he always looked tan and healthy when he worked in his shop all the time. He told me that he is thinking of retiring next year, and plans on visiting Connecticut. That's one place even colder then Maryland in the winter. George has been one of the few rocks of the downtown surf scene for much of its history and I will miss my visits with him every few years. I can still remember the day George opened his shop. He had a surf team tryout for locals that went great. Quite a few locals started riding for him immediately and his business really took off. When Jan Gaffney, a great surfer and very nice person, opened her health food bar a couple of years later in the back of George's shop, it became an immediate and popular lunch spot for most everyone, local or visiting.
Leaving George's I walked up Main Street to look up Rick Fugnetti. Rick's involved in nearly every aspect of surfing now, so he is always a good source of information for me. Besides being a good friend, Rick was a member of Huntington Beach High's first official surfing team when I coached there. Most of that team is still around and most still surf and enter contests when they can. Rick recently opened his own surfboard shop on Main Street called Rockin Figg's. He used to sell his boards at Chuck Dent's before Chuck died. I remember Chuck from years back when I lived next door to him for about 6 months in the early mid-60s. Chuck was a great surfer and also a great partier as I recall. I first met Chuck out surfing at Ray Bay in Seal Beach early in the 60s, then got to know him much better when I lived by him, well before he opened his shop. I can still remember the time he had a party get busted by the sheriff, and several girls jumped the fence into my yard. I almost started the party up again.
Rick filled me in on what the old team had been up to. He told me about Greg Clemmons and Jeff Smith getting new boards and also how he recently beat Jeff in some big contest. It wasn't always like that in earlier years. I remembered taking Jeff to Hawaii with me during Christmas his senior year, and still have pictures of our trip. Jeff was also one of the only two other surfers who earned the title of "Snake" years ago. The old Huntington locals will know what that meant.
I wandered around town the rest of the day and finally went home to spend some time with family. Early the next morning it was back to the south side to watch the semi-finals of the Pro-Am longboard competitions. The first person I ran into was Bob Bolin, the "Greek". I last saw Bob about six or seven years ago when he was getting into real estate. He told me then that he wanted to start surfing again and had plans to do just that. Now it seems he surfs every day and has done very well in the contest scene. I did notice that the board he used in his heat looked very similar to an old Greek Eliminator. Although I never owned one, I rode one many times and really enjoyed myself. Eliminators were lighter then other similar longboards, plus they had a thick wide nose that held the weight very well.
Old friend Chuck Linnen was the next person I ran into. Chuck and I were the Long Beach State representatives on the original committee that formed the Western Intercollegiate Surfing Council from which college surfing evolved. I first met him about 1964, and have both surfed and judged contests with him many times over the years. Chuck still judges, and even enters lifeguard events I noticed.
While talking to Chuck I noticed the contest announcer on the stage was none other than Mike Downey. Brother Pat was judging at the time. What a surprise when I herd the announcer say "We have everyone here folks, even Huntington High's and my first surfing coach, Bruce Gabrielson."
The Downey's were members of Huntington Beach High's first surf team, and were among those who I had the good fortune (or ill fortune depending on your prospective) to indoctrinate into the surfing pleasures of Baja California. I took the whole team down to Ensenada one spring weekend, catching a lot of flack from the school principal but having a great time. Mike mentioned the trip during his announcing, but fortunately left out some of the more exciting details.
About that time I spied another old time surf partner David Nuuhiwa on the beach, surrounded by a new generation of young surfers. David's hair has turned white since last I saw him, plus he's gotten heavier, but he still looks and surfs great. He told me he spends most of his time in San Miguel now. We reminisced about some of the times we surfed together plus discussed what he and I have been up to in recent years. I was impressed with David and the way he acted as a mentor for the younger kids following him around. At least here were a few kids who would benefit from someone who will go down in history as one of the all time great surfers. How many others of the old surfing establishment can say they are able to pass on, or even influence or be recognized by today's generation. No matter what other things David may have done, his influence on modern day surfing can't be denied.
It was growing close to flight time, so I hurried off to get ready for my trip. Lots of the old-time North Shore surfing crowd have close ties with Huntington Beach. Rocky point used to be called Little Huntington without the sand, both because of the break, and also because of the number of residents who migrated from there. I hadn't been to the North Shore in 20 years, but knew I had friends there and hoped they would remember me. It was summertime, not the time of year when this place cooks, but still a time when an occasional swell makes for fun surfing.
After a day at work in Miliani, I headed north for the short drive to the magic mile of surf spots, Haleiwa to Velzyland. My intent was to stop at Sunset Beach and question the locals there for the location of my old crowd. Boy was I surprised. I pulled up next to a couple of old timers, one of whom looked very familiar. I introduced myself and discovered he was none other than old friend Jimmy Blears, a little older and less hair than I remembered. Jimmy knows nearly everyone in that area, and enjoys visiting with practically every surfer who drives by.
We talked old times for awhile and he kept saying how I just missed so-in-so who drove by right before I came or who he hadn't seen for a few days or weeks. It sounded like I was going to have no trouble locating the old crowd, so we decided to go have a pitcher at a local hangout. I first met Jim about 1971 at Haleiwa. He and his sister Laura. I even think I asked his sister out for a date one time. Jim is still hoping to find a sponsor so he can enter some of the pro-longboard events himself. Sponsorship money on the North Shore, like everything else, is tight in a down economy. Downtown Honolulu and Wikiki offer a lot more glitz and excitement for tourists then surf shops and major industry (?) on the North Shore. Still, the locals struggle for and enjoy what they have.
About an hour later we were still reminiscing when another old and dear friend walked in. He came right up to me and I said "remember me". After a few minutes, Glen Kalakaquii figured it out and started talking so much about the old days that neither Jimmy or I could get a word in edge wise. I met Glen around 1969 or 70. We got to be friends right off. Glenn had a fluid smooth style of surfing similar to Nuhiwwa's except that he is a regular foot. I remember I used to call him when he or I was in Hawaii or California. I always wanted to get him into a local contest or if the surf was good in case we could get out together. I also remember surfing in Hawaii at the Makaha International Surf Festival with him one year. I had black for a color in my semi-final heat and only got three of my waves scored. My one super wave would have scored high had Glenn not cut me off. I remember Glen won the finals, and the other surfer and old HB local we went with, LaRoy Dennis finished sixth.
LaRoy and I go way back. We both shaped and glassed for Wave Trek Surfboards when I owned it, and spent a lot of time surfing all over. LaRoy and I built one of the very last original balsa board guns during the era when short boards were coming into fashion. This balsa, which I still have, used a new shorter design for big waves that was just emerging about then. Our "Pocket Rocket" was very fast but also slightly heavy.
LaRoy had just finished shaping a new board Glenn designed with an innovative shift in the rail line. The intent is to create a wide nose board stable in larger surf that still doesn't catch the front edge on smaller waves. I looked it over and think by moving the fins back slightly it will probably also work well on small waves. Although I ride Sundancer Surfboards when in Maryland, I promised Glenn I would shape a board like it for myself and try it out on the East Coast within the next few weeks. We finished the evening at Glen's house and I returned to my hotel in town
I spent the next couple of evenings with Jimmy and Glenn, mostly trying to locate some of the old crew like LaRoy, Tom Hawk and others, then left for home two days later, after an expensive good-by dinner at Captain Jacks. It didn't used to cost that much. As I walked up the ramp to my plane I wondered if I came back 20 years from now, would the old crowd still remember.