Recently I was writing a story about surfing alone in Malibu the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I rode small waves all day by myself and did not hear about the bombing until I was driving home along the coast highway, with no other cars in sight.
As I wrote about the very important day in history and what happened to me that day, I recalled a lot of my other surfing days during that time. People often ask me why I made ski movies instead of surfing movies. In my first film that I released in 1950, I had a 10-minute preview of a surfing movie that I would have made if I could have raised the money. The title was “Surfing Daze.” This was a time when most of the people I knew surfed and we were still riding surfboards in excess of 10 feet long and weighing over 60 pounds.
One reason I chose ski movies first was because there were ladies who skied. The surfboards were too heavy for a girl to lug them across the beach. Wet suits had not been invented yet so from November until late April when it was freezing cold if you went surfing. Skiing occurred all over the world but they only surfed in southern California and Hawaii in 1949-50.
The surfing sequence in that first movie went over so well that the man I was just starting to compete with, John Jay, put water skiing in his next movie. By the time my third or fourth movie hit the screen the hot shots had started to surf gigantic waves in Hawaii at Makaha, so I gave Walt Hoffman 10 rolls of Kodachrome and a 20-minute lesson on how to thread my Bell and Howell 16mm wind-up camera and had him shoot movies for me. Those 10 rolls could create 25 minutes of finished film. If he shot enough good stuff for me to use I would buy him the roundtrip airplane ticket.
By 1963, surfing was getting very crowded because of the invention of the wet suit and the lightweight surfboard. I spent less time surfing when I bought a 20-foot-long Pacific Catamaran. In southern California, where I lived at the time, the surf was good about 10 percent of the time and the wind blew about 90 percent of every afternoon. And it wasn’t crowded out there on the ocean.
I was very lucky when I was 13 years old in 1937. That was the year I built my first paddleboard in my junior high school woodshop class. I also bought my first pair of pine skis – no edges and with leather toe-strap bindings for $2.
That summer I managed to get someone to take my 5-foot-long, 2-foot-wide, almost-square paddleboard to the beach. I managed to catch some small waves, getting up on my knees near the end of my ride and by late afternoon I even tried to stand up on the board.
I know that I was really lucky because I always had freedom riding on my shoulder no matter where I went. That included almost four years in the Navy in World War II. There was not any surfing at Guadalcanal, but one day when we were going to the Russell Islands to haul our ship out for maintenance, we spotted a 14-foot plywood paddleboard out there in the middle of the ocean. I talked the skipper into stopping and picking it up. It could not have been afloat very long because it had no barnacles or moss of any kind growing on it. From then on, every time we tied up to a dock anywhere, I managed to go for a long paddle just to get into the water. The night we were sinking in a hurricane I thought that if we sunk before daylight I would grab that paddleboard. Fortunately, I did not need it.
For the almost 50 years I owned my film company, the offices were only two blocks from the ocean in Hermosa Beach, Calif. I could take surfing breaks during the day when the wind didn’t blow and the surf was up.
I still have a great love for riding waves and skiing fast, neither of which I can do anymore. Let me give you some advice: Never pass up a chance to do them because this is the only “today” you will ever get in your life so enjoy it to its fullest.
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