Surf’s up!

In the years since World War II, surf culture has become fully rooted in American society. The exploits of young daredevils on the beaches of California and Hawaii attracted the attention of Hollywood in the 1960s.

But after the silliness died down, a continuing supply of excellent surfing documentaries and television coverage of important contests spread a more accurate view of the sport. Today, professional surfers have become highly paid celebrities, encouraging a new generation of talent to head for the waves.

One result of surfing’s new respectability has been a growing interest in preserving the sport’s history and important artifacts. Public museums have been organized to display collections gathered by those early on the scene. This institutional attention has further intensified competition among collectors for real rarities in the field.

Surfing has roots that extend back a thousand years into Pacific pre-history. In the 1770s, Captain James Cook – making round-the-world expeditions for the British Royal Navy – visited Polynesia and the Hawaiian Islands, where he found native people surfing the waves on canoes and boards. He later wrote: “I could not help concluding that the man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”

Mark Twain wrote about surf bathing in his 1872 travel book,“Roughing It.”   By the turn of the century, the Hawaiian Islands had become a U.S. territory, but traditional cultural pursuits had been hit hard, and surfing was dying out.

Early in the 20th century, the professional globetrotter Alexander Hume Ford came in contact with surfers at Waikiki and devoted considerable energy to preserving the art of wave riding. When Jack London visited Hawaii in 1907, Ford introduced him to the surfing subculture. The popular author later wrote an article on what he had seen for “A Woman’s Home Companion.”  His description of one surfer as “a young god bronzed with sunburn” made many hearts flutter, and tourism soon revived interest in the sport.

A major boost arrived in the form of handsome Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, who demonstrated surfing to crowds on beaches in California and East Coast resorts like Atlantic City. After winning a gold medal in swimming at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, the Duke appeared in several movies and continued to be a worldwide ambassador for the sport.

By the 1950s, a well-defined surf community had developed that embraced the full-time search for the perfect wave and a disinclination to devote life to office drudgery. A 1948 photo of guys and gals on the beach at San Onofre, Calif., shows all the essentials elements: blond heads, good tans, a woody wagon for carrying the surfboards, and some great music for relaxation between sets of waves.

In spite of this long history, many baby boomers were not introduced to surfing until the publication of the novel “Gidget” in 1957. The tale had roots in reality: author Frederick Kohner’s daughter, Kathy, was the real-life model for the diminutive girl surfer. But when the story came to the big screen in 1959, moviegoers saw actors sitting on boards in a wet tank while real surfers doubled in the ocean shots. Well-known surfer Mickey Munoz (wearing a wig) rode the waves in place of the film’s star, Sandra Dee.

In spite of the kitsch of a series of early 1960s Beach Party movies, the general public became increasingly aware of surfing and began to seek out local spots to try their luck on a board. At the same time, albums such as Dick Dale’s “Surfers’ Choice” and the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” put songs about surfing on the charts.

Paralleling the Hollywood version of beach life was another genre of specialized films made by surfers, to be shown at venues like the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer” odyssey of around-the-world surfing was a crossover hit in 1966, shown widely on college campuses.

According to Drew Campion, author of “Stoked! A History of Surf Culture,”  the ultimate collection of memorabilia is on view at the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente, Calif. 

The foundation’s curator, Barry Haun, says about 150 of the 300 surfboards in the permanent collection are on display, and the museum is also gathering documentation in the form of magazines, historic photos and oral histories from important surfers of the past. 

Veteran surfers know what to collect.  But most people have a lot to learn about surfing memorabilia before investing good money. While important material changes hands in online auctions, searches often turn up a confusing mixture of old, new and reproduced artifacts, which should make novices hesitate and investigate before buying.

When doing pre-acquisition research, a history like “Stoked!” is a good place to start. Author Campion, who also edited both “Surfer” and “Surfing” magazine, says, “There are all kinds of collectors. Some look for memorabilia: posters for movies, decals and labels, T-shirts and artwork. But clearly the most important emphasis is on the surfboards themselves.” 

He can reel off a list of essentials for any proper collection, from the old Waikiki planks to the post-World War II Bob Simmons boards, which were the first experiments with foam-Fiberglas technology; to the short boards that transformed the whole surfboard industry in the late 1960s. 

For the beginning collector, however, boards may not be the place to start. Michael Richard, who runs Stanley’s Surf Gear in Ventura, Calif., says prices for all surfing relics have risen sharply in the last ten years. “I’m not really a surfboard collector,” he explained, “The surfboards take up too much room, and they’re too expensive. A model called a Miki Dora ‘Cat’ sells for about $5,000.

“One surfboard shaped by Dick Brewer — a Hawaiian big-wave surfboard — sold for $33,000. A Hobie ‘Phil Edwards’ model will sell for $5000 to $6,000; the same thing without the model name will be $2,500. Surfboards are not $100 or $200 anymore — it’s gotten out of control.”

Richard’s business focuses primarily on the ephemera of surfing, such as company logos printed on old water-slide decals from the 1960s, and his Web site, www.surfcrazy.com, has a useful explanation of “surf decal collecting. He notes, “Everybody wanted to look like a surfer after “Gidget.” To do that, you put the decals on your car window.”

Not to be confused with the more recent adhesive stickers that are flooding the market, vintage decals sell for $50-$250 with some rarities going higher. To document the logos featured on the decals and other gear, Richard  established the online Surfboard Logo Library with more than 4,000 entries.  Contact him through the Web site or at 877-809-1695.

Collectors also seek out colorful posters from both Hollywood movies and hardcore surfer films, an easy way to bring a beach look back home. Although most bring $50-$150, some — like an original Endless Summer poster — may sell for more than $800 in good condition. Issues of surfing magazines from the 1960s and 1970s are also priced in the $50-$150 range.

Another recommended Web site for buying and selling surf memorabilia is Sam Ryan’s www.thelongboard-grotto.com; his store is on Highway 101 in Encinitas, Calif., 800-998-7967. In addition to a multitude of vintage pictures, the grotto also sells new surfing gear.

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