Divine Springtime: A Brief Look Into The Roots of Surf & Skate Style

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“…He is flying through the air, flying forward, flying fast as the surge on which he stands. He is a Mercury—a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.”

It was in 1907, during an extended vacation in Waikiki, that literary legend Jack London would witness the local youth riding waves on long boards made of unwieldy redwoods, and pen the above exaltation, taken from a short story of his called, “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki.” Though he wasn’t the first haole to write on Hawaii’s homegrown pastime (or the last to experience the thrill of catching his first wave), the story was published at the tail end of the sport’s decay—a decline that began over a century earlier with the introduction by missionaries of Calvinism to the polytheistic island nation. Surfing, once the sport of kings and queens, was very quickly pushed from its status as supreme ritual to that of decadent child’s play. What London had been fortunate enough to behold was the charged reclamation of this ancient practice from the prohibitive domination of a rigid Christian regime.

The movement had begun in earnest two years earlier, with the formation of Huia Nalu (“surf club”) by a group of native Hawaiians looking to revitalize islanders’ interest in the sport. One of these founding members was a prodigious waterman named Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, who would become surfing’s most influential and recognizable ambassador. Kahanamoku would give wave-riding demonstrations around the world, perhaps most significantly in Southern California in 1912, before traveling to Stockholm, Sweden to compete in the Summer Olympics, and at Freshwater Beach, Australia in 1915. He’d win a total of five swimming medals in three Olympics, three of them gold. Both shore-lined locales would add new dimensions to the identity of the sport; in California, specifically, the growing popularity of surfing would set the stage for the megalithic influence of what is now more blandly referred to as the action sports industry.

As with all evolutionary leaps in culture, surfing’s place in the public eye was won through a combination of technical innovations and a dissemination of previously undocumented information. Photographer and surfer Tom Blake is credited with being the first to shoot from the water in 1930, giving inlanders a firsthand look at riders in their element. Earlier in the decade, Woody Brown pioneered big-wave riding—images of which inspired many an exodus from California to Hawaii—and Hobart “Hobie” Alter developed the first foam and fiberglass surfboards, opening the door to potential surfers formerly intimidated by the cumbersome wood standards.

Then there’s Tom Morey, declared “the second most influential man in the surfing world after Duke Kahanamoku,” by Surfer Magazine in 2000. Morey’s accomplishments are many. He is the first person on record to free-surf a boat wake sans tow-line, in 1954. As a shaper, he was the first to lift the front of the board, as well as design it with a concave nose pocket (circa 1955); within 20 years, the vast majority of boards were replicating this design. In 1964, Morey invented the first fiberglass skag box with removable skags, or fins, allowing surfers to customize their boards as they saw fit, as well as allowing for easier transport and storage of the board itself. And, in 1965, Morey hosted the Tom Morey Invitational Nose Riding contest, recognized as the first objectively judged professional contest with cash prizes.

Yet despite these contributions and those of others, surfing at the time remained a niche pursuit particular to a few select ocean-bound environs. As Morey describes it, “The public, which includes Kansas and all the other people in the inland of the United States, as well as the rest of the world, wasn’t paying attention to any of this. Surfing was just something that only certain people might have heard of, people in places that Duke may have brought information to, like California and Australia. But in 1959, the movie Gidget came out, and that brought awareness of the sport and of another kind of lifestyle, and it started to catch fire.”

Further glamorized by two Gidget sequels and a television show of the same name, the conception of surfing was no longer that of an esoteric sport, but a multi-layered subculture complete with its own aesthetic, dialect, and values. At the core of this burgeoning lifestyle was the sport of surfing itself, an activity that infuses many of its practitioners with an ecosophical mindset hardly represented by Hollywood’s bronzed dramatizations.

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“You had an understanding in America during the fifties and sixties that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you’d get social security,” says Duke Boyd, a longtime waterman who began the surf apparel company Hang Ten in 1960. “Out of that came a really conservative nature that was heavily influenced by the East Coast. But what happened on the West Coast is that the new generation came up being influenced by the ocean, and by surfing, and by the idea that maybe working all that much wasn’t all that good of an idea, that maybe going surfing was right up there as a life choice.”

The image of the surfer as lefty pantheistic dilettantes became an unconventional rebuttal of the American Dream. “The surf kids were totally opposite to what the song of the day was,” says Boyd. “It was long hair, baggy pants or shorts, and t-shirts. Surf style evolved with the protest movement. It was pre-hippy—it captured the pioneer look.” Boyd’s contribution to the  is in large part responsible, as he basically designed the modern surf trunk as we now know it. He’s credited as one of the first to use nylon instead of canvas or twill, as the first to popularize Velcro over zippers, and one of the first to incorporate the drawstring waist instead of the button fly. From this unique vantage point, Boyd relates the identity of surfing as having been in direct relation to America’s entanglement in Vietnam.

As the government marched more and more troops into war, the surf movement seemed to walk to the beat of a different drum, affecting an attitude and appearance that was carried off the beach and into the streets of surrounding neighborhoods, where a new leisure activity, directly influenced by surfing, was developing. Though skateboarding had existed in a primitive form a decade before, it was popularized by the release of Jan & Dean’s song “Sidewalk Surfing” in 1964, and in the late 60s and 70s, innovations in the design and riding of skateboards would lead to its current popularity.

“I was one of those kids that took the metal skates used to clip to your shoes and nailed them to a two by four,” says Frank Nasworthy, who grew up in the Washington, DC, area before moving to San Diego to pursue surfing. “We used to pull each other with our bicycles! But back then it was just about whether you could stand up and actually go in a straight line. You didn’t turn much at all. Then in the 60s I rode a Hobie board, and also a Makaha with the clay wheels. But small rocks would stop that in its tracks.”

The early metal wheels provided speed with no traction; the clay wheels improved on that, offering traction but little durability. Having visited a factory in Virginia that made polyurethane wheels for roller skates, it wasn’t long before Nasworthy tried putting the urethane wheels on his own boards. The ride was so improved that he started selling the wheels to SoCal stores in1973, under the moniker Cadillac Wheels.

Jeff Ho can attest to the significance of this seemingly modest breakthrough. A respected surfboard shaper, Ho, along with Kip Engblom and Craig Stecyk, had opened the “Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions” shop in Santa Monica, in 1972. A group of area youths that included Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta and others, assembled around the shop, eventually forming the core of the Zephyr Surf Team, and, in 1975, the Zephyr Skate Team, now known infamously as the Z-Boys.

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“When we first got the urethane wheels in from Cadillac Wheels,” says Ho, “we gave them to the kids to try out. They found that it gripped better, and they could do these moves called the Bert, which was emulating Larry Bertlemann’s surf style. That’s really where you get the development of the surf-skate moves, and that’s what got the attention of the world.”

With the added breakthrough of sealed precision ball bearings, developed by Rich Novak of Santa Cruz Skateboards, the standard template for the modern skateboard had reached completion. And with the startling success of the Z-Boys at the Del Mar Nationals in 1975, skateboarding went through an almost instant metamorphosis—from the awkward gymnastics of veteran riders to the aggressive, surf-influenced stylings of a younger generation. It wasn’t long before skateboarding moved beyond its surf origins and unto untrodden ground. As documented in the 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” directed by Stacy Peralta, the Z-Boys took to skating empty pools during the height of the seventies drought, and were soon pushing their boards and bodies above the pool’s lip and into the air.

“Going aerial is the super important thing,” explains Ho, “because it was the beginning of skateboarding as we know it today; it was the beginning of ‘Extreme Sports.’ There wouldn’t be any X Games if it weren’t for doing those kind of moves.”

Surfing quickly took heed, incorporating the aerial into its own technical repertoire, thereby establishing a two-way feedback loop between the surf and skate cultures.  While surfers had long been identified as delinquent savants, the new wave of skateboarders would proudly identify themselves with the rough-hewn, anti-authority ideology and aesthetic of the punk scene gaining momentum in Southern California at the time.

“Around the late seventies, ‘criminal fashion’ became very prominent in California and eventually influenced surfing,” suggests Boyd. “By that influence, surfing lost its earlier look for the most part, and became a combination of the criminal look, the low-key surfer look, and other urban elements. It also became more highly fashionable, which has to do, I think, with the rise of professional surfing and skating.”

With the attention of the world focused on SoCal’s skate-and-surf scene, soon came the heavy-handed accolades of Big Business. Investors made high bids to gain the endorsement of the sports’ more popular players, and unprecedented marketing tactics put many of the scene’s original boutique labels out of business.

“Brands began endorsing the new icons of the sport, in the way that the Quiksilver’s and Hurley’s of today are using famous performers in each individual sport,” recounts Nasworthy. “I just wasn’t able to afford that, and it became a really intense marketing game. It got to the point where I had a hard time taking what I had and creating a business model that made sense.”

Subsequently, Cadillac Wheels, which had partnered with Bahne Skateboards in 1975, stopped production in 1978. Two years earlier, Ho’s Zephyr shop had been forced to close its doors. In fact, the late seventies and early eighties saw a brief decline in the popularity of skateboarding all together, due to litigations against skate parks and board producers as propagators of injury, and because of the rise of BMX riding and inline skating.

Despite these setbacks, the surf and skate industries quickly returned, perhaps stronger than ever. Old icons were replaced by younger ones (surfer Chris Rea and skater Tony Hawk, for example), and a new generation was reached with the help of magazines and influential videos, like Alva’s Bones Brigade, tapes that featured future legends such as Hawk, Steve Caballero, and Rodney Mullen. Defunct companies were replaced with a slew of both respectable and ridiculous skate-surf brands. Among the most prominent were labels such as Stussy and Rusty (both of which bloomed into multimillion-dollar businesses and still exist today), as well as Jimmy’Z, and T&C Surf Designs (whose popularity boomed and busted by the end of the decade), among others.

Fast forward to the present, and you have a thriving, international, multibillion-dollar industry. The X Games will hold its thirteenth session this summer and will feature competitions in surfing, skating, snowboarding, motorcross, and BMX riding. Nearly half a million people attend the summer games, which are watched by another half a million people on television.

Another amazing statistic: the Action Sports Retail (ASR) Trade Expo, held in San Diego three times a year, was last participated in by more then 500 action- sports brands. With the market so thoroughly saturated, one can’t help but wonder if the potential for further innovation still exists.

“I think it’s definitely possible,” says Ho. “People are much more open to design and different materials now. Back when I was first trying to make clothes and other stuff in the early 70s, it was difficult. There were lots of closed doors and lots of closed minds. When I was trying to talk to K2 about designing a snowboard, they said, ‘Forget it kid, you’re out of your mind.’”

And as for locating any remnants of the spiritual and philosophical zeitgeist that brought the original “action sport” to prominence, one need only turn to surfing’s surviving Yoda for a healthy dose of meditated optimism.

“I don’t know how else to put it, but just look around you,” instructs Tom Morey. “There is a divine springtime taking place. Look at this phone I’m using, look at your computer—this whole evolution has taken place in the last 160 some odd years. Worldwide, technology and spirituality are escaping the yoke of oppression, and as greater communication comes about, we’ll be able to start figuring all things out together.”

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