Hawaii Senator Fred Hemmings
"Going Back to the 1968 World Surf Contest Rincon, Puerto Rico"
by Thomas Takao
In the summer of 1968 my friend Lyle suggested going to Puerto Rico to surf. He had been there the previous year and had planned to return in the fall. The opportunity of surfing Puerto Rico did stir some intrigue, and adventure. After giving it some thought, and looking over some pictures of Jobos, Crash Boat, and Rincon; I decided to go.
The plan was to go to New York first and visit a friend of a friend of Lyle’s before making the trip to Puerto Rico. Before I knew it our departure date of October 7th had arrived and we were boarding our flight. Lyle waved to his girlfriend Regina and I waved to Regina’s friend Charlene. We flew out of LAX at 8:00 a.m. and arrived at JFK at 5:00 p.m.
Ray who was a friend of the friend who was supposed to picked us up did the honors. He drove us back to Long Beach, Long Island where we were taken over to Phil’s house where we stayed for a week. Surfing a couple of time in the cold Fall water’s of the Long Island. We did some sight seeing and partied a few nights at the nightclub in Long Beach. The week went by fast and it was time to leave. Fast Phil took us back to JFK and we were on our way to Puerto Rico.
After arriving in San Juan Airport at 4 a.m. the plane’s door was opened and there to greet us was a blast of hot tropical humid air. We departed off the plane through the jetbridge into the arrival / departure corridor that lead into the Main Terminal.
With time to spare we sat around until 7:30 after which we took a taxi and we were off to Rincon. It was around 11:00 a.m. when our cab arrived at Rami Air Force Base. Lyle had met some people there on his last trip and thought of giving them a call, but by this time they were no longer there. After our brief stop we decided to hitch hiked the remaining distance to Rincon. A couple rides later and a stop at Crash Boat, we made it to Rincon Point where the surf was 3 to 4 ft.
We walked down the dirt road that led to the beach. With Maria’s fence and house on one side and a field of weeds on the other we placed our baggage near Maria’s gate. Two surfers having gotten out of the water and were drying off. They were relaxing and wondering who we were. Billy Hamilton had a cordial smile and said a few words while Mark Martinson was quietly looking around.
The surf looked like fun and but was going down. We needed to find a place to stay before going surfing. So we got a ride into the town of Rincon, which was a couple of miles or so away. Once into town we got dropped off at the town square. Across the street from the town square was a cafe where we got a bite to eat and a drink. Lyle asked the bartender if he knew of any place to stay. He pointed across the street at the town square and mentioned there was a store just around the town square.
We got our stuff and less than 5 minutes we were at the store. We talked to the storeowner and he said sure, he had a room below the store. The store was located on a street that angled downhill. There was a gate at the lower corner of the building, which opened up into the side yard.
We opened the gate and about 12 feet away was the door to the room, actually it was a storage room with 8 bed frames, 5 with mattresses. All that was needed was some sheets and a pillow. The beds were situated with 3 on one side with 2 empty frame and walkway down the middle with 2 other beds and 2 empty frames on the other side. The price for the room was 5 dollars a week per person. It had a head and shower in the backyard.
While talking to the storeowner Lyle found out that his cousin had a 57 Rambler station wagon for sale. He said it was run down and rusty, but it ran. The price for the station wagon was $75.00. It sounded O.K. so we took a walk with the store owner to his cousing’s garage. Up main street to the outskirt of town, which was less than 75 yards from his store.
After starting the car up, the deal was made. We were back at Rincon surfing the evening surf. The next day we went back again to Rincon and the surf was small going to flat that afternoon. Our routine after that was to have lunch and dinner at the cafe. Hang around the beach near Tres Palmas during the day, swimming and lying around or read a book. Then in the evening go to the theater to see a movie.
After a few days, more and more surfer were arriving in town. I was at Rincon Point (Maria's) having a soda and looking at the small surf (1ft. to 2 ft.). There were other people sitting around or standing, and enjoying the day. Three Hispanic surfers came to where I was and started talking to me. Hey are you Ernie Tanaka one says, yeah Ernie Tanaka says another. No, no I said, my name is Tom and asked what their names were. “I am Gordo Barreda” said Gorodo. “My name is Fernando de Ortiz Zevallos” said Fernado and the guy with the glasses introduced himself “I am Cholo Bouroncle” said Cholo. “We are part of the Peruvian Surf Team” said Gordo.
They had just pulled up in their rental VW Bug and were looking for a place to stay until the contest started, after that they would stay at the Villa Cofrasi. “Do you know of any places to stay” Gordo asked. I told them of the place where Lyle and I were staying and that it did have 3 extra beds available. “Would you guys like to see it” I continued. They looked at each other and said “Sure.” We got into their Bug and drove over to the store.
I showed them around and introduced them to Lyle who had been the Town square reading a book. The price sounded right for their schedule, since they would be staying just over a week. They all went up to the storeowner to discuss their stay. After making the agreement, they paid their rent and would be back the following day with their belongings.
Cholo mentioned Flaco, Gordo’s brother would arriving in a few days but would be staying elsewhere. Gordo, Fernando, and Cholo moved in the next day. The guys were on their own schedule and we would cross paths occasionally during the day. Most of the time everyone was out doing their own thing. The waves at Rincon went flat during this time period and wouldn’t come back up until the day of the Finals.
A week and a half before the contest, Fernando mentions that they were going up to Jobos to see if there were some waves. I was asked to come along, so I did. Cholo would be driving, Fernando sitting shotgun with Gordo behind Fernando and I was sitting behind Cholo. We traveled north driving by the town of Aguadilla, after that it was vegetation deluxe with a few houses appearing through the landscape.
The guys talked Spanish and English while I was viewing the scenery. About an hour later we arrived at Jobos. It was blown out and small. We looked at the surf, then at each other, and back at the surf. It didn’t appear we would be surfing since the guys were getting back into the car.
We left the beach and were making our way back to the main road. About 15 minutes later we came to an intersection. We were traveling about 35 mph when we entered. Looking to my left I could see the grill and headlights of a 1957 Chevy sedan about 10 feet from us, going about 45 mph. Before you could say “Lookout” the Chevy hit the rental car.
As we spun around a few times with the tires screeching, I could hear someone say Chucha Sa Madre as we came to a stop. Getting over the shock of what had occurred, we slowly got out of the Bug through the passenger side. The driver of the Chevy says what the matter with you guys, don’t you know a stop sign when you see one as he pointed in the direction of the street we just came from.
We all looked at where the stop sign was supposed to be and all we saw was the bottom of the post without a sign. Someone had ran over the sign and took it. Being grateful that no one was hurt, while looking at the side of the Bug. It was smashed in, the door and side was about a foot into the shell. The fender was up against the tire, but was still drivable. After exchanging the information with the other driver, we were back on the road. The discussion on our return trip to Rincon was who would take the car back to the San Juan rental office.
The following day, Cholo took the car back. Free and Easy was showing at the theater during the week, a film by MacGillivray and Freeman. The week went by without much surf. The contest was approaching and the contestants were getting ready to move into their contest apartments. That Saturday I saw Gordo had made a change to his hair color.
He had colored his hair blonde. I recall saying “Hi Gordo” and his response with a smile was “Blondie, I turned Blondie” said Gordo. Not sure why I thought to myself, but I figured it was a fashion statement. Meanwhile during this flat spell, a small group of surfers would walk up the beach at Rincon and disappear into the vegetation. One group was Nat Young, Wayne Lynch, and Paul Witzig with his equipment.
They were going to another surf spot around the point called Domes. It was breaking 2 to 3 feet there while Rincon was flat. Eventually more and more surfers would be surfing Domes. When the day of the contest was to begin. They held the quarter and semi finals at Domes.
The guys moved into their new rooms as the contest was just around the corner. I didn’t see much of the guys from Peru after the contest started. The Cantina at the Villa was the hangout.. Shaun Thompson and Gavin Rudolf the two 16 year old South African representatives were playing pin ball and waiting for the surf like the rest of the competitors.
During the evening most of the team stayed together. One evening I went over to the Hawaiian team’s apartment. Wally Froiseth and George Downing were talking in the kitchen. In the living room Fred Hemmings, Ben Aipa, and Clyde Aikau were playing poker and it looked like Fred was winning. Joey Cabell was just outside getting some evening air and Reno Abellira was at the Cantina.
The contest started and the surf was still small. Rumor had it that a big swell was not to far off . The waves during the quarter-finals were increasing as the contest progressed. Some of the favorites didn’t make it through the semi’s, Joey Cabell, David Nuuhiiwa, Wayne Lynch and cast of other very hot surfers.
Coming out of the semi finals and waiting to enter the water for the finals were Russell Hughes, Nat Young, Midget Farrelly, Reno Abellira, Mike Doyle and Fred Hemmings.
The contestant had paddle out to the lineup and were awaiting the horn to sound the beginning of the final heat. Watching them paddle out through 6 to 10 feet of white water. Flipping the board over as the white water rolls over their boards, or grabbing their nose and holding on as the white water tosses and turns their body and board.
The swells continued to build as the horn sounded the beginning of the heat. One finalist, Reno Abellira carves a bottom turn on his 6' 7" mini gun shaped by Dick Brewer. I place my left hand above my eyes as to salute the hot afternoon glare. I squinted towards the Point, as another set of seven came marching in.
The other finalist had longer boards compared to Reno and that was an advantage. The swell continued to get bigger. Russell Hughes catches a wave with a 15 foot face, and gets a good ride. Midget does the same. Nat Young’s round tail board looked squirrelish.
On one of the bigger waves at the beginning of the heat, his board slides out of a turn. No one had leashes so that meant a long swim in. As his board drifted along the shoreline, Ted Spencer viewing the distance Nat had to make up to get his board, grabs a board near him and plunges into the side drift along the beach and paddles after Nat's board. Ted saved Nat about 15 minutes of swimming, but the lost time and the energy spent swimming added to the lower standing.
A few waves later Reno loses his edge and takes a spill. Ben Aipa grabs a board and save time for Reno. It would be a long paddle back out with the wave getting bigger. A close out set marches in. Fred Hemming using his experience catches one of the larger wave of the contest. Staying close to the curl and getting a long ride placed him near the top.
Midget and Russell were getting their share of the big waves and were making some critical sections. Mike Doyle’s rides weren’t as high on the judges cards compared to Fred's, Midget's, Russell's, or Nat's. Some of his waves were closing out. Having to prone out and ride the wave in before getting out of it and paddling back out.
Somebody in the crowd was mentioning Tres Palmas was breaking around 20 feet. When another set came. Fred catches another big wave, his timing and reflexes were firing on all cylinders. Powering through sections that some of the other competitors didn’t make. It looked like Fred was on his way to winning the contest after that ride.
The contest was over with 1st place going to Fred Hemmings, followed by Midget Farrelly, Russel Hughes, Nat Young, Mike Doyle and Reno Abellira. All that was left were the awards at the banquet in Mayaguez on Sunday. I was in the parking lot at the Villa Cofrasi, after having arrived from the town of Rincon, which was about 5 minutes away. I would be driving to the Mayaguez Hilton for the awards banquet that night with a few of the competitors. The arrangement to meet was planned the day before in the Cantina, the place where everyone would go and socialize within the resort. Mike Purpus showed up, a few minutes later Peter Waye, Wayne Parks, and Alan Byrnes appeared as the afternoon sun made its way towards evening.
We all got into the rusty, it won’t go over 40 mph 1957 Rambler station wagon. Mike sat shotgun, the other sat in the rear seat. With the windows down the air began flowing as the car picked speed; a welcomed relief from the afternoon heat. There were some conversation, but mostly sightseeing. The sunset filtered through the vegetation and trees as we meandered up hills and down the valleys towards Mayaguez.
We had arrived at the Mayaguez Hilton and I found a parking stall somewhere near a distant corner of the complex. Mike sees Angie Reno and Corky Carroll talking and would soon join them. Peter, Wayne, Allen and I were getting situated at a table with some other surfers. This is where it get fuzzy, after a few drinks and many conversations later, the awards were presented and we were returning to the parking lot.
Mike disappeared into the crowd and found another ride back. Fernando spotted us and came over to me in the lounge and said he needed a ride back. I said “Sure no problemo” I didn't know where Mike was, but knew he was having a good time. It was around 12:30 a.m. and we were leaving the parking lot of the Mayaguez Hilton. Peter was still enjoying the night as Wayne and Allen were in good spirits as well.
We got out of town and were driving along at 40 mph. Peter had an empty champagne glass in his hand. and was sticking it out the window. Somehow the wind lifted the glass from Peter hand, and flew over the station wagon and landed in front of a car going in the opposite direction.
The motorist of that car had waved down a police officer that happened to be parked somewhere or was driving by. They caught up to us 15 minutes later. The laughter within the Rambler stopped as I pulled over.
The only person who could speak Spanish was Fernando. The officer instructs Fernando to follow him and the motorist to the Judge’s house. Once there Fernando tells me to follow them while Peter, Allan, and Wayne waited in the car. It was 2:30 in the morning and we are at the front door of the Judge’s home with the Judge in his pajamas listening to the officer, the motorist, and Fernando. It was a coin toss of going to jail or to be on our way. After a good explanation by Fernando we were back on the road again.
We were a weary bunch of revelers who pulled into the complex at Villa Cofrasi at 4 a.m. I saw the guys a couple days later as everyone was preparing to leave. I thanked Fernando for his help, and the interesting time being around him, Cholo, and Sergio.