By Bruce Fowler
I was in an automobile accident 1990's that placed me in a coma and left me as quadriplegic. My doctor told me that it didn't look good for me. But I said "I'm a Surfer" and with that determination I worked his way back to health.
My surfing story began in 1959 at Sandspit, Santa Barbara. "During one summer the Talley boys (Frank, Steve and Jimmy) and I would surf all day then camp under the bridge right near the little creek mouth that fed out to the rights. Frank was the only one old enough to drive and we would load up the boards, sleeping bags and food into his black VW bug and headed for Stanley's.
We would stay as long as the food would last. Steve took a lot of super 8 movies, and eventually spliced a gazillion days together. The parking lot would always fill up quickly on a good day. Everyone just crammed in around the fenced 'grasshoppers' (oil rigs).
It wasn't uncommon to see Margo Godfrey (then later, Oberg) fading left on the wave then go right turn, crank it around and deftly step up to the nose. She was such a talented surfer. Bob Cooper showed up regularly at Stanley's. On a good wind swell day it was anybody's guess who would come to sample her delights.
In the late 1960's I would peel the fiberglass off one of my longboard and reshape it into a smaller board and glass it. After a couple of years I would glass for John Bradberry in the 1970's and continued shaping until my accident in the 1990's.
A Look Back at Santa Barbara Surfing: 1950’s-1975
When I first started surfing, I recall standing around a beach fire, shivering uncontrollably while listening to the greats of the time. I was eight years old and unfortunately was too little for the wetsuits of the day; I wouldn’t be afforded that luxury of warmth for two more years.
A big burly guy named “Buzz” was talking about surfboards… “Yeah, you guys can go with those foamies if you want to, I just don’t believe in them…. I’m sticking with my balsa”. It was the winter of 1959, and a plume of black smoke furled high into the sky above Rincon Cove. Someone had built a fire then found a tire to launch onto the flames. I watched as the dark cloud was caught up by the northwesterly wind, then the smoke curled furiously over the seawall and headed south with the weekend traffic.
It was my first day ever at Rincon. My best friend’s mom had us load up our 9’4”s onto her Jimmy flatbed truck. It was my birthday, and she had offered to take us to "The Rincon". I watched as she looped her clothesline from board to board around each tail and skeg, then she did a “Trucker’s Hitch” and secured them to her tie downs.
We climbed up and sat atop our boards leaning our backs against the cab of the truck. With our hands tightly gripping each rail below us, the truck hurtled along Hwy 101 as we sat there next to a blur of asphalt. The truck didn’t have ‘stake sides’, which are those little fences that can be dropped into the post holes on the flatbed. I would have felt a lot better if she’d had them!
Paddling out from the cove, I remember how green the water looked. It was a special color green like I’d never seen before. The surf was running about five to six feet, and there were a lot of surfers out. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. At one point I had kicked out of a wave near the bottom of the cove when a set came rolling through.
I was paddling frantically to get back out before the onslaught of incoming riders could get near me..… but as I was doing so, there was one guy that was barreling along a wave with such grace and he was approaching way too fast. I cleared the water out of my eyes and looked at the guy’s two-tone red and orange trunks, and his dark hair and as he got closer I got a better look, it was ‘Da Cat’, Miki Dora! I dug harder, way to my shoulders from a prone paddling position but it was too little too late I remember hearing that this guy takes pleasure in running over people! My birthday had just turned into a nightmare.
I was getting ready to turn turtle to protect myself when Miki dropped down the wave face, and started going into this arch, water was flying off his outside rail as he climbed and at the last possible second he whipped into this mach 4 kick out over the top of the wave missing me by inches. There are some things the mind blocks out to protect you, but not this time. I remember the incident like it was yesterday!
Surfing in Santa Barbara has always been a treat for the many surfers and I who live here. The waves have a pristine quality to them, and if there is a complaint that any of us could lodge to Mother Nature, it would be for more consistent surf. The summers are the worst, when we are resigned to traveling north or south to get out of the wave shadow created by the Channel Islands. The islands shield us from Summer’s predominant south swells. This was less of a problem during the 1960’s, as small surf was plenty enough to ride on our thirty and forty pound logs.
Back in those days, cars could drive out to Leadbetter Point bucking and bouncing as the wheels dipped into dirt potholes and ruts that guys had created by spinning donuts around in the dirt lot on flat days. But when it rained, the place took on a whole new dimension; more like mud wrestling than driving. At Arroyo Burro Park, better known as Hendry’s or The Pit, you could drive up to telephone poles that were placed parallel to the shore to keep cars off the sand. At night, my brother Gary and a bunch of other guys would park with their headlights on and go out and surf the shore pound.
With the surf up, it wasn’t uncommon to see 20 or 30 guys out at Leadbetter Pt., and occasionally you’d crane your neck around to see a shapely girl paddle out. That would be Linda Merrill, who was Mike Doyle’s tandem partner and the first woman to ever grace the cover of a surfing publication. Linda was a good surfer in her own right, along with other women like Linda Benson, Joey Hamasaki, the Calhoun sisters, Mary Lou Drummy, and later on, Margo Godfrey (Oberg).
When the south swells were blocked, we would head for Stanley’s Diner. The parking lot held maybe thirty cars on a good day, and surfers would position their cars around the caged grasshopper that see-sawed back and forth while producing oil for Chevron. The barn red diner sat with its white trim right south of the parking lot as wind swells would offer up lefts at that end of the parking lot.
On the north end, rights would peak off the sand and rocks that formed where water emptied from the underpass creating a small creekmouth. On any given day you could see Margo or Bob Cooper whip a left-go-right turn and scoot up to the nose. Those late afternoon wind swells are sorely missed to this very day.
If the winds up the coast blew long and hard enough, it meant we could save the gas money and paddle out at Tarpits, Hendry’s, Hope Ranch, More Mesa, Sands, Haskell’s., or El Capitan: these were the main beach breaks spanning from Carpinteria to Goleta. All of them depended on the sand bottoms to be in the right place at the right time like all good beach breaks do. Luckily, and fairly often, there were good rideable waves in the knee to chest high category, and on the best days, it might even get a little bit bigger than that.
In early winter we would all wait anxiously for the first swell to come rolling into town. We usually had to wait well past the start of school to see any kind of real swell. By the time the storms in the Aleutians were generating groundswells that would reach us, it was usually November. I would go to bed praying to see ‘corduroy to the horizon’ the next day.
Campus Point was one of the more popular places to surf during winter, although everyone called it “College” in those days. College had four specific takeoff zones, some tighter than others. At the very top directly in front of the rocks was what we called “The Wedge”, this wasn’t frequently surfed by many before surfleashes. Right below that you were at the Point, and south of that and almost directly in front of the bathrooms was “Poles”, named after the 4 metal poles that stuck up out of the water. They are no longer there, but it’s still called Poles.
From ‘Poles’ you can connect to ‘The Cove’, aptly named because it bends into a sand bottom cove all the way to Goleta Beach. For the cove to be waist high, it has to be twice that at the point; but the cove was truly a blast as you could get career nose rides on good days. During the swell of 1969, the cove had 8’ barrels all the way to Goleta Beach as everything else in the area was maxing out.
With a big north, northwest or west swell a lot of different places in Santa Barbara come on strong. Generally the more northerly swells happen earlier in the winter. After the New Year rings in, patterns tend to favor westerly swells. With the west swells you see places like Hammond’s Reef come on, as well as the upper Goleta spots like Deveraux Pt., Naple’s Reef and the stretch of beaches that prefer to remain unnamed, spanning all the way to Gaviota.
Some of those nameless beaches were my favorite haunts in the 60’s and for decades afterward. Haskell’s was one of those great spots with a colorful history. Pictures from the 1920’s show an endless succession of oil piers that were jutting out from Naples all the way to Deveraux Point. This was also the case for Summerland situated just south of Santa Barbara and just north of Serena Point. The modern day visitor would be oblivious to this checkered past, but as surfers, many of us knew to take caution when the winter waves stripped the protective summer sand away from such areas.
Summerland was once a ghost hunter’s dream seeking paranormal activity. In the late 1800’s Summerland was considered a haven for Haunted Houses, and those seeking a thrill frequented the tiny community. But surfers will remember it for two distinctive A framed houses. The red A frame was the Yater shop, and the white one just below it was Jeff White’s “Owl” Shop. Many people are familiar with Reynolds Yater and the brand of surfboards he has handcrafted for many years.
Jeff White has noteworthy history too. Jeff was a lifeguard and dory racer along with his partner Paul Hodgert, who for many years headed up the lifeguard and recreation program for the City of Santa Barbara. These two men dominated an entire decade of dory racing at the United States Surfing Championships held each year at Huntington Beach. I would watch in awe, as these guys rowed out through 6 to 10 foot surf by the pier to round the buoy and surf huge waves in, then sprint up the sand to win the event time and time again.
From that little white A Frame, Jeff and Brian Bradley would pour their own foam to make blanks for their “White Owl” surfboards, which they named after the shape of “White Owl Cigars”; the outline of each were quite similar. Jeff told me that in the evening they would throw Army blankets into the still warm blank molds to sleep in! Ironically enough, years later I would go to work for Jeff after he moved his “Surf’n Wear” operation to Carrillo Street; the main artery feeding traffic into downtown Santa Barbara.
Owl Surf Shop
This was in the wake of Jeff being stricken with Multiple Sclerosis and after making one of the most impressive comebacks in medical history, Jeff continued on with a productive and fruitful life. But the disease had taken away his stamina, and when I joined him at the ripe old age of 20, it wasn’t long before I was doing the lion’s share of running the business as well as shaping the Owl Surfboards.
Yater’s approach differed from Jeff in that Rennie focused entirely on manufacturing surfboards. When he had his retail showroom on lower State Street, Stu Fredricks ‘wife, Sue, ran the shop and took great care with getting the details right. With Yater, who primarily was a lobster fisherman, the focus was making the best custom surfboards. Pat Curren offered big wave guns through Yater’s shop, this was long before his son’s birth, at this point, Tommy was still a gleam in Pat’s eye.
Jeff, on the other hand, was a savvy businessman with a college degree and he developed his business to include sportswear, O’neill wetsuits, surf supplies and related gear. John Eichert was another early board pioneer in the area and he was one of the guys and also a boat builder. His label “Ike” was known for their distinctive vee notch cut out of the trailing edge of the big area fins that adorned so many boards of the era. John later moved to Alaska to continue pursuing his boat building and fishing aspirations.
By the end of the 60’s and beginning of the 70’s the surfing crowd were riding Yater’s, John Bradbury’s Creative Freedoms, George Greenough inspired Wilderness Designs primarily made by Michael Cundith and Bob Duncan, Chuck Vinson had the Thought Factory across from the courthouse, and the Bahne Boards that I was offering from a small shop in Goleta.
Bob Krause was making “Good Surfboards”, and Al Merrick was learning to shape from his Plastic Fantastic shop located on Arlington Avenue across from the Arlington Theatre. (Note: By 1972, Al had moved to Helena Ave to form Channel Islands, and I was at Surf ‘n Wear shaping Owl. Zog had started “Wave Delineation” on airport property to be followed by Dave Johnson with his “Progressive” label.
A bit earlier than that Zog had worked from a house farther north along Hollister Avenue not far from Vinson and Frank Oz (eventually of Muppet Fame) doing “Happy Trails” Surfboards. Marc Andreini took over for me doing the Owl’s as I opened more Surf ‘n Wear stores. Dennis Bennedum made a big splash with his Sundance wafers, and Matt Moore was shaping his Rincon Designs in Carpinteria. Apologies to anyone I may have forgotten.)
Many Yater customers got the same shapes from Rennie time and time again. Nothing wrong with that, but not a standout either. Bradbury had devout team riders that ruled Rincon. But the two prolific camps representing new ideas in surfboard design were Wilderness, with their short flex finned stubby planning hulls, and my Bahne dealership that were promoting the first fully downrailed Hynson designs with revolutionary ‘natural’ rocker.
Although my first shaping experience had started on my very first hand me down back in 1959, I continued to perfect my craft through emulation and glassing for Bradbury and watching Hynson shape and design boards. Bradbury and Hynson were the two primary influences in my development as a shaper and designer.
Bahne’s boards were the premiere quality of their day, and along with the quality came the single most important design feature the modern day short board had to offer since McTavish’s vee bottoms; that being full length natural rocker! Up until that point, surfboards had dead flat rockerless tails that, although unknown to most surfers, severely limited high performance surfing.
Natural rocker was a huge introduction to a new way to surf and much credit should go to Hynson, Brewer, and Diffenderfer, who worked in conjunction with each other developing modern day rockers. In our first year we sold the most boards in SB other than Yater, and Bradbury’s Rincon dynasty ended as his team riders all jumped on Hynson’s designs. This had everyone looking at Hynson’s boards and doing their own interpretations.
Surfing in Santa Barbara is like living in an oasis. We are far enough away from Los Angeles to have our own distinctive identity. We have the Ranch to our north, Rincon to our south, and the Channel Islands to our west. This triangle has some of the best surf spots in the world. We gladly take the quality over the consistency.
The mistake is often made to think there are only a few famous names worth mentioning when speaking of this area. The truth is many of us drew from each other. The usual names pop up because they have become media favorites, this doesn’t mean they weren’t deserving or are devoid of making contributions nor worthy of receiving credit, it simply means that media creates an approximate history that distorts a truer history underlying Santa Barbara surfing.
The chief difference is one person attempts to research it and then write it, while another simply lives it. If you were to ask each person I mention here, their version would surely have a different take than mine. At best the magazines represent an approximate history, so let’s accept the fact the truth lies somewhere in between.
I hope this little story of mine has given you a feel for the years spanning the late fifties into the middle seventies. A time capsule, if you will have it. This precluded cell phones, the Internet, and Simon Anderson’s thruster. Surfing was different before the tri fin, and life was different before cell phones and the current electronic digital age that is upon us. The Internet, for better or worse, has made the world a smaller less mystical place in which we live.
Surfing today in Santa Barbara is alive and well as it has always been. Perhaps each decade is remembered a little fonder as we grow older, with less time to surf due to the needs of family, constraints of a job, or the promise of a career…or maybe you are enjoying quite the opposite……..I certainly hope this to be the case!
Regardless of where you live or what you ride. Like the bumper sticker says” I’d Rather Be Surfing!
Long May You Ride,