STEVE DUNHAM SURFING COSTA RICA
By Thomas Takao
Steve’s early beginning in surfing started in 1959 at Huntington Beach. There were two surf shops for all of Huntington Beach at the time. Back then, just the popular spots were surfed and many waves from Sunset Beach to Newport Beach went unridden. His parent would take him to the beach, and drop him off with his balsa surfboard. It had no decal indicating that an individual and not a surf shop had made it. Steve learned the basic of surfing on it, paddling, catching waves, standing and turning. He was surfing and was stoked about his new sport.
The 1960’s and surfing took off with the advent of polyurethane foam surfboards. Steve’s next board after the balsa board would be a Con Surfboard. After that he would ride a Russell surfboard until he started shaping his own. Steve and Robert “Russell” Brown became friends and whenever Steve had the chance to stop by and see Robert in his Quonset workshop in Costa Mesa, he would.
Steve would surf places like the Huntington Beach Pier, Huntington Cliffs, Bolsa Chica and Newport Beach, occasionally going on surf trips up north or down south. Places like San Diego or if he had the time he would go down to Baja. Catching some uncrowded waves at most of the surf spots that he went too was par for the course.
By 1965 Steve started shaping surfboards for himself and his High School friends. Those were the early board building days of his shaping and glassing, which was in his father’s garage. Staying up a little late at times trying to finish a board for the weekend brings back fond memories to Steve. His first trip to Hawaii was in 1967. He had shaped a couple of boards in the lines of what was known during the time as mini-guns for the trip. Going out to the North Shore for the first time was an unforgettable experience. The waves were more powerful than the mainland and the reefs unforgiving.
After his first stay, Steve would return in 1969. Steve had friends living at a duplex right off the public right of way at Rocky Point. They had a broken down panel truck parked under an old Ironwood tree in the backyard. Steve would make it his temporary abode for awhile. It wasn’t the Ritz, but it kept the rain off. With its Salvation Army mattress and a Coleman cook stove, it covered the basics when it came to having a meal and a place to sleep. Saving money on rent meant surfing a lot and having the time of his life.
Out in the water from morning till evening with a lunch break in between. He would go to Kammie’s market at Sunset Beach for some snacks after a session at Sunset. When the surf was up or flat he would stop by a few of the backyard surfboard builders shacks and talked story. Sometimes he would go into Haleiwa town and spend some time at a surf shop or cafe.
All of those experiences of the surf culture on the North Shore made for a memorable impression. Eventually Steve would move into a house and remained there for about the next 5 years. He would surf the different types of wave the North Shore had to offer, while advancing his shaping skills by exchanging ideas from different shapers who were around at the time.
One such shaper was Dick Brewer, Steve along with many others considered Brewer to be the best around at the time. It was in the early 70’s and one day Steve happened to be in Brewer’s shaping room and was surprised by a comment that Brewer had made. Brewer mentioned that Steve looked just like his dad. He had no idea that his father knew Dick. As they talked, Steve found out that Brewer and his dad had been good friends in their younger years. They had shared a common interest in flying model airplanes. The two had traveled together all over the country competing in national competitions. Brewer had tremendous respect for Steve’s dad who was a 3 time U.S. champion.
Before Steve left that day, Brewer offered Steve the position of being a Brewer Protégé. Steve gladly accepted the position. So Brewer and Dunham began a close relationship that lasted for the next several years. When Steve started with Brewer they were shaping for Country Surfboards in Haleiwa.
A year or so later Eddie Rothman and Dick Brewer started Dick Brewer Surfboards Hawaii. After Brewer moved into his duplex by Chun’s Reef, Steve would move into the house that he vacated across the street from Sunset Beach. They shared the shaping room there at Sunset Beach for about a year.
The Country Surfboard guys wanted Steve to shape for them again so they offered him the old house that Herbie Fletcter had moved out of. After rejoining the guys at Country Surfboards Steve moved in, his bedroom faced the Banzai Pipeline. With that in mind he elevated his bed so when he woke, he could see the barrel of the tube in the morning when it was breaking.
One day during 1978 while Steve was shaping at Haleiwa Surf Shop, Mike Difenderfer walks in. He had been the golf pro at Princeville Resort on Kauai and had returned to Oahu. Steve knew who he was, a shaper whose skills in shaping, particularly in balsa surfboards were legendary. They became friends sharing their surfing, shaping experiences and the shaping room. Being around Mike Diffenderfer was truly a special time.
He would watch Diffenderfer shape occasionally during those many months at the shop. Steve developed a passion for shaping balsa guns and Mike Diffenderfer’s influence was a major reason. “He was one of the best guys you could ever meet” said Steve. In 1979 Mike Diffenderfer would move to Maui after his stay on Oahu and would continue to surf and play golf.
Summers are usually flat on the North Shore and to make up for the slow period in business, Steve would shape elsewhere. During the latter part of the 1970’s he was doing just that, shaping boards for Brewer Surfboards and Lightning Bolt Surfboards in Huntington Beach. By the early 1980’s Steve had moved over to the Kona side of the Big Island and got into fishing. After his return from shaping on the mainland, Steve would start fishing on his in 26’ Bertram Tournament boat.
There was this one fishing tournament in 1980 that Steve remembers quite well since he had taken 2nd place. It was the Kona Ahi Tournament, a much respected event due to the fact that all of the commercial Tuna fishermen in Kona had entered. At the awards banquet after Steve had received the prize money for second place.
He celebrated with his friends and competitors, after many drinks had been consumed, the story behind his winning catch leaked out. It was on the last day of the competition and Steve and his crew began very early like the rest of the fleet. It was around 4:30 a.m. and they were motoring out from Kailua Kona Harbor.
Steve was at the helm pressing the throttle forward as they made their way out into the darkness of morning, passing the old airport to starboard. The wake from the bow grew in size as the speed increased. With the spray flying back to the stern, Runaway Girl was off and running. Along with Steve aboard the 26’ Bertram “Runaway Girl” was his ex-wife Patty, and Joe Marks.
Joe was a local bro who was one of the better tuna fishermen in the fleet and was a ex-black coral diver. As Joe finished placing the rods and reels in their holders, Runaway Girl hits a chop and does a couple of bounces off the water before regaining her stride. It was a two-day tournament in which the heaviest tuna caught in that time period would win top honors. There was prize money for the runner-ups and those who were not so lucky to be in the money had a fun time trying.
It will be a few more hours before they reach the fishing grounds they had planned the night before. Patty settled in on the cabin seat next to the companionway. Joe was standing next to Steve, holding onto the dodger on the fly bridge while talking about the day before. They were out at South Point, a place where they thought a schools of Ahi (tuna) could be found. Actually it was near Kauna Point near a deep underwater ledge where Ono and Ahi are known to be.
There are an abundance of fishes there, which also means many sharks and the risk of losing most of your catch before boating it. But there wasn’t much happening at South Point regarding tuna and it was still fresh in both of their minds.
The procedure for landing the fish was prearranged. Steve would drive the boat until a kook up occurred. His wife would take over the helm, while Steve got into the fighting chair and brought the fish near the boat. Joe would take the leader and Steve would gaff. Passing Opolu Point at the northern most point of Hawaii, Runaway Girl enters Alenuihaha Channel, which separates Hawaii from Maui.
The speed is reduced and the trolling begins. Mid-morning and the drag on one of reels begins to scream. In a moment notice Steve is on deck taking the rod out of the rod holder, tightening the drag and leaning back and setting the hook. His wife is at the helm and Joe is bringing in the lines from the other reels.
Steve is in the fighting chair with the butt of his rod in the cup of his waist holster. The fish takes off and the drag is rattling away as Steve pull back on the rod. The fish stops his run and is catching its breath so to speak. Steve senses the moment and begins to reel in the line. The fight goes on with the fish taking off with another run, there would be more runs as the day continued.
From one corner of the back of the boat to the other, the line went back and forth during the hour of the fight. The fish got closer to the boat with each reeling. Joe grabs the leader and Steve gets the fly gaff and jump on the swim step. Everything was going according to plan when Joe notices the tuna had been hooked through the maxillary bone (upper lip) by the front snout.
Knowing that the fish’s equilibrium was effected Joe yells to Steve “He’s swimming crazy”. The stern of the boat was rocking in the choppy seas and Steve holding on to the guardrail with one hand and the gaff with the other.
Hearing Joe’s warning just as the tuna took a wrap around the out drive of the motor. With the baffling sound of the exhaust flumes from the engine Steve was trying to stab the tuna with his fly gaff. The rocking of the boat and the tuna swimming crazy, Steve wasn’t having much luck gaffing it in.
All of a sudden the line snaps! A mild shock ran through Steve’s mind, knowing his prize was lost. Looking down he see the tuna was still in confusion and was swimming around in circles under the boat. Without hesitation he dove in, taking a deep breath before entering the water. With fly gaff in hand Steve swam toward the tuna. After a couple missed attempts, the rope on the fly gaff which was tied to the rail had reached its end.
Joe in the meantime was watching from above and was bewildered by the fact that this haole boy was crazy enough to go into the water after the tuna. He responded in a spontaneous move (grabbing the stick gaff while jumping in) knowing all might be lost if he didn’t do something.
Joe saw that the tuna was spiraling deeper. Being a very good diver, he swam after the tuna giving it his all. With one chance to stick the tuna before it was too deep to follow. Kicking hard, pressing and pulling in his arms faster and faster. He got closer as the water around him started to get darker. The tuna was within the gaff’s reach Joe with all his might pulled back the gaff.
His pull was true and he had a hold of the big tuna. Floating on the surface Steve with his head down in the water was watching the gaffing. He says to himself “one hell of a diver.” Realizing the size of the tuna and that it was still moving. Steve had to go help Joe, in a moments notice Steve swam down and grab a hold of the stick gaff. Joe went up for air and went back down to relieve Steve. Slowly taking turns in bringing up the fish. After about 20 minutes the two were floating on the surface with the tuna.
They had dodged a bullet in not losing the fish, but the joy of the moment turned to fear. The tuna was bleeding and a cloud of blood was floating around them. Both would look down to keep an eye out for sharks. Not realizing that Patty during the excitement and concern had killed both engines to the boat.
The current of the channel had drifted the Runaway Girl some distance from the spot where Steve and Joe were. There they were in the middle of Alenuihaha Channel, where at any moment the waters could turn shark infested. Steve straddled over a bloody tuna and Joe swimming, both bobbing up and down in 6 to 8 ft. seas while watching Runaway Girl which was a 100 yards from them drifted further away.
Patty finally managed to get an engine running and had the boat returning back for them. Excited about getting her husband and Joe out of the water, she somehow killed the engine again. Fortunately the boat was in swimming distance when it stopped, so Joe took off for the boat.
Meanwhile Steve still straddled on the 5 and half feet long 200 + lbs. Tuna when he feels the tuna starting to come back to life and started to swim. He is trying to keep his head up above water but the tuna is swimming down slightly. With his head below the water and feeling half drowned. The thought of this tuna taking off like a rocket into the deep at any second flashed through his mind.
After all that they had been through and to have seven small yellow finlets stuck to the rear of his pants to show for it didn't seem good. Joe had reached the boat by this time and Steve was halfway back himself. For some odd coincidence the tuna was swimming back towards the boat too.
After getting the engines going Runaway Girl pulls alongside a happy tuna cowboy. Joe grabs hold of the gaff. Steve climbs aboard the swim ladder and gives a hand in lifting the tuna onboard. After the tuna was under ice from the hot noonday sun, Steve, Joe and Patty could relax and talked about the experience while having a beer. Mentally exhausted from fishing, the tuna looked like a winner and it seemed right to head on back.
Back on the docks, fearing that they may have broken many IFGA rules in bringing in the tuna, they kept the story to themselves. But getting back to the awards banquet, the story was told and everyone agreed that they certainly deserved the money, IFGA rules or not. Steve gain the respect from the Kona guys for his gutsy move and became one of the boys.
Back on Oahu during the 1980’s Steve was shaping boards for Jeff Crawford on the North Shore. Crawford was the East Coast Champion and the winner of the Pipe Master at the time. Jeff convinced Steve to go to Florida with him and start Jeff Crawford Surfboards. The surfboards were sold at a shop in Miami and were being built in Dick Catri’s shop in Melbourne Beach, Florida.
Whenever he had the chance to surf, they would go out at Sebastian Inlet and a few other spots up and down the coast from Catri’s shop. Like most busy surf factories, there would be whole group of hot surfers stopping by, some were old timers, others new comers. The traveling and being away from his family started to take a toll on his priorities.
Steve placed family first while surfing and shaping was put on the bottom shelf of things to do. He would take both back up in the early 1990’s. Having enjoyed fishing Steve started a Charter Boat and Sport fishing business in Kona on the Big Island. After a couple of years he turned to commercial tuna fishing.
By the latter part of the mid 1990s Steve moved his boat to Santa Cruz Harbor and began fishing the colder water of the Central Coast of California. After a few seasons of fog and cold weather, a warmer climate was on his mind. Having relocated to Southern California in the latter part of the 1990, Steve began visiting different areas in Central America. After visiting Costa Rica several times he decided to move there permanently in 2001. He open a small resort with cabinas, a restaurant, grocery store, and a surf shop. Building custom surfboards for the local surfers and surfing whenever the surf is good.