Ranch Hands

Deep-cut recollections from an epoch-defining day.

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In the fall of 1964, Ron Stoner, Chris Beacham, Skip Frye, Mike Hynson, Ken Joesting, and Denny Tompkins snuck into the Hollister and Bixby Ranches, privately held swaths of coast just west of Santa Barbara. Access to the more than 14,000 acres was, and remains, restricted, a product of continuity in ownership and a concerted effort to protect the land. For surfers, the Ranch presents a rare opportunity: mostly undeveloped coastline with limited access and numerous world-class waves. 

In the early hours of the morning, following a day at Rincon, the six piled into Stoner’s station wagon and headed north to the Ranch. Strapped to the roof was a pair of 10’6″ Hynson pintail guns brought by Frye and Hynson, a pair of Hynson Red Fins brought by Joesting and Tompkins, and a Mickey Muñoz–shaped Hobie lent to Beacham. They drove through the security gate and onto the beach, surfed Cojo, Lefts and Rights, and San Augustine, then cut out at twilight. 

In the more than half-century since then, their day has become lore, memorialized through Stoner’s lens. The Ranch’s mysticism has only grown, its striking features still mostly undeveloped even in the face of increased scrutiny by California public officials. 

Stoner’s photos of the trip were first published in Surfer magazine by John Severson, who in 1960 wrote, “In this crowded world the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.” That thread, the endless pursuit of flawless, uncrowded waves, continues today, an integral part of surfing’s fabric. And while Stoner’s Ranch photos were not its catalyst, perhaps nothing else better encapsulates that ever-present current. 

I had the privilege of sitting down with Beacham, Frye, Hynson, and Joesting to discuss that day. Denny Tompkins could not be reached for this piece. Ron Stoner is no longer with us, but he memorialized the trip in “The Adventures of a Ranch Addict,” a story he penned for the November 1968 issue of Surfer. His words are excerpted alongside the voices of his companions.  

Almost 60 years later, their memories vary. But at the mere mention of the Ranch, they all brightened, momentarily transported back in time. 

Ken Joesting: Ron came by my house in Long Beach and asked me if I wanted to go to the Ranch. The next morning, Ron, Chris, Denny, and I left pretty early and drove up the coast. There was a nice swell happening, and we got to Rincon and it was beautiful. So we stopped there and surfed. 

Mike Hynson: I drove up there with Skip. And Rincon was big. Whenever there was surf, I’d hit the road. I’d go down to Crystal Pier every morning and I could tell the swell direction.  I already knew basically where to go. 

Skip Frye: It was really fun Rincon. But we were up there to go to the Ranch. The Ranch was a mysterious place, you know? There were only a couple pictures. Nobody was there. It had a similar feel of the Islands when you’ve never been there. 

Ken Joesting: After surfing Rincon, we all met in Isla Vista to go over our plan, which was to leave really early in the morning, about three o’clock or so. We ate, slept for a few hours, and drove up there. As we got close, we turned off the headlights and came to the gate. 

Chris Beacham: The guard was asleep in the caravan. So we just unhooked the gate and slowly drove through, and then we slept a little more in the car.

Ron Stoner [excerpted from Surfer, November 1968]: We didn’t know what the surf was going to be like, but when we woke up in the morning, it was giant. The whole ocean was full of lines. It was glassy with just a touch of offshore wind. The tide was high, but we managed to drive up the beach to Cojo, and when we got there, it was some of the best surf I’d ever seen in my whole life. Perfect waves. There wasn’t another person on the Ranch. The light was good, the surf was good, and I had some of the best surfers. A surf photographer couldn’t ask for anything more. 

Skip Frye: It was like Christmas morning, running for the toys under the tree. The surf was perfect—just nice and clean and…perfect. I took it for granted then, but now I just go, “God, just any day, anywhere that’s like that.” 

Chris Beacham: The famous picture of Skip Frye paddling out—that was the first paddle-out of that day, and we were behind him. I’ve done a lot of surfing, but I hadn’t done it in the sort of atmosphere the Ranch had. When we paddled out at Cojo, it didn’t seem like it was a “Who is surfing the best?” type of scenario. It was a little bit like, for the first time in our lives, we each had a blank piece of paper to become ourselves on a wave—to express ourselves and feel, “What can I do? There’s nobody dropping in on me. There’s nobody snaking me at the takeoff.” I don’t remember any of us on the same wave all day. You know, it was just the dream atmosphere. 

Skip Frye: Hynson was in his prime. 

Mike Hynson: [Looking at a photo of himself in the lip line] That’s the matador! [Looking at the photo of himself on the facing page] Okay, I finally confess to what I was doing: This is not a soul arch. I was walking off the board backward to kick it out—to shoot it out in front of me—because I was going into a shorebreak. And when the photo first was published, I was even going, “How in the fuck did I do that?” 

Ron Stoner [from Surfer, November 1968]:  We surfed all morning. When the tide started to go out, we drove down to Lefts and Rights. It was unbelievable. The surf was getting even better. Hynson and Frye were riding full guns that they had made to take to Hawaii. The waves were so fast at Lefts and Rights that day that they were in full trim on their guns and still having trouble making the waves. 

Skip Frye: The Duke contest was in January of ’65. Hynson had made those boards and I had to try to figure them out. That was our first adventure on them. 

Ron Stoner [from Surfer, November 1968]: Later, it was getting glassier and even hotter, so we drove down to surf San Augustine.  This was the glassiest surf I’d ever seen. Perfect lines breaking top to bottom. 

Chris Beacham: It was so glassy that I couldn’t see the bottom of the wave. You would paddle and the ripple would stay in the water. And then when you were actually catching the wave, you couldn’t see where the bottom was. It was just extraordinary. That didn’t happen on the Gold Coast or anywhere else I had been. It was so pure.  It was incredible. 

Ron Stoner [from Surfer, November 1968]: We surfed till sundown and then snuck back out. 

Ken Joesting: When we were going back to the guard gate, we knew that we couldn’t go through in the station wagon with all the boards and stuff. So we stopped before the guard gate and unloaded everything, and then we paddled down to Gaviota Beach Pier. And Chris drove the car through. 

Chris Beacham: I got to the gate and the guard was bewildered that someone was driving out. He said, “What the hell?!” And I said, “Hey, mate, I’m an Aussie exchange student and I’m checking out the shell formations on the California coast.” He sort of just looked at me. Then he said, “Get out!” And I said, “Alright, well, thank you.” And I drove Stoner’s car out, and just as I arrived at the jetty in the park, they were paddling the boards in.  We loaded the boards up and drove home. 

Skip Frye: Best California trip I probably ever went on, because of the pristineness and going to a place where you couldn’t normally get to. It was like California in the late 1800s or something. There were only two ranches, and you could just drive along the beach. There are not too many places like that anymore, really. I was lucky to experience it when I did. I’ve never been back since. I haven’t really wanted to go back.

[Feature Image Caption: Stoner as hood ornament. The lesser-seen frames in the photographer’s Ranch catalog are often pulled from a blend of multiple trips—beyond the renowned foray with Frye, Hynson, et al—or were imperfectly made. This self-portrait, shot in late-day light with a misadjusted f-stop, checks all boxes.]