Tracking the life of forgotten two-time world champion Sharron Weber.
By Jen See
Light / Dark
On a Sunday afternoon in early fall of 1972, Sharron Weber paddled out for her final heat of the World Surfing Championships. Small lefts rolled through the lineup at the Ocean Beach Pier, where locals had nailed the broken pieces of David Nuuhiwa’s favorite board in some kind of protest whose significance no one quite remembers. As a crowd watched from the beach, the Hawaiian goofyfooter ripped her way to victory on her Gerry Lopez–shaped Lightning Bolt.
The plain-spoken Weber, who now owns a tire store in Lihue, Kauai, was one of the most brilliant surfers of her era. But you would never know it today. Unless, that is, you were there.
“She was a big part of this very special period in surfing where surfing was finding a new identity,” says Gerry Lopez. “This high-performance, shortboard, radical surfing thing, that was the beginning of it. She was one of the avant-garde.”
As the longboard surfing of the 1960s gave way to the dynamic style of the shortboard era, Weber helped push the boundaries of what was possible in surfing. A successful contest surfer, she won six Hawaiian state titles, the 1969 US Championship at Huntington Beach, and two world titles. For a brief moment, Weber shined brightly in surfing’s small world.
But by the time Margo Oberg won the first women’s professional world title in 1977, Weber was changing tires at her warehouse. Her time in competitive surfing had already ended.
“I’m a secret surfer,” Weber says with her characteristic dry humor. “I’m known in your magazines as not being known.”
At age 15, Sharron Weber lived in Riverside, California, and dreamed of an Olympic medal in swimming. Her life changed one evening in 1963, when her father Fred, who was in the Air Force, announced that the family was moving to Hawaii. Weber cried because she didn’t want to leave California.
The Webers spent their first two months in Hawaii at a hotel owned by the Blears family, which included future world champion Jim Blears. Weber practiced swimming in the hotel pool until she noticed her white-blonde hair turning green from too much chlorine. That ended her swimming career.
On one of their first weekends in Honolulu, the Weber family walked to St. Augustine’s, the Catholic Church that sits opposite Queen’s, the famous break at Waikiki. A surf contest was taking place that day, and, intrigued, Weber went to watch. It was then that she decided she had to have a surfboard.
Down by the Outrigger Hotel, Weber found a board for sale. An 8’11” Hobie with reversed stringers, the board belonged to Linda Benson, who was selling it before leaving Hawaii. Benson wanted $110. In Riverside, Weber had done chores around the neighborhood, and she used her savings to buy Benson’s board. “You gotta remember, my dad had five kids,” says Weber. “I had to earn my own money.”
For the next two months, Weber and her brother George carried the Hobie two blocks from their hotel to Waikiki. She quickly figured out the basics. “I got to surf first,” says Weber, “because I paid.”
Before long, Weber progressed to the more challenging waves at Ala Moana. She says the local boys never gave her any trouble in the lineup, that she earned her place with her surfing. One year after Weber saw the contest at Queen’s, she entered it and won. In 1965, she won her first of six Hawaiian state titles at Ala Moana.
Though she learned on Benson’s longboard, Weber made the transition when the shortboard revolution began. More maneuverable, the new board designs pushed her to progress her surfing and she rose to the challenge. Even among the talented surfers of Hawaii, Weber stood out.
“There were a lot of good surfers on longboards who were unable to make the transition to shortboards,” says Lopez. “On the other hand, there were a lot of surfers who were way better on shortboards and that’s how they came into their own. Sharron was one of the forerunners of the whole new period of surfing.”
On September 20, 1969, a south swell slammed overhead lefts into the Huntington Beach Pier just in time for the US Surfing Championships. Strong currents sent loose boards into the pier pilings with predictably disastrous results. Surfing magazine estimated that more than 50,000 people turned out to watch the show, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola.
By then, Weber had won four Hawaiian state championships and finished second to Margo Oberg (then Margo Godfrey) at the 1968 World Championship held in Rincón, Puerto Rico. Though she had competed in California in previous years, even winning an event in Carlsbad, Weber still felt like an outsider.
“I had to start at the bottom at all those surf contests in California,” she says, “because no one knew who I was.”
At the US Championships, Weber staked her claim. Wearing the helmet required by the rules at Huntington Beach, the diminutive Weber dropped into set waves that towered over her. Lopez, her frequent travel companion during those years, encouraged her to shoot the pier. He argued that it was easier than surfing the crowded lineup at Ala Moana, because the pilings did not move.
“I went right through the pier,” she says, “with that helmet and me and the board, and never crashed.”
The women’s final proved a close battle between Weber, 21, and Oberg, 16. Oberg had been nearly unbeatable for two years, and had largely eclipsed California’s queen of surfing from the longboard era, Joyce Hoffman. But in the 1969 final, Weber surpassed Oberg to win the US Championship title.
An advertisement from that time, for Kanvas by Katin, depicts Weber in a bright red bikini. Standing next to Dru Harrison and Mike Purpus, she is tan, fit, and smiling. In that era, appearing in a Katin advertisement confirmed a surfer’s status. Typically the payout was one pair of trunks.
A grandmotherly figure, Nancy Katin hit it off with Weber. Katin asked the younger woman to live with her and run the business. “If I had taken the Katin job”, says Weber. “I wouldn’t have spent 45 years changing tires.”
But with its snaking freeways and mushy beach breaks, California left Weber cold. Her heart remained in Hawaii. “I was not going back to living in California. Sorry.”
In May 1970, 22-year-old Weber traveled with her Hawaiian teammates, including Martha and Rell Sunn, to Victoria, Australia, for the World Championships. The event opened with a parade through the streets of Lorne, a town just south of Bells Beach. Wearing a turtleneck sweater and flowered pants, Weber marched beside Rell, who defied the winter weather in a print sundress and flip-flops.
Weber surfed her first heats of the contest at Bells Beach. Mainly, she remembers damaging her board on the cliffs. “I lost my board and it went on the rocks,” she says. “A tourist tried to throw it back to me and busted the tail.” Instead of attending a luau with the other surfers, Weber spent the evening repairing her board.
Details from the women’s contest are scarce, and despite its importance in her career as her first World Championship victory, Weber does not remember the final heats. The final took place at Skenes Creek, a left near Johanna, the day after the men’s final. The long drive over dirt roads discouraged many surfers and spectators from showing up to watch.
The banquet celebrating the end of the championship event also took place the previous evening and lasted far into the night. For many surfers, the trip was more about the parties than it was about who won. On the whole, the women’s event felt like an afterthought.
On a board borrowed from Keoni Downing, Weber won the title ahead of Oberg. She recalls being thrilled to have won, but lonely without her parents, who missed seeing her triumph. She sent a telegram to them in London to share the news.
A headline in a local newspaper declared, “Champ Sharon won the title in the kitchen.” (The media at the time habitually misspelled Weber’s name.) The story described her healthy diet and homemade soup, but not her surfing.
Not for the first time, women were written out of surfing’s story. Surfer dismissed the women’s event in two sentences, leaving readers to guess how the top women of the time might have surfed—and to assume the worst about their surfing: “In the women’s event, Sharon [sic] Weber won a close one from Margo Godfrey. Otherwise, the women proved a disappointment.”
The world title did not change much for Weber, who returned to Honolulu. Time unrolled in a succession of surf sessions and day jobs. Summer at Ala Moana faded into winter on the North Shore. Lopez recalls hunting lefts with Weber at Velzyland, Sunset, and Pipeline, and he watched as she drew radical lines.
“I was watching what she did and trying to emulate it myself,” says Lopez. “She was one of the people you could really look at like, ‘Oh man, that’s what you can do. That’s what I want to do!’”
As they watched from the lineup, Weber’s friends learned from her sessions. Tourists, meanwhile, paid her for lessons. Sometime after her first world title, Weber gave a surf lesson to a Frenchman, who offered her a condominium in Biarritz at Côte des Basques.
With a free place to stay, Weber spent several months surfing the Atlantic coast of France from Guéthary to Hossegor with friends from Hawaii, including Jeff Hakman and Lopez. The trip unfolded in a blur of partying, French wine, and surfing.
While visiting her parents in London, Weber received a letter from Harold Friend, a tire salesman whose three sons she had taught to surf years before in Hawaii. He was opening a store in Honolulu and asked if Weber wanted a job. She jumped at the chance to return to Hawaii and accepted.
The first week proved deadly boring, and Weber wondered if she had made the right choice. Her surf friends wondered where she’d gone. The following Monday, Weber tried to quit, but her managers dissuaded her.
The job transformed into a surfer’s dream. The tire store put Weber in charge of a van, and she drove around Oahu selling and delivering tires. “So then, we deliver at Makaha, and we surf Makaha. Or we deliver to the North Shore, we surf the North Shore. We surfed wherever there was a wave.”
The 1972 World Championship in San Diego nearly didn’t happen. When the surfers arrived at the Travelodge on Harbor Island, the contest programs were still at the printer. The organization lacked the money to pick them up.
“It clearly was a debacle,” says 1982 world champion Debbie Beacham (then Melville). “There were so many ill-prepared things going on.”
Though organizer Ray Emery eventually got the programs out of hock, he could not conjure up good surf. Nor could he keep the competitors under control as they ran wild at the Travelodge. Elevators got stuck between floors, cannonballs flooded the pool deck, fire alarms clanged at random. “There was even the occasional snow flurry to break up the weather pattern at the hotel,” wrote Drew Kampion in Surfing.
The women surfed their opening rounds in 3- to 4-foot beachbreak at La Jolla Shores, a low-quality wave dressed up for the occasion in light offshore winds. Desperate for swell, the contest hopscotched among La Jolla, Oceanside, and Ocean Beach. Worse still, the surf dropped as the final weekend approached, while just up the coast, Trestles taunted with overhead sets.
“There were good lefts, but it was ankle-biter waves compared to the big waves that we were used to in Hawaii,” says Weber, describing the conditions on that final weekend.
This time around, Weber’s parents were on the beach. Friend, the tire man, and his three sons Andy, Randy, and Jimmy, were there, too.
“It was a little hard to be the defending champion and have your parents and the tire man on the beach,” she says. “I was definitely nervous, because I had to defend the title.”
Crushed by her second place in Australia in 1970, Oberg did not compete in San Diego. Instead, Weber faced challenges from local talent Beacham and Floridian newcomer Mary Ann Hayes.
Favored to win, Beacham flew through her early rounds. She won all her heats, only to have a shocker in the final. “I lost my board,” Beacham says. “It’s that typical story. I won every single heat until the last heat.”
Beacham rode a 7’4″ Skip Frye single-fin round tail, while Weber rode a Lightning Bolt, also a single-fin, made by Lopez. Images that survive from the event show her carving powerful turns.
In the end, Weber won a close victory over Hayes to take home the world title trophy. “When I won and they crowned me,” says Weber, “I was so happy.”
As the reigning world champion, Weber received a free plane ticket to the 1974 World Championship set to be held in South Africa. While Weber, a white woman, could travel and surf South Africa freely, apartheid laws barred non-whites from beaches and other public areas.
“Jimmy Blears and Fred Hemmings could go,” says Weber, “but none of the Hawaiian guys could go. So I gave them back the ticket.”
After that, there just wasn’t much left for Weber to do. The peak of her career coincided with a lull in competitive surfing. In part, the culture in surfing had soured on contests. Nat Young had declared that surfing was not a sport and many, it seemed, agreed with him.
“After the world contest in 1972,” says Beacham, “everything went to a flat spell. There wasn’t a lot going on until we hit the mid 70s, when the professional tour started.”
Weber turned her energies in a different direction. In August 1974, she bought a $25 ticket to Kauai with the goal of opening her own tire store in Lihue. Congress had just impeached President Richard Nixon, prompting worries about the economy. Determined, Weber opened Tire Warehouse on September 4, 1974.
The following year, she competed in the first professional women’s contest at Haleiwa. But the event lasted five days and selling tires paid the bills, not surfing. “For me to be five days on Oahu instead of here in Kauai,” she says, “that was not happening.”
A women’s event at Pipeline might have changed Weber’s mind.
“When I paddled out at Pipeline,” she recalls, “I wasn’t the best, but I was decent. If they’d had a Pipeline for girls in the next year after Haleiwa, I would have done it. But they didn’t.”
Weber was a transitional—and transformative—figure in women’s surfing. Hoffman’s stylish longboarding slid into the rearview as Weber and a younger generation embraced the futuristic, shorter boards and the aggressive turns that went with them. Weber’s innovative style helped begin a new era for women’s surfing. “She was ahead of her time,” says Lopez.
Oberg and Lynne Boyer soon picked up the standard and dominated the first decade of women’s professional surfing.
By 1977, when she could have competed for a professional world title, Weber had moved on. She continued to surf in Kauai and occasionally teach surf lessons. A few times, Weber traveled with friends to Namotu in Fiji. Mostly, she sold tires.
Now 72, Weber lives in Lihue with her golden retriever, Hoku. “Once I moved here, that was it,” she says. “This is where I’m going to die, too.”
Though she never married, Weber had three long-term relationships. The last spanned ten years and nearly reached the altar. The sticking point came when her would-be husband would not sign a prenuptial agreement. Weber wanted to ensure that she retained ownership of her business. “He went to New Zealand,” she says. “And I got a dog.”
Every day except Sunday, she goes
to work at the tire store. The Lightning
Bolt that Weber rode to victory at the
1972 World Championships in San Diego rests quietly up high in the rafters of her garage.
“She was good, you know?” says Lopez. He chuckles.