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Hot Curl

Finless surfing filtered through the mid-century Hawaiians.

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When this feature was published in the spring of 1994, no one—but NO ONE—would have predicted the return of finless surfing. Today we’re no longer shocked to see local surfers in an ultra-low crouch, hand-dipping to initiate helicopter spins across the shoulder. Mid-century Hawaiian surfers called that “sliding ass,” and were none too fond of the experience. Crouching was something one did only when the ride was at some hazard. To sacrifice a more relaxed, regal posture for mere kicks? Didn’t happen. That’s how the Hot Curl came about, a sudden addition of deep vee to the tail of a heavy redwood board. For a brief window in time, South Shore beach boys merged the insane, greased speed of finless surfing with the hair’s breadth control of an acute bottom contour. Investigations into this sort of design/performance juncture became a hallmark of The Surfer’s Journal. In this case, it included first-person interviews with Rabbit Kekai, George Downing, and John Kelly. And in a strange way, the piece is more relevant today than it was when it initially appeared…making it an appropriate choice for this edition of The Archivist. —Scott Hulet


[Craig Stecyk] Suppose Captain James Cook, the greatest navigator in the history of Western Europe, had never bumped into the Hawaiian Island chain. How would life have differed? The good captain ironically never recognized that he had encountered a seafaring people whose formidable voyaging accomplishments far surpassed his own. The widespread migration of the Polynesians via their canoes was the greatest dispersal of any nautically based culture ever. Cook never deduced this essential fact and remained relatively clueless up to the point when the much decorated and celebrated sailor drowned in knee-deep water at Kealakekua Bay. Perhaps at that final juncture James underwent some form of instantaneous realization. Did he marvel at the power and vengefulness of the strange gods of the tropics? Did he ponder the implications of the gash which ultimately led to his demise? Was the fact that said wound was rendered by a metal European trade-knife suddenly germane?

The point to all of this is we don’t know. It is apparent that the population of Kanaka Maoli (indigenous people) would not have declined from the pre-1778 invasion size of 800,000 to a mere 39,500 by 1890 if the Captain had not graced the archipelago with his presence. True Hawaiian culture was essentially wiped out in less than four generations by the diseases, commercial exploitation, and moral imperatives of the interlopers. The act of surfing was an essential element of this now-obliterated native culture. Far from being a mere diversionary pastime, surf riding was a profoundly significant activity common to most and known to all. When the waves came up, work was suspended and the populace entered the sea en masse. Here in the natural environment the essential lessons required to be successful of an ocean-centered culture were imparted. Surfing was a social/educational/religious/athletic endeavor.

In contemporary times, our knowledge of ancient cultures is based largely upon analysis of their trash. Perhaps this is appropriate since in antiquity many civilizations were built upon their own refuse mounds. The site of Bronze Age Troy, for example, actually rose 4.7 feet per century due to the accumulation of debris. Today the Island of Manhattan is fully six feet higher than at the time of the founding of New York.

When future archaeologists ponder surfing, what will there be left for them to inspect? Petrochemically-based foam and fiberglass will survive. Surf mags and videos will be found intact due to compression in the landfill. Thusly the conceits of our modem surf-civilization will be passed on.

The wooden boards and knowledge of the ancients long ago rotted and passed into oblivion. The sophistication of construction of the few remaining examples of original style pre-contact wave sliding boards are extremely revealing. Exact tolerances are consistently held despite the fact that these papa hehe nalu were crafted by hand using stone axils. Their sophisticated parabolic contours are proof of the ancients’ advancement. Clearly the Kanaka Mooli Kupuna knew things about the riding of waves that we don’t know. After all, their surfing history dated back for at least a couple of thousand years while our modem period, since production foam/fiberglass, is about 35 years old. The level of surfing today is different but not necessarily better. Advancement is in the eye of the beholder. Keeping all of this in mind, let’s journey back to one of the most obscure yet influential epochs in the evolution of the modem sport: a period of time spanning from 1934 to roughly 1951. The surfing style was so rarified and exotic that none who experienced it will ever forget. Witness the renaissance period of hot curl riding.

The sophistication of construction of the few remaining examples of original style pre-contact wave sliding boards are extremely revealing. Exact tolerances are consistently held despite the fact that these papa hehe nalu were crafted by hand using stone axils.

By the 1920s the long crawl out of the dark ages of surfing had begun in earnest. George Freeth, the “bronzed mercury,” immortalized by author Jack London had ventured to the mainland. The reign of Alexander Hume Ford’s Outrigger Canoe Club was in its formative stages. Tourism was centered around the new Waikiki wonder, the Moana Hotel. Duke Kahanamoku had metamorphosed from a promising local athlete into a global star. At the beginning of the decade there were perhaps 100 surfboards in the Islands. Wide-tailed redwood slabs were the vehicles of choice. Lines tended to be long, leisurely, and the riding style was decidedly heroic. The new class of watermen worked with what they had. Eventually those who sought thrills, which they somehow sensed existed, broke with the status quo.

On an exceptionally pristine day at Brown’s surf near Black Point, the revolution was quietly launched.

*

[John Kelly] “In 1934 Fran Heath and I were surfing at Brown’s surf on a glassy day. We couldn’t turn our redwood planks fast enough to get out of the peak onto the shoulder and be able to catch the tube. The waves were about 15 feet and they’d just pound us. On every wave we’d catch, if you tried to turn your board a little bit, the backend would come out because there was no skeg, and you’d just slide ass sideways. You’d then hang onto the board and get dragged sideways to the inside where you’d try to save it from the rocks and then paddle back out again. So we came back to my house on Black Point, and I had two sawhorses set up on the porch. I took an axe and said, ‘Damn it, how ever deep this axe goes, I’m gonna cut that much off the side of the board.’ So I let it fly and it went into the redwood, and we cut the rails down and made a board with a tail about five inches wide. Where the two sides came together at the bottom it became sort of a vee shape. Then we used the drawknife and a plane to smooth it down and sand it, and by mid-afternoon we were back out there with this board. I caught a wave and the tail just dug in and I went right across, and we figured something had happened.”

[George Downing] “The cutting down of the tail allowed us to immediately turn and trim high across the wave versus on the wide-tailed boards having to first drop all the way to the bottom then pull all the way back up before angling. Plus when you tried to put a wide-tailed plank into an angle high on the face and really pull it in tight, the tail would slide out. ‘Sliding ass’ we called it. That’s what caused John Kelly and Fran to cut that first board down after sliding ass at Brown’s in 1934.”

[Wally Froiseth] “After that first board was cut down, John and I got so jazzed because we were going behind guys—it worked so good now. When you’d go in back of guys like Duke and Tom Blake, everybody became interested and the thing really caught on. You could do so much more—you could stay in that curl and run away from the wave if you wanted to. At Castle’s when it was big, sometimes you’d catch it in the peak and the whole thing would come down in front of you. With our boards we could drop down and keep enough speed to go around the white water.”

[John Kelly] “We made several of those boards and pretty soon guys at Waikiki zeroed in on them. Among those surfers who rode big waves, especially at Castle’s surf, it became the way to go. Wally Froiseth shouted out, ‘Hey it gets you into the hot curl,’ and the name stuck.”

[George Downing] “Back then you couldn’t get into Queen’s if you were an outsider. The only way in was if a local got you in. Now some of the boys learned to shape fast. This one fella who shaped a lot of his own boards was known for being real quick. Once this guy on a good redwood plank drifted into Queen’s. The guys saw it was a nice piece of wood, so they let him catch a wave. Right away they shoved him off and the board Boated inside.

“On the beach there were concessions and a lot of local activity. They had this one area where they kept the drawknives, saws, and all the tools necessary to carve a board. So anyhow, this uninvited-visitor’s board floats in, and by the time he swam in, the real quick guy had already cut a new outline shape and had turned one rail. When the owner walked up, the speed shaper was pulling his drawknife down the other rail. Now the outsider is a little suspicious and he asks the shaper if he’s seen his lost board. Then he goes, ‘Hey, that board looks like my board.’ The answer came back: ‘No way brah. I’ve been here working on this for weeks. Your board’s probably caught in the rip. I’d go look down at Publics.’ So the guy walked off looking for it.

The cutting down of the tail allowed us to immediately turn and trim high across the wave versus on the wide-tailed boards having to first drop all the way to the bottom then pull all the way back up before angling.

“In the 30s, most of the boards that were around then were just planks. The Outrigger guys all were into wide tails. Nobody was into chopping their boards down yet, except for this group of guys. They were big surf riders. That’s what they looked for. They’d go anywhere. As a result, Wally, Kelly, and Fran were the guys to really push the hot curl. Hot curls worked good any place with some juice—some power where you could race down the curl-line. With the wider boards you could ride a flat, slow wave with no trouble. On a hot curl in those same conditions, you’d just sink.

“Hot curls were difficult to get started [paddling], but once you got going, you’d really move along. Down the line you’d go fast. Your limitations were that once you got locked into it, you could just ease down and back up again and still maintain a lot of forward momentum. In ’51, when I built my first glassed balsa with a much flatter bottom and with a skeg, the only thing it allowed me to do different was I could go for the top and trim down a lot easier, and the transition to getting back on the rail again was real quick. You had enough forward speed and you could climb back up into the hook. Whereas on the redwood hot curl board, once you’d drop, you’d have a hard time coming back up. The board just wanted to stay there.

“I think we have been deprived of the opportunity to see the Hawaiian race in its fulfillment to where we also could get involved in it. It’s only through certain things that we did, that we even got a glimpse of what they had going. One example would be the Hawaiian ideas on the canoes. Every time that we’d get to a place where we’d think that our ingenuity had given us some kind of unique knowledge, we would find that they had already been there before us. They knew it exactly and we were just trailing, hanging on the tail of something that had already been developed. It’s like that old story: somebody comes to Waimea for the first time and the waves are breaking. So he looks around and no one’s out and he doesn’t see any footprints in the sand, and the new guy goes, ‘Ah, I’m the first to go here.’ Now an old local man shows up and he says, “Nah brudda, you got it all wrong. When the surf come, it wash all the tracks from the beach.’

“I’ll never forget when I first saw Castle’s surf. I was 11 or 12 years old. The thing that opened my eyes was seeing these two guys [Froiseth and Kelly] coming across those waves. Man, I can still see it in my mind. It’s a picture I will never forget. God look at these guys, one climbing on the other with the wave barreling over the top of the guy’s head while the other rode just below him. Two guys going across this wave just like a stepladder, and they kept going and going and going, until finally the wave broke on me and I swam over the reef into Publics. When you’re young like that, you really watch the older guys and pay attention. These were the guys. They were very special people.

“Having had the opportunity to come along in my life and know these people, what I’ve noticed with the Kellys, Froiseths, Petersons, and Harrisons is they’ve all really dedicated themselves to the water and to understanding it and being accomplished in it. Surfing, fishing, diving—they did everything holistically. The hot curl board was simply the result of something that they saw they needed to accomplish what they wanted. It wasn’t something that came along by chance. They designed it because this is what they felt, you know, out of the blue, to take the hatchet and take a chop off the board. And how deep it’s gonna go, this is where I’m gonna cut. To me this is why they were a special group. If you say there were a hundred surfers here in the state, only a fraction of those people were like these guys who had the interest, had the brotherhood with each other. They looked out for one another. They had this feeling of togetherness. This is the kind of energy that made the hot curl. It was during that period that Wally, Fran, Kelly, and I were into exploring the other sides of the Island. We surfed all the other shores looking for more size and power. The bigger the face we could find to ride on those boards, the greater the freedom we had on them.

“The hot curls were very sensitive and you had to find the perfect position that would balance everything out. Otherwise the board would control you. Once you found that spot on the board, you’d use your arms, body motion, and legs to make subtle adjustments. That probably contributed to what people might think of as the hot curl riding style. Today on light boards, people don’t follow the board. They overpower the boards.

“I was fortunate because I got to see what Kelly, Wally, and Fran had created back in 1934. Right there they changed the whole approach to surfing. Eventually they saw that in order to make a wave, you’ve gotta get up high on it. You can’t stay low. At that time no one was thinking about putting a skeg on the bottom to give them that directional stability they needed. So they were hooking their back heel into the wave and dragging their board’s back corner in. But still the board would push out and slide ass. These guys just got together and chopped it and that was the answer. Then they found out they could pull up high and the board would not slide out.”

The board would push out and slide ass. These guys just got together and chopped it and that was the answer. Then they found out they could pull up high and the board would not slide out.

[Joe Quigg] “The Island kids were doing amazing things on all kinds of their finless boards, but no one ever gave them credit. Rabbit would come flying out of the section, stomp on the tail real hard, and stand the board straight up on its tail and bring it down on a different angle and then run to the nose and take off in another direction. I can remember paddling out at Makaha in point conditions and pushing up through the lip on a big set wave. Right at the top, as I’m about to punch through, I looked down and there was Georgie standing there smiling, going faster than hell on his redwood. He was just streaking along in impossible situations and making it because of positioning and all that inertia. Downing pioneered the riding of really big, nasty waves.

“Rabbit and I traded boards one day at Queen’s. Rabbit was really skinny when he was young and probably didn’t weigh much at all, so I got on his board and it just sank. I could stand on it in chest-deep water and his hot curl would press to the bottom and lay right on the reef.

“Rabbit really started this style that they call hotdogging. In the summer, Queen’s would get overhead and Rabbit would be inside of the tube hanging five with no fin and his back arched. All you would see was this flying green blur visible through the lip of the wave. He’d do it over and over again, always with precision.”

[Rabbit Kekai] “My first board was about five feet with 60/40 rails, with the 60 on the bottom and flat. The width was about 18 inches wide with a nose like Takayama’s noseriders with a little concave in the front. We had twin channels in the bottom in the early 30s. You get that V back there, that boat bottom, and you step back on that and you’re using it like one fin and you can really pull it around. In our days, we’d practice riding up forward and slide ass, doing sideslips and making the waves.

“One day we had a contest at Queen’s to see who was the better one. We’d go for tubes, take the drop, and see who could stay in the longest. Smokey would do something, then Hyah would do something else, then I’d go. Each time we’d say, ‘That’s it, that’s the best.’ But you could never tell. Each ride would be better than the last.

“Duke, Tom Blake, and all those guys were trimmers. They used to stand, pose, and get up and just go for miles. That’s how they’d go. They’d pick up the wave on their 16-foot boards and be out in the green the whole way, and never stay close to the white water. Just maybe a little drop down to pick up some more speed. It was all angle. They’d never cut back. We got our boards’ length coming down, really trimmed with four-inch tails and pointed nose, and brought in to like 18 or 19 inches. They were pointers like the modern day gun. That’s how we had our boards. Redwood planks with a V tail. For the big ones at Makaha, where we used to go a lot, we’d go out with the width to 20, or 20 and a half inches. At Makaha, you’d drop in, point and go—make it through the bowl and do cutbacks and S turns on the inside. At Queen’s when we used to—ya know—get the hotdog deal going. My board was like 7 or and 7 a half, sometimes up to 9 inches. I used to write, ‘Chi-Chi Bobo’ on them.”

*

[Craig Stecyk] The old Zen philosophy exercise poses the question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? At its apex in the mid-1940s, there were around 35 top-flight practitioners of the art of hot curl surfing. Names which still inspire respect among the cognizant include: Mongo Kalahiki, Richard Kauo, Blackie Makahena, John Kelly Jr., Rabbit Kekai, Smokey Lew, Hyah Alii, Louis Hemma, Squirley, Fran Heath, Jonah Hemma, Snookie Whaley, George Downing, Black Dan, Eugene Kaupiko, Blackout Whaley, Wally Froiseth, Small Sam, Woody Brown, Dickie Cross.

The consummate mastery of these individuals is beyond doubt. Their legends circulate amongst those who were there. The complete absence of any surf media during the hot curl period was further compounded by the Islands’ remoteness and World War II, all of which served to make the movement invisible to a greater audience. Furthermore the hot curl aficionados favored restricted entry (i.e. clan controlled) surf spots and often frequented the juicier breaks, which were located farther out from prying eyes on the beach. The vast majority of early Hawaiian surf photos were taken for promotional use by the resort industry and most were taken in the vicinity of the old Moana Hotel pier. In contrast there are few hot curl photos in existence, and these are largely the work of an inspired few initiates.

The consummate mastery of these individuals is beyond doubt. Their legends circulate amongst those who were there. The complete absence of any surf media during the hot curl period was further compounded by the Islands’ remoteness and World War II, all of which served to make the movement invisible to a greater audience.

Contemporary board design still reflects many hot curl principles. Forward V, tail V, and pulled-in gun plan shapes are obvious examples. For those who prefer direct lineage, there is the 1989 World-Title-clinching win of Barton Lynch on a George-Downing-shaped board. Some of the curves employed in building Barton’s boards were in fact derived from the very same templates used in shaping George’s 1945 redwood “Pepe.” Ditto for the gun built for his son Keone on which he won the Aikau Contest at Waimea Bay.

The interchange of surfboard design and use between Hawaii and California has been an ongoing affair. California redwood was the basic medium. Early on in the hot curl scenario, Pete Peterson ventured over, as did Lorrin Harrison. Froiseth recalls Pete cutting down one of his monolithic Pacific-Coast-shaped boards on the beach. “He couldn’t quite figure out what to do with the steel cross bolts,” Wally chuckles with fondness.

A later key participant in this crucial cross-pollination ritual was Tom Zahn who arrived in Honolulu in 1947. He in turn immediately lured Joe Quigg, Dave Rochlen, and Matt Kivlin to come down soon after. All were armed with provocative, finned, balsa, Malibu Chip surfboards. These wide tailed boards were immediately suspect. Quigg remembers a recurrent phrase of the day being repeatedly uttered: “Oh, all that balsa. What a waste.” Rabbit who personally befriended the Malibu set, rode their boards, but at that point, characterized them as “mushers.” The varnished balsa pintail with pine center-stringer sported by Quigg employed a dead flat bottom, 50/50 rails, and a turned-down hard rail in the tail.

On his way back to the mainland aboard the S.S. Lurline, Joe decided to cut the center out of his pintail and reattach the rails, thus making a narrower board. Kivlin and Quigg returned to Malibu where they reported the virtues of finless hot curl sliding to a skeptical public. The 1948 arrival on the mainland of Downing, Froiseth, and Rus Takaki demonstrated to many doubters the viability of finless, hot curl surfing. It was on this trip that the Hawaiians met Bob Simmons who introduced them to his concepts of composite material construction using foam, wood, and fiberglass. In ’49, Quigg returned to the Islands with his pared-down balsa quiver. Additionally he personally investigated hot curl theory while building a couple of boards for himself in Wally’s shop. Kivlin and Rochlen were also in and out of the scene with Dave hooking up an occasional old redwood plank, which could be reshaped by himself, Matt, or whoever, into a suitable hot curl.

Back on the coast, Quigg built a couple of demonstrator hot curls around 1949, “just to prove the point.” One Kivlin project from this period, a redwood replica of Rabbit’s board, was an absolute sinker. Joe remembers it as being “unpaddleable—at least for us.” This board was then recycled into a trophy—hence the birth of the “Malibu Perpetual Surfboard.” Around ’51, Kivlin gave Rabbit a sleek, pulled-in, red-colored, finned, balsa chipper which he had originally built for his wife.

Kekai rode this board for several years winning both at Makaha and Peru. During this same period, Downing incorporated his high-speed, hot curl theories into a finned, fiber-glassed balsa gun. For this board, he created an experimental removable fin unit which allowed him to test fin shapes and placement. Wally Froiseth went on to become one of the pioneers of the surfing industry in Hawaii, creating guns as well as a sense of innovative paipo boards under his Surf Shop Hawaii label.

The insolent style, body-English torque, and high velocity forward flow intrinsic to the Kuhio Beach/Queen’s/Empty Lot/Waikiki Tavern clans has come down to us in the form of fable, enshrouded by almost mystical charisma. Hot curl maneuvers such as the standing island pullout, toes over, controlled sideslipping, and face floaters remain in the repertoire of today’s progressive surfing community. The styles and approaches developed and refined by the hot curl masters can be seen as the harbingers of today’s leading edge surfing in both small and large waves. This transference of technique continues to evolve. On any decent day in Town, hotdogging kids reflect the influences of such luminaries as Chuck-A-Long, Gabe, and Rabbit. At big Makaha and Sunset the standards set by mentors like Brown, Froiseth, Kelly, Heath, and Downing are still the rule of measure.

For almost all of today’s surfers, this key period of transition during which hot curl boards and their special style flourished remains an obscure, or at best, misunderstood phenomena. In truth it was the portal to modern surfing.