Where historical surfing is concerned, you’d cover a lot of water trying to discover a more important landfall than this question-and-answer session from 1997 between our publisher and Joe Quigg. Pezman’s “no big whoop,” arch-casual approach belies his profound knowledge of the territory, making him the best possible foil for the taciturn, foundational surfer-shaper from Malibu. This long text document sails by quickly so don’t be afraid to devote a few minutes. There’s enviable return-on-investment for anyone interested in the very foundation of Hawaiian and Californian surf style. —Scott Hulet
Joe Quigg arranged for us to meet in a quiet place: the small magazine storage room at Aina Haina Public Library on Oahu’s south shore. I had intended my time with Quigg to yield background on his historic black-and-white photographs of exploring the Malibu to Rincon stretch of the California coast, circa late 40s, early 50s, and his vistas of First Break Waikiki. Joe had something else in mind. While his words were soft-spoken, they were anything but quiet. Joe has become increasingly disillusioned—no, make that dismayed—by recollections published over the last decade or two that he feels twist surf history to suit various uninformed or inaccurate views. Also weighing heavily on his mind is the belief that others have taken or been assigned credit for foundational design innovations that belong to him and to those who preceded him.
Be clear that Quigg is not someone who craves the spotlight. In recent years, partially due to the reportage in question, he seldom comes out into the surfing public, choosing rather to maintain an active but private world, largely insulated from a sport that has misunderstood him. Yet, as a man grows older, it’s hard to sit back silently and watch versions that differ from what he has experienced firsthand become accepted as fact. Self-described as one of the few remaining historical figures who has personally observed the last seven decades unfold, it was time to set the record straight. —SP
STEVE PEZMAN: You made a unique photo record of a time when the sport was being defined and the California coast explored and understood as a surf resource. [I’m on my photo caption quest and haven’t yet caught on that Quigg has his own agenda.]
JOE QUIGG: [Joe plays along for awhile.] Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good lens. I finally got a little 300mm that, for a Speed Graphic, isn’t much magnification. I studied at Art Center and was a Photographer’s Mate in the Navy during WWII. I made those images after the war. You know, I was there [at the beach] for so many years. Can I just go ahead and chat? In fact, you might as well record, even if you don’t print what I’m going to say, just so you’ll know.
SP: Absolutely, go wherever you want. I’ll move the recorder closer to you.
JQ: I haven’t said anything profound yet [laughing].
SP: I know, but you might.
JQ: So, you know how long I’ve been surfing? Not too many have been at it for seven decades. I dug into this box full of junk. [Quigg has arrived with a folder of old snapshots, 8×10 prints, hand-drawn sketches, and pages torn from magazines]. I did have an entire huge barrel full, and the termites got into it. Anyway, I was born in 1925. We moved to Santa Monica when I was about three. My mother loved to swim so she began taking me down to the beach, and I started making these little boats and paipo boards in my father’s garage. [Joe pulls a sketch out of the pile of stuff on the table]. I just dug this out. I didn’t do this for you exactly….
SP: I know you illustrate your thoughts as you talk. It’s great stuff.
JQ: Well, Severson does this kind of thing, but I can’t draw. I studied photography. But to give you an idea, my mother and my brother loved to go to the Del Mar Club here [pointing to an early aerial photo of Santa Monica]. So I’d go scampering out here [the beach] with my little paipo. I was only 3 or 4 years old. I hadn’t learned to swim yet, so I’d go sliding in the whitewater. That was in 1928 or 1929. I’d watch the lifeguards and surf guys that hung out there.
SP: There were just a few breaks being surfed then?
JQ: San Onofre and Palos Verdes became the first well-known breaks. Hermosa and Manhattan got popular a bit later. Groups of guys would come and go. Years ago I was at this party, and an older guy brought out some Don James footage of Venice that showed Bud Browne jumping off Crystal Pier. He used to lifeguard there. A gang of paddleboard guys rode out there and they couldn’t ride very well. Then they tore the pier down. But there was a bathhouse and some rentals there. I remember a picture in a restaurant dated 1905 of people standing around with these boards. They’d wade out and [scoot in on them] like I was doing here. Ours were homemade, but this one [referring to a picture of Joe, Jack Quigg, and Anslie Moon at Santa Monica Beach dated 1932] looks like it was commercially produced. [Now looking at a Don James photo.] This is my brother and the guy across the street, Ed Fearon. As teenagers they started working at the Bel-Air Bay Club. They were my idols. These two boards here are heavy redwood, but the rest are all balsa and actually really light. My point is, everybody gives Simmons credit for inventing the light board when the pre-war Swastika boards were already balsa/redwood laminates and showed a trend toward lightness. It’s too bad Zahn and Peterson are dead. Zahn idolized Peterson and would have dragged all that history out of him. Pete made me these two boards [pointing to the photo].
This guy, John Stinton, made these two. Let me tell you, this group of guys that hung out at State Beach and worked at the Bel-Air Bay Club were moving ahead, and they went through redwood and gave them up for boards they called “Stinton Spinners” because they were so light—a very thin veneer of redwood over super-light balsa. See, both Peterson and Stinton were into making light boards…that’s Dick Reed with a balsa/redwood Swastika with hardly any [redwood] out toward the edge. [Leafing through the photos again, Joe stops on the vista of Santa Monica.] There was a paddleboard club right there and the paddleboards were mostly Blakes, but there were a couple of balsa-filled box boards too. Blake’s boards leaked—weighed a hundred pounds. They were the very worst! Peterson made much lighter plywood paddleboards. The lifeguards preferred them for rescues.
SP: Some historians feel that Blake had a tendency to patent things that he didn’t totally invent. Pete is said to have laughingly responded to Blake’s fin patent with a comment like, “Ah, hell, I had a fin on my first surfboard!”
JQ: I asked Pete that very question not long before he died, because Blake kept claiming he had invented the fin. I remember as a child in the early 30s, even then there were old-looking boards with fins in the lockers. What I think happened is, like boat work, some people tend to think that if they mass-produce a thing, then they’ve invented it. If they refine it a little, they’ve reinvented it. And Blake did make a bunch of refined fin castings for his paddleboards. Amongst them was a cast aluminum fin, and he also had an optional wooden fin that was shallow and about a foot long.
SP: There’s an image from Blake’s scrapbook showing the aft of a Blake paddleboard with a metal fin bolted to it. It looked like a water-ski fin, and printed over the picture in his hand it says, “First fin, 1934.”
JQ: See, I think he convinced them to give him a patent on a cast aluminum fin, and from then on he just assumed the title of “first fin.” It would be more accurate to say he invented the first aluminum fin. But.. so I asked Peterson and he said, “When I was 19, I had a fin on my board.” That’s what he said. I don’t think Blake had even come west yet. Anyway, I want to make it clear to you that light balsa boards started well back in the 30s. A lot of these older guys, now in their eighties, are getting stories published and a lot of it is [wrong]. See, right after the war, the group of kids that came to the beach didn’t know anything about before the war. To them the world of surfing started in 1949. Leslie Williams was that way. [The “Birdman” was writing a series of recollections and had sent them to Joe for his comments. Joe’s reaction was one of extreme agitation.) He wasn’t there during that old era. He can’t relate to anything I tell him or write to him. [Quigg’s attitude toward Leslie has since mellowed as Leslie has indeed done more fact finding and altered his stories accordingly.] I wrote all that stuff down—took a week to do it. Mailed it to him. He wouldn’t use it.
SP: He kept it. He reveres your stuff.
JQ: Oh, well, I revered him in that letter. Anyway, I’ll continue with my speech here. [Leafing through the photos.] And then this one. In high school I palled around with Dave Sykes who lived at Malibu right next to this house that my brother Jack, Ed Fearon, and Don James rented. Sykes was the best surfer I had seen at that time because he lived there and surfed all day, every day. He could just glide and glide. [Finding another shot of Sykes.] After this, he went in the merchant marine [during the war] and came back bigger and heavier, all grown up. The same thing happened to Ricky Grigg when he went off to Stanford and came back. He was never the same again. You know how some child surfers are so rubbery? David Nuuhiwa was a classic, just wild as a kid. Then, 20 years later, of course, he was heavier set, still a good surfer, same as Ricky was still a good surfer, but [not the same].
SP: What defined a good surfer?
JQ: Well, see, I clearly have my own idea. When I was 6 and 7 years old, I watched Peterson ride at the Santa Monica pier. He lifeguarded there and jumped in from the pier. He was just magic to me—so easy, so talented, and such a great athlete. He did water-stunt work for the movies. He could do anything. Watching him, I just fell in love with the whole thing. He was so perfectly controlled, every thread in place, his hair all combed, and he just stood there so smoothly. I’d be fishing and watching him. Lorrin Harrison would come up to see Peterson. He was a little wilder in his mannerisms and his personality—the way he surfed. He’d wave and jump and tear all around. When he was young he was quite a wild guy. Peterson was a better surfer, but he didn’t try to be wild like that. I thought Gard Chapin was the living end. When I started going to San Onofre, Hermosa, and Palos Verdes, I’d see him there and he would come up to Malibu and just run circles around everyone. Pete Peterson, Tulie Clark, Gard Chapin, Bud Morrissey, they were my heroes as I grew up. [Looking through Tom Adler’s Don James book, San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1941, finding the photo of a Topanga Beach cottage with boards out front.] See, those redwoods actually were red cedar. Light cedar is stronger than redwood. At that point it was considered very macho to be able to go out and ride big waves with a big, heavy board. One mistake people might make would be to presume that these Stinton Spinners were solid redwood. See, the thin veneer of redwood let him use lighter balsa under-neath, but by the time Simmons came into it during WWII, these guys were all gone.
Bob’s first board was a redwood with a piece of plywood on the deck he bought from Gard Chapin. Gard’s boards were heavy. A friend of mine had gotten a balsa board from Bud Morrissey, and one time when Bud happened by I said, “Gee, I thought you just made redwood boards?” He said, “No, I’ve made four or five of these all-balsas.” That would have been late 30s. San Onofre guys put a long, straight taper on their boards, whereas Morrissey put more hips on his. A straight taper veers you off. That’s why I don’t like modern guns that are too drawn. See, this is a bad board [referring to one of the photos]. It’s got that straight taper. Pete Peterson shaped it and it had slanted rails. My brother bought it from him and I tried it out a few times. It was impossible to turn. [Indicating another board.] This Swastika’s got a “San Onofre” taper at the rails. [Joe starts putting a straight edge to all the board’s plan shapes in the photo and they’re all pretty straight until…] Oh, wow, look at that curve [on Ed Fearon’s board]. He was a pretty fair surfer when he was young. These guys in Don’s [James] book were trying to surf better. Gard Chapin could! Dave Sykes could! Tulie Clark could! A few guys could surf better, and I’d see them. I knew there was something better going on and that I’d better get with it. I had already learned all these lessons—that a round bottom with rails that long and straight just stuck. [Shuffling through the shots.] You know, it’s a funny thing. If you have rocker you can get away with a straight rail. You can carve on the rocker. Longboards now have a whole lot of rocker, and yet they have the [parallel] tanker plan shape, and the guys are turning them like crazy. The thing that I did was to introduce “flowing rail rocker.” In a Diffenderfer article in your magazine, he mentions that I put nice rocker in the rails. Gard Chapin was able to ride these long, heavy balsa/redwoods. He was such a wild man, he’d just dive into it harder, but he was also so talented. That’s another thing. Some people are just more talented than others. The whole sport has taken a turn toward wildness, what I consider high performance. See, these guys that wrote about Simmons were sorta kooks themselves. They didn’t really understand that Kivlin and I had started into a much wilder level, one that Rabbit Kekai had keyed us in to. Some people resist change. From Palos Verdes south, they were more backward, except for Windansea. But San Onofre, they’d just say [slipping into a codgerish dialect], “I’ve been ridin’ my board for 15 years. You guys makin’ all these new boards…” [Joe makes a sweeping gesture of dismissal with his hand.]
“Burrhead” and Gard Chapin were exceptions. They surfed there a lot. I mean, they’re all neat guys, but the guys from my area that started before me had already begun searching for new materials. That’s where I got the idea. Don James and his gang were trying new finishes, looking for harder paints, trying for lighter boards before the war. I think it was Ralph Kiewit who found this toilet seat enamel that was supposed to be strong stuff [chuckling]. Ed Fearon ended up painting his board with it. Dave Sykes was into lacquer. Peterson was into lacquer, shellac, all that stuff. Sykes told me he put 15 layers of black lacquer on this board. [We’re looking at a picture of Sykes with a plan shape profile, dated 1942. On it Joe has noted “all balsa, no hardwood strips, at San Onofre.”] It chipped a little [grinning]. Times were different. Guys now think that surfing began when John Severson started Surfer magazine. When did you start surfing?
SP: In about 1957?
JQ: Oh, yeah. Well, I rented my shop in Newport on 31st Street in about 1959. It was going to be a boat shop. I was doing shape jobs for Hobie then. I’d bring blanks up there and shape them, but it really didn’t become a surf shop until 1960 or ’61.
SP: So, those pre-war boards represent the earliest beginnings of today’s surfing, as influenced by Rabbit Kekai riding short redwood hot curls at Queens. He and the Empty Lot gang and Lorrin and Peterson had been going to Hawaii since the early 30s.
JQ: There’s something about Hawaii that teaches you a lesson. A bit later, Peterson made the first fiberglass board. It was hollow. He pulled it off of one of his older wooden boards. I was in his shop a couple of weeks after he did that, and I noticed that the old wooden board had been glassed too. Pete made the all-glass board about a month before Simmons had gotten glass. Yep. Fact! There had been a New York boat show, and these boat people—salesmen, reps—had been to that show and seen the glass. A guy named Brant Goldsworthy brought Pete the cloth and resin. I don’t know the name of the guy who brought some to Simmons, but it came from that same boat show.
SP: It sounds like a simultaneous equation between the two.
JQ: Yeah. See, since I was a young kid, I’d been searching for better paints and going around to marine stores trying to find waterproof glue. When I got out of the Navy, the plastics industry was billed as the big future thing. I thought I might want to get into plastics, so I was searching for materials like foam and glass. Why were people so into Simmons? What was it?
SP: Well, he was a mysterious figure who died in the surf. The story’s dramatic and he was evidently a real different personality and interesting, bright and inventive.
JQ: Oh, he was.
SP: People that were around him became enamored of him, and he became a cult figure. John Elwell obviously sees him as the seminal influence. And Leslie Williams, another person who was…
JQ: …taken with him.
SP: He had fresh thinking and a pronounced way of doing things that contributed to the evolution of foiled surfboards. As far as being the “father” of the modern surfboard, many people who knew him do think of him in those terms.
JQ: Well, I knew him quite well, hung out with him pretty much, and we surfed in the same area up there. I’d run into him a lot out surfing, and I’d go hang out at his shop. I would say this about him: For someone to be that devoted was inspiring to me. I couldn’t handle his board shapes. They didn’t work for me.
SP: The wide tails?
SP: Because his rails, and foil, and the rest of his plan shape, other than for the real wide tails, the boards were essentially advanced.
JQ: But, see, for his first five years he pushed and built solid, 120-pound redwoods. And the thing about Simmons’ math, Simmons only used that math on heavy boards. Simmons was reading the math books and reading the naval architecture books, and he was also hanging out with the new planing hull speedboat guys. He was trying to mix it all together in a high-speed board. I knew him quite well. Sometimes we’d sit up all night long talking board theory. I liked Simmons. He was a very inspiring guy. That’s what Simmons taught me. I got inspirational encouragement from Bob. He did contribute to my abilities, I suppose. He was so devoted, that was inspiring. But his Cal Tech math was all backwards. I’m no mathematician. I’m more of a hands-on trial-and-error man, and I don’t know what makes a light board go faster. I mean, I can’t explain it mathematically. I know from watching it, of course.
SP: A heavy board gains momentum.
JQ: Oh, sure, for tearing out across a flat-faced wave. I recall sitting at Makaha on a hollow point-break day watching Joey Cabell just laying tracks.
SP: Joey was always a light-board advocate. In the 60s, he rode Hobies that weighed 22 pounds when everybody else was on 30 to 35 pounds.
JQ: I remember Georgie, when he first started going to Makaha, he got hurt a lot and went a little more conservative, but he could do that. That particular hot curl board of his was fast in that inertia way, solid redwood, but thin and so streamlined. He loaned it to me a couple of times. It would get up speed and hold it, where a little 6-foot, 8-pound board would come to a stop. But that little 6-foot board is faster when there’s a hot athlete on it, developing acceleration when he needs to. You can’t do that with the heavy board. I don’t know how to explain that mathematically, but it’s a torque thing. [Picking up another photo inscribed by Joe: “Leonard Lieb and Dave Heiser at Makaha in ’49 with the first nose-rider type surfboard shaped by Joe Quigg.”] Gee, this is ’49, more than 15 years before they started inventing nose riders for Tom Morey’s contest [in 1965]. In case you want proof [fishing through his stack], there are people who would die for this—just kill for it! This is a letter from Bob Simmons to me, when I’m in Honolulu, dated June 7, 1949 [in which Bob is enumerating the boards he’s made and their weights while discussing the fact that he’s now going light]. Also, here’s a letter from Matt Kivlin in 1949, where it describes them starting their business with plywood-skinned foam boards. God, here’s some of Simmons’ math! I don’t understand it at all, but we were going to build a catamaran together at one time. Here it is, in Simmons’ own writing. In 1949, he started coming down in weight all through the year. I talked to Peter Cole about it. He named all these boards without having seen this letter. Bob had built a 55-pound board for Cole in 1948, then Dick Jaekel, 45 pounds, Tim Lyons, 43 pounds, George Beck, 40 pounds, Terrell, that must be Howard Terrell, 35 pounds, and a 34-pound for Buzzy. He ends up getting down to 30 pounds for himself.
SP: [I pick up another piece of paper with a sketch on it.] Is this your drawing?
JQ: Oh, no, this is a Simmons’ letter, his idea for the catamaran. We were going to build an adventure craft then sail it around the world and go surfing.
SP: Great concept.
JQ: This is an earlier letter from Matt: “These boxes have damn near parallel sides.” See, they were going to get rich. “We’re not going to call them ‘boxes’ because they work too well. We’re going to call them ‘fish rails.’” Let me tell you, before I left, Matt was trying to get Simmons to go into a money-making venture, making lifeguard boards for everybody in the nation. “They ride something like a wide hot curl board. You can turn them on a dime and they won’t broach.” Well, you can’t turn a hot curl [chuckling]. Nobody…Rabbit had a funny turn, but the thing that burns me, like, Leslie is jealous of Matt, see, because Matt wouldn’t invite him to the parties. So Leslie won’t write anything complimentary on Matt and that’s why I don’t want him to write about me. He fudges everything a little. Anyway, this was really Matt’s idea, to get rich on these plywood boards. And they were going to be boxy lifeguard rescue boards. “His [Simmons] academic gibberish, I can’t take it. I’m going to devote a little thought to building. Like you once said, it’s a good racket. I intend to go to some school, perhaps Art Center, and take modern architectural or industrial design.” He became a successful architect, and every time Malibu burns, he helps to rebuild it.
It was Matt who started this idea of a plywood board that they could sell across the nation. They put balsa rails on it so they could get a little more shape, and what happened is that Simmons, when he did come in on it, took over. Peterson was manufacturing plywood rescue boards at the same time and shipping them all up and down the coast. They were going to compete against Pete, so they made them a little boxy at the start [Joe shuffling through the stack, finds the shot]. And Simmons made this glue jig that was kind of straight, like his concaves. But what happened, this plywood, when you took it off of the glue jig, it had memory and it would smooth everything out, so that these were the only smooth-rocker boards that Simmons had anything to do with. Like a computer, the plywood would clean up the whole process. So they surfed real well, even with the boxy pintails. Everyone was very novice then. The athletic level was quite low. I wanted to build lifeguard rescue boards when I was making my balsa boards, but Zahn was a big-shot lifeguard at the time, and he talked the Department out of it. I was trying to sell them tandem boards, which they all use now, but Zahn told them [slipping into an impersonation of Zahn], “Naw, all the lifeguards will go surfing all day and kill somebody, and we’ll be sued.” He could be mean sometimes. Anyway, Matt made some lighter ones off this jig. They surfed so well that we figured we’ve got a winner here. To hell with the lifeguards and rescue boards. Let’s put a square-tail on these things, and [suddenly] everybody was ordering one. Simmons told me he had hundreds of orders when I started glassing for them.
SP: What about your hollow, strutted, balsa-skinned paddleboards?
JQ: The first was originally 24 feet long [inspecting one of the snapshots]. I remodeled it down to 22 feet. It was so long and skinny it was impossible, so I was able to saw it down the middle, add a balsa center stick, and shorten the ends without damaging it. After I did that one—all hollow and strutted—I discovered that sheets of balsa wood bulkheads every foot worked better. It didn’t matter whether you cut holes in them or not. They were already so light that I could take all those sheets and put them on a scale and they didn’t even weigh a pound.
So the boards I built after that first strutted, airplane-wing style used bulkheads. [Joe continues sorting through the pile.] There were a lot of articles through the years, like Diffenderfer’s here, telling about his hollow balsa wood surfboard technique. I built those hollow paddleboards in the 50s. He had just come over here and knew about it because Sheppard was glassing for me at that time. Then, he writes this article about inventing hollow balsas. [Laughing] I ran into him years later and he just said, “Oh, God, I know, what’s wrong with me?” But he was also the first guy to acknowledge my rail rocker contribution in print. He goes way back—to Windansea. When a kid there named Buzzy Bent was 15 or 16, he was about as good as anybody on the coast. He and Burrhead came up [to Malibu] and ordered boards from me right after I made those first all-balsa girls’ boards. Over the first couple of months, it was those two guys alone who recognized the maneuverability in those boards—lighter and more rocker. Oh, there was already rocker, mind you. The Redondo guys had rocker in their boards. One guy from Hermosa, way back in the 30s, early 40s. So it’s not that I invented rocker. Gard Chapin would glue nose blocks on top that would curve up. [Joe is now fingering a 1997 ad from Surfer magazine about Hobie building a replica of the Hobie 1954 Makaha Model balsa gun.) He’s claiming the first pintail here. I’d made about five of them over a five-year period well before that. I thought, ‘Oh, to hell with it [laughing]. If he just doesn’t know, then I give up.’ There’s been a lot of stuff like that through the years. The same with concave noses too. Anything I say to you on this tape, I wouldn’t say it if I couldn’t prove it. I’ve got all this stuff as evidence. [Pointing to a photo of a board.] This was flat nosed and the back end kicked up about 2 inches, a deliberate nose rider. So was this one [pointing at another board in the photo]. I made one for Phil at my shop out of foam that had a concave nose and kicked-up tail. See, nobody knows that. I brought all this stuff so that you know I’m not bullshitting you.
SP: I don’t get that you are.
JQ: Well, okay, but if someone challenges you, you know? Now this [selecting a shot of Tom Zahn in 1947], I feel these three guys [indicating another photo of Joe, Zahn, and Kivlin, inscribed “First trip, post war, leaving on the Lurline, 1948”] were largely responsible for the first complete combination of good stuff. That first board I built for Zahn was lighter, had nice rails, and a blended rocker. He’d put up money [for us] to try stuff, like the first paddleboard, and the first rocker board. He had that “let’s go ahead and do it” drive.
SP: Who shot the picture?
JQ: It was my camera, and the ladies that were with us shot the picture [chuckle]. Isn’t it wonderful? It’s my favorite picture. See, Simmons didn’t go to Hawaii until five years later. Tom was not that crazy about Matt. Matt was pretty wild when he was young, and Matt scared the hell out of Tom. Tom, being a health advocate all his life, was not a drinker.
SP: The story is, when Matt found out Tom had died, he said he might as well start eating mayonnaise again.
JQ: Yeah. Really? [Cracking up, then more softly.] Oh, God! So I consider these three guys [again indicating the photo of the three, off to Hawaii—referencing himself in the third person] as the key. Now mind you, Simmons was this powerful, guru figure, inspired everyone, and right after the war his wide boards helped guys to get back in shape, including myself. I rode a Simmons for six months and, fortunately, I broke it in half under the pier [slight show of mirth] and built myself a better, lighter, more maneuverable board. But [hushed as if he didn’t want to embarrass Bob] he built me a 120-pound redwood. My shoulder still hurts from carrying it! Still, I loved talking to him. But these are the guys that actually [pointing back to the photo of the three] went to Hawaii where Rabbit taught us how us how to ride. He was the best hot-dog rider, getting deliberately barreled, wave after wave, doing it on a shortboard when everyone else was just sort of going straight off. [Walt Hoffman recalls Rabbit’s older brother being even more radical.] At that time, Wally and Georgie were riding 11-foot boards. That’s why they chased bigger waves.
SP: George explained to me once that they didn’t have a beach they hung out at. They just drove around looking for big waves.
JQ: And he did. He was the big-wave king.
SP: Whereas Rabbit hung out at Queens, stayed on his turf, and the hot-dog culture started there?
JQ: Oh, yeah. Guys like Cabell and Allen Gomes came out of that. We went over and there was Rabbit, then we’d take it back to Malibu. He took me over to his dad’s house one day on that first trip. It was one of those plywood houses on stilts, and there were a bunch of redwood boards under there. I met his father. He was a handsome Hawaiian man. The kids along the [Waikiki] seawall, in those days, would cut down those big old Duke models, you know, in there where all the local kids rode their little cut-down redwoods—just anything you could paddle [with a soft chuckle]. The older guys didn’t want them out at Canoes, at the main outside breaks. Even Rabbit would tell them to get their asses out of there. Anyway, he had a turn where he’d stomp on the tail of that shortboard so hard that it would stop. When it came back down, he’d twist it, and it would land going the other way.
It was weird, but he could turn a board. He was the best surfer all through the 40s. [Speaking of athletes.] You know how some of those old-time guys at San Onofre built little boards for their kids? Well, Peterson and I were down there one day in the 40s, and he went over and asked one of them [Joe slips into an impersonation of Pete’s distinctive high-pitched stutter], “Ccan I bbborrow yyour son’s bbboard?” He took this little teeny board out and rode the hell out of it. He was turning fast and going through barrels, stuff that he didn’t usually do on his big balsa board. He usually went pretty much straight in, posing like a Hawaiian king. Of course, later on he got into the modern equipment as it came along and rode like anybody else. See, I’m trying to lay groundwork for you. When I die, nobody’s going to be here to tell you what I just told you. [New shot.] This was one of the biggest days at Malibu I ever saw. Well, I mean, out at the Point it was. I took the picture, and this was [Joe looks closely] Buzzy Trent. And, to me, even as hot as this wave is for Malibu, the Simmons rode better there because they were all straight in the back, so they’d go faster if you stood right there [in the middle], and they’re long. We hadn’t gotten into fast turning. That was Leslie Williams’ thing. I’ve got to give him credit. He did get into the power turning before the rest of us. But, just like I’m telling you, these curved rails that I put on the boards…I had a style of bodysurfing the Wedge, where I’d drop in on my side, like it was a rail, and curve it to be the right shape to go up and down the wave. Most people plane with one arm back, one arm over, but I rode on my shoulder, like it was a rail. Rails are my big thing.
SP: And this board was significant [vertical shot of Aggie Bane, 16 years old]?
JQ: That’s the [“Girlfriend”] board that Leslie learned to turn on, and that’s my wife [laughing].
SP: You liked her turn?
JQ: [Cracking up.] Nooo! Well, she was the one. See, Matt brought all these girls up to Malibu, and she was one of them. And, as fate would have it [grinning self-consciously], the birds and the bees, and so forth. She and a whole bunch of them ordered boards from me, right when I was in the midst of glassing Simmons’ plywood boards. Those girls’ boards turned out half the weight of the plywood boards. The combination of those boards and Leslie Williams—they let Leslie do that power turn. Drop knee, exaggerated, horizontal. He discovered he could do that turn on a board half the weight with blended rail rocker. Matt and I had talked, and for years he had planned to make lighter, 20-pound boards [finding a photo to reference]. This particular board was actually a little bit wide. Some of them I made were. But, still, it was better enough that it really hurt the plywood business. And with Leslie doing those turns, I think you get the picture on the rails. I’m a rail man. Anyway, there’s one more thing I’d like to say before this tape runs out. How are you doing?
SP: I have another 20 minutes.
JQ: Oh, because you’ve got enough background to see what I’m getting at. We can do another tape sometime. [Joe’s worried that I’m not getting what I came for.] Dale Velzy is what I wanted to get into. We saw eye to eye when I first got to know him. Our ideas ran very similar. The paddleboards, everything. As you know in life, that’s the essence of quality, a guy who has the brass to step ahead and go for it, but he also has to have ability. Not like a guy who’s willing to go for it but is a screw-up. You’ve got to have the ability to back it up. Velzy’s one of those guys. He never screwed up, of course [cracking up after realizing what he’s said]. But I’m pretty sure it was ’52 when Hap Jacobs and Velzy started their shop in Hermosa. Hey, one of the first things Dale did was make pintails…in ’52! You’ve been around long enough to see what I mean. A month matters. I mean a week can matter. In ’52, Matt and I learned to make an entire surfboard in a day. We could shape a board in the morning and with that sunlight catalyst the sun would kick it off, and we could get a board hot-coated well enough that we could go up to Malibu for the evening glass-off and try it out. Ideas were evolving that fast. Anyway, now there’s this huge, billion-dollar surf industry, and all I can tell you is how it started. It blossomed in increments. Suddenly a bunch of beach guys were getting better. Then, suddenly, a bunch of inlanders were taking it up, and it’s blossoming bigger and bigger. Right about then, Velzy starts attracting kids to the sport en masse. Right away he started making short, little boards that they could ride. See, Simmons and Kivlin didn’t build more than a hundred of those plywood boards that summer of 1950, and I probably didn’t build more than 50 or 60 balsa boards. It was Dale who kicked it off.
SP: Tell me more about your pintail boards.
JQ: Well, that’s another story. I didn’t invent pointed tails, more the combination of nice rails and nice rocker and low rails. I did make a very narrow tail for big waves. My dream was to ride a wave. [Joe is shuffling the photos again looking for a shot of the entire cove at Rincon on a great day.] Here it is. I shot this picture on one of our 1947 trips, and I just went [hushed], ‘My God, look at that wave!’ I wanted to build a board for that. And that’s why I made the pintail.
SP: This image of Rincon stimulated that narrow tail?
JQ: Yes, and my big-wave guns. Speaking of pintails [chuckle], this shows how I was trying to get across that thing at second point [Rincon]. That fin was terrible.
SP: It trailed too much.
JQ: The whole front of the board was too loose. The tail was too tight. So I sawed it right off. Anyway, it shows that I was doing raked fins early on [not in common usage for another 15 to 20 years]. This is one of Buzzy’s, and another one of the pintails I made for Jim Fisher [we’re checking a famous shot of Fisher at the bottom of a closed-out Makaha bowl]. Fisher’s on the pintail I sold to Mickey Dora. This is one of the earliest big-wave photos. Fisher was just a wild man.
SP: Which Dora stated was the best board he ever had. [Now we’re looking at the group shot in the Pit at Malibu with Peter Lawford.]
JQ: This is that group shot [I was talking about]. I was building Rochlen’s boards at this time. I built Lawford’s first board within a month of Aggie’s board, and Vickie’s board, and Claire’s board—all those girls’ boards. He saw it and got one right away, that month! I even took a picture of it. I can’t find it, too long ago, but I had a nice shot of him at Malibu on a head-high wave. Rochlen didn’t build boards himself until maybe ’53. I’m sure one of these is Rochlen’s board. I built it early. Lawford’s first board was built right with those boards in 1950, so this would be that summer. That was when my boards erased the plywood boards.
SP: Does that take us to the end of the chain of evidence?
JQ: [Joe giggles at my use of his legalese.] Not at all! I had piles of this shit, and the termites ate it. Why? Do you want to go home? [Trying for a summation.] So, Leslie Williams was for a few months the hottest turning guy, and then everybody learned to copy him. But for that brief period, he was the start of it [modern high-performance surfing]. Matt did beautiful turns, where Leslie did jittery little things—zip, zip, zip. Funny stuff. Matt was smooth [Quigg makes a cruising motion with his hand]. I just wanted to show you that Simmons’ 120- pound redwoods—and he didn’t go out with girls [still trying to illustrate how unorthodox Simmons was]. [Now, referring to a photo.] There he is, running me out on to the shoulder on his inertia board. I’m on my brand new little 9-foot balsa. That was the transition to the balsa board era. I’m interested in turning points, and I think Velzy getting all those kids started was the turning point. And then, John Severson, shortly after, came out with a movie that was all young kids, where Bud Browne had always made “Buzzy Trent at Waimea” movies, and they’d have this bugle music going in the background [Joe goes into an impression of horns blowing] while big waves crashed on the reef. You’d leave an hour later, and the whole movie would have been people eating it. What changed it was Velzy’s “ton of gremmies”—all those little towheads up and down The Strand.