The Gunman on the Hill

The 1979 California Stubbies Pro vs. the Last Soul Surfer.

Light / Dark

A light fog settled over the water like a smallpox-laced blanket as beach marshal Guy Coleman inched down the road in his Ford Econoline. I rode shotgun. Crammed in the back were the boards and bodies of Newport standouts Dan Flecky and Danny Kwock, some Santa Cruz surfers whose names I’ve forgotten, and La Jolla kingpin Chris O’Rourke, still reeling from yesterday’s chemotherapy shot. He was hanging out the sliding side door, trying to vomit.

We arrived at the beach to a clearing sky, the smell of burning plastic, and two smoldering, partially melted porta-potties. Words that might now be designated “hate speech” were scrawled on the rocks. While not condoning their vandalism, the remaining fragments of the soul surfer within me sided with the arsonists. They were, no doubt, from a radical wing of my tribe whose sacred grounds I was about to help desecrate. But they weren’t paying the check and I threw in with the moneyed renegades.

Along with P.B. Surf Shop’s Jerry Lund, shaper Hank Warner, and Canyon Surfboard’s golden arm Rusty Preisendorfer, I climbed the scaffolding where we were instructed in the alchemy of turning waves into points by Coleman and the charmingly bombastic Australian contest organizer, Bill Bolman. Even as Bolman jovially hollered the rules to us, I kept one eye on the competitors who warmed up by ripping the 2- to 3-foot wind swell.   

In the spring of 1979, Stubbies asked me to help judge one of the first pro contests in California. Apparently they hadn’t checked my credentials. Photo by Kirk Lee Aeder.

Carlsbad regular foot David Barr and his mirror image, 16-year-old goofyfoot Joey Buran, more than held their own. Buran was a coiled spring releasing too abruptly, with more turns than most of us considered necessary. He seemed little more than the latest surf media invention until he hooked into a small but deep inside barrel and exited at speed. When he subsequently ducked into two more barrels, we realized his reputation was justified. Still, it would require the surf media’s renunciation of classic Hawaiian style in favor of the more aggro Australian approach to urge him toward the spotlight. In the late 70s, California in general and La Jolla in particular (most of the judges lived in or near La Jolla) was still experiencing the effects of a virus that could be termed Lopez-itis. So long as style was king, Buran was out. The tote bag he carried bearing his name (handwritten in glitter) didn’t help his cause.

By mid-morning we had judged several unremarkable heats and I took my first break to once again assess the remainder of the field. Richard Kenvin had just lost his first heat, perhaps because of his refusal to wear a leash. Santa Cruz wrecking ball Vince Collier demolished set waves on his little twin-fin. “The new Ian [Cairns],” O’Rourke quipped, smiling. Few of us had ever before heard of Collier or some of the other competitors named Parmenter, Hayes, Silver, Smith, Hollingsworth, or Colburn. These and other surfers electrified the lineup in ways that everyone but the most hardcore soul surfer could appreciate. 

To most, Blacks was better known as a nude beach than a surf spot. So it didn’t seem the slightest bit odd that a naked man was perched beneath the scaffolding, gathering signatures for Black Panther political candidates to run in the Peace and Freedom Party. 

La Jolla’s Mark Brolaski surfed well enough for someone to wonder aloud at his chances of winning. O’Rourke, hearing the comment, replied, “I can beat him anytime,” before strutting off to grab his contest jersey. The consistent waves, however, would show no sympathy for O’Rourke’s frail condition. He was repeatedly pounded back to the beach and never did make it into the lineup to showcase his still-remarkable skills. That afternoon, Chris vented his frustration on a non-competitor who had drifted into the contest area and blatantly dropped in on a contestant. When the non-comp fell and his leashless board drifted onto the sand, O’Rourke approached it with a big rock in his fist, which he slammed into the deck.

Buran was now in rhythm, riding deep and slashing his way toward what seemed like a strong finish. Looking like he might go the distance, his next heat featured one of his few possible obstacles: Mark Ruyle, who was everything Buran was not—stylish, subtle, and, most of all, a La Jolla local. 

Almost symbolically, Ruyle unwittingly represented a radical faction of traditional surfing, while Buran jackhammered the status quo like a surfing Cultural Revolutionary. Things might have turned out differently if the waves had been hollow, but with a rising tide, there wasn’t a tube in sight. Because of this, plus the judge’s stylistic leanings and his excellent surfing, we narrowly favored Ruyle. The decision probably would have gone uncontested if Ruyle had ridden for anyone other than Canyon Surfboards, which was partially owned by judge Preisendorfer. And Buran had gotten wind of that fact.

Photo by Kirk Lee Aeder.

Minutes after the scores were posted, the scaffolding shook violently and Buran’s blood-red face appeared just above our plywood floor. “Whoever Rusty is, fuck you,” he shouted. Without realizing it, the far smaller Buran was in the shadow of 6-foot-something, Tang-Soo-Do-master Rusty Preisendorfer, who glanced indifferently at a skull he could squash like a grape. Without comment, the forever mellow Rusty turned back toward the ocean to do his job as Buran stormed off the beach. I doubt Joey was thinking of revenge as he departed that day—but he eventually found it while beating Rusty’s top rider, Mark Occhilupo, in the Pipe Masters five years later. In fairness to everyone involved, the Ruyle/Buran heat could have gone either way. And Joey was a passionate young teenager with few chances to prove himself.

I don’t remember when we heard about the sniper on the cliff with the .22 caliber rifle. Regardless, the gunman was angry enough to risk the electric chair as he zeroed in on the judge’s stand. Newport’s Lenny Foster fortunately grabbed him by the throat until he dropped the weapon into the dirt. With no knowledge of any of this, we judges concentrated on Jeff Hodges as he masterfully slid into a trio of unlikely barrels. If memory serves, this was the best heat of the event, and he scored straight 10s on one wave.

 In the end, though, it came down to Richard Kenvin and Jeff Hodges who were left to fight it out, man on man. By then they seemed drained from enduring countless heats in the August sun, and the waves had decreased in size and power. Consequently, the 45-minute final was anticlimactic, and our anticipation was less on who would win than it was on the last horn blast. When it finally sounded, fellow judge Hank Warner signed his score sheet, turned to me and said, “RK,” which I assumed meant Richard Kenvin had won, rightfully. I believe I had Hodges winning, but only by point something, which is the fraction that cost him. 

Chugging back up the Blacks cliff, O’Rourke sat shotgun in Coleman’s van and asked, “Do you think I’ll get the watch?” A timepiece was being offered as a sportsmanship award. Everyone, including O’Rourke—whose willful destruction of property disqualified him—laughed at the irony. 

It seems odd in a time of million-dollar contracts, but few California surfers had been paid anything to ride waves prior to the mid 1980s. Now, the winner of the Stubbies was about to collect $1,200, which seemed like more money than a surfer could spend in a year. Kenvin surfed sponsor-less and leash-free throughout the event, investing his last $20 on the entry fee only after O’Rourke mentioned he could win some much-needed cash. He was a soul surfer. Or was he now one of them? Or did he and Hodges and many others on hand now hold dual citizenship?

Kenvin received his $1,200 check and trophy almost silently, followed by Hodges, whose 2nd place acceptance speech nearly matched Kenvin’s word for unspoken word. “Made six hundred,” he said and shrugged, revealing that his main reason for being there was much like Kenvin’s and my own. Six hundred bucks—more or less what Dane Reynolds made per wave last season. 

I’ve pocketed my 30 pieces of silver more than once since 1979, and can enjoy a good contest without even a twinge of inner conflict. Still, there are times when I sympathize with that lone gunman, the last Indian standing in Southern California, watching us invade the wild places with our banners and our bullhorns.