[Editor’s note: This feature was originally published in TSJ 3.3 in the autumn of 1994. It’s been digitally republished here in remembrance of Pat Curren, who died in January, 2023 at the age of 90.]
It began for me in the winter of 1962-63. I was in Hawaii with my friend Bob Beadle to ride big waves. We had arrived in early August to acclimate and fatten our wallets by surfing Town and working there for a while. I got a restaurant job as kitchen help at the Embers Steak House in Waikiki (I had arrived with $25 in my pocket on Pink Cloud Airlines, after 13 hours in a prop-driven DC 6 from Burbank), and Beadle got a job playing at a piano bar on Beach Walk.
After riding pole sets at Ala Moana and early season Sunset (I was riding a 10′2″ Yater, balsa hot-dog shape), we realized it was time to properly equip ourselves. So on the way out through Haleiwa one day, we stopped at Dick Brewer’s Surfboards Hawaii shop and checked his used boards. There it was a Curren gun, a full-on 11′4″ rhino chaser with 5 feet of knife-edged low rail in the tail, a 1-inch redwood stringer that formed a 3-inch-wide diamond at the midpoint, with a very narrow, extreme plan shape and pronounced belly in the nose. The thing looked scary just sitting on the floor. Very purposeful. Absolutely no doubt what that board was made for. Curren had built it for Mike Diffenderfer two years before. The price was 80 bucks; Beadle had surfed Mike Haley’s red-tinted Curren 10′6″ pintail balsa semi-gun two winters before, so he had a fond association going. We bought the 11′4″ together with the idea of sharing it, which we did.
Waimea broke 12 rideable days that year in October and November alone! Guys were stressing, whining about the frequency, about having to face it that much. During those swells, Bob and I both had the Curren out in 20-plus conditions and experienced several memorable, personal moments on it. However, by early December that year Beadle had moved on to a more moderate and maneuverable Bob Shepard semi-gun (which now sits in the Hobie Sports Lantern Bay store in Dana Point). I ended up trading the Curren as down payment on a custom 12-foot Diffenderfer (impractical at best), which ended up taking Diff all winter to build. My mistake. Ever since that winter season long ago, I’ve had a special place in my heart for that Curren gun. I wished I could have it back, but it was long gone.
Over the last few years, the growing interest and collector activity surrounding surfboards has focused attention on the older wooden boards. Of course a few individuals had already been into collecting them for years. (Bob Cooper, for one, understood early on their intrinsic value, and built a stunning collection back in the mid to late 60s, which he sold to John Severson at Surfer mag when Cooper bailed to Australia. While I was at Surfer I became custodian of that collection through the 70s and 80s, which helped foster in me a relatively early appreciation.) And as I thought about those older surfboards and my own sense of involvement with them, I reckoned that one of the most classic of all would have to be Pat Curren’s balsa-wood big-wave guns built from 1958 to 1960. As sculptures, their extreme lines and sharp edges made them the Ferraris of all surf craft. Their purpose, being designed and built to ride waves beyond “big,” definitely set them up on a higher level.
And the aura behind Pat himself has always been something special, both as a master craftsman and as a surfer. His image was one of always waiting farther out than anyone else, sitting quietly outside on some “otherworldly” lineup spot and then catching the biggest wave of the biggest set of the day. That was Pat Curren. And that was what his boards were for: making really radical waves from way back! Midget Farrelly recalled during a recent conversation with me that “Curren’s takeoff point was very deep and his line was a high diagonal across the face rather than down and along the base of the wave. And his guns reflected that line.”
Of course, if you started surfing after that period and have never seen one of his balsa guns, don’t feel unusual; there’s only a few of them still in existence, and they’re not hanging in the surf museums. They’re generally still in the hands of their original owners. Not surfed anymore, but highly regarded, priceless heirlooms.
So one day, I’m with Craig Stecyk and we’re talking about the board thing and I propose that the really bitchin’ thing to do would be to somehow locate and import a batch of 11-foot balsa and convince Curren to once again build a few of his classic guns, identical to how he made them in 1958. They would be full-length, full-bore, full-on guns rather than the more frequently seen three-quarter-scale balsa boards being built these days (because heretofore it’s been almost impossible to get the longer wood up here). As Stecyk and I mused that it would be a truly worthy project, right then and there I resolved to try and pull it off.
Traditional balsa sources for California board builders have been General Veneer in LA and Frost Lumber in San Diego. The longest wood available through them to date generally ranges from 8′ to 9′6″ and about 312 inches square. The unique aspect of this idea was to simply start from two long sticks with at least 5 to 6 inches of width and 6 to 7 inches of depth to facilitate ample nose rocker and belly without scabbing wood onto the nose of the blanks. One day I happened to be having a phone conversation with surfboard builder George Robinson in Florida, who, as it turned out, had a family connection in Ecuador and was putting together a balsa-importing scheme. He assured me he could deliver balsa of almost any length and dimension. In June of 1993, I placed an order for enough wood for six 11-foot blanks.
The next hurdle was whether or not Pat Curren would be interested in building the boards. It was likely that he hadn’t shaped balsa, let alone guns, for over 30 years. Within a week of ordering the wood, I was able to send a tentative query down to the tip of Baja and out a dirt road about 10 miles east of San José del Cabo to where Curren was living. The courier was Phil Edwards, who was traveling down there with Flippy Hoffman for a visit. He came back with Pat’s expression of interest, and, suddenly, whereas before it seemed like a dream, the project took on a new sense of reality. Mickey and Peggy Muñoz confirmed his interest on a later trip down to the tip. It was real. I estimated the materials, logistics, and labor cost of building the six boards, excluding Pat’s glue-up and shaping, to be in the neighborhood of $800 to a grand each. My old surf buddy Beadle was up from his current home in Rio, and as I described the venture to him, he became enthused and asked in. Moments later he had become my 50 percent partner. Bob was planning a move to Margaret River in Western Australia and wanted a replica of the previously Mike Haley’s Curren pintail semi-gun he had ridden in 1960. If the new Curren worked for him in this day and age, fine. If not, it would be a great memento for his rafters. Suitably hedged by Bob’s 50 percent investment, I proceeded on.
The wood was due to arrive in August. However, after several delays I could tell by the tone of George Robinson’s voice over the phone that there were problems. At first he and his cousin had planned to purchase the wood from one of several major suppliers down there. But it turned out that their balsa was all spoken for by the big users in the US. The next problem was the dimensions I had ordered. It turns out balsa logs are generally cut into eight to nine lengths so they’ll fit on the bed of the truck crosswise for max load per truck. Figures. So after several frustrating trips to Ecuador, George ended up tracking down a grower that was also a rough miller whose crop was not committed—an Ecuadorian lady who would harvest and cut to our specs. After an even longer wait for the thicker pieces of wood to kiln dry, the balsa was finally air freighted to Miami. Next, George repacked it into board boxes for protection and trucked it to The Journal warehouse in California via Yellow Freight. Finally, eight months later, it arrived, in February ’94. The wood ended up being, to my uninitiated eye, scary-looking stuff. Each 11-oot board had deeply split ends and rough-milled sides, some with rounded lengths of debarked trunk showing on the corners. It was very organic looking! It dawned on me that each piece had actually been a single tree! Some had pithy centers that Pat would have to cut out and refill. Some wood was light and perfect, some pieces heavier. But, all in all, it was a more than serviceable batch, made extraordinary by its historic length and dimension.
Pat and I had been communicating by fax between San Clemente and San José del Cabo during the prior eight months concerning the arrival of the wood. He even made a dry run up to California, but the wood wasn’t here. So he went back to Baja to wait it out. A week after my “arrival” fax, he showed up again, in late February, with his old friend and fellow historic big-wave rider and board builder Al Nelson. Pal Al is also a lawyer and checked me out a little, being concerned for Pat, who is not exactly an architect of hard-nosed business deals, to make sure my intentions were honorable. I described my ideas for Al and Pal; I guess I checked out okay.
The next problem was finding a location to build the boards. Pat had originally intended to do them during summer months on saw horses under a friend’s tree in San Clemente—old style. Luckily for us both, since it was now winter, Tony Channin of Channin Precision Fiberglass in Encinitas offered the use of an outside shed for shaping. A set of pipe stands set into the blacktop adjacent to the shed were perfect for the glue-up process. Pat borrowed a surface planer and small table saw from Warren Goff in Capo Beach to mill the raw balsa sticks. Then he took them next door, where Bill and Bob Bahne of Fins Unlimited let him use their band saw to cut rocker into each stick. Next he bought redwood for stringers and tail and nose blocks, and began the glue-up process. Each board got a different glue-up. First came a three-stringer and then a seven-stringer model, both with tail blocks. Then a pintail with a tapered stringer and nose blocks. Following that, a solid balsa with tail block. Then Beadle’s solid balsa semi-gun. Finally, one more semi, with a thin “T” band center stick and offset “T” bands.
Each board was glued, then shaped and finished, one at a time. Pat consulted with Reynolds Yater in Santa Barbara (an old associate and neighbor of Pat’s in Cabo) over the phone, getting measurements from one of his period guns in Rennie’s possession from which to base his new templates. After all the preparatory tool gathering and milling, each board took approximately three days: one for the glue-up, one for rough shaping, and one day for fine-tuning. With the prelims, each gun represented a week of highly unique and specialized, skilled craftsmanship.
Some observations: Having shaped surfboards myself, I could really appreciate the scope of the task that this project represented for Pat. A board or two into the deal, it was apparent that he was both enjoying himself and wondering what he’d gotten himself into. I mean, it was a lot of hard, dirty, satisfying effort. With each shaped board, he more completely reacquainted himself with shaping balsa guns. While he worked on the boards, the word got around a bit, and people would drop by the shed to pay their respects. Which was no doubt enjoyable for Curren, but also distracting. Pat is a quiet man, not prone to hyperbole. But if you listen closely to what he has to say, it’s worth the effort. Once, when responding to the full-race nature of the shapes, he nodded and replied simply, “Yep! They’re for 20 ’n up.” A little later, I asked if he had thought about fin shapes. He proceeded to pull out a cardboard template for a period fin silhouette and set it in position on the board sitting bottom up on the rack and said, “This is what I put on ’em back then.” He looked up at me as if to say, “What do you think?” It looked just right. It became evident to me that, without saying much, he had been thinking about and planning out all the nuances of this project over the months we had been waiting for the wood. Pat has a fine sense of humor—call it a dry wit. He’ll be poker faced, staring at you, concentrating on what you’re saying to him, then break into a wry grin and accomplish a paragraph reply in three or four succinct words. His hands and body are those of a person who uses them to physically make his living—gnarled, worn, calloused, and hardened. You get the feeling that if you tossed him out somewhere in a wilderness with a pocketknife and a hairpin, he’d get along okay. He frequently camps the wildest coasts of Baja, fishing, diving, and surfing breaks that won’t be named for at least another 20 years.
While he was doing the boards, eldest son Tom stopped by to check them out, thinking that he might want to have one to actually use in big surf. Although Pat was dubious, saying that it would be a bit like driving a classic 1958 Ferrari Testarossa at a modern road race, he was clearly pretty stoked over Tom’s interest. Pat explained to his son that these were old style and that he was sure things had progressed significantly since then. But Tom was adamant over the phone. And then Tom, when confronted with the reality of the shaped boards in progress, realized that Dad was right—things have progressed.
But these sensual, sculpted shapes speak proudly for themselves, and of a wonderful and challenging time when Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and Laniakea were frontiers of the human spirit. His boards were the tools of choice for a period of self-realization and exploration that will never be duplicated. And as Pat Curren said before he left for Mexico, “Hell, I may never do this again.”