Thirteen O’Clock

The End of the Worlds: Ocean Beach, California, October 1972.

Light / Dark

One Too Many Fish in the Sea

My roommate Bob Diemer was calling me from outside our house: “Kempton, you should come look. Swear to God, you are not going to believe this.” He was an unsentimental man—laconic, straightforward, unembellished. For him to demand my presence meant the occurrence had consequence. I came out and followed him down the steps.

“This better be good, Diemer.” 

“Better than good,” he replied. “Epic.”

The bungalow we rented was one of five beach cottages, occupied mostly by surfers, that sat above Santa Monica Avenue in downtown Ocean Beach. The salt and sea spray had been unkind to the property, chipping at the weathered clapboard, curling strips of faded paint. A layer of soot caked the small windowpanes, cementing their moisture and neglect. All were unfurnished, the bathtubs clogged with sand, the kitchen stoves antiques. The small yards had no grass, simply dirt surrounding the structures, spiked sporadically with a random set of weeds. But, from the front porch, these little dwellings offered (with a crane of the neck) a sliver of ocean view.

Like scores of other Ocean Beach abodes, it was cheap, serviceable, wave-close—in other words, the perfect surfer house. Forty yards down the street, Santa Monica Avenue dead-ended at a wide, kelp-strewn strip of cigarette-ash-colored beach framed by the jutting pier to the south and defended from the San Diego River by rocky jetties on the north end. The surf showed up most days like the working-class beach users: surly, dependable, slightly unkempt but generally amusing. 

Diemer and I crossed Newport Avenue, the main street. The row of businesses—a head shop, Waffle House, beer tavern, and surf shop—defined the major pastimes of the town’s younger inhabitants. Thirty yards beyond, the small asphalt parking lot extended to the base of the pier—a thick-planked promenade shouldered by wooden pilings anchored to a brindle-colored sandstone bluff.

“Check it out,” Diemer said, raising his index finger. “Middle of the pier.”

There it was: Hanging off the railings was David Nuuhiwa’s twin-fin surfboard, broken in half, suspended by a rope like a hanged criminal, its spongy foam interior gaping, exposed like the entrails of some medieval torture victim. Spray-painted graffiti across the bottom of the board read, “Good Luck Dave.” An ice pick, which was stuck through its deck, underscored the naked display of personal vengeance.

A stab in the heart, I thought. Jesus.

The glint of the evening sun gave this dangling participle a ghostly appearance.

“It’s Nuuhiwa’s,” Diemer said. “They’ve been looking for it.”

“Well, I guess they found it,” I said. 

Sea Change

Nuuhiwa’s favorite board—a split-tailed, airbrushed twin-fin—had been stolen in the opening days of the 1972 World Surfing Championships, which was entering its final days of competition at Ocean Beach. Nuuhiwa, the flamboyant, nose-riding celebrity—and presumptive favorite to win the event—was still considered California’s most stylish surf star. And there were many who felt the world title had been stolen from him six years earlier, when the same contest apparatus had hosted mainland America’s first-ever international event. 

But 1972 seemed a century beyond the mid 60s. In those six years, a countercultural change had swept away the old guard, old style, old view. Led Zeppelin had swapped out The Monkees. Levi’s and T-shirts had been substituted for Ivy League button-downs. Budweiser had been replaced by buds. Hair had gone long, boards had gone short, and the world had become one big magical mystery tour, roaring toward the apocalypse. The required-reading list in my English-lit class included George Orwell’s ominous opus, 1984.

 A prank for the ages. Legends aside, the core Cliffs guys had nothing to do with it. Photo courtesy of Peter Townend.

That date seemed distant too, a lifetime away. The book’s first sentence had startled my comfortable college-student reality: “It was a bright cold day…and the clocks were striking thirteen.” That was the manifest feeling in Ocean Beach that chilly October evening.

Every milieu in America had cartwheeled upside down—art, music, and film, dress, speech, and attitude. A generation was taking a different look at the world—and surfers took a different look at riding waves. In just a fistful of years, America had gone from simmering anger to open rebellion on the mainstream stage. Surfing’s fierce localism had followed suit, turning ugly, territorial. Outsiders—attempting to surf coveted spots—had been stoned, photographers’ cameras smashed, visitors’ tires deflated. And now David Nuuhiwa’s board had been hung in effigy.

Nuuhiwa was one of the few stars from the previous surfing generation who had successfully transitioned into this new social paradigm, making the switch from longboard to shortboard while maintaining an authentic, elite performance level, from crew cut to shoulder-length shag, from windbreakers to fur coats, and from a woody to a silver Rolls-Royce.

Neither his flamboyance nor his talent were the trouble, though. The gaffe that had caused the theft and the act of disfigurement on Ocean Beach Pier was Nuuhiwa’s choice of surfboard: the twin-finned shape called the Fish. That groundbreaking design had been conceived and established in the nearby San Diego environs of Sunset Cliffs, an isolated, somewhat inaccessible wave field abutting the tony but slightly faded district of Point Loma. Facing the Pacific side of the point, just south of Ocean Beach itself, “The Cliffs” were noted for their rugged beauty, winter swell consistency, and virulent strain of localism.

Nuuhiwa had made a twin-fin Fish model under his own logo and was flogging it from Huntington to Honolulu. Worse, he had appeared in a Surfer magazine ad with the provocative headline “David Nuuhiwa, Innovator of the Fish,” as if to declare the design his own. Never mind that “innovator” is not a synonym for “inventor,” and that Nuuhiwa had no interest in claiming the ownership—only the revenue. No matter that he was considered one of the best surfers in the world. The world was coming apart. 

Nuuhiwa’s wide stance worked just fine on a fish, and he was one of the few from the signature-model era to port over seamlessly to the new world order. Photo by Jeff Divine.

The Sunset Cliffs tribe perceived him as an illegitimate claimant, saw the contest event as an illegal immigration into their hunting grounds, and considered surfing’s commercialization an assault on their cultural values. This defaced, broken surfboard was a mutilated message of resistance, a throw-down of the Cliff surfers’ gauntlet, against both competitive surfing in general and Nuuhiwa’s intrusion specifically. The question was how far this would go.

“It may get wild,” I surmised to Diemer.

“It’s already wild, Kempton,” he said. “The Peruvians are here.”  

Guests & Fish Smell After Three Days

The Peruvians were here, as everyone was discovering. They were everywhere, in fact. So were surfers, groupies, hippies, college students, drug dealers, general miscreants—a whole new generation begging to boom. The San Diego Travelodge, where the contest organizers were housing the international guests and event participants, was the post-competition party headquarters. 

On this sweltering Saturday night, rumors of a social gathering had created a cosmic convergence, sucking the Woodstock surf nation into the granite-walled motel lobby like metal filings to a multi-storied magnet. As most of the contestants had been eliminated by now, everyone but the semifinalists was free to find the Peruvians.

“It’s total madness in here, mate,” said a skinny, towheaded 19-year-old Australian named Peter Townend when I asked him what the scene had been like. I didn’t know him at the time, although as we talked he appeared unusually articulate and poised. Reputed to be the hot new face from the Gold Coast, he had hardscrabbled through the quarterfinal heats while big names like Ben Aipa and Barry Kanaiaupuni had lost the opportunity to exhibit their Island power in the weak, crumbly waves at the pier.

Now the event had lumbered through its seventh day of competition, and the crowd gathered outside the Travelodge smelled of blood, sweat, and beers. As unsuspecting taxi drivers pulled up to the entrance, their scruffy passengers would leap from the vehicle without paying, dashing into the milling horde in the lobby. Each successful rush was met with hysterical cheers from inside. At the other end of the entrance, the Brazilians played soccer, using the plate-glass doors as the goal. Bellhops were referees, the rest of the hotel staff simply spectators.

Inside, a banquet had been set out, but no one seemed interested. Worse, an early drunk had puked near the punch bowl. The English and Irish contingency had taken over the bar, making it their own private pub.

The understudied Blears rocketed around the chained-off peaks between the Pier and the Avalanche jetty, eventually finding his way to the winner’s dais. Photo by Jeff Divine.

The throngs grew larger by the minute. Clusters of sweet little heartbreakers glanced furtively our way—but they were looking for famous surf stars, not local party-crashers. The surf celebrities took full advantage of their status, hitting the San Diego starlets with enviable accuracy. In the rooms above, locked doors created traffic jams in the hallways and prompted dancing in the elevator waiting areas. At 9 p.m., the fire marshal declared the building to be at capacity. Around ten, the elevators jammed and were rendered dysfunctional.

Wafts of marijuana smoke enveloped the upper floors. Illicit drug intake hit a fiery peak; pot and psychedelics were still in vogue, but amphetamines, Quaaludes, and the crown prince, cocaine, had achieved popular sovereignty. The Peruvians, rumored to be the purveyors of the latter, had blanketed the waterfront in an Andes snowstorm.

New Moon Madness

By the autumn of 1972, the countercultural attempt at utopia was raggedly running parallel with the machinery of an entrenched military-industrial complex and a vague, sinister notion that both were on a collision course. Exile on Main Street was the soundtrack of our beggars’ banquet, and decadence was the plat du jour. Black Sabbath’s 1972 concert tour contract included a $75,000 cocaine budget.

Deep Throat had premiered that summer as the first publicly viewed porno-film smash, soon to be appropriated as the moniker of a shadowy figure who would bring down a president.

In the Travelodge—a momentarily melding nerve center of the SoCal surf clan—the Saturday-night revelry raged, a Nixonian fiddle playing as the country burned. In the back of the lobby, a miniskirted bleached blonde was pretending to make out with various guys, but instead, just before their lips met, would bite their face and then run away. Several sheepish guys could be seen with bite marks; one was bleeding. Two dozen others were in the corner, shooting beers. They were then on their fourth. Staggering became the mode of movement.

Travelodge event flier, unknowingly calling one and all to a binge for the ages. Photo courtesy of Peter Townend.

Around ten-thirty, a food fight broke out on the second floor and spilled down the hallways and into the stairwells, its combatants setting off fire alarms and smearing the walls with chicken legs and mashed-potato blobs. Teenage girls squealed at the antics while the event organizers wrung their hands.

Peter Townend excused himself early. “I’ve got the first heat tomorrow,” he said. “Need to get some rest. I’m here to win it.”

When the girls had mostly disappeared, we left the hotel and headed

home. The night was clear and a cool wind swirled along the streets. A sliver of the nearly invisible new moon hooked low in the tar sky.

“What’s going to happen?” I wondered aloud. “Will they finish this thing tomorrow or is it going to blow up?”

“Doesn’t really matter,” Diemer said, never one to cast conjecture. “Either way, it’s going to be the end of the world.” 

Gaffed & Gutted

At dawn on the Worlds’ last day, we drove north to Trestles, scouting the swell along the coast in the first streaks of pale light.

It was a long walk in, but the damp sand had no footprints before ours. With the swell focused on the cobblestone points, we enjoyed conditions that were a significant level above those in the stiff, cramped corner of Ocean Beach Pier. 

On the return drive south, curiosity about the drama playing out just a short stroll from our humble bungalow consumed our conversation. Back by 10 a.m., we showered, made breakfast, and headed across the strand to see if the world was still there. It had not blown up, but the surf had blown out. A steady, dismal wind was hacking the water’s surface into mounds of lumpy chop, flicking at the pier with confused malice.

Mercifully, Nuuhiwa’s Fish had been cut from its gallows. And, as the last semifinal heats finished, Nuuhiwa was still in the running. Could he win this thing in spite of all the chaos?  

Still putting on a grimly enthusiastic game face, the event organizers went through the motions of generating excitement while the contestants did their best to entertain the sparse, inattentive audience in the feeble waves that would have bored kids on inflatable canvas beach mats. 

This last gasp to salvage the staggering circus was, in the final outcome, not enough; the bleeding noble effort was a victim of its time. The waves of change had swept over both the surf culture and the world at large, suffocating the very idea of judged competition. 

Among most San Diego surfers, a smug air of satisfaction persisted, as if “the man” had got his comeuppance. But the self-righteousness felt misplaced. This contest was a disappointment for the organizers, but they were not greedy opportunists. They were well-meaning altruists, simply out of step and unlucky. 

And, despite the lackluster surf and evening debauchery, the event had been eye-opening, especially the startling performances from two young teenagers. In the final heats, a tiny, kinetic kid named Michael Ho and a low-slung, Afro-haired slasher named Larry Bertlemann both made the small waves look unimaginably fun. The Hawaiians were lightning and rubber, respectively, and used their small size to create lithe, fluid momentum in moribund conditions. 

They took fourth and fifth place against giants. Meanwhile, that skinny towheaded Aussie we’d met at the Travelodge had surfed well and finished third. We were stoked for him; he’d come all the way from Coolangatta and without the prize money would have struggled to pay for his way back home. This Townend guy had proven himself pretty smart by not falling into the raging-party syndrome the night before. He was seemingly cool and probably had a future in the contest scene, I thought—if there was ever going to be another contest scene. 

At that moment, it seemed unlikely.

When the Worlds finally came to an end, Hawaiian Jimmy Blears, son of surfing pioneer and oversized personality Lord James “Tallyho” Blears, had won the 1972 World Surfing Championships title, edging out Nuuhiwa in waves of unremarkable form. It was a debatable result from the judges that caught even Blears off guard. For the second time, California’s most esteemed surfer was deprived of the golden ring. On his first attempt, in 1966, Nuuhiwa’s nemesis, Nat Young, had ridden an innovative new board design intended to change the world.

This time, the equipment that beat Nuuhiwa was irony itself. The week before, Blears had picked up a new shape built to maximize speed in small waves: a Steve Lis–inspired twin-fin Fish. Somewhere, as they buried the remains of Nuuhiwa’s pier-strangled surfboard, the boys at Sunset Cliffs were chuckling.