Feature

The Archivist: Pal Al

Al Nelson’s arc from early Waimea with Pat Curren to building homemade airframes in Baja.

Founding publisher Steve Pezman has a knack for connecting with friends of friends. Basically, he makes contact with a legendary figure from our world, and asks them who they would like to hear from. It’s simple and sly. Not only does he find out who the subject holds dear, but he IDs future personalities for the magazine. That process not only infuses TSJ with understudied and surprising voices, but also serves to record a history that might otherwise go begging.

The Nelson brothers—Al and Fleet—are well-camouflaged insiders from surfing’s 1960s-1980s trade routes, and suitable examples of such referenced-by-the-bigs hidden treasures. Interacting, variously, with Pat Curren, Danny Fowley, and Mike Diffenderfer (among others), Fleet and Al have been favored collaborators of the cognoscenti. From Windansea to Hawaii, and from Costa Rica to Cabo, the two made Zelig-like appearances during the sport’s most character-checkered era.

Al Nelson, a surfboard and airplane designer and unapologetically peripatetic, eventually settled on Baja’s West Cape. In 2010, Pez tracked him down, hit “record,” and summoned the good oil. —Scott Hulet


The Windansea crew of the 1950s was fearsome and storied—if you came from another beach. You usually didn’t, unless invited. Almost uniformly alcoholic and rowdy, it comprised individualists, attracted there like radiator Stop Leak, with a sprinkle of Mensa intellects amongst the bad-asses and goof-offs. Amongst them, Ekstrom and Nelson—futurists—while rough-hewn Pat Curren exuded a quiet savvy of unknowable depth. Curren, the Ekstroms, Nelson, Graham, Van Artsdalen, Hasley, the Pattersons, Diffenderfer, Tiny Brain….

Curren and Nelson’s wave-fear tolerance was weaned over Windansea’s outside reef, the peak being of enough size and consequence that when the two migrated to the North Shore heavies it was a somewhat preconditioned transition. Also, Windansea’s proximity to Tijuana’s Plaza de Toros resulted in that crew’s perception that in both riding a wave and fighting a bull, the point was to “exhibit grace and control while operating within the circle of death.” As surfing became more and more absorbed by the mainstream they loathed, both became less and less enamored of it, ultimately seeking remote wave zones where they continued to surf unfettered.

“Pal” Al Nelson, the name rolls off your tongue. He and Pat Curren were core Windansea members during those scant few discovery years spent confronting the reality of big waves. Pat and Al’s synthesis of the big-wave board was based on the discoveries of Froiseth, Downing, Quigg, Trent, etcetera, which were made over the prior decade at Makaha. Their interpretations became the benchmark at that moment, when big waves were becoming a big deal in a fast-growing sport.

“Pal” Al has succeeded in remaining in the shadows relative to Pat, who, having fathered Tommy—the savior of American surfing— was kept uncomfortably in the spotlight, though Al did pretty much all the same stuff, both men being historically significant and masters at making artful things. Al prefers it that way. In brief, here is his story. —S.P.

*

It all turned for me when I started surfing back in ’52. I lived in La Jolla, and Windansea was the spot. But I had to learn somewhere else. I moved to Windansea when I was 13 years old, and Pat (Curren) was one of the gurus there. He was older than me, probably 20. I became friendly with Pat, started shaping surfboards at 13, and by the time I was 14 or so, people started asking me to make them—the locals—because there were few manufacturers then: Velzy, Hobie, not too many others. That was about ’54 or ’55. In 1956, I actually opened my first surf shop. I was in junior high school and a friend had a garage in La Jolla. We decided he would glass and I would be the shaper—balsa boards, of course. We started at $55 for a shaped blank and $70 for a finished board. We made like 20 surfboards that summer, which was huge. No power tools, just grinding them out with the old hand plane. That was my beginning. I learned how to shape a reasonable surfboard that summer.

In the afternoons, we’d all shut down and hit the evening glass-off at Trestles. We’d sleep in the shop. There was a balsa loft above the shaping area and there’d be a whole bunch of guys up there, half drunk, sacked out, getting some sleep before going back to work the next morning.

About that time, 1955, I was traveling up and down the coast surfing quite a bit, and somehow I met Dale Velzy and Hap Jacobs when they had their shop in Venice. Dale was always working an angle, and somehow or another he knew I was a so-called shaper, so he invited me into his shop and asked me to shape a couple for him, you know, so I just started on the spot, right then. Of course, I had to go to school in the winter because I was a teenage kid, so that slowed me down. But, the next summer, 1956, I started working for Dale again, right here in San Clemente. It was one of the first retail surfboard shops. He would bring his boards down from Venice and stick them in there. There wasn’t any building going on there, yet. He was still in business with Hap. Jim Fisher and I ran the shop. Crazy! Dale taught me all the things, about when someone had ordered a 9’4″ and there was only a 9’6″ in the racks, how to have them hold the hook end of the tape at the tail, then you’d stretch it out to the nose and go, “9’4″, right?” I also learned a little bit about shaping from him. He was one of the only guys around that I could actually watch in action. When he moved to San Clemente, I started working for him. Del Cannon and Renny Yater were both shaping there then. God, there were so many crazy people, all the Patterson brothers were glassing and sanding.

Those were the good old days. We always had money because we worked building surfboards and the demand for them was starting to exceed the supply. The East Coast was just figuring it out and they had no manufacturers. Those were the real golden days for orders—not always for producing them, and still, we were into balsa boards. I got up to shaping eight balsa boards a day, which I can’t even believe now. It takes me eight weeks to shape one today, you know, one! But we’d just grind those babies out, sawdust flying. I’d see Robert Patterson in the glassing room cleaning his brushes in a 55-gallon barrel of acetone, smoking a cigarette. One day, Dorian Paskowitz came in there, and he just shut the place down and really got on Dale’s case. Anyway, that one summer was crazy, the summer of ’59. In the afternoons, we’d all shut down and hit the evening glass-off at Trestles. We’d sleep in the shop. There was a balsa loft above the shaping area and there’d be a whole bunch of guys up there, half drunk, sacked out, getting some sleep before going back to work the next morning—fun days, though.

Jim Fisher was a good friend of mine. He was always a little bit different than the rest of us, hung out in La Jolla at Windansea, lived there off and on. I idolized him because of “Fisher’s Wave.” That picture really stimulated everybody. They couldn’t believe people rode waves that big.

The Meade Hall gang would have been the winter of 1959/1960. I had gone over there in ’57 and lived with Pat. That was the year we first rode Waimea. Then we came back and the word spread. I didn’t go in ’58. There were some other Windansea guys that did, but in ’59 a whole group went over there, seven or eight of us. It was back and forth between the North Shore in winter and Windansea in the summer. We were still pretty young.

I had good luck at Waimea Bay. I always did well there, never had a problem. Waimea’s a takeoff, a dramatic takeoff, but there’s not much after that. Sunset gets you all the way in. You never know what’s going to happen with that wave.

Pat stayed there more than anybody. Nineteen fifty-nine was a great year. We had so much surf because we were there early and there weren’t a lot of surfers there in those days. We’d get everything pretty much to ourselves—Sunset, Laniakea. Sunset was my favorite. I had good luck at Waimea Bay. I always did well there, never had a problem. Waimea’s a takeoff, a dramatic takeoff! A thrilling takeoff, but there’s not much after that. Sunset gets you all the way in. You never know what’s going to happen with that wave. It’s a beautiful spot. You can always get out. The waves take getting used to, but I got a little jump-start on it. I quit school. Well, “ran away from home” would be a more accurate phrase, when I was a junior in high school, the second semester, about 16 years old. I ran away and went to Hawaii.

I was living over there with the Patterson brothers and there was a late swell. We were living in Manoa Valley and surfing Waikiki every day, and we heard a rumor there were waves on the North Shore, so we went out there, not even knowing anything about it. None of us had been there. We didn’t know where Sunset was, but we found it. “This has to be Sunset! There’s waves out there,” and we went out. Whoa! At first, I thought the waves were probably 12 feet, but, my god, they were bigger and faster and thicker, but by the end of the day I had ridden a few and gotten a feeling for it. So, when I went over in ’57 after I graduated high school, I had a clue about the waves, and I had a better surfboard that I found out wasn’t nearly good enough. But I was prepared for the waves, and by ’59 I had a real surfboard. We had a real elephant gun by then.

There had been boards that Jim Fisher brought back from Hawaii, and Wayne Land brought a board back. Wally Froiseth had shaped Wayne’s board, and it was a big-wave board, an elephant-gun-type board. Pat took a look at it and said, “That’s the way to go!” He said he was going to make one. Wally’s had a very drawn-in tail, like they all are today. They were long, with a scoop in the nose, and with a little belly. He’d actually slice wood off the bottom of the nose and laminate it onto the top so he could get more kick in them. The back was very flat. The rail line transitioned from “up” in the nose to straight-down, breakaway rails in the tail. He made the big-wave boards in those early, early days. It was his boards that influenced me, and they influenced Pat. I know that. So, our boards reflected his, maybe a little more refined. We didn’t glue wood on the decks. We just started with 6-inch-thick balsa blanks so we could carve whatever we wanted out of them. We made two boards together in the summer of ’59 and took them to Hawaii that winter, and they worked very, very well. By the next year, everybody had one. That’s just my take on it. I’m sure some other people came up with the same idea on their own.

I practiced law for a few years as a member of the California Bar, joined a firm. I was Mr. Young Lawyer. I’d be sitting in my office at 2:00 in the afternoon, and it would be hot and glassy and I’d know there was a swell running. But I couldn’t fake it and just get up and leave, so it was... troubling. One day I got up and did leave, and once I walked away, I walked away completely.

Here’s my take on Pat’s boards, ’cause I’ve ridden every one of them. I can’t stand them! Pat is a very stiff surfer. I’ve never seen him do a roundhouse cutback in my life. He’s a one-way Corrigan! He’s a very talented surfer, knows how to take off in the right spot, and he gets the best wave—maybe the wave of the day goes to him 80 percent of the time—but he’s not a versatile surfer, and his boards are stiff. I could never ride them. Way too much belly. I’m more interested in turning and most of his [big-wave] boards don’t do that very well, but he could surf them. They suited his style. My boards look like his boards except the rails aren’t as radical. I never put as much belly in the front of the board. I liked it a little flatter. To this day, he makes his replica boards like his old boards. He doesn’t compromise. But damn, they were hard to ride, even his personal, smaller-wave board.

*

Nineteen fifty-nine was it for me, as far as going to the North Shore to surf. I had been to Hawaii in ’56, ’57, and ’59, and I was just determined to graduate from college. So, I thought, hell, I’ve got to put in a couple of semesters, so I blasted through college in a quick nine years [laughter]. It took me no time at all. I ended up going all over the place. I started at UC Santa Barbara. I just surfed and realized right away that I was in over my head. I wasn’t that smart. So I went back to San Diego City College then State, and finally graduated in zoology. I didn’t have a major and just picked zoology, which was a terrible decision because it turned out to be extremely hard—labs and everything. I could have been an art major—something simple to get a damn degree, but I kind of went the wrong way. I never used the zoology.

I surfed and did a lot of shaping all through those years. That was when I was a power shaper. I’d shaped for Renny. After he left Hobie we stayed friends, up in Santa Barbara, earlier, while I was in school up there. It was his little shop on State Street—really a fun place. And, of course, we had a key to the Ranch. After that, I shaped for Hap in Hermosa Beach and Bing for a while. I shaped for Gordon & Smith, and I shaped for Hobie for quite a while. I shaped my way through school. I’d get into my car, drive up to these places, and lock myself in the shaping room for two or three days. It was go-go-go, but the pay was good. Even when I went to law school, in the summer I’d really grind it out. Getting my law degree was really a strange thing. My grandfather was a successful lawyer. My father was a very successful lawyer, and he took me aside one day and said, “Son, I’ll shoot you if you ever become a lawyer!” I had sand in my shoes at that point and I told him, “Don’t worry, Pops, I won’t ever, ever become a lawyer.” And then, as fate would have it, when I was graduating from college, I got married, and out of nowhere the new wife said she wanted to become a vet. She was going to go to school at UC Davis. I said, “Fine, you’re married to me. Do I have any say in it?” And of course she answered, “No!” So I looked to see if they had anything that would interest me and saw they had a new law school. I took the aptitude test, and, as genetics would have it, I was very good at the test, whatever it tested, and I could be accepted pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. So I said, “Let’s go!”

I’ve always been into airplanes, my brother and me. Early on we built models. Then I got interested in full-size, home-built airplanes. I always thought I could design and build one using surfboard technology—foam fiberglass, shaping the thing, because that was where my skill lay.

I loved law school. Actually loved it! It was fantastic. It was the one schooling that fit my type of intellect—one of those weird things. I thought it would be a good profession. Unfortunately, the schooling and the world of being a lawyer are two entirely different things that I never, ever accepted. I practiced for a few years as a member of the California Bar, joined a firm, Mr. Young Lawyer. I’d be sitting in my office at 2:00 in the afternoon, and it would be hot and glassy and I’d know there was a swell running. But I worked for a firm and I couldn’t fake it and just get up and leave, so it was… troubling [laughter]. One day I got up and did leave, and once I walked away, I walked away completely. I’ve always enjoyed my education. It never hurt me.

But that had been quite a departure from Windansea. Law is mostly about money. Wayne Land used to burn money. I’d say, “I don’t know, Wayne, what are you doing? I could use that five dollar bill.” So, I had a house in Cardiff and life was good, but I didn’t really have much direction, so I figured I’d build an airplane: a full-sized one. I’d built airplanes for a hobby. I’m just finishing my fifth one right now. That’s something I’m proud of. I’ve always felt I did it well. I’ve always been into airplanes, my brother and me. Early on we built models. Then I got interested in full-size, home-built airplanes. I always thought I could design and build one using surfboard technology—foam fiberglass, shaping the thing, because that was where my skill lay. Back in 1980, I had a friend who was a pilot and out of work. He had some money, and I had the time and skill. So we sat down and designed and built a very interesting airplane, then flew it to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Did the whole thing in six months, which is incredible, from sketching on the back of a napkin to flying it to the world’s biggest air show and winning Outstanding New Design for that year. It’s been on the cover of Air Progress. I could send you a copy. It was a two-place fiberglass airplane powered by a Volkswagen engine. It’d cruise at 135 mph with a 36-horse- power engine. We flew it over 200 mph a couple of times. It was super slick aerodynamically, molded really nice. That was a proud moment. We sold plans after that. I think there are over 700 of them flying today.

Here’s my latest project. You’ll like it. I’m building this ultra-light down in my garage in Cabo. Here’s a shot of it with my surfboard. See, here’s the scam: I strap the surfboard underneath it, take off from the two-mile beach in front of my house, and go to my secret spot up the coast at a place where nobody can get to by car. I just land on the beach and finally get a wave by myself, then strap that board back under the belly of the plane and fly home.

Is it a right or a left you ask? I’m sorry, I’d have to kill you. It’s just that the beach goes for 700 miles, all the way from my house to Ensenada…and there are breaks up there, little sand breaks and points and stuff. I need waves to myself. I’m too old to compete with 18-year-olds. I don’t mind doing things alone. Where I live is still very isolated. There are no footprints on the beach in the morning. I can walk miles in any direction.

*

Pat Curren was living in Costa Rica in the early 80s when he stopped by my house in California and told me I had to come down. We’ve got an old buddy that owns half of Costa Rica, and he’s got everything we need. He wanted his old friends to come on down and enjoy life with him. I was in a “doing nothing” stage of my life, so I was on it. I flew down there and spent the next few years there, on and off, with Pat. We did a lot of surfing down there—a real good surf area.

I don’t need the good waves anymore. I don’t like crowds, and crowds are generally at the best waves. I just want to ride into a white sand beach where there’s a palapa on the sand with a cold beer in the cooler. You know, a guy who started ten years ago and is an average surfer will never see what I have seen. I can’t say I’ve been deprived of my fair share.

Then, for some reason, in 1985, we moved out of there to where I am today in Baja California. Pat and I settled in separate corners. Pat on the East Cape behind Renny’s place, and I stayed where I was on the Pacific side. I built a home and I’ve been there for 25 years. I live by myself. Well, I’ve got two dogs and a cat and neighbors, so I’m not alone. But being alone doesn’t bother me at all. I’ll go three or four days without talking to another human being. And, of course, I build my own boards. If the world only knew how good they are.

No, actually, I continue to build surfboards because I love to build them. I’m into technology, not reinventing shapes, but how to build a board that will last more than a week. I’ve been into that the whole time. I’ll do something new, then, years later I’ll come up here [California] and see several surfboard builders using that same technique, so that tells me I was on the right track. Wherever I live, I have a workshop. I was starting my fifth boat when I noticed I had four boats out in the backyard and told myself to stop. They are all oar-powered, Swampscott-type dories, all surf boats up to 16 feet long—something like that. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of them out of foam.

In Costa Rica, I didn’t have foam so I used balsa wood as the sandwich material. All my stuff—boards, boats, planes—end up with resin on them. They’re always fiberglassed. The last couple of boats have been made out of quarter-inch plywood. I can get beautiful pine plywood down there [tip of Baja] for $13 a sheet at Home Depot. I like to work with my hands. Give me a project and I don’t care about the outside world. It’s not like I need five boats. Last time I counted I had 15 surfboards.

I’ve ridden really good waves in my life. For me, I don’t need the good waves anymore. It’s about did I have a good time? Not, did you see my wave? I don’t like crowds, and crowds are generally at the best waves. I just want to ride into a white sand beach where there’s a palapa on the sand with a cold beer in the cooler. You know, a guy who started ten years ago and is an average surfer will never see what I have seen. I can’t say I’ve been deprived of my fair share.

If I look back at the time I’ve been involved with surfboards—60 years almost—I really most enjoyed shaping for every one of those guys I worked with, because they were really neat people. Hap Jacobs. Velzy. We had a great time. There weren’t any giant rivalries. Like with Hobie and Velzy in the same basic area, but they would help each other out if one or the other ran out of something. Of course, my whole career was a fantastic time for the evolution of the surfboard. I started off making varnished balsa/redwoods, then balsa boards by the hundreds, and then foam by the thousands. I’m still going, only now it’s at my pace. It gets in your blood.