Chapter 38: Surf - A Life Aquatic 

From Chapter 38: Surf (Fall 2009)

Words: Dibi Fletcher
Photos Courtesy of: Art Brewer, Herbie Fletcher, Hank Foto, Greg MacGillivray, Craig Wetherby

Herbie Fletcher’s excitement about all things surf has only intensified over the last 50 years. He is extremely knowledgeable and passionate when it comes to surf destinations and gear, but nothing compares to the love and respect he feels for his peers.

While some veterans pay no mind to the youngsters, Herbie recognizes the talent of future torchbearers and maintains a sincere admiration for anyone who is deserving of it. He is never shy about giving praise where it is due, and if nothing else, what follows in this chapter is a testament to that.

Dibi Fletcher: When and where did you first start surfing?
Herbie Fletcher: I first started surfing—if you could call it surfing—at San Clemente T-Street when I was nine years old. I’d run and go grab surfboards that would float in and go play on ’em until the big guy came in and grabbed ’em. Then I went home, had my paper route, and bought me a $27 balsawood Velzy-Jacobs. So I started on balsawood down at Doheny where all the surfers go, in 1958.

DF: What was it about surfing that most intrigued you?
HF: I don’t know! I’d just see everyone out there standing on surfboards riding waves. It looked like so much fun. I just loved it. I’d also ride rafts and play in the water, low tide in the tide pools with my skimboard. I was a little beach rat.

DF: When did you first go to Hawaii?
HF: My first trip to Hawaii was in 1965. I was 16 years old and livin’ on the beach, or in the bushes, on floors, in vacant cars, or parked cars. Wherever I could find a place to lay my head and not too many mosquitoes would eat me, that’s where I was.

DF: Who were your idols?
HF: In those days we didn’t have surf magazines, so I’d watch surf movies—old Bud Browne movies and some John Severson movies. In those, Phil Edwards was a standout, Miki Dora, Dewey Weber, Johnny Fain—he was jerky, but he had something at Malibu. And big-wave riders like Ricky Gregg and Paul Strauch. Then it led on to a new breed, people like John Peck and that era.

DF: So if there wasn’t “professional surfing” at that time, how did you support yourself?
HF: I was living with my mom and dad in Huntington Beach, but then I got a job from Hobie and Bruce Brown. We made a little movie called The Wet Set. That was my first job, and Hobie paid me enough money to where I could go to Hawaii and hang out until the next one in summer. That was October ’65. I was in Hawaii in December.

DF: And that was the start of the drug culture there?
HF: Yeah, people were smoking pot, but you didn’t do it in public. Also, LSD was legal then, so people were dabbling with that, but mainly smoking pot.

DF: You’d been good friends with Michael Hynson way before the Rainbow Bridge experience, correct?
HF: Oh yeah. Mike and I were good buddies back in ’65. Around then he’d come up to Huntington. I’d see him down in San Diego at Blacks and we’d go surfing and hang out. Skip Frye was hanging out, and there were a few other guys. We all went surfing together.

DF: Didn’t you live by him on the North Shore?
HF: The winter of ’67-’68, Gary Chapman and I lived together. Jock [Sutherland] just moved out, but that was at Banzai Beach. That’s the first year Off-The-Wall and Backdoor was really ridden.

We’d see rights coming down from Pipeline, so we’d just start paddling up to them and surfing ’em. We called it Pipeline Rights. The people that sat on the wall called it Off-The-Wall. So that’s how it got its name, I think. We’d surf there all the time.

Mike was next door. He had a shaping room, he had a lot of money, and he had blanks. I got a couple blanks and I made some boards. They were just epic.

DF: How important was surfboard design?
HF: Surfboard design was really important, especially in the ’60s, because it changed so radically. It changed from logs and longboards. The boards started to shorten up and it started getting more technical, with the tails and the noses and the rails. It really started moving.

The rails, when they’re round, suck water around the top and slow you down. When we started forming the rails down, we were getting on top of the water and flying. That was a big deal in those days, sideslipping and doing different things—hard turns, riding in the tube, and going around the hook. Nowadays, the boards are so small and thin and dinky it’s like you’re swimming, almost. They just stand up and get shot out with the lip. They’re flying. Their rails are in the water and they’re going so fast and riding so deep in the barrel that they’re riding on top of the foam that comes back up the face. It’s called the “foam ball.” They tell me, “Herb, it’s not how long you can ride in the tube anymore, it’s how long you can ride on top of the foam ball.”

To read the whole article, find someone who owns Chapter 38: Surf (sold out).