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Beach Grit

Warshaw: “Fred floats bullshit!”

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

Matt Warshaw examines the legacy of the father of pro surfing…

Last August, I spent a wonderful afternoon at the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki interviewing the father of pro surfing, Mr Fred Hemmings. I ate the house ahi and extinguished the summer heat with a Gin Ricky while Fred pawed at a Reuben sandwich with extra mustard, and drank water.

The story appears in the latest issue of The Surfer’s Journal (read here) and I was thrilled by its examination of Fred’s role in the creation of pro surfing and the history of the sport. After the story appeared, Fred sent the editor and myself hand-written cards praising our accuracy.

One man who wasn’t in raptures was the Encyclopedia of Surfing’s Matt Warshaw, who said, “He floated many balloons of bullshit in his conversation with you, and I can’t wait to explode them one by one.”

Let’s burst!

BeachGrit: There are so many things to love about Fred Hemmings. Created pro surfing. Clean. Right wing. Big-waver. And yet he doesn’t give you the same thrill as he does me… 

Warshaw: I’m gonna tear the both of you up here in a second, so yeah, let’s get the love part out of the way. I loved Fred’s wave in Endless Summer, the white trunks and white board, ripping five kinds of shit at Ala Moana. I love that when I asked about him showing up at the ’68 world titles awards ceremony in a suit and tie, and said the place looked like a “Cheech and Chong convention.” That’s a great line. And of course I love Fred for getting the pro tour started.

But . . .

Okay, so Derek, your opening line to Fred in the interview: “You’re one of the pivotal figures in surfing. And yet there’s hardly a word written about you in the surfing mags.” And Fred of course agrees, makes it sound like there was a conspiracy against him, the editors didn’t like me, waaah waaah waaah. The mags adored Fred. He got centerspreads, profiles, full-page ads. Fred was everywhere. Big 1968 interview in SURFER titled “Hemmings is Hot!” With exclamation point. Fred saying he was “never a darling of surfing” is such bullshit.

SURFER hated Fred.

Yeah, and that’s another thing. Fred doesn’t have the nuts to call out Drew Kampion. When Fred says SURFER, he means Drew. He’s the new editor in ‘68, got hired just a couple months before the world titles, and like 98% of surfers at the time, Drew was big on Nat Young and Wayne Lynch and shortboards and getting high. So here’s Fred, short hair, long-ish board, flies to Puerto Rico in a suit and tie, drinks Bacardi and Cokes while everybody else is beads and bell-bottoms, doing bong hits. Kampion included. So fine, the hippy deal wasn’t Fred’s thing, and he didn’t fake it. Very much to his credit. Same with his surfing. Fred’s style didn’t fit the the more radical variations of the new boards, and he didn’t force it there either. But the sport is moving in one direction, and Fred’s moving in another.

Fred makes it sound like there was a conspiracy against him, the editors didn’t like me, waaah waaah waaah. The mags adored Fred. He got centerspreads, profiles, full-page ads. Fred was everywhere. Fred saying he was “never a darling of surfing” is such bullshit.

He won the contest.

He did. Fair and square. Surfed to the format, rode like a master. Well, Fred and Midget tied for first, actually. I’ve watched the footage a bunch of times, and I would have given the Midget the nod, but that’s not the point. Keeping in mind what the rules were on the day, Fred’s win was totally legit. And Kampion himself said so! Opening line of Drew’s contest wrap-up story: “What happened in Puerto Rico was that a formal pronouncement was made: that Fred Hemmings was hot.” And photos too. The Hemmings pics in SURFER from that contest are great!

SURFER had a very anti-contest vibe, no?

Yes and no. Again, Fred way overplays the hurt. Oh, but here’s another thing I love about Hemmings – he retired from competition after winning the title. Went out on top. Fred and Mark Richards I think are the only two who did. Anyway, pro surfing was on the horizon right after Fred won in Puerto Rico, and “professionalism” was the hot topic, pretty much the only topic for a couple of years. Now, Kampion was sort of on the fence about it all. A lot of people were. But when Drew pulled together a feature on pro surfing in 1969, he did a clever thing. Drew himself stepped aside. He got Hemmings to write a “pro” pro surfing opinion piece, and had this Rasputin-looking guy in Santa Cruz named John Scott write an “anti” pro surfing opinion piece, and had SURFER Poll winner Jock Sutherland do a maybe-yes maybe-no piece. Drew put the three articles back-to-back, with Fred as the opener. Three different views. How much fairer could it get?

I loved how Fred carried a gun in response to threats from elements of the North Shore. Do you believe, like me, that the only thing that can stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun? Or is you one of them faggot peaceniks?

Yeah, let’s do the politics. I’m anti-gun, pro drug-legalization, pro-LGBT. Break up the big banks. Raise my taxes till the public schools gleam, and me, Bill Gates, and Slater’s grandson all have identical government-issued healthcare cards. Fred and I will not be sitting together at Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 inaugural ball.

Hemmings isn’t a fan of Trump, as you might suppose he would be. Rubio was his boy.

Fred backs Rubio, Rubio backs Trump.

Did you know that Fred sent, what the TSJ editor Scott Hulet described as “remarkable hand-printed Senatorial cards from Fred praising your accuracy, with heartfelt thanks.” Thank you cards? To me, that bleeds class.

He is gracious. Fred has sent me similar cards and emails over the years. He’s good with small gestures. Most politicians are.