Surf Nazis head to beach.
Surf Nazis head to beach.

Revealed: Surf Nazis were fine people!

The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

We live in the shrillest ever of times, don’t you think? Each word that drips out of mouth or onto paper is parsed, discussed, teased and eventually found to have some very racist, sexist, fascist connotation. Oh I’m not excusing anything that is really racist, sexist, fascist. I am just saying shrill is the tone au courant.

And so it was with great wonder that I read a piece last week in The San Diego Union Tribune by staff writer Michael Smolens discussing the 1950s-1960s surf thrill with Nazi schtick, comparing it to today’s white nationalist pop. I was expecting rage at our checkered past but instead found nuance.

Let’s read together!

In the late 1950s, a small band of La Jolla surfers dressed up as Nazis and, carrying a Nazi flag, marched down the beach.

Around the same time, swastikas were painted on the infamous Windansea pump house and at Malibu — perhaps Southern California’s most prominent surf meccas of the era.

And there’s a well-circulated, historic photo of a guy in a stylin’ crouch on a multi-stringer surfboard streaking across the face of a wave in fine trim — while wearing a plastic Nazi helmet.

Some elements of surfing’s tight-knit community, long proud of its rebellious nature, certainly veered off into strange territory back in those days.

Oddly, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time, often described, at least in retrospect, as largely “innocuous.” If so, that was then.

With widespread condemnation of recent white supremacist and neo-Nazi rallies and the removal of Confederate monuments everywhere, the notion of people dressing like Nazis for kicks would be no joking matter these days.

So what were these surfers thinking 60 years ago? It wasn’t seen as sympathy for what Nazis did and what they stood for. Rather, it was more a manifestation of their anti-establishment streak.

Greg Noll, the legendary big wave surfer of that era, said it was just another way to flip off society.

“We just did things like that to be outrageous. You paint a swastika on your car, and it would piss people off. So what do you do? You paint on two swastikas,” he said, according to the Encyclopedia of Surfing by Matt Warshaw, surfing’s meticulous historian.

The surfers’ antics were dismissed as a juvenile annoyance by many. The mainstream media denounced such behavior, but that only emboldened some, cementing their image as reprobates.

Interestingly, the initial link between surfing and swastikas was not only innocuous, but actually well-meaning.

In the 1930s, Pacific System Homes in Los Angeles sold the first commercially produced surfboards after the son of the owner went to Hawaii, went surfing and quickly joined the legions of the jazzed. He apparently convinced his father there was a market for surfboards in Southern California.

It was called the Swastika model, a laminated balsa and redwood board that had a small swastika on the tail. At the time, the symbol in certain cultures meant harmony and good luck.

With the rise of Nazi Germany, which turned the swastika into a symbol of something far different, Pacific System changed the name of its product to the Waikiki Surf-Board.

The piece goes on to discuss the use of Nazi symbolism by other subcultures and how broader culture reacted at the time and how it would react today with such measure. It was like a tall glass of cool vodka to the soul.

But what do you think? Do you think surfers should be more apologetic about appropriating Nazi imagery? Do you think surfing’s favorite safe-space, Venice-adjacent’s own The Inertia, believes surfers should pay reparations to the offended of the time?

Does the subtlety of Mick's surfing make you whimper with jealousy too?

Watch: Mick Fanning Jam to Long Drum Solo!

Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore scores surfing by Mick Fanning.

Do you remember the post-career trajectory of pro surfers pre-Kelly Slater? It was rarely pretty. A regional surf school or a little freelance surf coaching was the best anyone could hope for.

Soon, what was left of the sponsorship money dried up and it was mouth upon ice pipe to dull the despair and hopelessness.

Oh, I know, I exaggerate a little.

Now, as shown by Kelly Slater, a pro surfing career can easily morph into a series of profitable businesses. Kelly has a pool, a clothing label, surfboards.

And, Mick Fanning, whom we’ll watch in the short movie below, has beer, boards and battery chargers.

This clip which was scored by the former Mars Volta, and current Queens of the Stone Age, drummer Jon Theodore is a promo for Grapes the Cat, a cut-price charger for your telephone.

Theodore liberates us from the hold of guitars and electronica with a solo whose rhythmic tension, moments of relaxation and subtlety, mirror wonderfully the surfing of thirty-six-year-old Fanning.

Watch here.

ONE WAV // MANY WAVES from Grapes The Cat on Vimeo.

Yemeni style boat trip. Near Aden.
Yemeni style boat trip. Near Aden.

Yemen: Forget that you’re young!

Chapter 6: Boys find surf and race Al-Qaeda.

(I am writing a series about Yemen because what is currently happening there is terrible beyond. My inaction disgusts me and so I am going to introduce you to to the country because… the place, people, culture all deserve to be saved. Catch up, if you wish, on the links right here… Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5)

The city of Aden is almost 9 hours directly south from Sana’a though it is an entire world away. We drove past qat plantations, old rock towers, goats being tended by boys and the first of many government checkpoints as we dropped from the genteel temperate highland into the sweltering humid cacophony. Horns blared, traffic backed up, sweat dripped from my forehead down underneath my Spy wrap-arounds like a waterfall.

Hillside homes on the drive from Sana'a to Aden.
Hillside homes on the drive from Sana’a to Aden.

There is something comforting about humidity, though, even at its most oppressive. Dream surf doesn’t break in temperate zones. It breaks in Indonesia and southern Mexico and Fiji and Tahiti. And even though we didn’t figure Aden would have any waves due Somalia’s jutting presence it officially felt like we were on a surf trip.

Our bodyguards, too, seemed thrilled to be out of the house. They were brothers from Marib, that wild city up near Sana’a, and sang its praises but being in Aden meant vacation. They were mostly business during the drive, shuffling through our various government permissions, arguing with the military men who questioned the validity of our trip, flashing just the right amount of anger. But Major Ghamdan al-Shoefy, the elder, got a sly smile when we stopped for an overpriced lunch just outside the city. He went behind the restaurant dressed in his dinner jacket/curved knife and came back in a thin button-up/futa. The futa is what Yemenis call the sarong which is what Balinese ex-pat hippies call the full length skirt. It is worn by He then busily started making arrangements on a beat up Nokia phone with prayer beads attached.

Hunein, the younger, had eyes as big as ours.

Where Sana’a is delicate, Aden is bawdy. It has the perfect decrepit British outpost feeling like Bombay and parts of Hong Kong. Governmental buildings, train stations and schools echo the glory of empire past mixed in with the taste that something could go very wrong at any second. Humanity piled on top of humanity in a tinderbox. We drove though the city in entirety out to an older hotel on Elephant Bay and there, in front of us, were waves. Real waves. Waist high peelers running off a sandbar.

We couldn’t believe it. We were in a bay in a sea so shadowed by Africa that it seemed… impossible. Now I know that waves are never quite where you expect them to be but back then I thought it was a miracle. We pulled the board coffins off the Landrover as quickly as we could, stripped down into below the knee Op and ran straight into the warm bath.

I was higher than I had ever been in my entire life. It was like a bad day at Huntington but, as far as I was concerned, the trip was a massive success. We were surfing.

In Yemen.

And we stayed surfing in Yemen until the sun slid into the bay before driving into town for a celebratory fish dinner all salt crusted and sore, toasting cold Canada Drys and laughing. Our bodyguards seemed pleased too. Ghamdan kept up some banter about ladeez and booze. We told him we didn’t come to Yemen for that but it didn’t dim his passion as he kept working on his Nokia.

When we were finished we got back in the Landcruiser to head to the hotel for sleep and then another surf in the morning before pressing on and finding… who knew? Barrels? The next G-Land?

The streets were crowded with city dwellers who had spent the heat of the day crouching in whatever shade they could find and were now alive once again. Futas, small pistols, stares, the call to prayer.

We pulled onto a small side road then onto a bigger one then a pick-up up filled with men pulled up alongside us and they all started barking through heavy beards while waving Kalashnikovs. Ghamdan barked back for a minute before punching it through a crowded intersection with the truck close on our tail.

“What’s going on?” we asked.

“Al-Qaeda” he responded.

His face was neither fearful nor taut but rather pulled into the universal smirk of oh-dang-those-rascal-water-balloon-kids-from-down-the-street-are-after-us. It was a game and he was going to win.

He drove like a bat out of hell, burning around corners, missing fruit carts, racing past angry shouts, looking over his shoulder almost gleeful. Eventually we lost them but then a new game began. He was going to find them and sped around the streets in wild circles looking this way and that but they had disappeared into the heat.

Ghamdan was disappointed and, frankly, so were we. I don’t know what would have happened had we met up again but it all felt like a movie and this is the thing. Terms “Al-Qaeda” and “radical Islamist” and “jihadis” etc. all mean something so specific here. They are cemented. Locked down. Very naughty and purely causative.

A + B = C.

Islam + Radicalization = Terrorist.

There everything seemed as fluid as Canada Dry. I have no idea if the men in the pick-up were actually Al-Qaeda. Maybe they were just religious. I have no idea what they were barking about. Maybe we stole their parking spot. Later we would meet all sorts of men who identified with Al-Qaeda, who believed 9/11 was a good thing, who were excited about the coming destruction of the Great Satan. We would drink coffee and discuss and then discuss other things, like cars or fishing or music videos, before parting with firm handshakes.

Belief in something, in anything, bonds.

But I didn’t know any of this yet. All I knew was the ten minutes spent racing through Aden felt as joyous as finding surf.

Fun with Ghamdan just outside of Aden.
Fun with Ghamdan just outside of Aden.

A beautiful texture, lingering notes of Pacific, with hints of bramble, blackberry, boysenberry, Don Cherry and Frankenberry.

Wanted: Surfers’ Fecal Samples!

Relief and scientific advancement!

Growing up, some of us thought that the best way to Live the Life was to shirk the demands of school.

Others see more than a swell or two ahead.

Take, for example, BeachGrit’s  Chas Smith, a degree in advanced linguistics and a former UCLA teacher, or Aaron James, author of Surfing with Sartre. James holds a PhD from Harvard.

And now, Cliff Kapono, a surfing doctoral candidate at University of California, San Diego.

Cliff, like Chas and Dr. James, uses his job as a foil to sustain a life of surfing. Cliff’s little scam includes traveling around the world — serendipitously to serious breaks — to do his research for the “good of mankind.”

Recently, Cliff was interviewed by the New York Times. 

Let’s examine.

LA JOLLA, Calif. — On a recent trip, Cliff Kapono hit some of the more popular surf breaks in Ireland, England and Morocco. He’s proudly Native Hawaiian and no stranger to the hunt for the perfect wave. But this time he was chasing something even more unusual: microbial swabs from fellow surfers.

Mr. Kapono, a 29-year-old biochemist earning his doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, heads up the Surfer Biome Project, a unique effort to determine whether routine exposure to the ocean alters the microbial communities of the body, and whether those alterations might have consequences for surfers — and for the rest of us.

Mr. Kapono has collected more than 500 samples by rubbing cotton-tipped swabs over the heads, mouths, navels and other parts of surfers’ bodies, as well as their boards. Volunteers also donate a fecal sample.

Did you guess? (Hint: It’s the last paragraph. The whole last paragraph.)

While we all applaud Kapono for making waves part of his work, we probably wouldn’t want to shake his hand.

“Volunteers also donate a fecal sample?”

How far is too far to Live the Life?

My friends and I use to frequent a research hospital on weekends to finance trips to Tamarindo. Charming blue-checked medical gown, some TV, ping-pong gambling, a couple of injections of whatever and a $750 check to cash on Monday.

Easy money. 

But can you imagine waiting on the beach to ask, “Hey, can I have some of your poop?”

And, therefore, the question of the day is, what would you do for cash?

How far have you gone? 


Too bad Gerry ain't regular.
Too bad Gerry ain't regular. | Photo: WSL

Breaking: Kelly Slater makes a left!

His eponymous wave pool also swings the other way!

The World Surf League just released footage of Mr. Pipeline, Gerry Lopez, having a languid little cruise in Lemoore, California. Barrels n turns n such. 100 miles from the nearest beach. 500 miles from the nearest barrel. 1000 miles from Bend, Oregon. 5000 miles from the North Shore.

Let’s turn to the League for a description.

When Kelly Slater and his crew completed construction on their latest version of the wave, they revealed a perfect left. When it came time to deciding who would ride the first wave, Slater knew exactly who he wanted to give the honor to. “I really wanted Gerry to ride the first left, just to say thanks for your commitments and what you’ve given to surfing over the years.”

Gerry, who’s been operating on a higher plane for decades now, is a longtime believer in tapping into surf energy wherever it can be found, whether that’s a speed reef in Indonesia, a river wave near his house in Bend, Oregon, or the Surf Ranch. So what did he think after riding a few gems?

“That’s the future, bro,” he told Slater afterward. “That’s it man.”

I have nothing to add at this time, though am chasing leads and… interviews (just kidding. I’m mixing a cocktail). Tomorrow we’ll discuss in gret depth (just kidding. I’ll be hungover).

In truth though, is this really the future?

Like really really?

Like really really really really really?

More as it develops (just kidding. Unless “as it develops” refers to my alcoholism).