By Phil Jarratt
When old surfers gather it’s inevitable that sooner rather than later the conversation will turn to surfboards, particularly if there are a few around so that you can get yourself in the mood by fondling rails and eyeing off rocker.
I’ve been doing a lot more of this than usual recently, hanging out with the new Noosa Surf Museum’s Keith Grisman and with television researchers looking for authentic period boards for a new ABC series. And inevitably, somewhere along the line, maybe when the beers are being passed around, some one will say, “If only these boards could talk.”
Well, they can’t, but every surfer has a few stories to tell about the magic board that could do no wrong, or maybe the dog that wouldn’t turn.
My favourite magic board story was told to me by Hawaiian surfer Jeff Hakman, one of the greatest surfers of the early pro era and a friend for nearly 50 years. It goes like this:
During the preliminary heats of the 1974 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, held in 12-foot waves at Sunset Beach, Hawaii, Jeff loaned a board to his friend Australian champion Paul Neilsen, who was having all kinds of equipment problems but Jeff assured him, “This board is special.” Indeed it was. Neilsen caught two spectacular waves before wiping out on a third that was equally spectacular. The board drifted into the savage rip and, pushed along by a strong offshore wind, disappeared out to sea. That was the end of that Magic Board.
Like most surfers of the modern era, Jeff owned literally hundreds of boards during his competitive career, but the 7-foot 11-inch Dick Brewer pintail he called the Magic Board was the best of them all. He had to fight to own it, and when he finally sold it, he had to lease it back.
The story dates back to Christmas 1972 after a split between surfer and shaper over Brewer’s long waiting time for custom orders. On Christmas Eve Brewer sealed the reunion by presenting Jeff with a nine-six Sunset gun. Jeff loved it, but on one big day he traded boards with another surfer who was riding a much shorter Brewer gun. He swung around for his first wave and made the drop perfectly. After a few waves he paddled over to the guy and said, “I have to have it.”
But there were complications. It actually belonged to shaper Jack Reeves, who refused to sell it. Jeff told Brewer his problem and the legendary shaper promised to make him an identical board. But it didn’t have the magic. Eventually, Jeff persuaded Brewer to make Reeves an offer he couldn’t refuse – two boards for one – and Reeves took the bait. The board was Hakman’s.
He rode it for two years, but somehow the gloss wore off, and Jeff sold it to a surfer named Joey Smoot, and started riding boards from new North Shore shaper Tom Parrish. But something was lacking. Before the start of the contest season, he went cap in hand to Smoot, who was smarter than he looked. He wouldn’t sell but agreed to lease it back for a percentage of Jeff’s prize money. It was a clever move. Jeff rode it to second place in the Smirnoff Pro, third in the Duke and fourth in the Pipe Masters, before winning the season ending Hang Ten Pro in perfect big Sunset.
In these pre-leash times, the Magic Board was looking a little worse for wear, so Jeff left it behind for the Australian and Indonesian winter, but pulled it out again for the North Shore season at the end of 1974. Then the Magic Board was lost at sea. Jeff told me he never had another board as good, but he and Neilsen have remained friends.
My American colleague Matt Warshaw, who was a good pro tour competitor back in the day, but not quite a star, has a thing about the Stinger design, or “sting” as creator Ben Aipa originally named it. During its brief heyday, the stinger was the fastest, quickest-turning small-wave machine around until the late ‘70s when Mark Richards’ twin fin usurped it. Aipa’s design went from hero to zero in about six weeks.
Hawaii’s Larry Bertlemann was the undisputed master of the stinger, but on a magic board, every dog has its day, as Matt wrote: “My heat against Larry Bertlemann in the 1977 Katin Pro-Am – I was riding a stinger, Larry wasn’t. This board was a marvel, it lifted my game from the minute I set foot on it, lots of twang off the bottom, sharp off the top, so much speed through the sections, and I beat Larry Bertlemann! In the crappiest Southern California winter storm surf imaginable, victory at sea, the north-to-south current running along the beach like the Rio Grande.
“Larry drifted 300 yards up the beach trying to paddle out while I spun around and rode two near-shore closeouts, while also drifting south, then got out and ran back directly in front of the judging stand, paddled out and wowed ’em with another foamy closeout, took the win while Larry ended up scoreless. Look it up!”
My own magic board was a beautiful little yellow and black swallowtail that Australian surfer/shaper Terry Fitzgerald gave me after winning the 1980 Om Bali Pro on it. It lived in Bali for the next several years and allowed me some waves on the Bukit peninsula that were way above my pay grade. And then it died.
But my more recent magic board experience was also on an Aipa Stinger, albeit a monster version. When I was having equipment problems at Cloudbreak in Fiji, a Californian surfer with the unlikely name of Peff Eick loaned me the super stinger, all nine feet four of slide and glide. Riding it over the next two days of beautiful swell at that legendary break was like putting your board on auto-pilot. I was deeply in love with that board, but, like Jack Reeves, Peff wouldn’t sell it.