Friday, January 07, 2011

1930s: Pete Peterson 2

O‘ahu, 1932-33

[Continued from Part 1]

The year 1932 was a big one for Pete.  In that single year alone, he won the Pacific Coast Surfing Championship, paddled to Catalina Island with Wally Burton and Tom Blake, and surfed O‘ahu for the first time.  Perhaps most significant that year, Pete became part of the first wave of California haoles to follow in Tom Blake’s footsteps and go Hawaiian.  Others of this early ‘30s group included Lorrin “Whitey” Harrision and Gene “Tarzan” Smith.

Pete and Whitey Harrison happened to go to Hawai‘i for the first time, at about the same time, both in 1932.  Australian surfer Nat Young wrote that shortly after arriving on O‘ahu, Peterson, “ran out of money and ended up moving into the same house in Waikiki as ‘Whitey’ and they became close friends.  Later, Whitey and Pete stowed away back to the US mainland on the U.S.S. Republic masquerading as members of a contingent of 1,000 soldiers being shipped back to California.”[1]

Once at Waikiki, Pete quickly established a daily routine of getting up early, then paddling over eight miles to Diamond Head and back.  Along this route, he would sample the surf at Queens, Canoes, Public Baths, Popular’s and all the various reefs and breaks that were firing on a given day.  This kind of dedicated discipline did not go unnoticed by the locals.[2]

“See, Pete spoke little and listened much,” explained his good friend Whitey Harrison, about how Pete came across to the locals.  “He could surf, all right.  They liked that.  And they liked the fact that he wasn’t just another rich haole off the Matson liner.  He could use tools and make boards.  His opinions were valued.”[3]

It also did not hurt that some of the Hawaiians from the Olympic swim teams remembered Pete from when he was just a kid at the Crystal Pier bathhouse.

“Back in the winter of 1932,” continued Nat Young, “Pete and Whitey surfed all over the south shore of Oahu, on every coral reef from Diamond Head to the entrance of Honolulu harbour.  They rode waves all day long on both boards and outrigger canoes, enjoying the unfamiliarly warm Hawaiian water.”[4]

“While surfing at Waikiki one morning,” Young continued, “Pete spied an interesting looking board under another surfer.  The statistics were about the same as his: 10’ long by 2’ wide, with a wide, square tail, but the timber was completely different.  It was balsa.  Back on the beach, Pete picked up one of these new blond coloured boards and discovered they were half the weight of his redwood one.  Apparently they had been made in Florida, and the balsa came from South America.  They had been given several coats of varnish to keep the water out, but this tended to crack under pressure, especially where they were knelt upon.  The weight was the quality that made these boards fantastic: only 30 to 40 pounds.

Who made them is a mystery, as are the surfers who rode them.  But they represented such an advance on the old, heavy redwood boards that surfers began shaping their boards from the new timber, which soon began to be in great demand and hard to get.”[5]  These balsa boards were most likely successors to Lorrin Thurston’s balsa board(s) of the 1920s, not Whitman imports from Florida.[6]

“There’s one error I’d like to bring out,” Pete told Peter Dixon, former Santa Monica lifeguard, screenwriter, and surf writer.  “Some of the fellows who are supposed to be old-timers talk and write about the heavy redwood boards they were riding back in the ‘30s.  They make it seem like we all lugged around those hundred-pounders.  Well, gosh, that just wasn’t so.  A couple of guys from Florida, in the early ‘30s, built the first balsas and shipped them to Hawaii… and they were really keen.

“And when I came back [to the U.S. Mainland], after trying them [at Waikiki], I started building balsa boards – ten-foot balsa boards that weighed under 20 pounds.  They were that light because we didn’t have fiberglass to cover them with.  Later on, we added redwood noses and tail blocks (and rails) for strength, and that brought the weight up.”[7]

Pete’s first balsa board, built in 1932, was 12-feet, 20 pounds, varnished with a hardwood deck patch.[8]
While on O‘ahu during the winter of 1932-1933, Pete and Whitey touched on the promise of what the North Shore of the island had to offer, although that seven-mile stretch of beach would not really be known for its big surf until some five years later.[9]

Pete and Lorrin heard about the North Shore from Waikiki surfers who already knew there were waves out there, but generally never went out that far because there were plenty of waves already on the South Shore. Pete’s and Whitey’s first visit to the northern side of O‘ahu ended up being a three-day adventure that involved them walking and hitchhiking to Schofield Barracks and then hiking along the old Oahu Railroad tracks through cane and pineapple fields toward Hale‘iwa.

Hiking further along a stretch of wagon track northeast of the tiny plantation town, they later landed on a stretch of beach that they remembered, years later, as being the place much later to be known as “The Banzai Pipeline.”

“‘Pete, there’s no way you could surf that, but you figure we could survive a swim out there?’  Lorrin asked.  As lifeguards back home, they readily recognized the danger of the spot, but as surfers they were drawn to it.

“‘Golly, Whitey,’ said the thoughtful Pete, shaking his head.  ‘I don’t know.  That’s some wave, isn’t it?’  Pete rubbed his chin.  ‘If we don’t, we’ll always wish we had.’”

Fearing they might lose the only swimming suits they owned in the ocean turbulence, and seeing no one else around, they bodysurfed Pipeline naked.[10]

It’s a neat story and may have happened. I don’t know.  Hot Curl surfer Fran Heath told me that he and his buddies were bodysurfing Pipeline way before anyone knew about the spot, so maybe they found out about it from Pete and Whitey?  Or vice versa?  We’ll probably never know.  Certainly, although glowing accounts must have been repeated more than once, the real potential of the North Shore of O‘ahu was not fully realized until Whitey and Gene Smith rode it with surfboards later on in the decade.[11]

George Downing recalled hearing about Pete while Downing was still a kid, before he met him after World War II: “The local surfers of that time [at Waikiki] were a pretty selective group.  They didn’t just accept anyone.  But Pete was not only accepted, he was respected.”[12]


[Pete's story is continued in Part 3]

[1] Young, 1983, p. 56.
[2] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 55.
[3] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 55.  Whitey Harrison quoted.
[4] Young, 1983, p. 57.
[5] Young, 1983, p. 57.
[6] See Chapter 7, the section on the Whitmans in Florida and also the following footnote.
[7] Lockwood, 2005-2006, pp. 55-56.  Pete quoted, talking about Whitman boards, amongst other things.
[8] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 60.  See photo, same page, of Pete with the board, abalones on deck, 1932.
[9] Gault-Williams, “Legends of the Hotcurl,” “The Forgotten Hotcurler: Fran Heath,” and  “Surf Drunk: The Wally Froiseth Story,” chapters in the LEGENDARY SURFERS collection.
[10] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 55.  Whitey and Pete quoted, but certainly Lockwood’s rendition.
[11] Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.  See also Gault-Williams, “Surf Drunk, The Wally Froiseth Story,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997.
[12] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 46.  George Downing quoted.

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