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1940s: Hot Curls

(beginning section to Chapter Four of LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 4: The 1940s - currently in draft stage)

The most influential Hawaiian surfers of the late 1930s through the 1940s were, as one of them described, “The Empty Lot Boys” who later developed the Hot Curl surfboard beginning in 1937. It’s significance was in its being the precursor to the Big Wave Guns that would eventually be used to ride big surf at Makaha and the North Shore in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The importance of the Hot Curl surfers is that they helped move the focus of surfing from the Waikiki area to areas of larger surf on the island of O‘ahu, including Makaha and the North Shore.

The Hot Curl

Like many surfers, I’d heard of or read about the cutting down of the first Hot Curl surfboard, but I wanted to ask Wally Froiseth – probably the foremost of the Hot Curl surfers – how it happened. I’d always thought it had taken place in 1934. I found out, instead, that it was sometime in the 1936/1937 timeframe.[1]

John Kelly recalled: “Fran Heath and I were surfing at Brown’s surf on a glassy day. We couldn’t turn our redwood planks fast enough to get out of the peak onto the shoulder and be able to catch the tube. The waves were about fifteen feet and they’d just pound us. On every wave we’d catch, if you tried to turn your board a little bit, the back end would come out because there was no skeg, and you’d just ‘slide ass sideways. You’d then hang onto the board and get dragged sideways to the inside where you’d try to save it from the rocks and then paddle back out again.”[2]

“We were surfing Brown’s – steep [wave face], like at Sunset,” Wally added. “It hollows out. So, you just slide tail on bigger surf. So, Kelly brought the board in. He takes the axe, chops one side; chops the other side; tries it out. Worked perfect, man! The next day, he was smoothing it out, so, you know, it’s nice. Then, I was so jazzed on it, I made one and Kelly made one. Kelly’s and mine were second & third; basically both made at the same time.”[3]

“Yours and John Kelly’s were second and third?” This was news to me. I’d always thought it was Kelly cutting his own board down as the first Hot Curl surfboard.

“Fran’s was the first cut down,” Wally clarified. “Kelly cut his down,” meaning Fran Heath’s semi-hollow that he had ordered from Pacific Redi-Cut Homes and had shipped to him from California. Wally added that he had a copy of the original letter Dougie Forbes had written Pacific Systems Homes, ordering the board for all of $28.[4]

“We’re out in this big surf at Brown’s,” Fran gave his side of the story, “and we couldn’t hold” onto the face of the waves. “That’s when the cutting was done.”

“These modifications were made in Kelly’s workshop,” Fran noted. “Which was first I can’t say. But they all hit the water at the same time.”[5]

The modifications to the redwood plank essentially amounted to a V tail that held the boards onto the face of the wave similar to the function skegs perform, today. Both eliminate a board’s tendancy to – in the vernacular of the day – “slide tail” or “slide ass.”[6]

“It brought the weight down, also,” Fran pointed out. “The redwoods we had averaged about 80 pounds; after the cut, they were closer to 72.” The average redwood board length was between 10-foot 6-inches long, 20-inches wide and upwards of 90 pounds in weight.

“Another feature of these boards,” Fran added, speaking of the Hot Curls – but it was also true of the redwood boards – “was that we had not learned of wax as a non-skid coating. Thusly, riding a wave on these boards was akin to standing on a wet piece of plate glass in wild motion. Also, we did not have lanyards [metal handles]. Hence, a wipeout meant a long swim to the beach, sometimes across a very unforgiving reef. One guy who was noted for his wipeouts tried a lanyard at Castle Surf. It darn near tore his leg off.”

As to the name for their modifications, John Kelly recalls: “Wally Froiseth shouted out ‘Hey it gets you into the hot curl,’ and the name stuck.”

“We wanted to, you know, improve it, eh?” Wally continued. “And, as we were growing older, we wanted to surf on bigger and bigger waves – you know, more challenging – and experiment with all kinds of boards, shapes and everything.

“Up until that time, there were only pretty wide-tailed boards; flat and all that. So, like I say, we just happened to be in the same area and were the type that wanted to make some improvement – or feel we could do something better – you know, meet the challenge.

“Cuz, at the time... you’d catch a wave and your board would just spin out. ‘Slidin’ ass,’ that was the term that everybody used.

“You couldn’t get across the wave. You’d get nailed by the white water, tumble out and lose your board – no leash or anything. So, a lot of times, if it was in big surf, you’d swim all the way from Castle to shore – over the reef and all.”[7]

“We did all kinds of experiments with the Hot Curl. One of the experiments was this guy brought me a – or gave me a – balsa board. So, I thought, ‘Oh, Christ! Balsa!’ I knew it was fast paddling and all the rest of it, so I made a Hot Curl board out of it. It was a disaster! Just too much buoyancy, see. It didn’t do any good. I took it out to big Public Baths one day. God! There wasn’t enough drag to control it. You see what I mean? That’s why we talk about our ‘controlled drag.’ All the curves on my Hot Curl board: they had to be very precise. A guy like Rabbit [Kekai] would come down and he tried to shape his own Hot Curl board, see, to see what it would do. So, Rabbit starts shaping the boards and they’d slide tail, same way as before!

“He’d come over my house... ‘Hey, Wallace, how the hell... Your boards don’t slide tail, how come mine does?’

“‘Lemme look at your board.’ So, I look at it and he had the V sharp. He had a sharp V. So, when he used it, the water would just break off, see. You had to have it just enough rounded so the water would flow and it would drag just a certain amount – calculated drag.

“The very V tail had that. And a little bit up, it had almost a crown, complete round. Our theory was: every angle that you had, you’re supposed to release some of the drag and yet have enough drag to keep you from sliding tail.

“We got to that point after some refinements. Mine, I shaped it the first time – Kelly’s and mine – and Fran’s first, too. Kelly’s and mine were so successful, that was kind of the pattern for all the rest of ‘em. We never altered that much after that.”[8]

“… we got into more maneuvering because the VT [V-Tail] did allow you to maneuver better, because you could sink the tail down and turn.

“We used to go for a ‘2-second curl.’ In other words, whether it breaks or not, you have at least 2 seconds of taking off. We called it ‘2 seconds,’ but the longer the better. If a guy gets nailed... it was kind of an indication the guy had the nerve to catch the wave that steep and that big.”[9]

“Because you got a better angle, you probably got better speed,” Wally continued. “If you go straight off, you can only go as fast as the wave is going. But, if you get an angle, you can go faster than the wave. You know what I mean? Understand —” Wally gestured a surfer riding the short vertical side of a triangle laying on it’s second longest side. “— if you’re going from here to here, the wave is coming into shore and you can only go so fast. Say the wave is going 10 miles-an-hour. But, if you go here to here –” Now he gestured a diagonal direction along the hypotenuse. “— you’re going three times the distance. You must be going three times as fast – triangulation.

“So, the Hot Curls gave us more speed. We could hold on a greater angle.
“As for maneuverability, not too much more than the redwood planks; a little bit more. The tail was narrower. We could sink it more and it was definitely better for taking off on a steeper wave, because once you take off, your stern could sink a little bit – a lot better than the wide-tailed boards. With a big stern, you’d pearl dive a lot. So, that part was a big improvement.

“Of course, the bigger the wave, you know, you gotta start at a better angle. Twelve—fifteen feet, you gotta catch it at a little bit of an angle. You can’t catch it straight off. You can, now, cuz the boards are a lot different; shorter. But, most of the boards averaged about 11-feet at that time; solid or semi-hollow...[10]

Waikiki surfer and beach boy Rabbit Kekai surfed with the Hot Curl guys a little later and recalled the difference between the Hot Curls and the redwood/balsa planks that preceded them: “A plank was mostly for down the wall – straight. Like at Cunha’s [off Waikiki] we had what we’d call a ten second curl where [with a Hot Curl] we’d go a hundred yards in and a thousand yards across. We had it set up with buoys. So your time would tell you what kinda speed.” This was around 1948-49 and the speed was between 30 and 40 mph. “We’d shoot across the whole wall like that and come out smiling.”[11]

[1] Froiseth, Wally. Notations/corrections to draft, May 25, 1996, p. 1. This is consistent with Fran’s recollections as ordering his semi-hollow in 1935 and getting it in 1936. See interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996.
[2] Stecyk, “Hot Curl,” The Surfer’s Journal, Summer 1994, p. 66. John Kelly remembers 1934 as the key date, rather than 1937, which is the year Fran and Wally.identify and have documented.
[3] Gault-Williams. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[4] Gault-Williams. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996. Wally has the original letter from Doug Forbes to Pacific Redi-Cut Homes, ordering the board in 1935.
[5] Fran didn’t get his board back from Pacific Systems until late 1936 or early 1937. Both Fran and Wally pin the year as 1937, “cuz I was in high school at the time” recalled Wally, “that’s why I know the date’s pretty accurate.”
[6] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Woody Brown, Pa’ia, Maui, November 22, 1994.
[7] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[8] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[9] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[10] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[11] Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 70.

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