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Fran Heath (1917-2006)

 

Fran Heath was the oldest of the Hot Curl surfers, but only by a couple of years. His family moved to O‘ahu when he was an infant. The Heaths lived in the Kahala section, a coastal strip just on the other side of Diamond Head crater from Waikiki. He would have been native born except for the fact that during a visit of his mother to relatives on the U.S. Mainland, the Matson steamship company refused to take her back on board for the return trip. Mrs. Heath was far along in her pregnancy and, in those days, the passenger ships between Hawai’i and the West Coast only averaged a speed of around 11 knots. The typical trip between Honolulu and San Francisco could take between 14 and 16 days. Thus, Francis R. Heath III was born in Oakland, July 13, 1917.[1]

Fran started surfing around the age of 12, at the very start of the 1930s. He was a member of the Outrigger Canoe Club at an early age, beginning his surfing life on an 8-foot redwood board. Favorite spots to surf when he was first underway included the old pier in front of the Ala Moana Hotel, Sandy Beach and Black Point.

“The beach was there. The surf was there,” Fran said with a smile when I asked him what had originally attracted him to surfing. And he was not alone. Doug Forbes, Hershel “Herky” Best, Gene and Wally Froiseth, Frank Addison, Lex Brody and John Kelly were all surfers Fran first rode with. When I asked him who out of that group he surfed with the most, he answered:

“Probably Kelly. We lived close to one another and each of us grew out of tide pools right next to each other. His was at Black Point, on the Diamond Head side and mine was more over toward Koko Head. When you’re a kid, you get to checking out the neighborhood and you know where all the other kids are near you. Kelly was not only near, but he surfed, too.”[2]

Out of the half dozen or so guys he first started surfing with, all but Lex Brody would go on to ride Hot Curls.

“The average board was 8-to-10 feet long, before the Hot Curls,” Fran said. “Of course, Tom Blake’s hollow boards were quite a bit longer and they were rising in popularity at the time.”[3] But, Fran and his buddies “weren’t hot on” Blake’s hollow boards Fran said, “because they were too bouyant and – they were great, but – they had a habit of leaking.”

Although Fran and friends were not attracted to Blake’s hollows, partially-hollow boards were a different story. Fran was the first to have a semi-hollow, ordered from Pacific Coast Redi-Cut Homes, back on the Mainland. This board would later become the first Hot Curl surfboard.[4]

Speaking of the surfers they hung with, Fran’s friend and fellow Wally Froiseth recalled, “We were what was known as... the ‘Empty Lot Boys’... You know where the big banyon tree is in Kuhio Park? Well, that used to be a big empty lot. Prince Kuhio’s home was right next to it... That banyon tree was all jungle. The banyon tree’s hollow, so, if we didn’t have time to paddle the boards back, we’d just put our boards in there – put our boards in the middle of that tree. Nobody’d take ‘em in those days, anyway, but, you know, you can’t just leave ‘em on the beach. So, we’d get ‘em in there. No problem.”[5]

“Leaving the boards at the beach without fear of theft,” was just the way it was in those days, agreed Fran, but, “We did run into a little problem on heavy tourist days when the Beach Boys’ supply of rental boards ran out. When we came for our boards we found they had been rented to some unsuspecting tourist. We then had to swim out, find our board and transport the tourist to the beach. There were some rather interesting confrontations as a result of this activity.”[6]

Dad Center,” was Fran’s immediate response when I asked who his early influences had been. “He was interested in canoes a lot. We all were, but he actively promoted it.”[7]
Dad Center had been surfing Waikiki since surfing’s revival, prior to World War I. In fact, he was out surfing with Duke Kahanamoku the day Duke caught his now-famous half-mile ride in 1917 – the longest single ocean ride in recorded history.[8] Dad later became the canoe coach for the Outrigger, coaching not only Fran, but others who would go on to make names for themselves in the surfing world – like Rabbit Kekai. Strategically, Dad Center owned a good deal of Waikiki at one point and was the main connection for redwood shipped over from the U.S. Mainland.

“Duke and I were very good friends,” Fran added, mentioning The Father of Modern Surfing as another key influence on him at the beginning of his surfing days. “We were both in the Outrigger together. Of course, he was very respected and I was just a kid, but that didn’t get in our way.”

“When we first began surfing in the early ‘30s,” Fran said of the Empty Lot Boys, “we were led to believe Waikiki was the only place waves could be surfed. When John Kelly, Herky Best and Dougie Forbes moved to Kahala and Black Point, it became obvious to us when walking home on Diamond Head Road, that there were some fabulous surfs both off Black Point and Diamond Head.

“Our best access to these surfs was from Kelly’s house where we would carry these boards – then weighing around eighty pounds – over our shoulders, down a steep trail to a ledge where we would launch and return... We soon found out these waves differed from Waikiki, especially Brown’s surf, as they were harder and steeper.”[9]

“Great surfer; great surfer,” friend Wally said of Fran. “I used to admire his style. He had a neat way of – I don’t know, there was just something about him; the way he surfed. He was one of those guys who wanted maximum speed across the wave and – try and make it as far as you could... Most of the time, Fran and all the rest of us – we wanted to get across...

“I don’t know, but unconsciously I probably tried to emulate him. You know, when you admire someone doing something – you want to improve however you can – so, you know, I’m not afraid to learn from somebody else.

“Fran – it was like he was part of the board. I always admired that. When you saw him on a wave or were with him on a wave... he just seemed to be part of that board; so much a part of it, it was just like one thing.

“He was just – smooth. You know, like the way you catch the wave and stand up...  It was just like fluid motion. Beautiful.

“I remember one time, Kelly, my brother, Fran and I went out to Mo-kapu. Big surf. At first, we threw our boards off the cliff, paddled out on the left side, and surfed over there all morning. Then we came in for lunch. About 1 O’clock, when we’re going back out on the right side, Fran went out first. So, John said, ‘Ah, let’s wait and see...’  Cuz, then we were gonna surf what they call Pyramid Rock. So, we wanted to surf on the right of Pyramid Rock, rather than the left side. ‘Let’s wait to see how Fran does.’

“So, we waited and Fran started catching waves – just so beautiful, you know.

“You see,” Wally emphasized, “in the old days, part of the enjoyment with us was watching other people surf. It was part of what we called the ‘Island Style.’”[10]

“In the early part of World War II,” Fran recalled, “John Kelly and I served aboard the U.S.S. Calcedony, a converted yacht. We were assigned to escort and patrol duty. The Island-born Captain permitted us to bring our boards along. We were then able to try out such virgin surfs as Midway, Palmyra, Christmas and Canton Islands. Midway was by far the best, with a long right slide on the eastern side of the island.”[11]

Toward the later part of the war, both Kelly and Fran were assigned to UDT duty. The Underwater Demolition Team was the predecessor of today’s Navy SEALS. Fran admitted that the swimming and diving was not a problem; it was the demolitions. “We had to learn all about explosives. I mean, we were handling explosives strong enough to blow up an entire building – in our case, powerful enough to sink a metal-hulled ship.

“We considered using surfboards for reconnaissance missions,” recalled Fran. “That was Kelly’s idea. But, boards are too easily spotted from low-flying aircraft and there’s no protection if you’re spotted, so that idea was scrapped.” They were some of the first to use the Lambertson Lung in underwater demolition. This “most primitive self-contained rig,” as Fran put it, “enabled you to swim underwater without leaving the telltale string of bubbles typical to the scuba.”

“After the war,” recalled Fran, “Gene – Wally’s brother – got a job working on a radio construction site there, at Makaha. He’d give us a call when it got big.”[12]

By this time, both Woody Brown and George Downing had joined the Hot Curler guys as full-fledged members. Woody had come over at the start of the war. “George started after the war,” recalled Fran. “He wanted to take some pictures of me at Koko Head... We got to be friends and he said... ‘What about Waimea?’

“We also were probably the first ones to consider surfing Kaena Point by tow-in with a motorized boat,” remembers Fran. “No one was willing to risk their boat for that and none of us was willing to sacrifice our boards... We did do tow-in’s at Shark Bay.”[13]

In 1953, Honolulu photographer Skip Tsuzuki took the famous Associated Press photo of Buzzy Trent, Woody and George Downing riding a 15-foot wave at Makaha that went world wide. “That’s the first big wave that was ever photographed that had world wide distribution,” Woody told me. “After that, of course, people started getting gung ho over big waves... California surfers started coming over, after that picture... that drove everybody crazy... So, they all wanted to come out here and see for themselves.”[14]

“Our first experience with California surfers,” recalled Fran, “was that they then were used to the softer, gentler Southern Californian beach breaks. Their initial experience with North Shore waves rapidly rising and closing out on them came as a very obvious shock. We had to talk quite a number of them back thru the white water to shore.”

As the Hot Curl guys grew older and were super ceded by younger surfers from both Hawai‘i and the U.S. Mainland, most all of them still continued to surf, stay close to the ocean, and carry on as tribal leaders in surfing’s development.

The exception was Fran Heath.

“What happened with him is, he surfed in the ‘30s and then about the time of the war, he started to shy away from it,” Wally recalled. “I don’t know exactly why. Maybe he was busy with his father’s insurance business... At one point, he told John Kelly and I that he got kind of bored with surfing. Then, after the war, we tried to get him interested again, you know. But, he was sort of a loner, in a way. So, he did a lot of bodysurfing and, you know, an individual thing rather than a group thing. Through the years, he kind of moved away from Kelly and our group to some extent. He was there, but not as much as the rest of us.”[15]

“Well, I became interested in other things,” Fran explained. “I found my work took me away from the beach and my son was growing up, then. He didn’t take to the ocean like I had. I found myself wanting to do the things he wanted to do and these took me further away from riding the waves like I used to do.”

Fran continued bodysurfing, fishing and boating – both power and sail. His wife Juliette had praises for her husband’s ability to surf waves even with a Boston Whaler. From the glow in her eyes, telling of one particular instance, I got the impression Fran did this on big days as well as small.

Another Hot Curl surfer to get into boating was Woody Brown. He had brought the Polynesian double-hulled canoe design into the modern era by developing the catamaran in the 1940s. One catamaran he built was bought by Duke Kahanamoku. “In the latter years [of Duke’s life],” Fran said, “I crewed for him on his Woody Brown cat Nadu.” In speaking about his long friendship with Duke, Fran added that when Duke “became too ill to sail, I followed his wishes and continued to race the boat.”[16]

Continuing to bodysurf, Fran was one of the first to do so at Pipeline and Waimea.

“Buddy Adolphsen surfed with us when I was young. Later, after World War II, he became a sergeant in the police force. When he was stationed on the North Shore, he devoted himself to lifesaving. A lot of people don’t know, but Buddy was responsible for many a save on the North Shore before they had lifeguards there.

“Anyway, this one time I was bodysurfing Waimea when it was pretty big; no one else out... After a while, I noticed fire engines on shore and a lot of people congregated. I wondered what had happened, cuz I hadn’t seen anybody else out riding those waves that day.

“When I came in, swim fins in hand, Buddy met me on the sand, shaking his head; a little agitated, I’d say. ‘Goddammit, Fran, I should have known it was you!’ he said to me. ‘Please, in the future, before you go out alone like that, stop by the fire station and let us know.’ They’d all gotten worried about this lone body out in the big surf that day...”[17]

At the end the day I spent with Fran, interviewing him, I went with Fran and his wife Juliette, over to Wally’s place to show me his Pacific Systems semi-hollow Hot Curl which Wally had recently refurbished. It’s a beautiful board; beautiful in materials and beautiful in shape. I was also struck with the heavy weight – at least by today’s standards. At one point, I was concerned about Fran.  I mean, the guy was an octogenarian by that point and walking around with a cane. How could he lift even half the weight? Well, that day he hefted his end of the board; no problem. Outside, under the Honolulu sun, he gave me directions on slinging it over my shoulder so we could take a picture of it.

At a certain point, Fran clearly got frustrated with my lack of expertise handling his board. “You don’t know how to carry a surfboard,” he said, almost scolding me while cradling the semi-hollow in his arms. Fran showed me how to sling it over my shoulder with one hand in a perpendicular fulcrum. It was then that I fully realized what it was like back in the days of the Hot Curls, when Fran, Wally, Kelly and them slung their boards on their shoulders on a daily basis. It was the only way you could carry a heavy redwood board.
Lost in time is not only this practice, but also the Hot Curl surfboard’s place in the rack as the grandfather of today’s big wave guns. Contemporary board design for what Buzzy Trent originally labeled the “Elephant Gun” still reflects many Hot Curl principles, including forward V, tail V and pulled-in gun plan shapes.

So it goes for the Hot Curl guys, themselves. Nearly forgotten or overlooked, it’s The Empty Lot Boys who were the first surfers in modern times to regularly ride the biggest waves the island of O‘ahu has to serve up. They rode all the island’s shores – including the North Shore – at least a decade before the arrival of those who would later get the kudos for it.


[Note: this is a slightly updated chapter on Fran; more easily read on a mobile device. The original chapter, based on an article I wrote for LONGBOARD magazine in 1997 -- including some images from the Heath collection -- remains on-line at: http://files.legendarysurfers.com/surf/legends/fran.shtml]





[1] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[2] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[3] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[4] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. According to Fran’s recollection, he ordered the board in 1935 and it arrived in 1936. This is consistent with Wally’s recollection as this board being the first Hot Curl, which was cutdown around 1936-37.
[5]Gault-Williams. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[6] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[7] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[8] Blake, Thomas E. Hawaiian Surfriders 1935, published by Mountain and Sea, Redondo Beach, ©1983. Originally titled Hawaiian Surfboard, published in 1935, by Paradise of the Pacific Press, Honolulu, Hawai’i, p. 55. See also Kahanamoku with Joe Brennan, World of Surfing, ©1968, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, pp. 73-80.
[9] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[10]Gault-Williams. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[11] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[12] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[13] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[14] Gault-Williams. Interview with Woody Brown, Pa’ia, Maui, November 22, 1994.
[15]Gault-Williams. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[16] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.
[17] Gault-Williams. Interview with Fran Heath, April 2, 1996. See also Gault-Williams, “Fran Heath: The Forgotten Hot Curler,” Longboard, Volume 5, Number 1, March/April 1997.

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