The following is part 1 of a collection of memories garnered from well over 50 years of enjoyment of the sea & surfing and the people connected with it. The exact sequence or timing of events may not be entirely accurate, but the events themselves are broadly as I remember them. If any reader can fill in any parts of the jigsaw, can expand on any topic or correct me where I’m wrong, please feel free so to do. It is, of necessity, a very personal view and not necessarily a definitive history of surfing on the Island.
Keith Williams Sept 2010
It was in about 1957, around the age of 9 that I was first bowled over by waves, almost literally. The family was on its annual holiday at Grange Chine, Brighstone, and it was a brilliantly sunny July day with a light offshore breeze. Yes, Julys were sunny in those far off days! We were on the beach for the day, and as the tide came up the waves got bigger & bigger, until at high tide the shore break was nearly twice as high as me, say 5-6 feet. My Dad & my uncle Fred got dumped on the sand as they tried to swim out to the calmer water beyond and my brother Steve & I were forbidden to go anywhere near the water. My mother said it must have been ‘Neap Tides’ (yes, really). I played on the beach watching these waves, the like of which I’d never seen before, rise up with sunlight glinting off their crests, before crashing over with a plume of spray blowing over the back creating a myriad of rainbows. Even at that age, I was truly hooked.
A year or so later, in the autumn, also at Brighstone, I saw a guy swimming out in some biggish wind blown waves. Suddenly, as a big wave bore down on him, he too spun round and shot forward as the wave broke over him, lying on some sort of plywood board.
The sea was too rough for me to be allowed to go in for a swim, but I watched this chap do this 2 or 3 more times & decided that this was something that I must have a go at. Even as a small boy, I had always tried to body surf on the broken waves at Brighstone, even though I didn’t at that time know what body surfing was, but I had never seen anything like this.
Shortly afterwards, in Woodwork Club after school, the teacher produced a mould & asked if anyone wanted to make a surf board. You can imagine that I didn’t have to be asked twice. Half a sheet of marine ply & some glue and varnish later, I had my first surfboard. I had no real idea how to use it, but made it up as I went along. I well remember my first real drop-in on an unbroken wave. I was out about chest deep when a good looking unbroken wave came in; I pushed off the bottom, but was out too deep & didn’t get enough of a push off, so I frantically kicked my feet & suddenly I felt this surge of speed & power as I slid down the face, only to go straight down as I hadn’t formed enough of a curve into the front of the board. That was my first real surfing experience.
At the age of about 14 or 15, I went to the pictures at the Odeon in Newport one night with my pal Chris, (later the Savoy, now Dabell’s Furniture store) and saw a film called ‘Gidget goes Hawaiian’. Wow. That was a real revelation. A guy that I now know was the late, great Miklos (Micky) Chapin Dora III, was out riding impossibly big waves at Waimea Bay. I’d just never seen or even imagined anything like it. This was before England’s ‘cultural revolution’ in the mid to late ‘60s, and it was so neat that these people were actually able to master these huge waves and that they had their own ‘look’ and way of speaking. I was so envious, but determined that one day I, too, would be able join their tribe.
Again, only a short time passed when another piece of the jigsaw slotted into place. I was watching some TV program like Blue Peter or Magpie when they showed people surfing in the Channel Islands; moreover, they showed a guy actually making a real ‘Malibu’ surfboard, pouring resin over the fibre glass cloth draped over a shaped, foam blank. That was all stored in the memory banks, where did you get the foam? Where did you get fibre glass & resin?
Eventually, I started work at Plessey Radar (now BAe Systems) at Cowes as an apprentice. During my stint in the Experimental Workshop, I found a piece of polystyrene foam that looked about surfboard size which was going to be scrapped. I asked if I could have it, & took it home. I started to think about the shaping & how to firmly attach the fin. Being an engineer, I came up with an engineering solution. At work, I made an aluminium channel that I intended to screw to a 1” pine stiffener that I’d glued into the blank & the wooden fin would fix into the channel, also with screws. Therefore, I can claim to be the inventor of the removable fin box in about 1965.
When I came to take the ally bits home from work, a guy that I shared a lift with asked me what it was. I explained, whereupon the guy says that he was interested in surfing too & had just returned from a holiday in Cornwall where he had seen people actually stand-up surfing. That guy, Dave Jacobs, became a lifelong friend. Shine on, Jake, & thanks for all those evenings listening to Big Ear, Man on Fire & DSOTM.
Loads of stuff happened around that time. Since school, I had played Rugby for the Hurricanes RFC at Sandown & knew Mike Hutchinson & his cousin Pat Morrell from there. Being a woodwork teacher, Hutch had made his own board, out of plywood naturally, and an invitation to try it at Compton was made. ‘Don’t try to shoot the curl’ he said, ‘just ride the white water’ What the bloody hell did all that mean?? Suffice to say that after half an hour I was exhausted, having totally failed to catch anything let alone ‘shoot the curl’.
Through a new girlfriend, I also met Sid Pitman around that time. Sid wore a black leather motorcycle jacket, extremely tight drainpipe jeans and sported a rockers quiff. Despite his hard man appearance, Sid turned out to be a helpful, joker of a guy that, like Hutch, had made his own board, but out of ‘proper’ foam & fibre glass and had a buddy (Ben Kelley of Kelley’s Left fame) who’d also made one from plywood. Again, an invitation was made, and on a cold October morning in quite a big swell, I again found myself at Compton trying, unsuccessfully, to ‘shoot the curl’. Sid’s board had, I believe, previously broken in half & was held together by a fibre glass bandage around the middle & I seem to recall it was still a bit flexible, thus backing up my thoughts about my 1” pine stringer. Ben’s board, by contrast, was hollow plywood with solid wooden rails & was OK for about 15 minutes until it filled up with water, whereupon it had to be up-ended on the beach & the corks removed from the square tail to allow the water to drain out. It was quite entertaining when it was half full of water, as, when you started to drop-in, all the water ran to the nose & made a spectacular pearl inevitable!
I went back to building my own board, (shaping it in the bathroom, much to my mother’s annoyance) but had discovered that polystyrene foam was not the right foam to use, as the polyester resin used with fibre glass would dissolve the styrene in the foam. Jake came up with a solution though. His dad was a carpenter & he got me a jar of Cascemite wood glue. I was supposed to mix this up with water and paint the shaped blank with it & it would protect the foam from the resin.