The Coast News Group
"Pal" Al Nelson during a recent interview. He died last month at his Mexico home. Photo by Doug Moranville
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Not all heroes wear masks

Unlike his close friends Pat Curren, Butch Van Artsdalen and Carl Ekstrom, “Pal” Al Nelson was never famous as a surfer. He somehow avoided that honor in spite of being one of our sport’s top surfers and board makers.

Nelson was too busy chasing freedom to ever worry about anything so trivial as fame. He first found liberty at Windansea, where he distinguished himself for his advanced surfing, and later in Hawaii when he, along with the aforementioned Curren, helped pioneer big water on the North Shore of Oahu. As proof of this accomplishment, the first Surfer Magazine shows Al sliding down the face of a skyscraper-sized mountain at Waimea Bay.

I don’t know how Nelson got his start building surfboards, but his boards were vastly popular through the ’50s and ’60s as he and his business partner Curren hand-crafted some of the most beautiful and functional art pieces beneath the Windansea shack.

This was in the days when California was the land of the free, a time before permits and fire regulations when building a surfboard on the beach was considered a human right. When that right was revoked, Al began making boards in garages, not his garage or those belonging to people he knew, but whatever garage he found open.

The dialogue between Al and the garage owners went something like this:

“Hey, what are you doing in my garage?”

“This isn’t your garage, it belongs to Ed, and Ed told me I could work here.”

“This is my garage; who’s Ed?”

“Ed owns this garage, and he said I could use it.”

The conversation continued like this until the owner relented and said, “Okay, just clean up when you leave.”

Besides surfboards, Al built airplanes, once winning the best new design at the prestigious Oshkosh Air Show. Just prior to his death, T. Claude Ryan, the owner of Ryan Aircraft, where the Spirit of St Louis was produced for famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, commissioned Nelson to build a plane for his company. Ryan’s death in 1982 halted the project.

By then, Nelson had discovered new surfing grounds south of the border in Costa Rica and Mexico.

Nelson was a humanitarian, showing kindness to everyone including an autistic kid named Ronald whom Al often brought to work. As the story goes, Ronald was a fan of the Lone Ranger, and one of his prized possessions was the silver bullet Al gave him as a gift from the masked man himself.

Least anyone get some sentimental notion of canonizing Al Nelson, it should be noted that he often held his own in cantinas from Bird Rock’s Sip N Surf Bar to Tijuana’s Long Bar. There, stories of Nelson and Curren are recounted by the ghosts who frequent there, much as their legends are in the waves they rode.

I once traded stories of Pal Al with Surfer’s Journal founder Steve Pezman. Our meeting concluded with Pezman shaking his head, laughing and saying, “I’ve got to write his story.”

I don’t know if that story was ever written or not. Even if it was, there is no way to sum up the life of Pal Al Nelson, who passed away last month in his Punta Chivato home.

While there are no dates yet established for paddle-outs, Al’s ashes will be divided between Windansea and various parts of Baja. Trust me when I say it has to be that way. There really isn’t enough of him to go around.

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