The Coast News Group
A recently discovered pristine Sony Walkman and Phil Edwards interview. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Surfing legends revisited in audio gems

Cleaning the garage may be a reward unto itself for some, but for me, it is drudgery interrupted on occasion by sheer boredom. Worthy distractions like the boxes of surf magazines that dredge up memories of my 60 years of surfing tempt me to peek inside.

But I dare not crack their faded covers for fear of drowning in nostalgia’s tears and the idea that nobody would find me until the spring thaw.

Opening a plastic tub I am greeted by a foot-high stack of plastic cassettes and a pristine Sony Walkman.

Inside the Walkman is a tape of surfing legend Phil Edwards that I recorded over two and a half decades ago. I optimistically press the button, but the 25-year-old batteries are dead.

Go figure.

An hour later I am glued to the cement floor, shuffling through over 100 hours of surf history. Off to the corner store for AA batteries.

Once installed, the Walkman clearly plays Phil’s voice and I am transported for the next 90 minutes. The garage will have to wait.

Other treasures include tapes of Dale Velzy, Rabbit Kekai, Margo Godfrey Oberg, Joyce Hoffman, Paul Strauch and Jericho Poplar. Each of them come to life at the push of a button as tales of waves, some of which were ridden more than half a century ago on surfboards that have long since perished, rise from the garbage dump of surf history.

Notably missing from my collection are tales I recorded in the early ’80s of Chris O’Rourke and a mid-’70s interview with Dale Velzy.  While I deeply wish I had those tapes, the memories of the voices of these surfing icons are as fresh as if they were recorded this afternoon.

O’Rourke was thin and pale, recovering from brain surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy when I pressed record. He had only recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a malady that would eventually take his life.

Before that, he had been widely considered California’s best surfer. Without sparing any of the agony and ecstasy of his life, he told of his rapid competitive rise and faster fall. He battled back to again become a brilliant surfer. He was a fierce fighter and, eventually, a close friend.

I had known Velzy since the early ’60s when he opened his surf shop on Coast Highway in Newport Beach under the name Dale. He had been forced to sell the Velzy name, which he was famous for, to pay back taxes. 

Velzy was a surfer and a cowboy whose twin passions were riding waves and horses. He wasn’t making many surfboards when I spoke with him and was living in Costa Mesa. 

His goal, he said, was to leave town and move to Tucson, Arizona, where he could pursue his wild-west dreams.

Velzy had been a top surfer and board builder in the ’40s and ’50s.  His boards were among the best on the coast, and many of his inventions from the ’60s and earlier remain relevant today: The 7’11”, the Bump, the winger, the no nose and concave noserider, each of which launched their revolutions in the surf industry, were all made by Dale years before the rest of the surfing world caught on.

If my garage is messier than usual please forgive me. Some old friends are calling me.