The Coast News Group
The van borrowed for shooting the first modern surf movie, “On Safari to Stay.” Illustration by Wade Koniakowsky for the novella, “Behold What Is Greater Than Thyself.” Courtesy image

‘We’re on fire!’

It seems strange to contemplate now, but in 1990 there were no surf films concerning what I have termed the “Longboard Renaissance.”

Longboards, which had basically evaporated from surf lineups for years in response to a hard surf media push toward shorter boards, were again the rage.

Some of them that had been stored in the rafters for decades had been dusted off by legends like Donald Takayama, Dale Dobson and Herbie Fletcher.

That’s when I dropped in again, in the early to mid-’70s. I had just returned from an extended stay in Australia and New Zealand, where the surf was generally more powerful and less crowded than it is here.

To compensate for SoCal crowds and ride the little summer waves that dribble into North County, I bought a Jacobs Donald Takayama Model for 10 bucks and began the process of relearning to ride it — left-go-rights going right, drop-knee turns going left. Cross stepping to the tip. It was really like another sport.

There were no longboard blanks being made yet, but Takayama had a few in storage along with his old templates. My friend Pat Becket had a board shaped by Donald and I had one made by my then-roommate, Bahne Surfboards shaper Steve Morett.

Life moved far slower in those pre-internet years, and it took about 15 years for someone to notice that there was nobody covering longboarding.

All that changed after a conversation between my lifelong friend Steve Cleveland and me. Steve and I had both grown up riding longboards and while I never got much beyond average, Cleveland was making a name for himself among a noteworthy South Bay crew, before boards went short and he faded from the mainstream and moved to Maui.

I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it ended with Steve saying he would get funding to make a video. It was maybe two weeks later when he called to say, “Bingo!” And that was it.

We settled on the title, “On Safari to Stay,” contacted a then-unknown kid named Joel Tudor and signed him up along with Robert “Wingnut” Weaver. Greg Weaver shot footage of Malibu, Cabo, Cardiff and Oceanside on Super 8 film and we were about to wrap with a big party Donald was throwing at San Onofre.

Either Cleveland or I was driving that old, borrowed VW Van. Joel and Wingnut were in the back when Joel, with a screechy voice that had yet to drop into the lower regions shouted, “We’re on fire!”

By the time we pulled over to the rest area, smoke had enveloped the interior of the van. We rescued our precious surfboards, stood back and watched the van burn up.

About that time, Donald’s nephew, Michael Takayama, pulled up and gave us a lift to San O where some of the best longboard surfers in the world had gathered to ride a few waves and be filmed for the first longboarding film of that era.

The experience helped launch the careers of both Wingnut and Joel. It sent me into the world of surf magazines and helped kick-start the journey of Steve Cleveland, who continues his fine art under the name SurfCraft Media Productions.

What’s the next revolution, Steve? Call me.