The Coast News Group
Artist Wade Koniakowsky presents surfing pioneer Woody Ekstrom with a painting of him and his legendary surfboard. Ekstrom passed away last week at age 94. File photo/ Morgan Mallory

Woody Ekstrom: Remembering a surf pioneer

I don’t remember all the jokes told to me by Woody Ekstrom, but if you put your ear to the walls at Keno’s or the Leucadian you might catch a few of them, haunting those buildings like some friendly, humorous ghost.

Jack “Woody” Ekstrom was born over 94 years ago and passed away last week near the home he built above Beacon’s, in Encinitas.

Growing up at Windansea with his younger brothers, Carl and Bob, Woody and the Ekstrom brothers have been revered for decades, both at their home beach and as far afield as their legend carries.

They are all original thinkers and tinkers, not cheap cellphone imitations—all input, no output. No, they created the world they wanted to live in, one board, one wave at a time. Like his younger brother Carl, Woody was a surfing pioneer, riding any wave that came through.

In the winter of 1947, the entire California coast was being swallowed by a swell that Scripps Institute of Oceanography recorded at between 32 and 35 feet. The only game in town was La Jolla Cove, and on that morning there was only one taker, paddling his 75-pound wooden board over the shifting Himalayan skyline.

Woody made it outside, but soon lost his grip to mountains of whitewater that broke seemingly miles from shore, on a reef so rare that nobody knew its name. After taking some bombs on the head, he was washed into a place known unaffectionately as “the hole.”

The following words are excerpted from a short story I wrote titled, “The Hole,” and appearing in a book called “Kelea’s Gift.” Keep in mind that this all occurred decades before leashes, phone-in surf reports and even foam surfboards.

“An outside set darkened the horizon and broke, seemingly in mid ocean. The whitewater pried the surfboard loose from Woody’s death grip, and slammed the board onto the cliffs where onlookers shouted warnings to the boy whose board was now divided into a thousand toothpicks. He was stuck in a boiling cauldron known to local surfers as ‘The Hole.’

“Woody took a dozen waves on the head, surfacing on occasion to measure his rock sepulture. Mustering all his strength, he somehow found his way onto the slippery rocks during a lull. From his salvation point he saw something he had never before noticed — a set of stairs had been carved into the rocks by local fishermen.

“Woody stepped forward as the first wave in the set exploded behind him. After long minutes he was far enough away to receive nothing but a good soaking each time the Pacific unloaded behind him. Slowly, he made his way to the top of the bluff where he turned to watch the next set devour acres of precious La Jolla real estate.

“Glad to be alive, Woody returned home to greet his shocked and relieved mother who had been told that her son had died that day. When asked to relive his own thoughts of the adventure, the teenager merely smiled (he never lost that ironic smile) and replied, ‘I was worried I was going to die a virgin.’ ”

Condolences to the Ekstrom family on the passing of Jack “Woody” Ekstrom, a dearly beloved brother and one of our greatest surfers and citizens.

At this writing there are no plans for a memorial, but I’ll let you know if there’s a paddle out. Until then, lift your glass and enjoy the countless colorful stories circulating at Keno’s, The Leucadian and in the Beacon’s parking lot. Aloha, dear friend.