by Gerry Lopez
Except for his rather large collection of blues records, there were not, in a material sense, a lot of other things Buddy Dumphy considered important or worthy of much thought. Even his surfboards were considered transient – tools to be used and sometimes abused – only stepping-stones to the next board.
We first met as teenagers at Ala Moana, where surfing was our life. Before we were old enough to drive, Buddy with his younger brother Michael, and me with my younger brother Victor, would get dropped off in the parking lot at the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. There we would spend the long summer days riding the waves and watching the action.
The surf was the reason we gave our parents for being there, but the main attraction was really the scene and the other surfers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Ala Mo’s was the spot, the epicenter of progressive surfing during Hawai’i’s summertime surf season. The top island surfers would invariably gather on any hint of a south swell to match their wave riding skills with the challenging walls. The long, fast and hollow surf produced the best surfing, and everyone knew it. Only the most talented or dedicated – and perhaps young aspiring surfers like us – would dare to show face at Ala Moana. The rest would ride the lesser breaks of Rockpiles, Kaisers or the Park until they developed their confidence and abilities. Our own skills were much less than our bravado, but by keeping our heads down and our mouths shut, we were tolerated by the older crew.
Buddy was a Harbour guy when I met him. By that I mean he rode a board made by Rich Harbour of Seal Beach, California, one of the prominent surfboard builders of the time. At first, Buddy owned a beautiful, three-stringer Trestle Special, one of Harbour’s most popular models. Mine was a Ramsey Jay Savage Special, built in Newport Beach to the design of Stanley “Savage” Parks, a terrific surfer from Nanakuli whose surfing impressed both Buddy and I.
We would often compare the shapes of our boards as they were similar, and in doing so, we became interested in surfboard design. Later, around the mid-1960s when noseriding became the new rage, Buddy got one of the Harbour specialized noseriders. I was away in California going to college for the school year but when I returned, I brought back a Ramsey Jay noserider called the Sea Slug. Again Buddy and I compared our boards to better understand the finer nuances of shape and design as they related to performance.
At the time, the best young surfers in Hawai’i were riding Bing’s Pipeliner models shaped by Dick Brewer. The top guy in our little world was Jackie Eberle, but other skillful surfers like Roy Mesker, Jock Sutherland, Jeff Hakman, Jimmy Lucas, Kiki Spangler, Michael McPherson, and Reno Abellira, were all Brewer team riders. The Pipeliner was the most advanced shape of the period and in retrospect, probably the high point of that era of longboard design.
Brewer, known by his friends as RB, was an innovative shaper who made good use of his young team rider’s feedback to keep his surfboards on a constant evolutionary climb. Jock Sutherland was the ascending star of the moment, having just placed a close 2nd behind Nat Young at the World Surfing Championships held in San Diego the previous year. He owned two boards, both Bing Pipeliners but totally dissimilar in shape. The 9’5” Jock rode in the World Contest was a modified noserider design and his favorite. The other was a more standard Pipeliner shape, a smaller and sleeker 9’4”.
As summer came to an end and early fall swells began to roll onto Oahu’s north and west shores, our attention turned to the Country. Jock lived with his mother, two sisters and a brother on the shoreline between Laniakea and Chun’s Reef. He was only 19 years old, but already had a surf spot directly in front of his house named after himself. To this day the break is still known as Jocko’s.
Buddy and I would drive out there from town in my ’58 VW bug when 50 cents worth of gas would be sufficient for the whole round trip and then some. Our noseriders had already proved themselves practically useless in the crisp and critical Country waves so eventually we stopped bringing them. What we would do was stop by Jock’s place where he would kindly lend us his 9’4” to use for the day. Then we would find the best breaking spot and take turns riding Jock’s Pipeliner. It was the finest board we had ever used and our surfing improved greatly. This was a grand arrangement for Buddy and I, but when I think back of how regularly we showed up to borrow Jock’s board, it was certainly a one sided affair.
Of course, surfboards back then were built much stronger than the lightweight modern boards. The lack of crowds offered wide-open wave arenas without the obstacles of other surfers or their boards. We never would ride Rocky Point with its rocky shoreline. Everywhere we surfed had a sandy beach for a lost board to wash ashore. Each evening when we returned Jock’s board, it would be in exactly the same condition as when we took it.
Buddy and I, both goofy foots, liked the same places, and one of our favorites was a hollow little break called Velzyland. The Kailua surfers frequented this spot since it was the first stop coming from the East Side. We knew all of them from Ala Moana, but even so, a crowd of 10 surfers, while still friendly, was considered massive.
The right at V-Land is more popular than the left. It’s a short, tubular section that ends in a deep-water channel with an easy paddle back out. The left has more sections, is less reliable and is a challenge to get back outside when the ride is over.
One day Dick Brewer paddled out while it was my turn in the water. We had the empty lefts to ourselves and traded waves back and forth. During a lull as we sat waiting for the next set, he asked me how I liked Jock’s board. I said truthfully that it was the best surfboard that Buddy and I had ever ridden. I told him how Jock had generously loaned us his board almost daily for the past month. RB then offered to shape me one of my own. The great Dick Brewer, shaper to the stars – I was stunned to speechlessness.
I ended up following him to Lahaina, Maui where he made me a surfboard that would turn not only my surf consciousness upside down, but the collective world of surfing as well. The board was, for the time, an outrageously short 8’6” in which RB joined a hotdog nose with a full gun tail to create the very first mini-gun. Later this period would become known as the shortboard revolution and that board was its opening shot in Hawai’i.
I brought that board home and immediately showed it to Buddy. He was as jazzed as I was. Everyone who rode it couldn’t believe the freedom this design allowed. Brewer stayed on Maui, swamped with orders from his own team riders and all the others who wanted to jump aboard the new glory train. In all truth, it was the younger guys who were most interested. I remember one big day at Hale’iwa with a strong west swell and Kona winds which are straight offshore there. Jackie Eberle had heard about this new board of mine which was the only one on O’ahu so far.
He jumped off his 10’0” full gun, shoved it at me and said, “Lemme try that thing.”
Half an hour later, he paddled up, shaking his head and pushed it back, “This thing doesn’t paddle for shit, gimme my board back.”
But change was in the air, it was the winter of 1967/68 and nothing would be as it was before. Spring rolled around and small south swells began to appear. The comfortableness and closeness of Ala Moana put life back on a more stable track. Chasing surf in the Country had been hectic, it was unfamiliar ground and wasn’t without some doubt and vexation. Town was home and Ala Mo’s was our snug little spot.
My mini-gun had been glassed very lightly to enhance its performance characteristics, but hard use was taking its toll. I had already patched several large dings caused by collisions with other much stronger boards, but the dents on both top and bottom were unsightly and not fixable.
That board had been my first experience with piece working the construction: purchasing the blank first, getting it shaped and then paying for the glass job separately. It had proved to be very inexpensive compared to buying a complete board from a surf shop. I began to think about getting another, but Maui was far away.
Buddy, meanwhile, had been thinking too. One day, out of the blue, he announced, “Let’s make our own boards.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Buddy had this colossally irreverent attitude towards the established way of doing things. He didn’t believe one had to be a consecrated surfboard builder to make a surfboard. He had it all thought out. First we would strip off the fiberglass from our noseriders which might as well have been dinosaurs and we never rode anyway. Since, in his mind, there wasn’t anything holy about being a shaper, we then would simply shape new boards from our salvaged blanks. Finally, we would do all the glassing ourselves. I could only nod my head in a dazed way.
I had actually seen it done firsthand with RB shaping and John Thurston glassing my 8’6”. Buddy questioned me thoroughly about the entire process, and I was surprised to find that I had paid close enough attention to be able to relate the steps to him. We went down to Fiberglass Hawai’i where its owner, Ken Culler, sold us enough resin and fiberglass to finish our boards. The total cost was about $15 for each board.
Buddy’s father had two sawhorses which we set up in the driveway of their St. Louis Heights home. Buddy went first, using a block plane and a surform tool. Soon his surfboard began to take its new shape. Finishing it off with a block and sandpaper, it sat there ready for glassing. My board soon followed and we laminated them side-by-side on the sawhorses. Buddy had found some Hare Krishna posters of blue, elephant-headed people with six arms and we glassed them under the top coat of glass. The trade winds blowing down from the mountains swept away all the foam dust and the strong resin smell. Several neighbors noticed our labors as well as the ensuing mess, and came by to watch.
A few days later, we had new surfboards to ride. They were 7’6”, shorter and unlike any surfboards anyone had seen before. But they rode like the wind, and the other surfers took note. When I paddled in, a guy in the parking lot offered me $80 cash money for my new board. I quickly took it before he changed his mind. Buddy sold his a couple of days later.
We hunted down some old boards and built more new ones, which we immediately sold to finance the next set. Practically overnight, we found ourselves gainfully employed in a business of our own. With the outrageous mark up we were instantly cash rich. I invested in a heavy-duty power sander to facilitate stripping down the old boards. At 5000 rpm, grinding off the rails then peeling away the old fiberglass was an easy chore. Because there was someone’s new board in the works almost daily, I moved onto my mother’s back porch and we had two production locations going. Building surfboards is a messy endeavor. Buddy’s neighbors wrote him up in the local newspaper’s complaint column, and my mother finally had enough as well.
Howard Fukushima, a high-school chum and surf partner had a grandfather who allowed us to use an empty storefront he owned in Wahiawa. It was our first real shop and production increased at the same time as the quality went up. My next investment was a Skil Model 100 planer, and I was completely tooled up. Racks were easily built with scrap lumber, and everything else was available from Fiberglass Hawai’i.
Word spread and there was always some surfer who wanted to get a new surfboard. Soon there was a waiting list. A constant flow of board building sharpened my skills, as any steady practice will do. Eventually the Wahiawa location petered out. The noise, smell and mess irritated the other tenants in Howard’s grandpa’s building, so we had to move. One empty shed or garage or backyard after another served the purpose. A temporary shop was easy to set up and to take down and move.
Probably the biggest help to both Buddy and I in those beginning days was being invited by Chris Green to watch him shape. Chris was a cowboy from Wyoming who showed up in class one day at Kailua High School and jumped right into surfing. He was one of those rare individuals to whom surfing came very easily. In a short time he became adept at it, turning heads at the local surf spots.
His increasing skills led to an interest in board building and he worked for a while at Mickey Lake’s Inter-Island Surf Shop, the premier surfboard factory of the time. Later he became the head shaper at Surf Line Hawai’i, working for Fred Swartz. In the earliest stages of shortboards, Chris’ youthful exuberance and shaping skills meshed perfectly with the innovative nature of the new shapes. Unafraid to experiment and able to test ride everything himself; his boards were the cutting edge of the new era in surfboard design. Buddy and I would spend hours at the Kona Street shop soaking up as much as we could from Chris.
The following year Dick Brewer asked me to move to Kaua’i with him to do some ghost shaping. Working closely with RB improved my shaping by leaps and bounds. As the shapes got better, so did the surfing. Better equipment always means better surfing. As the boards got shorter and more refined, maneuvers and places on the waves that had been impossible before suddenly became the standard. All the boards we made were going to Fred Swartz at Surf Line Hawai’i. When the Hanapepe Surf Shop had finally run its short course, RB and I went back to O’ahu and began working at Surf Line. Chris Green had moved on to the greener pastures of Upcountry Maui. I sanded RB’s boards, but eventually Fred allowed me to make my own signature models to put in his store.
After a few years, Jack Shipley, the head Surf Line salesman and I would move on to start a shop of our own called Lightning Bolt Surf Company. Buddy Dumphy would step into the void at Surf Line Hawai’i and continue to shape at a prolific rate. In his personal life, he was forever going against the grain, always jetting off in a wild and unexpected direction. In the early 1970s when the entire world of surfing was into shortboards, Buddy began making beautiful and functional longboards. Except for the occasional old-timer, a longboard was seldom seen in the lineup of Ala Moana. Buddy would knee paddle out, wearing his characteristic sardonic grin and have a wonderful time riding in that old and graceful way.
If the flow was moving in one direction, it was certain Buddy would be maneuvering along a different current. When everyone had long hair, his was short. Then hairstyles went short and he had the longest, wildest head of hair of anyone we had ever seen. That was just the way he was; contrary to a fault, but in an unassuming and endearing way. I loved and respected the guy and our circle of close friends felt the same. Tragically he was killed while driving his VW van. It was a head-on collision with a confused Japanese tourist driving on the wrong side of the road as Buddy was turning out of a side road in Kahuku. It was just one of those things: fate or destiny, or something like it. The world of surfing lost one of its great artists and an important link in the history of the shortboard revolution.
We all still talk about him, about how he would laugh at anything that made the rest of us boil. Or how he could flip out at the silliest thing, like when he came home and found his sister had scratched one of his blues records. His collection was impressive, many impossible to find recordings imported from Europe, covering the whole field of blues artists, past and present. He took a hammer and smashed each one to pieces because he didn’t want to find that she had scratched another. And he laughed about it afterwards. Those of us who knew him will forever miss Buddy. I’m sure he’s still laughing somewhere.
If you're interested in more stories from Gerry, check out his new book Surf Is Where You Find It – a hardbound collection of 38 stories with new and vintage photographs. Choose from the regular edition or the boxed, limited edition that has extra photos and is signed and numbered by the author.