Warren Miller: Surfing makes history
November 3, 2011
Recently I was writing a story about surfing alone in Malibu the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I rode small waves all day by myself and did not hear about the bombing until I was driving home along the coast highway, with no other cars in sight, going either way.
As I wrote about the very important day in history and what happened to me that day, I recalled a lot of my other surfing days during that time frame. People often ask me why I made ski movies instead of surfing movies. In my first film that I released in 1950, I had a 10-minute preview of a surfing movie that I would have made if I could have raised the money. The title was “Surfing Daze.” This was while most of the people I knew surfed and we with were still riding surfboards in excess of 10 feet in length and weighing more than 60 pounds.
Among of the reasons I chose ski movies first were because there were ladies who skied. The surfboards were too heavy for a girl to lug one across the beach. And, wet suits had not been invented yet, so from November until late April, it was freezing cold if you went surfing. Finally, while skiing occurred all over the world, people only surfed in southern California and Hawaii in 1949-50.
The surfing sequence in that first movie went over so well that the man I was just starting to compete with, John Jay, put water skiing in his next movie. By the time my third or fourth movie hit the screen, the hot shots had started to surf gigantic waves in Hawaii at Makaha so I gave Walt Hoffman 10 rolls of Kodachrome and a 20-minute lesson on how to thread my Bell and Howell, 16mm wind-up camera and had him shoot movies for me. Those 10 rolls could create 25 minutes of finished film. If he shot enough good stuff for me to use, I would buy him the roundtrip airplane ticket. He did and I did.
By 1963, surfing was getting very crowded because of the invention of the wet suit and the lightweight surfboard. I spent less time surfing when I bought a 20-foot Pacific catamaran. In southern California, where I lived at the time, the surf is good about 10 percent of the time and the wind blows in the afternoon about 90 percent of the time. And it wasn’t crowded out there on the ocean. That catamaran had enough power in its large sails that when the wind got over 15 mph, I could tow a water skier. Of course the water skier did not have a good time because the water was so choppy. They did enjoy it when we towed them at Lake Havasu in high winds and glassy water.
I was very lucky when I was 13 years old in 1937. That was the year I built my first paddleboard in my junior high school woodshop class. I also bought my first pair of pine skis – no edges and with leather toe strap bindings – for two dollars.
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That summer, I managed to get someone to take my 5-foot long, 2-foot wide, almost-square paddleboard and myself to the beach. I managed to catch some small waves, getting up on my knees near the end of my ride and by late afternoon, I even tried to stand up on it. The maximum distance I rode the board while standing up was approximately 21 feet, give or take 10 feet, for a manageable margin of error in my 75-year-old memory of that day.
I went skiing that same winter near the base of where the Mt. Waterman chairlift is today. It would be 10 years before they built the chairlift that you could then ride for $2.50 a day.
As I write about those old days in my yet-to-be-completed autobiography, I was really lucky because I always had freedom riding on my shoulder no matter where I went. That included almost four years in the Navy in World War II. There was not any surfing at Guadalcanal, however one day, when we were going to the Russell Islands to haul our ship out for maintenance, we spotted a 14-foot plywood paddleboard out there in the middle of the ocean. I talked the skipper into stopping and picking it up. It could not have been afloat very long because it had no barnacles or moss of any kind growing on it. From then on, every time we tied up to a dock anywhere, I managed to go for a long paddle just to get into the water. The night we were sinking in the hurricane, I thought that if we sunk before daylight I would grab that paddleboard. Fortunately, I did not need it.
For the almost 50 years I owned my film company, the offices were only two blocks from the ocean in Hermosa Beach, Calif. I could take surfing breaks during the day when the wind didn’t blow and the surf was up.
I still have a great love for riding waves and skiing fast, neither of which I can do anymore. Let me give you some advice: Never pass up a chance to do them because this is the only today you will ever get in your life. Enjoy it to its fullest.