Chasing Family History on California’s Surf Breaks
When DON WATERS finally read the unpublished memoir given to him by his late father—an absentee figure he grew up resenting— he was shocked to learn that the old man hung with Greg Noll during surfing’s golden age in California. Sounds like grounds for a quest.
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The late-November forecast predicted a decent swell, and already we’re seeing six-foot walls of blue water. It’s 10:30 a.m. in Manhattan Beach, California. Surfers are in the lineup, in wetsuits, bobbing like little black buoys. I’ve finally made it to the beach my father surfed more than 55 years ago.
The author with the board he helped shapeThe author with the board he helped shape
In the shop with NollIn the shop with Noll
I’m a jumble of nerves, and I’ve asked my fiancée, Robin, to come along for support. I pull a 37-pound balsa-wood surfboard from our rental van and lug it to the waterline. One young couple gawks at the pristine reproduction. It’s pretty, but, at 10 feet long, it’s the size of a door.
The idea of venturing into 60-degree water with a Greg Noll Malibu-chip longboard isn’t as daunting as my reason for being here. My father, whose ghost hangs over this beach, abandoned me when I was three years old. Now I’ve come all the way from Iowa to his old surfing spot to try to find some connection to the man.
Robert Stanley Waters, my father, was once known around these parts as Little Bobby. As a young man, he surfed in Hermosa Beach, Malibu, and Santa Barbara. He hung out with some of the sport’s innovators, including early surf-film star Dewey Weber. My father also snuck under the railroad tracks near Camp Pendleton to ride Trestles, but Manhattan Beach is where his love for waves originated.
Nearby is the concrete pier where he once stored his own Greg Noll surfboard. It’s also where, in 1952, he passed his swimming test at age 10. In my backpack is a paper-clipped copy of his unpublished autobiography, as well as a small plastic bag of his ashes. I intend to scatter them in the water. I haven’t focused on my father this deeply, or for this long, ever. Just thinking about him now creates an uncomfortable pressure in my chest.
Manhattan Beach is a city of surfing origins. In 1949, Dale Velzy opened the world’s first surf shop here. This stretch of coastline is where the sport spread to the rest of the country after arriving from Hawaii. It’s where Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys first paddled into the water.
Up and down the beach, the lifeguard towers are shuttered for the season, but fresh tire tracks in the sand indicate a recent patrol. Robin stands beside me, and we watch a blond teenager launch off a solid five-footer, somersaulting through the air.
I put my feet in the water. It’s going to be cold, even with a wetsuit.
I NEVER KNEW my father in any meaningful way. At 37, with years of therapy behind me, I still find it painful to acknowledge this truth. Any man whose father leaves can understand the shame, confusion, and anger generated by such a primal loss.
Early on, my mother would joke that she was Mom and Dad. I was an only child, and she provided for me and managed the best she could, but it never kept me from wondering, during the lean years when we shared a bunk in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Reno, Nevada, if our situation might have been different with a father around. Along the way, she enlisted men from her clerical job with the sheriff’s department to dole out nuggets of paternal advice. I recall sitting down one evening with a homicide detective who—badge on his belt, holstered gun on the dining room table—wanted to talk to me, man-to-man, about sex.
As a teenager, whenever someone asked about my father—what he did, where he lived—I felt ashamed, and I lied. I looked to my friends’ fathers for cues. I absorbed their attention as leaves did sunlight, and I quietly learned which ones to appoint as role models.
Why my father left remains a mystery. That part of my past is full of holes and silence. The questions I’ve asked have yielded bewildering answers. As unbelievable as it may seem, I’ve been unable to get any family member on either side to share more than a scant few details. Over time the topic of my father slid from taboo to never discussed. (Eventually, my mom began dating other men, and now she’s happily remarried and content to leave that era behind.)
Unsatisfied, I eventually decided to do a bit of research myself, going so far as to purchase copies of my parents’ divorce papers at the county courthouse. They cost nine dollars. Here’s what I know: I was conceived out of wedlock. I don’t know how my parents met, but they married in April 1974, in Virginia City, Nevada. It seemed to be a shotgun wedding. According to the documents I’ve gathered, my father was no longer living with us at the time of the divorce three years later. By then he was working in the mining business in Arizona. The stranger was free to visit, my mom often told me, provided he contributed financially. That never occurred. On my 18th birthday, my father reentered my life via Hallmark card. Tucked inside the card was a check in the amount of $50. His signature was in cursive. The ink he used: blue.
Few people can recall the details of nearly every moment spent with their father. I can. I met him five times as an adult, and each time our disconnection was obvious and massive. Our last encounter happened in 2009 in a hospital room, where he was dying, his brain too fogged by oxygen depletion to form intelligible sentences. The morning I learned of his death, I drove to a nearby river and leaped in. I needed to feel something other than numbness, and water always brought me solace.
Prior to his death, at 67, my father wrote a slim autobiography and sent it to me. He knew I was a writer, and as a final effort to bond, he typed out 68 single-spaced pages separated into nine chapters. Titled The Story of My Life, it was his attempt “to help my son understand who his father was, and help him heal.”
Six years passed before I finally read it. The disappointments from the past were too great, too insurmountable. When my father’s father died, I finally opened the book.
What I read brought the gauzy contours of his life into focus. My father loved the water. As a young man he was a Navy submariner. Later he crewed aboard yachts in sailing races throughout Southern California. But what stood out most: he grew up surfing.
I loved water, too, but because I was from the desert, I never had much access to the sea. Despite that, I had fallen for surfing in my early twenties, when a friend of mine in Huntington Beach, California, introduced me to the sport. Discovering that my father was a surfer amazed me. According to his “Surfing” chapter, he was raised in Manhattan Beach, several blocks from a young guy named Greg Noll who gave my father his first surfboard.
I was captivated by my father’s beachside youth—and his relationship with Noll. I knew enough about the sport to be familiar with the big-wave-surfing pioneer. In his black-and-white jailhouse trunks, Greg “Da Bull” Noll was legendary for bombing down a massive 35-foot wave, in 1969, at a break called Makaha in Oahu. At the time, it was the biggest wave ever surfed. Many surfers can still recall the exact date of Noll’s feat.
My father wrote of Noll: “He lived at home with his parents, and their house was on my way home from school. … One day he was out in the side yard shaping a balsa-wood surfboard. So, being a kid, I decided to stop by to see what he was doing. As time passed I stopped by more often.”
That my father had orbited around Noll intrigued me. He referred to Noll as his “old friend.” For the first time in my life, as I reread the “Surfing” chapter, I actually wanted to know more about my father. Surfing felt like some kind of bridge.
I began to wonder what Noll might know: Did he have stories, memories? Soon I began fantasizing about riding a balsa-wood board like my father had. This, I felt, was my own Makaha. Even though I knew it was a long shot, I needed to track down Noll.
It turned out Noll liked being left alone. For five months I called and sent letters, postcards, and emails. Finally, I heard back from the Noll family. They agreed to a visit. Not only that, they granted my other request. Together we would build a surfboard.
GREG NOLL’S HOUSE overlooks the Smith River, 10 miles north of Crescent City, a sleepy port town in Northern California.
When I drive through the gate in mid-October, Greg is sitting in a chair and inspecting a rubber dinghy. He’s trying to devise a way to attach a fiberglass fin to the dinghy’s keel, he tells me. He wants to try surfing in the boat at a local break called Chickenshits. Apparently, Chickenshits forms waves only when conditions are big.
“They call it that because everyone is too chickenshit to try it,” Greg says. His eyes narrow behind his glasses. At 75, he may have thinning gray hair, but he still has the gleam of a daredevil in his eyes.
Greg’s wife, Laura, who is 65, met him while she was working as a secretary at his Hermosa Beach shop in the 1960s. She tells me that Greg recently fractured his tenth vertebra and collapsed his fifth falling off a stepladder. He has orders from his doctor to wear a back brace, but during my three-day visit I don’t see him with it on once.
My arrival coincides with a partial family gathering. Greg’s son Jed, whom Greg calls Pinch, is here, along with Jed’s three-year-old daughter, Trinity. It occurs to me that Trinity is the age I was when my father left.
My father didn’t just abandon my mom and me. He also left surfing behind. In the 1960s, he disapproved of the way surf culture “was beginning to dabble in drugs. … I was opposed to that.” Leaving surfing is something Greg knows about, too. Several years after catching the Makaha wave, and right around the time my father was growing disillusioned, Greg sold his surfboard factory and walked away. He was fed up with Hollywood’s exploitation of the sport, so he moved his family north and took up commercial fishing.
But, unlike my father, Greg slowly found his way back. The sport was too much in his blood. After a time, he began building recreations of classic wooden boards with his son. Nowadays, he and Jed handcraft about 10 each year.
Though I’m eager to pepper Greg with questions about my father—was he cool? funny?—I don’t want to come off as solemn or impatient. Jed leads me across the sprawling, remote property. The well-tended yard looks a bit more SoCal than NorCal. Scattered among redwood trees are a koi pond, an outdoor pool, imported palm trees, and a scarecrow in a wetsuit near the garden.
The workshop is a converted three-car garage. It’s full of wood, tools, and surfing memorabilia, overhung with vintage boards made by Hobie Alter, Gerry Lopez, and other renowned shapers. For a moment, I wonder where my father’s old boards ended up. It would be nice to have one. Everything I have of his fits inside three cardboard boxes—death certificate, mining tools, not much.
Jed has arranged nine balsa sticks across two sawhorses. Since Greg’s back is broken, Jed and I perform the majority of the labor. Over the course of the weekend, Greg will periodically wander in to give advice and comment on our progress, like a principal architect. For our surfboard, a nine-foot-10-inch Malibu chip, the same as my father’s, there are about 15 stages of construction. We’ll shape the board here, and then Jed will finish the laminating at his shop in San Clemente.
Jed impresses me, but I’ve often been impressed by sons who emulate their dads. At 35, he’s slipped comfortably into Greg’s well-worn sandals. The youngest of Greg’s four children, he strikes me as a gentler version of his dad; he’s not as boisterous, but, like Greg, he laughs just as easily as we prep the blank.
Once we set the vises, our board doesn’t look like much. We could be building a simple raft. The glue requires 24 hours to dry.
Jed and I step outdoors. The family’s Australian shepherd ambles over and sits on my feet. Jed tells me that they never let anyone participate in the building process. Usually, it’s just him and his dad.
I admit to Jed that I’m slightly jealous of his relationship with his father. The only thing mine ever showed me was how to vanish. Speaking forthrightly about my absentee dad seems to make Jed uncomfortable for a moment. He averts his eyes, and I quickly change the subject.
YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS in my twenties and living in San Francisco, I would drive down Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay to stare at the waves at Maverick’s, the notorious big-wave surf break. At the time, I knew nothing of my father’s past as a waterman and, despite my odd fascination with the sport, didn’t surf. Now I ride whenever I can.
Greg Noll gave my father his first board in the early '50s. As the decade wore on, my father bought other boards—from some of the same guys whose creations currently hang in Noll’s workshop—and loaded them into his 1940 Ford station wagon, the archetypal woody surf car that he bought from a former lifeguard for $250. He embraced the lifestyle before the Gidget movies turned everything into a cliché.
By 1960, my father had gone from a young “gremmie” to opening his own shop on Stearn’s Wharf in Santa Barbara. Noll, by then a major surfing figure, supplied him with his inventory of boards.
Though by his own admission he was just having fun, my father was at the forefront of the surfing movement. He shared waves with Renny Yater and George Greenough, the surf photographer credited with inventing the modern surfboard fin. He was one of the earliest members of the exclusive Santa Barbara County Surf Club, which formed to gain access to the Hollister cattle ranch, now known as the Ranch. At Hollister, my father and his friends hung out in shabby beach shacks, surfing “the most perfect waves anywhere in the world.” (Abercrombie and Fitch picked up the name for its Hollister brand.)
Nearly always in trouble for ditching school to surf, my father failed to graduate with his high school class. When he was drafted into the Army in 1960, he chose to enlist in the Navy instead. On shore leave, he surfed in Hawaii and San Diego, where he was stationed, but by the end of the '60s he began turning away from the ocean. He spent the rest of his years pinballing around Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada as a mining engineer. He last surfed in 1970. He was 28.
It strikes me as odd how, around the time I entered the world, my father trained his eyes on excavation. It’s as though he leaped onto a different set of tracks the moment I was born. The man went from living in California, riding waves, and sailing the Pacific to fathering a son, leaving the son, and then hiding out, literally, underground. He wrote that he was propelled by a need “to push myself, and confront the unknown.” Scattered among his adventures, he offers numerous apologies for his absence, but they don’t compensate for the fact that, in the span of 68 pages, he barely mentions having a son.
Still, there was a time when my father was young—a waterman. I feel a tinge of pride whenever I read his “Surfing” chapter, but it’s pride in an apparition. He was a terrible father, but before I was even a wispy notion in his mind, he fell in love with the ocean, which is the only part of him I understand.
BEFORE SHAPING THE board, Greg and Jed want to show me around town. On our drive to scope out Chickenshits, Greg points to a rock poking out from the water several hundred yards from the beach. The ocean roils around it. It’s a long way out. And that water is frigid. Near shore a dozen surfers are braving it.
I ask Greg about the last time he surfed.
“I don’t know. It was sad,” he tells me. “But by God, I’m going to put my ass in the dinghy.” He looks at Jed in the passenger seat. “I’ll catch a wave that way. Right, Pinch?”
It occurs to me that I’ve never spent time around any other 75-year-old who uses the word bitchin’ so often. Or one who laughs about the time he caught a 15-foot wave in his 26-foot fishing boat while motoring back into the harbor.
And I’ve never met a father and son who talk so passionately about wood planers. Greg will only use the Skil Model 100, which is no longer made and which he collects. Jed went so far as to enlist a friend to build a series of prototypes. His latest is the JN2, or Jed Noll 2. A planer is, father and son insist, a shaper’s magic wand.
Greg doesn’t know it, but as I listen to him confab with Jed, he’s sliding into the role-model category in my mind. He’s cool. And look—just look how he treats his son.
After days of milling, gluing, skinning the top, and finding the blank’s center point, it’s time to draw the surfboard template. We return to the shop.
In the shaping room, Greg lays a template across the blank. I notice markings on the template that read MALIBU … LIKE THE ONE I MADE WHEN I WAS TEN YEARS OLD. The sight of it startles me. I wonder if Greg used a similar one to build my father’s first board.
Hanging on the wall are dozens of other templates, including the one from the board Greg rode that fabled day at Makaha. After Greg quizzes Jed about our board’s dimensions, Greg gives me a pencil and asks me to help trace the board’s outline.
What remains after sawing around the lines is a hunk of wood that resembles a very thick surfboard. Next, Jed shows me how to run the planer. He eases the JN2 back and forth and then hands it off to me. Since I’m new at this, I notch ugly grooves into the nose section, which he later corrects.
After a while I head into the house. I want to talk with Greg. When we sit at the kitchen table, he lays his hand on my shoulder.
“I think it’s great you’re doing this,” he says.
We pass around a photo of my father.
“Your dad,” Greg says, “was one of the very first kids to come by my parents’ place. He was a quiet, bitchin’ little guy, and I could tell he had all the makings of a future surfer.”
“How so?” I ask him.
“Eagerness, a twinkle in his eyes. You can tell. One day I had a board on the heavy side. The shape was no good. Every once in a while I’d see a kid who didn’t have much money. So I gave him the board. Over the years, I’d see him hanging out with the Marine Street gang and surfing at the Manhattan pier.”
Greg squints at the photo and goes quiet. He can’t offer much else. There were so many people circling around in those days, he says, and it’s easy to see how he wouldn’t remember them all. The conversation leaves me questioning my father’s autobiography. Was Noll really an “old friend,” or is Greg’s memory just hazier than I had hoped it would be?
I put the photo away. I’m tired. Piecing together the life of a phantom is taxing. Besides, I don’t know what information will help me better understand Robert Waters. Later I realize that the details aren’t as important as the experience. Building the board, and hanging out with Greg and Jed, has helped me create the first positive memory of my father—one that I’ll forever associate with him.
A RUSH OF WATER delivers me to shore. I ride in on my knees. Water drips down my face from my hair. My arms are noodled, and I’ve been out for so long that I can’t feel my toes. Robin helps me bury my feet in sand. After an hour, I haven’t caught one wave.
It’s a struggle. Because of the board’s weight, it blasts through oncoming waves like a freighter, but it’s difficult to control when faint rips catch the large fin and pull it sideways. And without a leash, I have to chase down the board whenever I fall off, which is exhausting.
For a while we sit in the sand and stare at the Santa Monica Mountains. I tell Robin I’ve decided I can’t leave my father’s ashes in the water. For one, I don’t know how to transport the plastic baggie outside the breakers without losing it. Secondly, I’m not ready to let him go. This isn’t the right place. Manhattan Beach is different than it once was. It’s cushy now, the sandy beach lined with multi-million-dollar palaces, and around my father’s boyhood house, on Pine Avenue, few of the trees that gave the street its name remain.
Earlier, when we retrieved the surfboard from Jed’s shop in San Clemente, I told him I’d try my best not to ding it. He laughed nervously. An identical board sells for around $6,000 and gets wall-mounted by collectors. Now the Malibu chip is in the sand, waxed up, a nick in the fin, and I take pleasure in returning it to its rightful purpose.
At the end of his autobiography, my father writes, “I wish things could have been different, but it was not, and for that I am truly sorry.”
I seize the board and head into the water again. I lift the nose over smaller beach-breaking waves, jump on, and paddle. An oncoming wave washes cool water down the neckline of my wetsuit. There’s a lull, and the water flattens. Then another set approaches.
It takes half an hour to arrive, and it’s not the prettiest wave, or the biggest, but I set a line and paddle. Like my father, I ride goofy foot. All focus is on the mechanics.
I feel a euphoria that’s more significant than any I felt in my father’s presence. Other than our shared name, water is our only connection. It passes through my fingers—invigorating, cold, and baptismal.