The Soul of Surf 6

“First thing I want to do is remind you I’m from the past,” says Henry Ford, as we began the interview.

The San Clemente Lifestyle team met with Ford and Jim Habig in North Beach to hear about the importance of preserving the area’s classic surf culture.

Ford pulled out a thick scrapbook filled with treasures he’s been collecting for decades. In it were pages from Surfer Magazine with his name on it, including one from the most recent publication, along with the iconic “drop-knee turn” shot captured in Hermosa Beach by the preeminent surf photographer from the 50’s and 60’s, Leroy Grannis. Ford says Grannis was in knee-deep water when he took the shot, which first appeared in the bi-monthly version of Surfer Magazine before it became a monthly publication.

Ford also starred in some of Bruce Brown’s films, such as Surfing Hollow Days and Barefoot Adventure, and became known as one of the “hotdoggers” of the day because of his epic surfing in Hawaii. He reminisced with us about making Brown’s first film, Slippery When Wet in the late 50’s with friends Freddy Pfhaler, Kemp Aaberg, Del Cannon and Dick Thomas. He still surfs with Walter Hoffman who was pictured in the photographs from the opening scene, along with some of the other guys from the film, right across from the ARCO station at Poche Beach, where he now lives.

“That’s how long friendships last in the surfing community,” he says.

Ford says back in those days; there were about 200-250 surfers on the coast of California. They were hard-core; the real deal. They were committed to the sport and made it a lifestyle, which has now become a part of the American culture. He and Habig referred to the surfers along the coast as “one tribe”. There was no surf tribalism, and there were no geographic restraints either. Everyone was simply passionate and excited about surfing and the ocean. A handful of those people were responsible for taking the surf industry to a whole new level.

San Clemente was the hub of excitement for surfing, which included manufacturing. In the beginning, surfboards were made out of redwood and other woods and weighed 100 plus pounds. Surfers left their boards on the beach because nobody was going to take them. There was a desire during the early days for better surf equipment and better ways to ride boards and waves. Ford says there was a small group of guys who blazed the trail. Guys like Walter Hoffman and Wayne Schaffer, both of whom started the Poche Surf Club, as well as Ronald, Robert and Raymond Patterson, Gordon “Grubby” Clark and Hobie Alter, introduced new materials such as balsa wood, polyurethane foam, resin, fiberglass and Hawaiian-style apparel that shaped the classic surf culture.

According to Ford, the passion of these guys to create new products came from a profound love of the ocean and surfing. These founders of the surf industry were true watermen. They were lifeguards, divers and fisherman. Habig says they didn’t simply paddle around but lived off of the ocean. They would go diving and get some fish to eat for lunch. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had a lot of love and respect for the ocean, and they utilized it in a holistic way. They also cared for it and did their part to keep it clean.

A true waterman himself, Ford spent several years as a lifeguard in Malibu and the South Bay region. Originally from Hermosa Beach, he made San Clemente his second home because it was where he wanted to surf. Thanks to spots throughout Trestles, such as Cottons Point, Uppers, Lowers, Church and San-O’ he deemed San Clemente the epicenter of surfing in the United States. While living in Hermosa Beach, he spent many summers surfing in San Clemente and working at the Velzy and Jacobs shop. In the late 80’s, he retired from lifeguarding and relocated to San Clemente where he’s lived ever since.

Ford’s love of surfing and the ocean is palpable. While describing what it’s like to surf in the morning, he gave us pause.

“In the morning, sometimes, when it’s not even light yet; you’re paddling out, and it’s like going to church…” Ford says, just before breaking into tears. “We get up before dawn, we get our boards ready, and we go down. We wait for the light – just enough to paddle out – then we paddle out. Mother nature gives you something that’s unbelievable and then to be able to ride mother nature, to mix with her and enjoy her, is beyond. It’s hard to explain to somebody. You have to live it to truly understand it.”

The soul surfer then joked with us about how he nearly asked to reschedule the interview because there was supposed to be good surf that day. Ford loves surfing so much he has continued to paddle out at Poche with the sharks. He also turned down an offer to play a role in Endless Summer back in the 60’s. He had to choose between the film or lifeguarding, and he chose lifeguarding because it meant he could surf every day.

“Being famous: forget it,” he says. “I’d rather surf.”

Other soul surfers from Ford’s era have been rapidly fading out. He and Habig expressed concern that with these losses, pieces of the classic surf culture will also fade away unless it is captured and preserved. They say Dick Metz made a step in the right direction by founding the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center right here in San Clemente.

Metz founded the organization, which was formally known as the Surfing Heritage Foundation, in 2002. He brought a vision to preserve the classic surf culture, along with a plethora of old surfboards and other artifacts he had collected over the years. The Surf Heritage and Cultural Center is “dedicated to preserving, presenting and promoting surfing’s heritage for the appreciation and education of current and future generations; and achieving (their) goal of surfing being more accurately understood, represented and enjoyed” (SurfingHeritage.org).

Having volunteered himself many times, Ford says it’s like the holy grail to some of the surfers from his era.

“Even after all these years and all the time I’ve spent there and in the industry,” he says, “I get chicken skin still. I get goosebumps because it reflects the growth of a culture, the origin and the sport.”

He says the center preserves the rich stories that created surfing culture that may be lost otherwise. He refers to it as an obtuse culture but says it has honor and respectability. With over a million photographs, including original photos from Surfer Magazine, visitors are sure to have a vivid experience at the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center.

At a national level, surfing was recently recognized as an official part of American culture at the Smithsonian. In August 2015, Ford was part of a group, including Bruce Brown, Robert August, Mike Hynson, John Van Hamersveld, Paul Strauch, Greg Noll, Fred Hemmings, Joey Cabell, Robert “Wingnut” Weaver, Tom Morey, Jericho Poppler, Patti Paniccia and many more icons, that donated precious surfing artifacts to the Smithsonian. Included in those artifacts were the original 16mm film from Endless Summer and the original Duke Kahanamoku’s redwood surfboard shaped in Corona Del Mar, Orange County. He reflects fondly on the visit and says it was the “quintessential stamp of approval” to have surfing finally, officially be part of the American Culture.

Ford and Habig both acknowledge that surfing culture continues on today, but that it has changed. They fear some aspects from the classic culture are being lost. They encourage surfers of recent generations and the current generation, as well as others to learn the history if they haven’t already.

“Everything that’s pure about the origin of surfing gets lost in the commercialism,” says Habig.

He says there is something profoundly pure about surfing. No two waves are the same, and there’s an element of connection to the natural world, and a sense of wonder that comes from that. The classic, soul surfers were intimately familiar with the inherent awe of surfing and Habig says somewhere along the way, commercialism almost suffocated that. For him, it’s important to remember his roots and to pay homage to the guys who adventured out in the beginning. In light of this, he has been on his own adventure to find and sell the best surf properties in the world.

Habig is President of International Surf Properties – the #1 international surf real estate company with the mission to “create the world’s largest portal for surf-minded buyers, sellers and investors of villas, developments and business opportunities that are located on or near quality surf breaks around the world” (InternationalSurfProperties.com). He and his team aim to help surf-minded people build the life they always wanted.

Inspired by his mentors like Dale Velzy, Ford, Alter and Clark; Habig wanted to offer a classic surf adventure to a whole new generation, and even to surfers from Ford’s generation. Reminiscent of those early explorations that were captured in films like Slippery When Wet, wherein the characters were driven by a desire to discover the exotic waves of Hawaii, Habig has created a way for surfers to keep venturing out into more and more places.

“There’s nothing better for a surfer than to discover a new country, a new break, a new wave and a great experience,” he says.

With International Surf Properties, Habig and his team have made it possible for people to make new discoveries in Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Indonesia, the Caribbean and points beyond. These destinations provide everything a surfer needs. The team handles all aspects of each country’s real estate requirements to make a smooth (and legal) purchase of that perfect property.

Ford became Director of Business Development earlier this year. He is also included on the Board of Directors and is an owner of International Surf Properties. At 78 years old, he says he was trying to retire, but he saw value in what was being done through the company. In the beginning, surfing was relegated to a small geographic area: the California coast, parts of the East Coast and Hawaii. Over time, however, surfing has gone global. It will even be part of the 2020 Olympics. Ford recognizes how many places there are to surf worldwide and shares Habig’s passion to help people live the surfer’s dream.

With a rich history in videography, including filming at Ford’s famous Rabbit Kekai contests, Habig has created a way for interested buyers to shop for their dream property with ease.

“Short of riding a wave, you can be there,” says Ford.

Habig and his team use interactive video to capture the properties and the surf in a way that makes people feel like they are already there. They have teamed up with Mantis 3-D to bring viewers a completely interactive experience as they walk through the properties via state of the art 3-D technology. The visitor will be able to walk through a multitude of exotic houses from around the world, look out the windows to see the views, check out the waves and walk the properties without even leaving their own home. The team at International Surf Properties live in the same world as their prospective buyers. They have knowledge about waves and tides and anything else of interest to a surfer looking into buying the ideal surf property. Plus, the team knows how to handle the technical aspects.

“But it starts with the passion,” says Habig.

It starts with the passion that originates from the classic culture and the original soul surfers. You don’t have to be rich to own one of these surf properties. Ford went in with three guys to purchase and build an amazing surf compound in Boca Barranca, Costa Rica, as well as a custom home at The Ranch in Zihuatanejo. He says it made sense for them to buy a home together because there’s a kinship that has remained part of their lifestyle since the beginning. They still travel together, surf together and talk about it every day.

“Live the life you love, love the life you live. Surfing is the ultimate experience a surfer can share,” says Ford.