Welcome to the 9th episode of the second series of the podcast! Today with us, from Hawaii, is the winner of the 1968 world surfing title, Fred Hemmings!
We discussed with him about his friendship with Duke Kahanamoku, Makaha, Hawaii, surf, surfboards and much more!
You can find the interview in the major podcast platforms or read it here (please forgive us if you find spelling or transcribe mistakes)
TTOS: Aloha Mr. Hemmings, welcome to the show, where are you today?
Aloha I’m sitting on the remote side of the island of Hawaii with is very magical place in the middle of the Pacific ocean, very far away from Dubai.
TTOS: How’s it going over there? People are safe in this difficult time of coronavirus?
Well, we’re safe because we’re taking precautions, but it’s a very difficult situation for Hawaii because unlike Dubai, that is a business center for that area of the world, Hawaii only has one industry and it’s tourism and our hotels are literally empty…. Waikiki, which, you know, at any given time can have 35 to 40,000 visitors, is virtually empty. It is very damaging to our economy, unfortunately, because of a number of problems. We don’t have a diversified economy and tourism is at a standstill. This, I’m afraid, it’s going to have a devastating effect…
TTOS: We need to keep the positive spirit, we need to protect ourself and hope scientists will find a cure or a vaccine very soon….
we’re all praying for that.
TTOS: Today were not going to talk about coronavirus, we’re going to talk about surf, surfing and your amazing experience.
The first question that I have for you today is, in your opinion, what is the most important thing in surfing,…
I think that surf is one of the most appealing sports in the world, it’s the most individual sport in the world. Most other sports have objective measurement, like in a track or a field, how fast you run or how far you can jump in basketball. There are scores, you know, how many goals you can score in soccer or football.
All the other sports have measurements, but surfing is a very creative sport because you do what you want to do and there’s no dictates when you catch a wave.
The wave does not tell you : “you have to do this or that”, you ride the wave as it happens, so it’s a very creative sport and you make yourself happy if you like the way that you ride it.
That’s what counts, it’s a very creative individual sport, unlike any other sport in the world.
TTOS: Yeah, definitely, I agree with you.
How did you start surfing and what was your first surfboard?
I’m a elderly man getting here 75 years old and I probably one of the luckiest guys in the world when it comes to surfing, I grew up in the beach in Waikiki, in the 1950s as a little boy, in the shadow of the great men of Hawaii. The legendary Duke Kahanamoku ended up being my mentor.
I grew up with the pure Hawaiian beach boys, and every morning they surfed before going to work, I grew up with some of the great pioneers of big wave riding in Hawaii…. I had that blessing.
I also surfed, which I call the golden era of surfing, the sixties, by then, we had good equipment, you know, there wasn’t any short board until late sixties, but we had what are now called longboards made with foam…. they were good boards, relatively light.
The great thing was that we had no crowds, I can remember going to the North Shore and getting there early and having to wait for people, cause I didn’t want to paddle out at sunset beach with, you know, 12 to 15 foot surf by myself.
We had good equipment, great waves, no crowd………. It doesn’t get any better than that.
TTOS: More waves for surfers, I like that!
There were times when I would wait for people, that would only be two or three of us out in the lineup. There weredays when it was 15 to 20 feet, naturally beautiful, long clean waves and there’d be three or four of us out and you’d let waves go by, you know, you can say: “I’ll wait for the next one”.
It was a paradise.
TTOS: That was also the way you were training, right? Surfers today, they do a lot of training, a lot of preparation, but,at that time, I guess you were training to be a surfer while doing quite taking a lot of waves, right?
Well, the word training, I don’t think came along until after I developed professional surfing and the surfers started to go out and exercise and train to prepare themselves for competition.
In my days, we just would surf, we would never think it as training, we’d just go out and surf and have a good time and that would get us in shape for competition.
TTOS: do you remember your real first surfboard?
Sure I do.
I came from a family of modest means we weren’t very wealthy, my dad when I was eight years old bought an old hollow surfboard.
Most of the fancy boards, back then, were made out of balsa wood, but they were very expensive as the balsa wood came from South America while some of the older boards were hollow boards made by the famous pioneer, Tom Blake.
I started with hollow boards and then I got to use a balsa board and then, in 1959, the first foam board started arrivingfrom California and I got one of them in late 1959.
I actually surferd on hollows and old wood boards before I pretty much retired from competition with the advent of boards getting smaller.
The world championships in Puerto Rico in 1968 was more or less the start-up the shortboard revolution.
TTOS: let’s talk about 1968, the year you became a world surfing champion…what is your best memory of that time?
Let me first tell you this, we were out in the water at Rincon, Puerto Rico in six to eight foot beautiful, beautiful waves.
I like to say that five waves in Puerto Rico changed my life because those waves gave me the title of the World Champion and allowed me to go on and do other things.
I retired from competition and I worked for the television network traditionally before there was cable television and convince them to come out and cover the surfing events that I created.
I created the first major full circuit of events, including the Pipeline Masters, which this year is in its 50th year. It’s hard to believe that the pipeline is now 50 years old.
TTOS: You’re right, 50 years of a pipeline master competition, it is a great achievement….the first one, was in 1971. It’s amazing! While I was researching for this interview I read the in internet that they define you, the father of professional surfing. Do you agree with that?
Well, I fathered it, let’s put it this way, but I wouldn’t call myself a father,
I started the first major professional surfing event and therefore, you know, I could be called a father for that.
There was a lot of people back then in the sixties that weren’t happy with competitive surfing, it was a difficult job, some of the surfing magazines were opposed….there was actually an article written that said I was prostituting mothersea by creating contest for money.
My attitude back then was: “well, you want to surf professionally? You can…but you don’t have to, if you don’t want”
So, if you want to call me the father of it, that I guess is accurate.
TTOS: in your career, from competing and creating also contests like the Pipeline Master, as you said, you met a lot of personalities in the surf world, in the surf industry…
Is there a particular personality that meant a lot to you sharing time with?
I was a fierce spirit competitor, at the time I surfed with and against so many professional surfers , not only from Hawaii.
I was on the Duke surf team, my closest friends and colleagues were Paul Strauss Joey Cabell and Butch Van Artsdalen, God rest his soul as he passed away.
I competed again, literally the best surfers from each country, the best surfers from California like Mike Dora (God rest his soul too) and, from Australia Corky Carroll.
Corky Carroll was the premier surfer in the sixties from Australia.
I competed against two that I think are the greatest surfers ever in our time Midget Farrelly and Nat Young, I also competed against great surfers in Peru in the sixties, Felipe Pomar and of course there were a number of other great Hawaiians surfers there.
We had a band of great brothers who were competitive surfers and we all competed against each other fiercely, but we also were great, great friends.
TTOS: One of the most important thing in surfing, in my opinion, is like, even today, there is that level of competition, but at the end, everybody’s friend, I mean not 100%, but most of them are friends, do you agree? There is a kind of friendly atmosphere that I think is very important, bring us back to being human being….
Oh, no doubt about it, we’re brothers, you all the ways that we competed when we had through the rest of very close friends.
TTOS: That stays for life, is quite amazing what you’re saying to me now.
We discussed about the, the Duke of course, being on his surfing team, but you met him as well in person, how he was?
Of course, he was a great figure, he was always a very dignified man who carried himself quite frankly, like royalty and he was treated with a lot of respect as a result.
I became a member of the Duke surf team and there was a Duke a restaurant in the international marketplace, which is a very popular entertainement area and the owner of the restaurant made a surf team to try to make Duke productsand he made me captain of the Duke surf team.
I spent the last three years of his life with him almost every day, I’d pick him up and we’d have lunch and do things. We went on promotionals tours for the state of Hawaii, we promoted Hawaii and the Duke products. I got to know the man probably as good as anybody once I had knowing him in his wisdom years later on in years.
Looking back on it, I wish more Hawaiian, nowadays would emulate Duke.
There’s a big problem now with a lot of the youth in Hawaii and in the rest of the world, there’s a big negativity there…. More kids are protesting and everything seems to be just “NO”.
Everything with the Duke was Aloha, he did not know the word “A’ole”, which is no in Hawaiian, he was, Aloha. He was always gracious and receptive, and I never heard the man speaking a word of anybody. I think that goes back to what I think the real greatness is. For most of the people, it is a content of their character, how good of a person is spiritually, not how wealthy they are, not how good looking or how strong they are. The holler character is spiritually. Duke was a a very special man.
TTOS: Thank you for sharing this with us today, in effect “Surfing with Aloha”, it’s more than just a name, it’s about a way of living life, right?
Yeah, exactly, that’s a good way to perfectly summarize the concept of “Surfing with Aloha”… is a lifestyle and you carry those values with you wherever you go, no matter where you are.
You know, in my life, I’ve gone down a lot of different roads there, I’ve been in the White House and had dinner with the President of the United States and I’ve been to a number of other countries and Aloha, was a good thing to have with me with no matter where I was.
TTOS: We discussed before about the Pipeline Masters, fifty years next year in 2021, do you see a change between the today’s editions and the ones in 1971 or everything stayed the same and only the time passed? Have you seen an evolution of these contests from your point of view?
The first event I had six contestants myself based on their reputations, there was no ranking system. there was no major post surfing contest. I just picked who I thought would be the six most competitive. As I was saying before, I’ve got them on ABC sports, I got coverage and everything was so archaic back then…the man who filmed the show for ABC television, was a guy named Larry Lindbergh and he filmed it in 16 millimeter because they had no videotaping digital cameras back then.
It was very, very archaic, the first six surfers went out you know, the rest is history.
Now I think the Pipeline is it along the most during events in surfing, but also is the epitome of championships, if you win the pipeline masters, you go down in history as one of the best ever.
TTOS: You’ve wrote two books, the first one titled “the soul of surfing” in 1997 and the second one titled “Local boy, a memoir” in 2017, are you planning to release more books?
It’s funny you ask, I just released a new book and it’s just starting to hit the market, it’s a more contemporary and a political one about Hawaii, it is called “Can, No Can”.
It’s kind of a play on words and it’s it has to do with things that can happen in Hawaii and things that cannot happen or you don’t want them to happen.
It talks about economic opportunity and a whole of other issues we are facing here today.
It talks about everyday topics, financial issues, energy, land use, political parties, super-ferry, economic development, all of the things that affect day-to-day life and it has a lot to do with the proposals that I think would make things better.
I have a little vignettes that help me explain that and people CAN or CAN NOT agree on the things I’m proposing, it’s a kind of interactive book that way, I think is going to have a lot of appeal for the local market, but it has also some international things.
For Instance, I’m a big proponent of small modular nuclear reactors, the 250 megawatts or less.
I think they can make Hawaii energy and drive down the cost of energy and drive up the opportunity to do a lot of things that couldn’t be done because of our dependency on crude oil and gold
The book deals with topics like that, some are, you know, very political and others are dealing with just cultural and lifestyle issues, not much to do with surf, although I do have one proposal that I’ve tried to promote here in Hawaii.
You know, here in the US, we do a real good job in zoning land ,you know, we say, this zone is for housing, this is for conservation, this is for farming, but we don’t do a good job of zoning our ocean.
My proposal is, out to three miles, which is the territorial limits of Hawaii, we should zone the ocean: this is a conservation zone, no one does anything, it is for the future, this is a recreation area, this is for surfing and paddlingand this is for harbors and commercial activities like fish farming, for instance and things like that.
What I’m advocating is that we should take a more intelligent look at the use of the ocean and zone the ocean and try to encourage economic and biological diversity in the ocean as we do on land… this is called ocean zoning.
I like to think my strongest asset is innovation and making new things happen. Like I did with surfing and with the Pipeline Masters
TTOS: Ocean is very important to protect right? Ocean has been abused with all the plastic pollution and other things, we need to protect what mother nature gave us, right?
Yes, I agree, definitely and it got even worse than that, in some areas they build on the beach and they changed the whole topography of the ocean, there’ve been some terrible mistakes made in the ocean that have literally destroyed their sites and even change the currents and ocean and surf, you know, forever.
TTOS: I was talking about that with Joel DeRosnay, founder of the Surf Club De France that told me that one of the best surf spots over there in France disappeared because the new pier that has been built…
Let me leave this thought with you and your listeners.
We have to be more than protected though, we have to be advocates….
I’m advocating in areas where there are swells, you do a lot of research and you start creating more artificial reefs to create waves in areas where the surf comes, but it breaks on shore.
We could go, you know, 100/200 yards off shore and we could make an artificial reef where it will be shallow enough that the good waves could break and you can design it to have amazing waves on the right and on the left side
You could actually start manufacturing, a good reef for surf in areas that don’t have any waves at all.
That’s the way we have to think, we have to think about innovate and innovate ways to make surfing more accessible and better.
TTOS: You were talking a lot about innovation during our interview, so I guess there’s something that is very close to you, right?
Yes, I love doing, I love planting new seeds.
TTOS: it keeps you 74 years young…..
I like to think young, but my body’s very beat up, I’ve run this body very hard, I’ve gone through life with my foot all the way down on the accelerator so I pay the price now.
TTOS: We’re going to finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes up to your mind. The best surfboard that you ever ridden…
A big red, it was a 11 foot book gun, I rode it in Waimea Bay in 1965.
TTOS: Your favorite shaper?
Ooh. I don’t want to hurt anybody. Can I pass on that one?
TTOS: For sure? No problem….Personal question, your favorite song or your favorite artists…..
Well, that’s really difficult, let’s say Dionne Warwick.
I also really enjoy themes from movies, like I just enjoyed watching a series on Netflix called Outlander. And there’s a guy named Jamie McCrary, a Scottish man who wrote the music for that.
TTOS: Your favorite surf spot.
Oh, without a doubt Makaha and let me say this, I don’t say this without great thought: Makaha is the most versatile surfing site in the world.
And let me tell you why Sunset Beach, you can surf it from the inside reef four to five feet at about 15 plus it starts closing, Waymea Bay as start breaking good till it’s closes out of 30. Halaiewa is good from two to about 12, 15 out Pipeline you know it….
All the first spots have what I would call narrow windows of surfing, but Makaha you can surf with your children in what they call a hoodie, baby contests in circuit, maybe one to two feet off the inside reef. And then two days later, they could be 25 feet at the point and then there’s everything in between some days it could be four to six and fun play waves, some days it could be 10 to 12 at the bowl and then some days it could be 25 feet off the point on waves that if you make a mistake, you could drown.
Makaha is the most versatile spot, and if you look at the internet at my old trophy pictures, you’ll get out of pictures of old books back in the day, but it’s kinda been lost in the hustle-bustle of the modern world.
I like to say nowadays Makaha is one of surfing secrets, but for me, it’s the best and most versatile wave in the world.
TTOS: Your favorite surfer….
I should once again, try to avoid that by, I have a great number of surfers for real big wave variety…guys that I looked up to for their bravado and bravery……Buzzy Trent, Pat Curren, Wally Forsythe, Joey Cabell and the first Mr. Pipeline, Butch Van Artsdalen
But I think besides the patriarch, The Duke, his character and his spiritual value for surfing, I think the best surfer is Kelly Slater.
What particularly heartwarming for me with Kelly, I treat him like a son, he is just a wonderful person, very caring, unpretentious, fine young man.
Then, of course, there are a few women who I admire tremendously like Margo Oberg and Lynn Boyer, the first professional championship and then Carissa Moore whose roots are in Hawaii.
You know, we talked innovation here, here’s something I would like to innovate.
There’s a big movement now about gender equality, that women are equal to men and women have to make the same prize money as men.
Well, if that’s true, why does it certainly become the first sport where the women compete against the men, if they’re equal, why don’t the women compete against men?
I would like to seriously have a third division in professional surfing, I’d like to have the men’s division, the women’s division and the “gender neutral” division where men and women compete together.
Let’s say you take the top 16 men and women and you have them compete against each other yearly.
You’d have a basically a third division that is “gender neutral”, and it’s under the guise of equal work, equal pay, you got to compete against each other, if you want to get the same money prize
TTOS: After all, you can bring these these idea to the Federation and see if if they are going to go for it, that’s interesting…..
I would be willing to bet it will be a long time before that happens.
TTOS: It takes time for things to happen, It takes time also for surf to be an Olympic sport. We were waiting for Tokyo Olympics to happen this year, but, unfortunately, it has been postponed to the next year,
Let me tell you something, I think that they made a huge mistake and I was fortunate enough to be invited to California to see Kelly Slater’s first wave machine and they could have six foot beautiful waves, but, in Tokyo for the Olympics, they have choosen to have it in the ocean in a place called “Chiba Ashima”where sometimes it gets good, but sometimes ,there’s no surf at all.
They’re running a huge risk of having the Olympics with no waves and they could have easily guaranteed a beautiful surf, as you’ve probably seen many times the pictures of Kelly Slater’s wave, you ride three waves in the machine and that’s your score.
Everybody gets a wave and there are waves for everybody, but what they have it at Chiba, is quite dangerous if there are no waves…. I think they did a big mistake.
In Kelly’s machine, they have bleachers and a little cabanas along the whole half mile of a wave.
All along the side you could see the surfing contest….this is different than usual right? In Kelly’s pool you can look at it from any vantage point, you can look at it from the shore, from the side, or even from behind the waves…..it leads to amuch more user-friendly spectator event.
TTOS: Let’s hope sooner or later they will, maybe in the next Olympics after Tokyo, decide to to use the the machine, if it nature doesn’t provide…..
The last question is a little bit unusual and has not nothing to do with surf, but we asked to everybody, so we want to know your best relationship advice…..
Wow. That’s a tough….
Tolerance, I guess, would be a one word that would summarize it
Tolerate other people’s different ideas and different perspectives, but I don’t want to have that be confused with tolerating evil, but tolerating personalities and people’s ideas and put peoples quirky. There’s some people are very quirky.
Just tolerate others, we all have people or something that we don’t particularly like….just ignore it.
We are all in this world and we have to be a little more tolerant.
There’s too much. “You gotta do it my way or no way”.
What’s is going on in America right now….it’s absolutely terrible.
Recorded in July 2020