Welcome to the 21st episode of the third series of our podcast!
Today with us, from California, is the President of the California Surf Museum and author of books Jim Kempton.
We discussed with him about surf, surf culture, his new book “Women on Waves” and much more!
You can find the episode on all major podcast platforms or read the transcribed episode (forgiving us of spelling mistakes and missing parts) below.
TTOS: Aloha Jim, welcome to the show, where are you today?
I'm in the San Clemente overlooking the beach.
TTOS: Today we're going to talk about many things, we're going to talk about the museum, of course, but we're going to talk also about you writing books, but the first question is for yourself as a surfer… What, in your opinion, is the most important thing in surfing?
I think the most important thing in surfing is to realize what a special experience it is and to enjoy it for more than just going out and doing a sport like you would do another sport. Most of the people who originally and I say originally over the, over the first 50 years of surfing, really discovered it as this fantastic experience. I think there are a lot of people that come into the sport now that may come in because they think is cool or they want to be in, or they just want something that they can do athletically. This special relationship that waves and humans have is something that we should really remember when we're surfing. You know, there's a scientific experience that all energy moves in waves.
And right now, as we're sitting here, there are millions of waves running through us, audio waves, video waves, heat waves, ultrasonic waves and the only place in the entire universe that humans get to harness or to ride that energy is on a surfboard in the ocean. I think that's what makes surfing so different and also so special when people come in and they can't describe the stoke, you know, and everybody laughs at them and we sound like battling idiots and we're like “wow, we're just so great”. You know, people think that it's stupid, but really is indescribable….. it is not like hitting a baseball out of the park or throwing a touchdown or hitting a tennis ball, pasture opponent…it's this experience with the universe that you're having that you don't even realize until you think about it.
TTOS: when did you start surfing for the first time?
I started surfing when I was nine, you know, as a kid, you always want to be a fireman or a policeman or an astronaut or a cowboy. After I saw Gidget, I didn't want to be any of that stuff, I just wanted to be a surfer and that, that was the coolest thing ever. You know, people were older, they all made fun of it and laughed at it and thought it was corny, but for kids, it was like this revelation about what the beach and surfing could be like, and all of us wanted to do it. So the next year, as soon as I was old enough to save up a little bit of money to get a surfboard, I got one and started surfing. And I was actually living on Guam, I was born overseas. My parents worked in the civil service and I learned to surf there at a place called Telephone Bay, then we moved around to other places like Hawaii and Japan and so forth. But that was my initial experience with surfing until we moved back to California.
TTOS: Do you remember your first surfboard?
Initially the surfboards that came to where I was, were just what they called Malibu's, they were like the pop outs we have now only they were from a stronger foam more of a like a foam skin and so what happened with all of us luckily as is that they were perfect…..they were perfect blanks for making real surfboards. We all shaped them down and learned how to glass them, and sand and polish and make the boards like real surfboards. It's amazing how quickly all that happened, no one had ever heard of internet, but the next day there's like, you know, 5 billion people using it, you know? It was really like that, the change was so quick and the equipment came so fast.
We started buying boards from Hawaii.
My surfboard back then that was a Hansen 50/50…it was a nine, six with a black fin and a red stripe, it was absolutely the coolest thing I'd ever imagined.
TTOS: Do you still have that board?
I wish…. If I had it now I could retire probably…..
TTOS: How did you start working with the California Surf Museum?
I just drove by and visited at one day and the people that were in there were just so friendly and it was such a cool idea, I've always been into surf history, I worked at Surfer and I've always been a student of surfing history and surfing culture. I just thought this would be a great place to get involved with and it was very easy, everyone there was friendly and that's the way I think it's still is, which is one of the real blessings. What we have at the museum is the board of directors, the volunteers and all the members are all really in one big family. I know that sounds corny, but we get along because we have the same goals and we rarely conflict because we're not looking for our own agenda. It's all about what's best for the museum and preserving and protecting and enhancing surfing and, you know, it's culture.
TTOS: What is the most representative piece of the museum and your favorite one?
Well, the, when you say representative, I think the biggest attraction that we have is the surfboard that was Bethany Hamilton surfboard when she was attacked by the shark it's in a glass case because the foam is exposed from where it was been, and you can see the bite in the through the board that goes all the way to the strainer and we can always tell when people get to that surfboard when they're walking through the museum, because we can hear the sort of audible gasp when people see it, because just so mind blowing and we keep it in a plexiglass stand, it looks kind of like a Mona Lisa, we call it our Mona Lisa. As far as my favorite surfboard, I think is probably, we have one of Duke Kahanamoku board that has carved into the board an inscription to the sea. The Duke left it here on one of his trips to Southern California, spreading surfing.
TTOS: You are buying all these boards or people donate them to you?
We wish we had the money to buy, we would love to expand and improve our collection. I can just say that our collection is nowhere near complete or as good as many of the private collections or even other other museums. What we do have is a really strong set of boards that tell the story of surfing history. So starting out with a Hawaiian Elia, you know that the Kings road, and then going through the oldest board in California Duke's boards, the early thirties boardroom fins being designed into the hot curls and then all the different sort of design innovations that came through those….. that's really our purpose. We would like to do with that is to upgrade as you always do in a museum…
We're lucky that we have some storage space, but the storage is limited, people want to give you their boards even when they have no real value, they think because the board is old, that somehow has value to it, but really they're only a very few brands, if you will, you know, that the logo means something. Then it needs to be in a really good condition and it needs to have some pedigree….one thing is to have a George Downing board shaped by George Downing, but it's another thing to have, you know, one that George Downey rode himself, or, you know, it's fine to have a Fred Hemmings board, but the board that was in the 1968 world contest becomes the board that you'd really like to have in your collection.
TTOS: do you borrow from private collections and display in the museum, or just display your collection?
We borrow all the time…..we did a short board exhibition, we wanted to get the very best fish boards we could….. we wanted a Steve Lis designed fish from the late 1960s and the same with right now, we're doing an exhibit on wood boards and we wanted to find the finest of the wood boards that we could possibly find.
TTOS: How can people support the museum?
Well, the quickest and easiest way is to become a member, if you just type in surf museum.org, we will come up and there's a membership button right there on the front page that you can click on and become a member. What that does is give you all the information about what we do, obviously COVID has curtailed this at the moment, but we do all kinds of not only exhibits, but events where we have people like Billy Hamilton or Greg Noll, or Kelly Slater, or Bethany Hamilton come and speak at the museum and talk about all different kinds of topics, really great surfers, young and old alike know Joel Tudor, or John Sieverson, before he died, we did a huge thing with John, signing his book.
We do book signings, we do films and we have the director or the stars come and speak. When you join the museum, you get the newsletter and you get in, you get oftentimes free to come to the event or very highly discounted compared to just someone off the street. It's really worth it to buy it. I mean, one, you know, if you attend two or three things, you know, you, you've a couple of things you've paid back what the cost of being a member is and then the other thing is we much rather get a donation of cash, so to speak, then another board, because most of the time, unless they are, as I say, really high pedigree, they're just, they're just something that we really shouldn't even take any more of.
The best way I think is to a member and then to become an active member of volunteer. And you can do that now because of the internet, you can do that from all over the place. In fact, interestingly enough, I'll just say we have on our Twitter account more people from Brazil than we do from California, as amazing as that sounds. And part of that is because, you know, that reach, there are people who are interested in so many different places around the world, both our visitors and our memberships are very international.
TTOS: How did you start writing books?
When I started having kids, I wanted to do something where I wasn’t away all the time. I got the job at Billabong as the media director and was at Billabong for 11 years, a fantastic experience as well, just you know, again, getting to travel up to the world and do all kind of work that I really enjoy doing. The museum was kind of an outlet for me to continue to be involved in the kinds of things that I love doing. In the meantime I wrote several books snd again, they're just labors of love. You know, you don't make a lot of money on the books that you make about surfing cause it has a pretty limited audience. The last book that I wrote (before Women Surfing) was a us cookbook, a surfing cookbook about all the recipes that I'd collected around the world in my travels and all the surfing adventures and surfers that I got to meet.
Now I'm writing a book on the history of women's surfing… (the interview has been recorded in December 2020), hopefully it's going to come out just before the Olympics….there'll be a lot of connection to the women of each of the teams from around the world that will compete
TTOS: How did you come up with idea of writing a book about women surfing?
Interestingly, almost 12 years ago, we decided to do an exhibit at the surf museum on women, we realized as we started researching it, that it never had really been done very in depth. We spent almost two years doing the research on it and the staff of the museum our historian and our museum manager and myself and other people were working to gather this information. We produced probably the most comprehensive exhibit that's ever been done on women's surfing and we learned so much, while it wasn't nearly complete. This gave me a framework for 10 years later how to hang all of this information and so much has happened in the last 10/ 12 years… women's surfing has revolutionized not only in the quality of the surfing, but also in big waves riding. It is amazing that a woman rode the largest wave of 2020…..
That gives you an idea of the advance that has been made in surfing, I found so many fascinating things the first surfer in Australia was a woman, the first surfer in Ecuador was a woman the first surfer in South Africa was a woman. It's astonishing when you start digging into the history to find all of the things that have come up. The book has become a gigantic, I don't know how I'm going to finish, but I'm almost done.
Surely my publishers are going to cut half of it out, but I wanted to get everybody in there. You know, what it really is striving to include every significant woman surfer and a little bit about them, whether they were you know, a competitor or a free surfer or a traveler or an innovator, or a political you know, organizer of the events to even the shapers, artists….. It really tries to cover the whole range of women that have been involved in surfing since the beginning.
There's a lot of competition for waves, but the advances that women have made over the last 10 years culminating with equal pay, which is fantastic because it probably is one of the few sports where it actually makes economic sense.
You know, I really believe that for a whole bunch of reasons, not all of them particularly positive, but for a whole bunch of reasons, you know, people will do enjoy watching women's surfing where they might not enjoy them, watching them playing basketball or baseball or something like that….surf is a sport is something that is more of a beautiful dance, then I think the women tend to be far more attractive to the general audience that is watching. I think that there's a huge opportunity a huge advancement that surfing has kind of now, once you get leading the, the, the societal world, where there was a period where I feel like surfing had stopped doing that, you know, initially surfing was a real breakthrough.
We were one of the first people who took advantage or really pioneered leisure sport, leisure lifestyle, because after world war two was the first time anyone had ever had time to do something besides on Sunday, you know, you took Sunday off as your day of rest, and you did whatever you like and then the rest of the time you were working 12 hours a day…. for the first time in human history, as a broad scale of society had leisure time and people could actually live without having to worry about working every single day and surfing became part of the initiative of enjoying that, you know, people who were more interested in doing, building their life around what their activity was rather than trying to make ends meet.
And so surfing became a real avant-garde leading edge kind of social development, but it was never that for women, you know women always struggled in it…surprisingly… in the pre-collegiate era women were accepted, as you saw with the book that you were talking about ( The Wave Woman Book), they were very accepted if they were willing to come out and do the same, you know, take the same risks and do the same, same wave riding that the men were. Before that in Hawaii, they were very equal. But after Gidget, there was this sort of grocery sit on the beach and look good and bikinis, and, you know, get the boards for their guys when they lose theirs…
This thing is a real, there was a real resistance to women as active surfers and that's really changed dramatically in the last 10 years. It's been changing for the last 20 years, but, but in the last 10 years, these women who are surfing 60 foot waves, and these women who are surfing as well as 90% of the guys…You know, people always ask me who are the best surfers in the world and I say, “well, if you took the top 20 men in the top 20 women, probably the top 20 men would be better than any of the top 20 women. In other words, the number 20 would be better than number one, but that isn't really the story. The story is if you took the 5 million surfers in the world and you took all the men, those top 20 women ,probably the top thousand women are better than 99% of all the men that surf…..that's really the story”. You know what I'm saying, the guys are gonna be better than the women that's because of our, our genetic makeup, but in terms of being able to perform at a super high level beyond what most men would ever dream of doing these women are just blowing doors right now., they're totally in the lead.
Most surfers don't start surfing because they want to become professional surfers… surfers start surfing because they love wave riding and they're not interested in making in to the team. In fact, that's why they left it. They left the team to come and go surf, cause they don't want a coach yelling at them. They don't want to have to wear uniforms. They don't have to want to have to beat somebody else in order to be successful. The appeal, as I said before, of just riding a natural wave of energy is so there's no other word for it, addicting to people when they experience it, that they continue to do that. That's the real attraction to surfing and, at the same time, I think people are far more than the general audience is far more interested in, for instance, big wave riding than they are in trying to see if someone can do an aerial on a three-foot wave
TTOS: We are going to finish our interview with a short Q/A please answer the first thing that comes up to your mind….
The best surfboard you have ever ridden…..
I had to say was a Billy Stewart Phenergan that I was never able to get exactly the same one.
You know, those magic boards, I've had a few magic boards, you can never quite get that again….it was a six/10 and I felt like I never had the confidence on a surfboard like I had without…. it was one of those things where if I didn't fall off, I knew it would make the wave long as I stayed with it….
TTOS: Your favorite shaper
That's a tougher one…. I would say either Bob McTavish or Dick Brewer because I think they are the two most influential shapers in the world of surfing. They were the guys that really revolutionized surfboard design, I guess, that's what I would say is a match between those two.
TTOS: Your favorite song….
I think probably Moondance by Van Morrison
TTOS: Your favorite surf spot….
It has to be trust lower Trestles, no place like home and especially, back when I first started surfing, we used to get it in the wintertime all the time to ourselves, you know, it was amazing. It was a hero wave, even guys like me can, can look good at Trestles,
TTOS: Your favorite surfer today
I have to say John John he just has all the all-round deal going, he's still so young, he's so humble and he's so stylish in his surfing
TTOS: Last question we ask everybody, we want to know your best relationship advice….
My best relationship advice, well, if you're talking about with a woman, I think the best advice is always say yes…..