• Otter Views: Now Available in Stores!

    As befits the unofficial start of summer, Memorial Day was hot enough to send throngs of pleasure seekers to the shore and out onto the briny. Monterey’s municipal wharf offered a good view of both, and a 75-minute wait list for brunch provided time to take it all in.

    Gazing around, I was impressed by the range of water sports gear that can now be bought “off the shelf” from places like Costco, Big Five and REI.

    Up on the beach, skim boards zipped across wet sand and banked off the small, glistening shore break. Where the jetty met the beach, boogie boards and surf mats bore laughing young riders through the shallows. Out along the wharf, two surfers straddled pop-out foam boards and waited hopefully for a rogue set from Tahiti.

    Farther offshore milled clusters of plastic kayaks as colorful as M&Ms, paddle blades flashing as they rose and dipped. Standup paddle boarders stroked along beside the wharf, then turned and threaded their way through barnacled pilings and barking sea lions into the marina. Another paddler, this one seated, propelled a one-man fiberglass outrigger seaward with long, sure pulls.

    “Look at all the water craft and wave toys you can buy ready-made these days,” I marveled. “My old dad would have been amazed.”

    “Why do you say that?”

    “He was a water sports fancier, but he was ahead of his time,” I said. “He had to make his own gear.”

    Prowling though a box of old family photos once, I found a snapshot of my dad at age 23. Standing in his antique swimsuit beside a lake, he looks wet, cold, skinny and pleased. He holds up for the camera an odd-looking swim mask with two eyepieces.

    A note on the back of the photo tells more. “Lake Mendota, Wisconsin, 1939. First pair of self-made underwater goggles (not available in stores in those days.)”

    By the time my brother and I came along a decade later, our dad had moved the family to Honolulu. He could now buy his underwater gear from McWayne’s Marine Supply, but he never lost his Midwestern faith in building your own.

    This put him in good company in pre-Statehood Hawaii, where “not available in stores” applied to many things. If you wanted a skateboard, for instance, you borrowed a hacksaw and cut a metal roller skate in two. Then you’d mount the wheel pairs on either end of a narrow board.

    Smart kids bolted their wheels snugly onto the board. But I was in a hurry and used the bent-nail technique. I regretted this several weeks later when my front wheels worked free midway down a steep hill. I spent the rest of that summer as a mummy.

    While in traction, I had time to plan other do-it-yourself sports projects. In its wisdom, McWayne’s sold swim fins, but the boogie board was still 25 years off in the future. Wanna-be wave riders too small to handle the heavy balsa surfboards of the day had to improvise.

    Thus, on any given wave, you might see kids riding masonite lunch trays, stubby Army surplus “air mats,” truck tire inner tubes, or foam “kick boards” hand-painted with shark teeth and other fanciful designs. My board boasted a wobbly lightning bolt.

    Also “not available in stores” was the sleek hydrodynamic planing device known today as the “skim board.” I still watch in awe as young skimboarders race down the beach, skip out over the water, bank off incoming waves and surf them back up onto the sand.

    Our stone-age version of this was “sand sliding.” Our home-made boards were hewn from half-inch plywood, and the big trick was to make them spin across wet sand by kneeling and dragging one hand.

    Board shapes, finishes and performance varied widely. Kids with access to radial arm saws, planers, sanders and other power tools produced virtual works of art. Their boards were smooth, beveled, symmetrical and sealed with colorful coats of slick plastic resin.

    The rest of us cut the plywood crudely with hand saws, did not bevel the undersides, and disguised our ineptitude with house paint. If anything, our boards were more challenging to skim. The slightest misstep would cause the edges to dig in, pitching the rider onto packed sand. It was an aquatic variation of the mummy-maker hill.

    When my brother and I were old enough to whine for our own surfboards, our dad gave us his heavy wooden home-made paddleboard instead. Painted purple, this hollow, cigar-shaped craft stood 12 feet tall and had a cork in the tail.

    Heaving this Leviathan up onto a toy wagon, my brother and I would maneuver it down to the water, clamber aboard, and paddle tandem-style into small waves. After each session, we’d stand the board up against a tree, pull the cork, and let the accumu- lated sea water drain out.

    We were understandably stoked when Hawaii’s first foam surfboards became “available in stores.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 30, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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