A history of stoke: Two local surfers complete “The Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History”.
by Ed Solt
During a session at the old Paddleboard Cove, surf historian Joel T. Smith and multimedia artist Ron Croci began “talking story” in between sets. Each roller reminded the two of Paddleboard Cove’s original moniker, “California’s Little Waikiki.” And so the discussion centered around the significance of the original Palos Verdes Surf Club of the ‘30s and the ‘40s, churning the groundswell that would evolve into Smith and Croci’s “The Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History: Wave Riding from Antiquity to Gidget.”
In the early ‘80s, Smith, a noted documentary filmmaker, television producer, director, and a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, who is based in Hermosa Beach, began assisting noted surf publisher Allan “Bank” Wright assemble his “Mountain & Sea” surfing newsletter. Wright was the author of 1972’s “Surfing California,” a quintessential surf guide still relevant today. Wright was also responsible for reproducing classics as Doc Ball’s “California Surfriders, 1946,” and Tom Blake’s “Hawaiian Surfriding: The Ancient and Royal Pastime.” He used Smith’s personal copy for the latter book, and his publishing saved both surf classics from obscurity.
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Smith was inspired to contribute surf history articles to The Surfer’s Journal, a high-design publication known for providing deeply thoughtful meditations on surf history and culture. He took on the tedious task of cataloging every instance of surfing in literature by assisting author Tim de la Vega with the assembly of “Two Hundred Years of Surfing Literature.”
“My interest in surf writing was then put to work by the Print Committee of the Surfing Heritage & Culture Center in San Clemente,” he said. “We reviewed and cataloged pretty much everything written about surfing. I gained entree to even more iconic surfers, especially Dick Metz, the man who inspired ‘The Endless Summer.’ All of these inputs have contributed.”
Fittingly, Smith first met Croci, a Torrance resident, while surfing in Hawaii, surfing’s point of origin.
“Ron and I have had many great sessions over the years,” said Smith. “One of my favorite memories is surfing Ala Moana with Ron on a beautiful full moon night. We were the only ones out. The set was overhead and near perfect, and we were trading waves on the sets. I still grin when I think of that session, which took place well over a quarter century ago.”
Croci has over 40 years of commercial and fine art experience, working on the design teams of over 47 feature films and over 200 commercials. As a surfer, diver, and spearfisherman, his major stoke is depicting dreamy beaches and lush landscapes, often juxtaposed with a vibrant figure engaging in one of his ocean passions. Dozens of art galleries represent his artwork, and he has a following among collectors in America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. He’s illustrated 19 books, five of which were for Island Heritage, the publisher of the “The Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History.”
Through the years, Smith and Croci continued that initial surf-borne discussion, pondering the history of surfing before the release of the motion picture “Gidget.” The 1957 novel, “Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas,” based on author Frederick Kohner’s teenage daughter’s rompings with the surfers of Malibu, introduced surfing to the mainstream through Columbia Pictures’ adaptation in 1959. Smith considers this the launch of the modern surf era.
“We wanted to concentrate on the early years, how wave riding developed and how it evolved into an international tribe,” Smith said. “There’s no shortage of material documenting post-Gidget cultural explosion or the state of contemporary surfing. In fact, there’s an abundance.”
Smith and Croci’s new project would focus on filling the historical void and bring to life “the germination and development of an ancient Polynesian custom into an international sport and lifestyle,” as the book itself would describe its purview.
“Ron shares my interest in surfing’s grand traditions. He has done historical illustrations for numerous publications and contributed superb design work to the Hawai’i Maritime Center in Honolulu,” Smith said. “We knew we wanted to combine surf history with colorful art, but Ron’s work in these pages goes beyond mere illustration. Each image is an original oil painting inspired by the people and events that tell the story of surfing.”
“We wanted to capture those pivotal moments that evolved and changed the sport and lifestyle of surfing,” Croci said. “Times before photography, times that have never been visualized.”
The duo proposed their project to Hawai’i’s largest publisher, Dale Madden of Island Heritage. Madden suggested a few minor tweaks to the project.
“Our concept targeted just the surf market, but our publisher wanted something for a broader audience, non-surfers as well as surfers. He wanted our project in an atlas format to match some of his other titles,” Smith said. “As a result, our Atlas can be read from any page. Each page has a story that can stand on its own — you don’t have to turn back a page. We’ve got to thank Dale for helping us out. He is a man dedicated to Hawaiian culture.”
In addition to using an atlas format, Smith took another approach not commonly used in surf literature. He weaves a tapestry of firsthand experiences utilizing actual newspaper clippings and excerpts from writers of the period. Through his clear, simple prose, he explains the significance of each entry.
“I make no pretense of being comprehensive or definitive. My goal was rather to simplify, to distill the story of wave riding into a fun, positive and colorful presentation. There is not a lot of prose,” he said. “Instead I use contemporary quotes and observations to track what I consider the salient events, developments, and characters that make surfing special. Then I add notations to place things into perspective.”
“I knew that there were already some truly excellent histories of surfing available, and many of them were written by guys I consider friends and colleagues,” he said. “I had no desire to replicate their work.”
For surfing history buffs, “The Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History” brings a fresh interpretation to surfing’s past. After reading, you may start questioning your surf IQ.
“One of the big misconceptions in Hawaiian surf history is attributing the decline of surfing on missionaries ban of the sport,” Croci said. “In actually, it was the decimation of the Hawaiian population due to new diseases brought by colonists — immunities an isolated island would lack.”
Another subject the Atlas brings to light is the important role of women in surf culture, an aspect often glossed over in traditional surf histories. In antiquity, women, or “wahines,” loved to surf; the sport was equally popular among both sexes.
“A female surfer received the same social accolades and celebrity as a male. What put a halt to women surfing during the early 1900s was the sheer size of the redwood boards. Men could hardly carry them to the beach,” Smith said. “To begin with, the surfing population was low as boards weighed 130 to 150 pounds. When boards became 30 to 40 pounds in the 50s, first with balsa wood and then polyurethane foam, surf popularity increased. Surfing had been male-dominated for decades, so it’s somewhat ironic that it was a woman who initiated the greatest upsurge in the history of the sport. Her name was Gidget.”
The overwhelming theme Smith and Croci emphasize is that the enthusiasm, style, and spirit of surfing are historically very much like today — the same stoke as it ever was. We all have “Hopupu,” or surf fever, which Smith feels Hawaiian historian Kepelino Keauokalani described best around 1870 in a passage still applicable today:
“During November…early Hawaiians become particularly hopupu. It is a month of rough seas and high surf that lure men to sea coast. For expert surfers going upland to farm, if part way up perhaps they look back and see the rollers combing the beach, they will leave work…they will pick up their board and go. All thought of work is at the end, only that sport is left. The wife may go hungry, the children, the whole family, but the head of the house does not care. He is all for sport, that is his food. All day there is nothing but surfing.”
Smith and Croci purposely kept the price of the Illustrated Atlas of Surfing affordable, $25, as a way to encourage even the biggest surf bum to pick up a copy and learn a thing or two about our rich surf history. The book is available on Amazon.com. See Croci’s original paintings at atlasofsurfing.com for purchase. ER