Our Sistine Chapel: Surfing Heritage Foundation

Most of us who've been surfing for a while have a pretty good mental catalogue of surfboard evolution. From the olo boards of Hawaiian chieftains, to Andy Iron's blade of destruction, most surfers can visualize the steady progression of design. But actually seeing the boards rail to rail—the planks and longboards, the mini guns and rhino chasers, twin-fins and tow boards—spanning three centuries, is another thing entirely. And that's what you get at the Surfing Heritage Foundation, a San Clemente warehouse turned museum that is the temporary home of what might be the world's most comprehensive surfboard collection. Dick Metz, longtime Southern California surfer and surf industry presence, is the man behind the project, and with the help of many friends and contacts across the surfing world, he has established what may well become a cornerstone of surfing culture, or perhaps our Sistine Chapel.

There's a lot of mana in the room, the power in each board imparted both by the great surfers that rode them and by the waves the boards were ridden on. The hollow plank that Duke Kahanamoku built at Corona Del Mar in the 1930s and left as a prototype for California surfers to emulate, stands next to a Pacific Homes Swastika model from the same era. Dale Velzy's first foam board, Styrofoam finished in varnish in 1948 and signed by the master himself, is but one of his shapes on display and with his recent passing, it serves as a legacy from his life's work. Each of the boards has a story of course, and represents a period of surfing history and something of the surfers that rode them.

An unexpected lesson in seeing the early boards and wrapping your hands around the rails, is the level of functionality in most of them. Particularly the Simmons boards, and one specifically: a ten-foot, deeply concaved twin fin with a wide, square tail and nice nose rocker. I'd always imagined a terrible compromise in time travel—you'd have pristine California with hardly anyone around, but the trade-off would come with having to ride the clunky old boards. Not so if you got a hold of that Simmons twinnie, the concave and paddle-style fins (the Lis fish comes to mind), the elliptical rails and speedy plan shape speak of drop knee bottom turns and pocket swoops on Malibu walls. You'd have more fun on that board than a hop-till-you-drop thruster (one man's opinion). Another lesson: the boards from the early 50s, hewn from flat rectangles of balsa or foam, pushed relentlessly at the door of performance, the outlines are sleek and the rails spot on—only the flat rocker wants a little more bow, a little sweetening, but they were getting there.

By the 1960s things seem to have been swinging, the Brewer and Weber mini guns for example, show how the elements of outline and rail foil had coalesced to make power line speed surfing, not to mention tube riding, possible. Each surfer will drift to the era closest to his or her heart when visiting the Foundation. I stood before Simon Anderson's three-fin that changed the world and chuckled as I remembered being an 11 year-old grom pronouncing to my friends, "Those things will never work, that middle fin will have too much drag." Guess I was wrong. The Pat Curren guns will break your heart if you have a weakness for a clean line. But here's the hitch: The Surfing Foundation is not yet open to the public. Although the boards are displayed and catalogued, the warehouse is an interim home until the final museum vision is realized. Matt Kivlin, the stylish Malibu surfer from back in the days I imagine time traveling to, has done the architectural drawings for the museum. Word is that the opening is three to five years away. The Foundation is accepting donations to help move the project forward, and private tours can be arranged.

The Foundation's major accomplishment to date is its assemblage of surfboards. Its significance is the fact that the physical traces of design evolution have been gathered and will be preserved as an accessible historic record of the culture of wave riding and the surfing lifestyle. "The Surfing Heritage Foundation is a tax exempt, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of surfing heritage through the collection, restoration, and display of significant historical surfboards, photography, and a broad range of other forms of information and objects of cultural value, for the appreciation and education of future generations" is the Foundation's mission statement. So far, they're more than living up to it.

Call (949) 388-0313 for information, or go to: www.surfingheritage.com