A SURF LIFE
By Dibi Fletcher
Herb has been in love with surfing since 1958, when he first paddled out at ten years old, on a borrowed board while camping at Doheny with his family. He immediately got a paper route to save money for a board of his own, and the life cycle of work to surf began.
After solid scores in the junior’s division on the surf circuit, he got his first paying job to surf at age 16, from Hobie Alter, who was making a promotional film for MacGregor/Hobie Sportswear. He made enough money for a ticket to Hawaii where he lived in the backseat of Dewey Weber’s Cadillac, parked at the house of photographer, Val Valentine, on the North Shore. The living conditions were not idyllic, but to surf with only one or two other people in the lineup was a dream.
Herb soon tired of the peanut butter diet and shared, backseat, sleeping quarters infested with mosquitoes nightly, and was ready to head back to the mainland. The winds of fate brought Greg McGillivray and his partner Jim Freeman into his life with an offer to be one of the stars in their movie, Free and Easy. At age 17, with an all-expense paid trip to Honolua Bay, he thought he’d made it.
When the shooting wound down, he decided to stay on Maui where he slept in the Buddhist graveyard at Mala Wharf, and could hitchhike daily to the Bay. When the surf went flat in the spring, Herb was ready to head back to the mainland and figure out how to make enough money to surf and get a handle on better living conditions.
Herb had been shaping surfboards for a few years and, by the summer of ‘68, he had saved a small nest egg and was ready to go back to the North Shore. I decided to tag along and we went to Maui for a bit, then moved to the North Shore, where we lived on the beach at Pupakea.
Herb and I got married in 1969, and with the help of my dad, Walter Hoffman, we got the Clark Foam franchise for the islands. Herb was living the life he’d always dreamed of, a wife, a sweet new son we named Christian, a house on the beach, great surf, the perfect job, a shaping room in the backyard where he could make boards in the evening and try them out at Pipeline in the morning.
Personal tragedy struck when we were driving down Kam Hwy on a perfect Saturday morning when a 1959 Chevy Bel Air crossed the double yellow line and crashed into the driver’s side of our Volkswagen bug crushing Herb’s left hip and shattering his femur. We moved back to the mainland to try to put our lives back together and, with the luxury of hindsight, the harrowing experience pushed us to become more than either of us could have ever imagined sitting on the white sand beaches of the North Shore.
Coinciding with the birth of our second son, Nathan, Herb started the Herbie Fletcher Surf Shop in Dana Point with the slogan “The Thrill is Back” and helped launch a new interest in progressive longboarding.
Herb had started experimenting with a new material, that he was sure would revolutionize surfing and, after several designs, he came up with the ultimate surfboard traction and opened a factory in San Clemente, where he stared manufacturing Astrodeck in 1976. It was a completely new product, and we had certainly never thought about the challenge of launching something into a world where change is so difficult to accept, yet Herb seemed uniquely suited to the job. He loved taking pictures, telling stories, and arranging exotic surf trips with the idea of promoting Astrodeck and living the lifestyle he loved.
It didn’t take long for the lure of the eternal siren song of “Aloha” to capture Herb’s attention once again and, in 1981, we made an investment in a house with Gerry Lopez at Pipeline. With a perfect view down the barrel at Pipe, it was fantastic. Herb had a place to store his Jet Ski, and he could shoot photos and film from the front yard.
Herb had been toying with the idea of making videos, as a promotion for Astrodeck, with the concept to capture the most awesome surf with the greatest surfers, which few except the sport’s elite would ever be able to see, as most weren’t featured in the surf publications of the day. The idea was irresistible and “Wave Warriors” was born.
When the first in the “Wave Warriors” series was completed, Herb went up and down the California coast selling the first video ever offered for sale in a retail surf shop. There was a lot of resistance, but he didn’t care. He had joined together the greatest surfers on the planet and, through a new medium, shared their extreme surfing with the world.
In the winter of ’85, Herb gathered together surfers and surf photographers in front of the Pipe House for a photo shoot, with the images becoming some of the most iconic shots chronicling surf’s unique history. Over the course of the next decade, Herb made many videos that let the viewer share his pure stoke for surf, skate, and snowboarding.
When he started launching his modified Jet Ski in front of the Pipe House, it would prove to be a game changer. Herb had been towing Christian into waves on the California coast since ’76, but flying over mountains of water at Second Reef Pipe and speeding down the line at Maaleaa opened a new frontier, giving surfers access to monster waves that had been considered unridable before.
In the late ‘90s, Herb stared collecting pieces of broken boards that the new breed of fierce Pipeline chargers discarded as trash in the yard at the Pipe House and assembled them into sculptures, that he called “Wrecktangles”. With the jagged shapes and the prominence of pros sponsorship logos, these once virgin, custom-made, wave riding boards, all broken at Pipe, seem to be the perfect symbol of the commercialization of surfing in the late 20th and early 21st century.
As an artist, the heart of what has kept Herb inspired is his unwavering ability to see things that most would overlook, and create a new way for us all to experience them in a new context. Like the gathering of the tribe for the Wave Warrior’s photo shoots, once again, through the Wrecktangles, Herb has assembled the history of surfing according to his unique vision.
Working together as a family on Astrodeck has been the greatest learning experience, and given us the opportunity to grow and push ourselves to accomplish new goals. With Christian and Nathan by our sides, pushing the boundaries of contemporary surfing, all things seemed possible.
As a father, Herb encouraged Christian to take his skateboarding maneuvers into the surf, when all others scoffed at the idea, and expose the world to aerial surfing. While Herb’s fearless approach to big wave exploration infected Nathan with an enduring passion to push the limits.
As a grandfather, Herb’s love for skateboarding and his surfer’s approach to conquering concrete terrain, was naturally engrained in our grandson, Greyson, while Herb’s enthusiasm for surfing and art is already influencing our grandsons, Lazer and Jetson, as they start to discover their own paths to adventure and fun.
As a husband and soul mate, I knew the moment I met him on the beach at Makaha when I was thirteen, he had the greatest imagination, it hasn’t been easy livin’ a life going against the grain, it’s been FANTASTIC— Thanks, Herb