The Sixth Annual Kelly’s Cove Reunion and Memorial
Huddled against the steep rock wall at the northern edge of Ocean Beach, a group of old men with sun-tanned, leathery skin passed the time in the sun by drinking beer, eating birthday cake and telling stories. From the parking lot, the group stood out no more than any of the other dozen picnics that had spontaneously formed on the beach to soak in the beautiful fall day. It would be easy to walk right past them without taking notice.
But this was no impromptu gathering of a family taking refuge from the heat of the Mission District or the East Bay. This was the annual reunion of San Francisco’s surfing legends, returning to their home turf at Kelly’s Cove, where their surfing and stories have been ingrained into the the history of Ocean Beach and surf culture.
I got a tip from Han Ruangsin, the man behind OBSF.org, of the sixth annual Kelly’s Cove Reunion and Memorial that took place Saturday, Sept. 25. As a surfer, I was instantly intrigued and planned my day around attending the event.
I am not from here. I am one of the outsiders, a transplant who moved here to find waves and happiness, and have I fallen in love with Ocean Beach in the pursuit of those two ambitions. I grew up surfing on the East Coast, and spent my youth blanketed in stories told by my dad about his days surfing Delaware, Maryland and Florida in the 1970s. I built mythical images in my mind out of the stories told by my dad and his friends, and turned them into my own legends.
I think every surfer has done this, whether they’ve been surfing since childhood or only started yesterday. If you’re a surfer, then somewhere there is another surfer who has captivated your imagination
But the old-timers who met for the annual gathering at Kelly’s Cove are special. These surfers are not just heroes through the magical osmosis of storytelling, in the minds of their children, but are recognized and honored throughout the world for their contributions to surfing culture. In the rugged history of Ocean Beach, they are some of the first to form their identities around the cold, foggy and often inhospitable beach. And for surfing history, they are as important as the beat poets are to American literature, the pioneers who used their courage and longboards to burst out of the box.
“How long have you been surfing at Kelly’s Cove?” I asked Bill Hickey at the reunion.
The legendary Hickey, widely recognized as one of the premiere surfboard shapers and glassers, and the epitome of the “soul surfer,” who is one of Kelly’s defining characters.
“I’ve been here … well, I’ve been here since the beginning of everything,” he replied with a smile and a chuckle.
His daughter, Jennifer Hickey, who drove up from Encinitas with her dad for the reunion, also beamed and laughed: “Yup.”
She’s clearly grown used to having people gush about meeting her dad.
I got to shake hands with John Schilling, who started surfing Kelly’s Cove in 1938, using methods virtually unrecognizable to the modern surfer. He would ride waves using swim fins and an inflatable mattress, because surfboards weren’t known in the area at the time.
I asked him what it was like to surf back then, and his answer was immediate: “The water was cold.”
The annual reunion has been organized by Arne Wong, a trim surfer who, at the age of 60, works as an animator. Wong started surfing Kelly’s Cove in 1965. Back then there were no such things as wetsuits or leashes. Surfers would gather at the beach, using an old car tire to keep a bonfire burning all day long, and would surf in 20-minute bursts until the water became unbearable.
“The fire was everything. It made the community,” Wong claimed.
Once conversation turned to the discussion of the bonfire, some of the other guys who had been patiently waiting their turn to talk just couldn’t wait anymore, chiming in so eagerly that I couldn’t keep track of who said what.
The significance of the bonfire to early Ocean Beach surfers, I learned, is hard to overstate. A tire was the best for the bonfires because they generated a great deal of heat and would burn for a long time. People would trickle down to the beach throughout the morning, and the fire would burn until dusk. Surfers would ride waves for as long as they could tolerate the cold, and would then run out to warm up by the fire.
In modern surfing, the vast majority of the time is spent sitting and waiting in the water, typically in reflective silence. In the 1960s at Kelly’s Cove, most of the time was spent in revelry around the bonfire, shivering to stay warm.
The burning of tires was shut down when Playland-at-the-Beach closed in 1972, and the area was replaced with condominiums. Needless to say, the developers were not too thrilled with prospect of black smoke constantly billowing in to the new condos, and so the bonfires ended.
As most of the surfers at the reunion see it, the magic of the Kelly’s Cove surf community ended when the bonfires did, which is why at the reunion there is a clear sense of who is being commemorated.
“Nowadays, surfers drive to the beach, get in the water, and then leave. They don’t hang out like they used to,” said Wong.
One of the best parts of the reunion was that every old guy took of his shirt almost immediately after arrival. It was a party of guys ranging from their 60s to their 80s, shirtless. I took off my shirt, too.
They were there to re-create a spirit, no matter what. They had a bonfire of course, a birthday cake for some of the recent birthdays, and a memorial for members of the crew that had since passed.
And they told stories. When I walked through the crowd, you’d hear lines like, “No way! That’s Fred over there? I haven’t seen him in so long, remember how he used to …,” and then I’d be on to the next conversation.
Pretty clearly at the center of the reunion was Steve Krolick, who is known as Zen-Buddha. According to Jan Novie, one of those at the gathering, Steve used to ride waves while sitting on the nose of the board “in a full lotus position.”
“He’s probably the only person who could do that,” Novie said about Zen-Buddha.
Another sought-after handshake was with Al Peace, who at age 84 had traveled from Reno, Nevada to attend the reunion. He started surfing Kelly’s in 1944, when he worked as a lifeguard at the now-defunct Fleishhacker Pool.
According to Peace, for the first few years he surfed there, he was the only guy out. He would beg his friends to join him, but due to the cold, they refused. When a few people did start joining him, he said, they built a wooden shack on Kelly’s Cove, which stood for about three years until it was washed out to sea by a winter storm.
At the reunion there was music, picture-taking and grilled chicken. But for the most part it was just a bunch of old friends reminiscing on the beach. I imagine that the bonfires decades ago were much more rowdy than they are today, with most of the people gathered around now in their 60s, but there was a warm and welcoming vibe extended to everyone, even a transplant surfer such as I am.
It’s impossible to talk about the Ocean Beach community without talking about the beach itself. And you can’t think about the beach without mentioning the surfers. The Kelly’s Cove surfers were some of the first to come out to the western edge of the city deliberately, in order to create a culture out of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.
“There’s a pioneering spirit in this group,” as Wong put it. “Everyone who came to the beach was thinking out of the box. Living on the edge was like being fringe-dwellers in a society.”
Everyone who lives out here now, surfer or not, is a part of a place with an identity that despite its persistent dynamism is firmly rooted by the early days of Kelly’s Cove surfing. Our neighborhood’s history is based in immigrant families from places such as Ireland and China — and in the lifestyle of surfers.
When I met these guys at the reunion, they spoke about their surfing years with something bigger than nostalgia. Their surf stories are not just about their youth, but about the birth of the concept of the Northern California surfer. I could tell that they know they helped create something special. As they rode waves and communed around a bonfire, they were paving the way for something that would echo for generations.
There are many opportunities to learn more about the early surfing at Kelly’s Cove. A great resource is our own columnist Woody LaBounty’s Western Neighborhood Project. Keep an eye out for an upcoming column in which LaBounty explains the naming of Kelly’s Cove. Another great source is Han Ruangsin of OBSF.org, a non-profit that is committed to preserving the past, present, and future of San Francisco surfing. Finally, you can check out “Great Highway,” a documentary on the history of surfing at Ocean Beach by Mark Gunson.
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