Surf Legend Woody Ekstrom

Today I had the good fortune of spending time with Woody Ekstrom, one of San Diego’s founding fathers of surfing. On October 13, 2005, he’ll turn 78 years young. The first time he ever surfed was in 1941, at Little Cove in La Jolla.

I call Woody, whose number I got from my friend Jane at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, and told him I was collecting stories about the legends of San Diego surfing. He invited me over to his house on Neptune. I pack my laptop and off I go …

As I’m on the way to his house, I feel slightly insecure taking a laptop with me. Maybe it would seem too business-like with Woody. He’s told his salty yarns about the days of yore dozens and dozens of times before. Maybe he wouldn’t be stoked talking to some unknown wanna-be-surf writer.

Maybe he’d be annoyed and offended by my furious tapping on the laptop keyboard and the lack of eye contact I make with him while I try to immortalize every word he’s saying. I’m prepared to tell him if necessary that it’s my intention to make sure his stories are as valuable a resource to surfers like the bible is to born-agains.

I get to Woody’s house and some photographer is taking his picture. Woody greets me with the warmest of smiles and I brush aside my fear of using the laptop. Woody tells me the photographer is from the Union Tribune. One of Woody’s surf pioneer buddies, Don Okey, who surfed La Jolla’s breaks even before Woody did and was one of the first commercial board shapers, recently died at age 82.

Woody leads me through his cliff-top home which overlooks Beacons. We pass through a narrow stained-wood paneled corridor that’s lined up with old photos of fellow surf mavericks.

Woody’s home has a classic 60s-style surf vibe. You kind of feel like you’re inside a ship in Woody’s home. The carpeting is lime-green shag and the wood paneling is Canadian red cedar. The view is priceless as are his memorabilia like the letters from his friends that were among the first to surf La Jolla Shores and Windansea like John Blankenship.

“He wrote me a letter that still brings me a tear to my eye,” says Woody. “I wrote this letter to tell you that you are closer to me than a brother,” Blankenship told Woody in the letter.

Woody points out a picture of one of the first surf shacks that was built in San Diego County. It’s from the golden era of Windansea surfing from the ‘50s. Woody also showed me a picture of Okey, who also was the architect of Windansea’s first surf shack.

Another priceless memento Woody shows me is the ingenious water-proof camera that Doc Ball invented and used about six decades ago. Ball surfed and skated into his 90s. He was 93 when he passed away in 2004. The perpetually-stoked Ball is featured in the surf film Surfing for Life.

Listening to Woody’s stories about camping out at the local beaches makes me wish I would have experienced that surf culture: enjoying simpler times, living and breathing the ocean. Jobs, mortgage, family and bills all take a backseat to the beach.

Now that he lives in greater Encinitas (Leucadia), I ask him if he ever surfed Swamis in the ‘40s.

“I never got up there. I believe Fred Ashley was one of the first to surf Swamis, starting in the mid ‘40s. Encinitas surfers would hang out at George’s Café.”

Woody doesn’t know much about the earliest days of Encinitas surfing, but to hear his stories about surfing San Diego’s other top breaks is an awesome experience. It’s rare we get to talk to a living legend and imagine what it was like to really live la vida pura and experience surfing in its primordial, pre-commercialized state of bliss.

“Around 1936, people started standing up and riding waves,” says Woody. “I was 13 when I started surfing, so that would have been 1940, so I guess I was one of the first surfers in San Diego. Even before I started surfing, I was paddleboarding in Mission Beach at age 10, even though I didn’t know how to swim.”

Didn’t know how to swim? I thought all the San Diego surfing pioneers were waterman?

“I was a waterman,” Woody tells me. “I just couldn’t swim very well. But I could read the ocean better than most. I could go out all day and not get my hair wet.”

During high school, Woody remembers his PE teacher, Marvin Clark allowing him and his friends like Towny Cromwell, Okey, Bill Isenhower and Buddy Hull to skip class and surf if the swell was up.

Even though those days are long gone and several of his first surfing mates are no longer here on this physical plane, Woody has such a cheerful and brotherly disposition. He is all too happy to recall the simpler times when surfing was life, beach parties were both a way too stay warm after surfing without a wetsuit and friends pulled ingenious pranks on each other.

“I haven’t been out in the water in a couple years,” Woody says. “But I have no regrets. I got to surf the best breaks with my best friends and there was never a crowd. We had it all to ourselves.”

Woody remembers one of his hairiest experiences surfing: “It was on Nov. 17, ’47. I had a hard time paddling out at the Cove. I got caught in a set and washed over the reef there. I was stuck in the soup for a long time. The water was so cold. We had no wetsuits or leashes. The word got out that I drowned. Isenhower just about passed out (at the area called Devil’s Slide in the Cove).”

On that day, Woody says Scripps Institute estimated the waves that day to be 33-35 feet.

“The backwash looked as steep as the bleachers in a football stadium. It was damn near impossible trying to control our 100-pound boards. If you wanted to make any sort of turn and paddle out with ease you took a lighter board like a 72-pounder.”

Even though I’m not a longboarder, I tell Woody that in a way it’s too bad that boards don’t come in only 70-pound plus proportions. It would keep the crowds down.

Although Woody feels blessed to live in Encinitas and see the pelicans flying by while the sun sets on Beacon’s, his heart still belongs to Windansea.

“Nothing compares with Windansea,” he says. “We get some good rides here in Leucadia, but it ain’t Windansea. Windansea and San Onofre are the two best spots in terms of long rides … you know, dream situation surfing.”

I think that some Swami’s regulars might disagree with Woody but I’m not going to argue with a living legend. I feel blessed to hear some stories from one of San Diego’s first surfers.


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