Stab Magazine | Ghosts Of The Great Highway

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Ghosts Of The Great Highway

The new documentary, “Great Highway: Journey to the Soul of San Francisco Surfing, is terrific,” and you’re going to love it, ya nerds!

style // Feb 13, 2018
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

“The grass ain’t greener, the wine ain’t sweeter, on either side of the hill.” – The Grateful Dead


My parents always warned me to stay away from Ocean Beach—just like my grandparents had warned them. 

“The undertow is gonna getchya,” my family told each other, probably since the 1880s when they first landed in San Francisco.

They endured the 1906 earthquake, The Depression, a trip to Yosemite with Jack London, a pair of World Wars, The ‘60s, but nary one ever dipped a toe in the cold waters south of Sutro Baths, or under the shadow of the Golden Gate.

As far as I can tell, the City has never been a full-fledged surf town. And it doesn’t matter how many tech nerds drop into the Outer Sunset, it’s never going to be.

Today, Ocean Beach garners more attention than ever, thanks largely to the clickable nature of pulled-back lineup shots, and Surfline editor Marcus Sanders’ five OB webcams, which occasionally see breeching sharks.

But by and large, the surf scene is still a fringe thing. It goes without saying that most of the time San Francisco is cold, windy, foggy, generally unpleasant.

I love it, but as far as Beach Weather goes, it’s not Haleiwa.


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Original #OB415 Gangstahs, including Chuck Klebora, Sam Hiona, Bill Hickey and Hal Satler.


Courtesy the filmmakers.

Great Highway: Journey to the Soul of San Francisco Surfing, a documentary just released on Amazon, goes into incredible detail chronicling the trials and tribulations of this misfit subculture, in the City that more or less subcultural standard.

Directed by Mark Gunson, Great Highway has been in production for some time, and it’s great to finally see it available to the masses. Comprising incredible archival images, footage, and interviews, it does a thorough job detailing surfing’s evolution in these chilly waters.

Hawaiians Eddie Ukini and Clifford Kamaka, head lifeguards at the massive saltwater Fleishhacker Pool at the south end of Ocean Beach, “were some of the first guys out there,” according to the late Jack O’Neill.

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Without early, crude neoprene, Ocean Beach sessions were limited to near minutes, before surfers retreated to a tire fire’s putrid warmth. Unidentified, late-50s.


Legendary early San Francisco photographer Fred Windisch

Surfing in the City started with bodysurfing, since the era’s boards weren’t exactly conducive to the massive, hulking beachbreaks. In those early days it was wools sweaters and tire fires for warmth.

It wasn’t until O’Neill famously hit up a naval supply shop and scored some neoprene that San Francisco surfers were soon able to spend more than 10 minutes in the water at a time. O’Neill is also credited with opening the first actual surf shop, right on the Great Highway. Everyone thought the shop was a kind of joke at first, but true to form for O’Neill, it worked. One of my best friend’s dads bought his first board there.

Hawaiian influence continues to surface throughout the story. Big wave icon Jose Angel was another surfer that had an early and profound impact on the local scene before moving back to the Islands.

And, down in Pacifica, a wee Michael Ho rode his first waves off the boat docks, at the south end of Linda Mar.

When I was first getting into surf writing, my grandma ran into Fred Van Dyke at a bookstore. He was promoting his new book, Once Upon Abundance. She had him sign a copy and gave it to me as a gift.

“Take care of the surf and think about cherishing each moment,” he wrote above his signature.

Van Dyke was another of the early pioneers at The Beach. His book tenderly details his formative years in the Bay Area. Van Dyke, who features prominently in Great Highway, would go on to be a foundational figure on the North Shore and work as a teacher at the esteemed Punaho School in Town.

It was probably 1988 or ’89, but the Bud Pro Tour landed at Ocean Beach and with it came some of the best surfers in the country. Archy was there. So was a spindly young Rob Machado (who my friend Chad took great pride in dropping in on during his warm-up surf).

Richie Collins, a.k.a. Skeletor, threw out his back and we helped drag him in through the shorebreak. He probably wasn’t too stoked on a couple 12-year-olds wrenching on him, but I don’t remember there being a lifeguard there helping.

My family’s reservations about Ocean Beach be damned, I was hooked after spending the day at the contest.

In 1999, I moved down to Southern California and started working on the beach as a lifeguard. I figured, much like Van Dyke, that I’d become teacher and live the surf life. I had the good fortune to move in across the street from surf forecasting godfather Sean Collins. He gave me my first writing gig penning dawn patrol surf reports for Surfline. Eventually, I moved on to work with Surfer, The Surfer’s Journal, ESPN, and Stab.

As an outsider, I found the Southern California surf industry cliquey. I didn’t grow up doing NSSA contests with everyone. I always felt the weird NorCal guy.

But Great Highway makes me damned proud to be from The City, even if I haven’t lived there for some years.

Both my grandmothers learned to swim at Fleishhackers. My mom took swimming lessons at Sutro’s up by the Cliff House.

When I was little we lived in Pacifica, and mom would buy fresh-caught fish from Dickie Keating, another legend unbeknownst to me at the time. After school, my friends and I would ride our bikes down to Pedro Point, sneak a couple old logs off the docks and go for a surf. That’s where I learned to surf. Just like Mike Ho.

Sometimes we’d go down to the Princeton jetty in Half Moon Bay, well before Jeff Clark unveiled Maverick’s to the world. In 1994, my senior year in high school, I went to Maverick’s for the first time. Richard Schmidt was alone out the back. Evan Slater was on the cliff checking it. He called it “a good 18 feet.” I watched him suit up on the beach and paddle out. It took him over 30 minutes to paddle around the rocks and out the back. I couldn’t take my eyes off the two surfers for a long time.

From boat trips with Andy Irons, to sharing a lineup in the Maldives with Occy and Curren, to being on my home sand when Kelly clinched his 11th title at Ocean Beach, I’ve been blessed to behold some incredible moments in our sport. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself, “How the hell did you get here?” I don’t have an answer, but after watching the film, I’m proud the whole journey started right there, on the Great Highway.


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