Inside Look: Miami Surf Archive Project

By Tom Austin | August 7, 2011 | Home Page

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Since the beginning, surfing has fed a shimmering myth of a golden land where the natives are forever young, stoked and catching beautiful swells. And Miami, despite its relatively urban setting, has its own colorful and unique surfing mythology. So on a recent evening at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, some 200 guests gathered for the launch of the Miami Surf Archive Project, a nonprofit organization founded by several generations of local surfers and spearheaded by environmental engineer Michael Laas. Their goal: preserve the unique history and ethos of surfing in Miami-Dade for future generations. The crowd perused vintage long boards and paraphernalia. Old photos of countless lost afternoons at the beach unfurled like a ribbon of delight: the crew cuts and Gidget poses of the ’50s; long-haired, stoned surfers lolling in VW vans in the late ’60s; the psychedelic surf attire of the '70s and the punk-infused scene of the ’80s blurred into the glossy landscape of contemporary South Beach. It’s been one long, beautiful ride.

A Man On a Wave
Miami surf history more or less begins in 1932, the year Dudley Whitman and his late brother William (their brother Stanley developed Bal Harbour Shops) met legendary waterman Tom Blake at a woodworking shop behind their oceanfront Miami Beach home. The Whitman boys, who were already attempting to make wooden boards, struck up a friendship with Blake, the Johnny Appleseed of surfing, and were soon riding waves on their own long boards—10-foot, 85-pound affairs carved out of sugar pine. Two years later, with Blake’s help, the Whitmans perfected lighter hollow boards, using wooden pegs instead of screws. In 1937, armed with a letter of introduction from Blake, the brothers traveled to Honolulu’s Outrigger Canoe Club, of which the iconic Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, whose prowess and star power popularized surfing beyond Hawaii, was a member. As haole (white men from the mainland) they were initially dismissed, but their sophisticated hollow boards eventually earned Kahanamoku’s respect and a place of honor at the club: They were given a surfboard storage rack reserved for special VIP guests.

Now 91, Dudley Whitman—who continued to surf into his 80s—took the stage at the Miami Surf Archive Project party to introduce a documentary about the Whitmans’ contributions to Miami surfing. In the film, photographs of the Whitman clan capture an American era of boundless strength, grace and ease: The three Whitman boys, young and powerful, pose with their long boards on Daytona Beach; Pam Whitman (William’s daughter) shoots a massive barrel on Hawaii’s North Shore and flies 737s as part of the all-female flight crew for Aloha Airlines; Dudley’s daughter Renee wins a 1965 East Coast Surfing Championship in Ormond Beach. It’s as if a lush Bruce Weber reverie had come to life.

8 - Inside Look: Miami Surf Archive ProjectBill, Stanley and Dudley Whitman (FROM FAR LEFT) and fellow teen surfers pose with their boards on Miami Beach in 1938

The Dade Breaks
Viewing the archive, it becomes clear that so much history, cool history, was made in Miami. For natives, surfing is a personal signpost to the past, a way to chart the passing of time here. The Miami Surf Archive Project is a chance to hardwire that past, a great historical continuum of pleasure that slides into the surfing scene now. From the beginning, the Miami surf scene has been based on two beaches: the Haulover Inlet area just north of Bal Harbour, and South Pointe. Both South Beach and Haulover had their respective fans and localism; surfers dropping in on waves and occasionally fighting on the beach is part of the culture. Years ago, Surfer magazine billed Miami as the meanest locals-only scene in the country. Despite all the Zen stuff about being in harmony with Mother Ocean, surfing is also about commanding turf and respect. “It was a matter of paying your dues,” says Lance O’Brien, a local surf luminary, of his surfing youth. “When I was young I was heckled, sent up the beach, down the beach, home.” Dade County, and even Florida itself, has never received the respect accorded to California and Hawaii, though Kelly Slater, 10-time ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Champion surfer, still rides waves in his hometown of Cocoa Beach, Florida.

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Next-generation Miami surfer Christiana Phillips; modern short boards

In 1955, Dudley Whitman established another notch in our wave-riding history: opening the first surf shop in Miami. It was located within his company, Challenger Marine, a marina that also sold his line of innovative and then-novel fiberglass boats. In that era, surfers often made their own boards, and surf shops were much rarer. Whitman introduced Hobart “Hobie” Alter’s revolutionary foam boards to Dade County.

Both Haulover and South Pointe once had piers that cleaned up waves and made for better breaks on good days. Bill Whiddon, the 57-year-old creative director of the Miami Herald Media Co. and The Miami Herald, used to shoot the First Street pier on South Beach. “On a good day, if you felt like hot stuff, you might be able to loop around two or three pilings without wiping out,” he recalls. He still keeps a board in his car in case choice surf comes up. His first board, in fifth grade, came from Surfboards Miami; 10 years or so ago, he found one of their boards at a garage sale and re-created the Surfboards Miami brand, selling a hundred or so since.

This being Miami, a sometimes-dark underbelly was always close to the surface, even within the surf community. In 1964, Jack Murphy, a local surfer/beach boy known as Murph the Surf, headed north and stole the 563-carat Star of India sapphire from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He and his cohorts instantly became a national pop sensation. A few years later, Murphy was involved in the killing of two women—reportedly over stolen securities—and went to jail until 1986. He is now an evangelical Christian and ministers to prisoners.

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Carrying the torch: Miami surfers (FROM LEFT) Mark Gamez, Christian De La Iglesia, Ron Keindl, Annie Tworoger and David Begley

Back in the gritty ’70s, South Pointe had surf shops, housing projects, the seedy Miami Beach Kennel Club and atmosphere to burn. At the old amphitheater on lower Ocean Drive, WQAM’s Rick Shaw and Roby Yonge, himself a surfer and known as The Big Kahuna, would host concerts, the action spilling over into the dog track. Surfers would hang out on the seawall along the same area, or cluster around Jack’s pizza and hot dog cart in the covered parking lot of the Miami Beach Kennel Club. Long before sky cams and the Internet era, locals would call in and get terse surf reports from Jack’s on the phone. Across Ocean Drive was a low-slung building, now Taverna Opa of South Beach, that housed a succession of pizza shops and eventually Rollo’s, a surferfriendly fast-food joint with a jaunty sign proclaiming MIAMI SNOWBALLS. The photos on the Miami Surf Archive Project site include gang fights at the dog track and teenage wasteland kids up to no good in the 1970s, encompassing my old crowd from Coral Gables High School, a social set that included surfers, drag-racers and a handy friend who once tried to install a bong in his car’s air-conditioning system. According to an entirely respectable surfer at the Miami Surf Archive Project party, my best friend in high school had wound up going to jail for more than a decade, and there were the usual slew of overdoses and violent, squalid ends. But then, as someone on hand ruefully observed, “Surfers do a lot of bad things, too.”

Then and Now
These days, South Pointe is all glitz, money and towering condos. At 36, Christian De La Iglesia, co-owner of First Surf Shop with Mark Gamez, is a relative young blood who is pioneering the neighborhood for surfers all over again. “When I was a young grom [surfspeak for ‘kid’],” he says, “South Beach was a way cooler scene, but we still get all kinds of customers. Surf shops have a certain romance.”

Today, South Pointe’s surf community is being chronicled daily by Annie Tworoger (a photographer, architect, clothing designer and former semipro surfer) via her company 3rdandOcean. “When I was coming up, Lisa Andersen, who’s from Ormond Beach, was the groundbreaking star,” she says. “But not many female pros could make a living. That’s changed, and girls get more respect on the water now.”

Some things in surf world have changed for the better, but the past still holds an allure. Dudley Whitman’s collection of surfing memorabilia, part of the Whitman Family Collection, is now housed in History Miami’s Collection Annex, formerly the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. The Whitman Family Collection is open to the public by appointment and is truly Old Miami terrain. I visited there with Robert Kahn, a surfer, lawyer and filmmaker. Kahn helped with Whitman’s film, True Hawaii: Land of Surf and Sunshine, incorporating footage shot by the Whitman brothers in the 1940s. He was also, along with Dudley and his son Todd, involved with the recently released documentary Square Grouper, a study of the 1970s marijuana trade in South Florida. The film was made by Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben’s Rakontur, of Cocaine Cowboys fame. Despite his metamorphosis into an evangelical Christian, Murph the Surf illustrated a pot smuggler’s mother ship for the Square Grouper promotional poster (though ultimately it wasn’t used).

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Dudley Whitman today, with well-known South Beach surfing mom Lucy Phillips

Surfing is never merely the act of riding a wave. In surf land, there’s often a sense that everyone is holding on to a fantasy—a strong, visceral dreamscape that’s always slipping out of reach. On a recent afternoon, a group of local wave riders gathered at The Standard Spa Miami Beach for a few beers. Steve Manning, an old-guard Miami surfer who now works set production for The Glades, brought a local poster from the seminal surf movie The Endless Summer, a film that inspired countless kids to embrace surfing and was shown in pre-release form in 1963 at Edison High School.

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longtime local surfer Bill Whiddon

Terry B. Quinlan, a surfer and tennis pro who used to watch Bobby Riggs hustle chumps at The Jockey Club, was there as well. He once sold surfboards for Dudley Whitman at Challenger Marine. “I met [Dudley] after I bought a board from his daughter Renee, who was selling it on her front lawn one day.” Quinlan, like a lot of old-school surfers, also knew Murph the Surf: “He was a better thief than surfer.”

One of the younger surfers at the table bemoans the lack of truly consistent surf days lately, and Quinlan agrees, adding that great breaks were a regular occurrence in the past. He falls silent for a moment, as if channeling the power of time, then declares emphatically, “The ocean was different then.” But surfing is about hope, too, and on any given day, anyone can catch the best possible break at South Pointe into a future of pure possibility.

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