Becky Benson

Oahu, Hawaii, 2024

I went to college, and it really, really disappointed my dad.

Becky Benson featured - Encyclopedia of Surfing
This one's on the house. Enjoy!

Ella Boyd interviewed Becky Benson in 2024.

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Tell me a little about your childhood. What age did you move to Oahu?

We moved to Oahu when I was nine. My dad was in the service, and we'd been living all around the world. As a kid, I didn't know my dad that well because he was always gone. He got stationed here in 1967 and everything changed.

Did your dad have any connection to Hawaii before you moved?

Yes, he lived here when he was a nine years old. His father passed away here, in a polo accident. So my dad already had a connection with Hawaii, and he fell in love with surfing as a boy, although he didn't surf, he just fell in love with the sport. So as soon as we moved here, he went out and he bought a camera, and bought us kids surfboards, and he said, "Get out there and learn!" (Laughs) And that's basically what we did. I started surfing at nine and never stopped!

Where were you living before you moved to Hawaii?

Texas, most of the time. Germany for a while. Kansas, Georgia—but mainly Texas, for me, because when my dad traveled, a lot of times I stayed with my grandparents. They lived in a little town called Cuero. In fact, I rode a horse to school! (Laughs)

Sounds a little like how the North Shore used to be.

Small towns, yes. We knew everybody.

Did you miss Texas when you moved to Oahu?

I missed my grandparents a lot because I was so close to them. But once I got over here, I fell in love with Hawaii. We all did.

becky benson
Becky Benson, 1968. Photo: Al Benson

What a change that must have been.

It was funny because, before we arrived, my dad told us kids that people in Hawaii lived in grass shacks, so that's what we were expecting. Then we got off the plane and we're like, "Oh, they have houses here too!" (Laughs)

From everything I've read about your family, it sounds like you all got along with everyone from the moment you arrived, which is often not the case with newcomers. How did that happen?

When my mom and dad came over in 1965, my dad was on leave. They were here on vacation. My dad met a guy named Leroy Ah Choy. He was a Waikiki beachboy, and was lifeguarding at Barbers point. My dad was Leroy surfing tandem, went up to him later and said, "I have a daughter, and I'd really like for her to learn how to tandem. If we ever came over here, would you be willing to teach her?" He said, "Sure!"

That was you?

No, my older sister, Blanche. So two years later, the whole family moves over and my dad went straight back to Barbers Point to see if Leroy was still working there. He was, and that's how he and my sister became tandem partners.

Didn't they win a bunch of contests?

Oh yeah! They won at Makaha the very next year! Then two or three more times after that.

That's so cool.

Yeah, it was really cool. Leroy was one of the first local guys that we got close to. But then, since my dad immediately went out and bought a camera, he began taking pictures of all the local guys who surfed. So we became very close with the Aikau family and Tiger Espere, and people like that.

Not just because of the photos.

No, no. Not at all. I mean, that helped, but my dad just had a way of getting along with people. I never really thought about it until recently. But looking back now, it's like, Wow, we were just a haole family from the Mainland, right off the plane, didn't know anybody, and somehow we made friends with a lot of the local families. And that was because of my dad, he was just that kind of person. We'd go to the Aikau’s house for parties. They'd come to our house for slide shows. It just grew from there. It was a very special time.

Where did you learn to surf?

Early on, we went to Barbers Point, and then after Barbers we went to Haleiwa. As we progressed, we started surfing other spots, Chun’s, Rocky Point, Sunset.

Who were you surfing with?

At first, mostly my brothers, Guy and Fielding, and my sister Blanche. She was the oldest, and surfed Sunset a lot with the Aikaus and Butch van Artsdalen. They took her under their wing. Butch was like a big brother to us. In fact, he lived with us, on and off.

I've seen photos of you surfing big Sunset, like triple-overhead. You obviously got into big waves. But wasn't Blanche the real charger in the family?

In the beginning, for sure. She surfed big Sunset early, like in ‘68, ‘69. I'd tell her she had had all guts and no brains! (Laughs). But eventually I ended up doing the same thing. Not exactly, though. She liked it. I mostly did it because I was competing.

Some of those early contests, they sent you guys out in some big surf.

That's right. I had no choice. I wouldn't say that that Sunset was my favorite spot, but whenever I took off and I made the drop, the rush was amazing. I get what my sister was after. But it was always scary for me. The fear was always there.

Was the Makaha International one of your first contests?

I won Makaha in 1971, when I was 14. Before that—gosh, I don't remember when exactly I started. It was with the Hawaiian Surfing Association; just little amateur events here on Oahu.

becky benson
Becky Benson, Makaha, 1972. Photo: Al Benson

Did your dad push you to compete?

He was definitely a driving force behind it, but once I started, I really enjoyed it, and I was quite competitive. But then it kind of changed back to how it was at first.

What do you mean?

Once I started doing the pro tour, I'd sometimes be away from home for quite a while. We really didn't have the money for me to fly back and forth between contest, so I would just stay on the road, from one place to the next, and sometimes I was away for months. I was homesick, and I got lonely. I was still pretty young. After high school, I didn't even take a summer break, just went straight into college. Then I began competing on tour that same year. I tried to do both, but I just couldn't manage it. So, I quit school and did the tour for three years. Finally, I told my dad, "I think I'm gonna go back to school." He goes, "What do you mean, you're gonna go back to school? What about surfing?" I said, "I'll still surf, but I'm not going to be on tour." And he said, "The hell you’re not!" (Laughs) He really wanted me out there! I'm like, "Dad, didn't you say you expected me to go to college?" He goes, "Yeah, I do expect you to go to college—but you can go to college anytime. You can only be world champion now. This is your chance to be #1 in the world!"

So what did you do?

I went back to college, and it really, really disappointed my dad!

And that was it for competing?

When I finished college, I went on a ski trip to California. I'd never been skiing before. While I was up there, I met a guy, and we hit it off. I really liked him. But I had to fly back. So then I'm home, flipping through a SURFER magazine, and I see an ad for the Op Pro contest at Huntington Beach. The first one. I thought, "I'm going to enter this contest." I call my dad. "Guess what, there's a contest at Huntington Pier, it's a professional contest, and I think I'm gonna enter." He goes, "Why would you do that? You gave up your opportunity. You just want to go back over there to see your mountain man." (Laughs) Which was true, but I also wanted to see how I'd do in the contest, and in fact I was super motivated to get in the best shape I possibly could and see how far I could go. So that's what I did. I surfed every day; sometimes I was the only one in the water. I flew back over and somehow won it.

becky benson, op pro, huntington beach
Becky Benson, 1982 Op Pro. Photo: Jeff Divine

Wow! What did your dad say?

The best part about that whole thing was my mom and dad surprised me and showed up for it. They were there on the beach when I won!

That's so sweet!

It was the best thing ever.

Who was your main competition when you did the tour?

Lynne Boyer and Margo Oberg, definitely.

Who are some women from that period that the rest of us should know about? Some names who aren't was as well known as Margo and Lynne?

There were some really good women surfers on tour in 1976 and 1977. Patti Paniccia, Sandy Ordille, and Sally Prange for starters. One person I always really looked up to, who didn’t surf on tour, is Jeannie Chesser. She's s a little older than me, and I remember going out at Bowls and she would be ripping. I was still a kid, thinking, "Gosh, I hope I surf like that when I'm her age."

What about Blanche?

My sister surfed really well, too. She especially excelled in bigger waves but she never competed professionally, at least not on the tour.

How come?

She was in college or maybe had just finished college right when the pro circuit began. She was already on her way to having a family. Also, she didn't have the drive to compete on a professional level like I did. But she was really good. Blanche’s real passion was tandem surfing; she and her partners won Makaha, like, four times.Also, she didn't have the drive like I did. But she was really, at least here in Hawaii, for her tandem surfing; she won Makaha, like, four times.

That's crazy. How so how did she train for that? Do you just go all the time, or do you mostly practice on land and then bring it into the water after you have the acrobatics down?

Yeah, she practiced a lot on land when she started. Back in the sixties, when my dad introduced her to Leroy Ah Choy, they started on land and he wouldn’t even put her in the water until they had all the moves down because he didn't think it'd be safe.

blanche benson, leroy ah choy, tandem
Blanche Benson and Leroy Al Choy, Makaha, 1968. Photo: Al Benson

Does she still surf?

She does, yes. But after starting her family, she quit for a while. She lives on Kauai and I used to go over ard visit, and I'd try to get her to go surf with me. But she wouldn't go. About 30 years go by, and she gets invited to come to Oahu to give a speech about tandem surfing back in the day. She felt very honored. Before her speech, she met this guy who was in charge of the tandem search; a French guy named Rico. So they met him, she asked him a question, and he kind of brushed her off. She thought, "Well, that guy's not so friendly," and moved on. Anyhow, later, they introduced Blanche, she got up to do the speech, and afterward the guy came up and apologized. "I am so sorry. I didn't mean to be a jerk. I had to give a speech, too. I was really nervous." Then he goes, "I'd like to make it up to you. Can I take you out tandem?" She goes, "Okay!" And she fell in love all over again with tandem surfing! Lost 30 pounds, just went all out, trained super hard. She asked the guys on Kauai, "Who wants to be my tandem partner?" and a lifeguard said, "I do!" Kalani Vierra, great waterman but he'd never done tandem before! Blanche taught him everything, and in 2007 they were the #1 tandem surfers in the world!

That is crazy! How old was she?

54!

Wow.

It was amazing.

Back to your Op Pro win for a sec. What board were you on? Because that contest was obviously a huge career moment for you. Was someone making your boards at that point?

Before that contest, I was sponsored by Lightning Bolt.

That's a huge deal.

Jack Shipley, who owned Bolt, took care of the women. There were a number of us on the team. I had a full quiver of boards from Tom Parrish, who was an incredible shaper back in the day, and still is. I had a bunch from Randy Rarick, too. But for the Op Pro, Simon Anderson had just come out with a Thruster, and he was a good friend of ours; he was staying at our house, and he shaped me what might have been the first thruster made in Hawaii.

He made it at your house?

Under my mom and dad's place, yes. And that's the board I rode at the Op Pro.

What do you mean he shaped it under their house?

We had a shaping room under the house up here in Pupukea, a shaping room and a glassing room. Simon would come over, and he'd shape down there. He made me two boards, two Thrusters. That was in late 1981. So I was still riding those boards when the Op came around.

I bet that played into your success a little bit; that design was so cutting-edge right at that moment.

Yeah, I think it really helped. Those boards changed the way people surf, for sure.

Boards went smaller around that time as well.

That's right. My single-fin gun was 7’ 11”. And they were thicker, too. I don't know how we even turned them. I guess we were just used to it. You found the sweet spot on the tail; you had to really ride off the tail.

Who was mainly using that shaping bay at your parent's house? Was it open to any of your friends?

Pretty much. My brother, Guy, would shape every once in a while and he glassed a lot of boards. It was mainly open to people like Simon, or Geoff McCoy from Australia, would come over and stay with us. I mean, my dad was just so into surfing, it's just not even funny. Anything to do with surfing, he wanted to be involved

He was best known for filming.

He was one of the most sought-after surf movie filmers in Hawaii back then. But he only worked for other people, he didn't make his own movies. So Hal Jepsen, Scott Dittrich, Bill Delaney and other filmmakers—their movies are filled with stuff my dad shot. Tons of movies.

becky benson, col al benson
Becky and Al Benson, Burleigh Heads, 1977

Who inspired you as a kid, style-wise?

I really looked up to Jeff Hakman. He was a great surfer and a really good friend, too, and he helped me out a lot at Sunset, telling me where to sit and how to line up. Gerry Lopez was inspiring. Larry Bertlemann, too, he was like the forefront of progressive surfing. But Jeff was the main inspiration for me. I met him when I was about 14, then when I got sponsored by Lightning Bolt two or three years later, Jeff connected me with Tom Parrish, and it turned out Tom lived across the street from us, so it was very convenient. I'd go over and watch him shape all my boards.

Were you giving Tom feedback, or you were just riding what he said would be best?

I'd definitely give him feedback, and he'd sometimes go surf with me and just watch and see how the board rode.

That's super cool.

Yeah, we were pretty close.

You and Blanche both went to California pretty often to surf and compete. What did you think of California breaks opposed to Hawaii? Were you underwhelmed, or was it still thrilling in its own way?

It was just a lot of fun. We got some good waves there, but not like Hawaii. I always enjoyed surfing Huntington for some reason. I don't know why. But the main thing was, we were young and traveling and meeting new people. The experience itself made it fun, the waves were just extra.

Then as a pro you went all over the world. Do you have any memorable travel stories?

My first trip to South Africa was wonderful. I was really young and had never traveled so far, but Randy Rarick was the coordinator and he had it where all of us flew over together on the same plane. So first our Hawaii group flew to California. The California and Florida group got on the plane there. And then from there we flew to Durban. But we had to stop in Chicago due to a bird flying into the engine which was very scary as
the engine caught on fire. We had to circle for hours before we finally landed in Chicago. All the fire trucks and ambulances were there, and they kept us on the plane for another couple of hours. By then it was really late. They put us up in a hotel, but we were all still just filled with adrenaline, so we went to the bar, danced until morning, and got back on the plane! (Laughs)

becky benson, blanche benson
Becky (top) and Blanche Benson, early 1970s

Did you get to surf Jeffreys?

Jeffreys was huge. Almost too big. The only two guys made it out were Tom Parrish and Glen Kalikakuhi. So Patti Paniccia and Sally Prange and I rented a little VW and drove down the coast a bit to Cape St. Francis. Just the three of us. That was memorable just because it was three white girls traveling alone on dirt roads, which wasn't common. I remember we had the Beach Boys blaring on the car stereo.

Did you find surf?

So we made it to Cape St. Francis, put our wetsuits on, and started paddling out. Almost right away we saw fins in the water, and we'd heard so much about the sharks down there, so we turned around and paddled back to shore without even getting a wave. The local boys said, "Oh, those aren't sharks, those are dolphins." But by that time we didn't feel like paddling back out. (Laughs)

I read something Patti wrote about how the girls were treated in some of the contests, yikes.

Yeah, it was kind of one thing after the other. The first year when we got to the contest in East London, way down the coast from Durban, they told us they didn't have any prize money for the women. They said, "Don't worry, we'll do a raffle and we'll have guys pay for raffle tickets and whoever wins gets to pick the girl he wants to go out on a date with."

Wow.

And we're like, "What? Are you kidding? We're supposed to go out with some strange guy who wins a raffle? No!" So they think about it for a while, come back, and say. "Okay, we'll have a wet T-shirt contest instead." Like, no, we're not here to show off our boobs. We're here to compete. Doesn't anyone understand that there are professional women surfers? So, I mean, we just flew halfway across the world to compete in a pro contest and there was no money.

What happened?

I think Chapstick put up some money for us. Not much, but enough. So the contest was held and we had a little bit of money, but we're talking just a little bit of money.

So did you have other jobs while you were on tour?

Little things here and there, but mostly my dad supported me. I would never have been able to do it without my dad. And also, because of our relationships with other surfers. For example, Shaun Tomson stayed at our house, so when I went to Durban that first year, I stayed at his house. The next year I stayed at Michael Tomson's, Shaun's cousin. The Tomson's were wonderful hosts and treated me like family.

That's actually really nice.

Most of us were really close. That was the best thing about that period, I think. We knew each other. We got along, pretty much, and we had a really good time. (Laughs)

But then you quit to go back to school.

You know, it just didn't seem to be going anywhere. I was having such a great time, but there was no real money, and we didn't know if the tour was going to grow or fall apart. This was three or so years after I started, and I started thinking, "What am I gonna do with the rest of my life?" I wanted to have a career. So, I went back to school and that's what I did.

So your main reason for leaving the tour was just the money aspect. There wasn't any other reason?

The money, and being away from home for such long periods of time.

lynne boyer, margo oberg, becky benson
(L to R) Becky Benson, Lynne Boyer, Margo Oberg, Malibu, 1976

Totally. That's understandable.

I mean, I would do it over in a heartbeat. I wanted to be the world champ! But it was just a title back then. It was nothing like it is today. Even Margo and Lynne, who were winning titles, they weren't making much money. So I had sponsors, I had as many boards as I wanted, and O'Neill gave me free wetsuits. Op gave me a little bit of money. Oh, and I won a four-wheel drive truck when I won the Op Pro that year!

That's a big prize for back then!

It was huge for me because that was the first time they had such a thing. A Dodge Ram. I was so stoked! I got to pick out the colors. I got to pick out what type of trim, the windows, everything. I was just so thrilled! In fact, before I won, to be honest with you, every time I would pass one of those trucks on the road, I would say a little prayer that I'd win so I could get one! (Laughs)

How long did you keep it?

I didn't! I never even drove it! This is the part that kills me. Right away, I went to Japan to surf in the next contest. And while I was there, my dad sold my brand-new truck. straight off the lot, as soon as it arrived! I come home from Japan and I'm like, "Where's my truck?" He goes, "I sold it. You don't need one of those in Hawaii." I thought he was joking. "Come on, dad." "No, really. I sold the truck. You'll thank me later." And, you know, he was right. When it came to buy my first piece of property, that was the money we used. At the time he put the truck money in the bank, it was making 18% interest. So it worked out fine.

You mentioned going back to school to start a career; what did you end up doing?

Teaching. I was a special ed teacher. I loved it. It was so rewarding because I was teaching kids who had disabilities, and you really got to see their growth. I began teaching in 1991. I'm still in contact with my first-ever students.

That's amazing.

It's pretty amazing.

What grades?

Mainly preschool.

What made you want to get into that?

My mom and sister were both teachers. I followed in their footsteps. I wanted to be a PE teacher, so I got my PE degree, but by the time I was ready to start there were no positions available here on Oahu. I had offers on the outer islands, but I didn't want to move. So I went back to school to get a counseling degree, but while I was doing that, the principal at my mom's offered me a job teaching special education. So I had to change again, and get a degree for that, put they hired me right then and I was working while also going to school. It was sort of an experiment for me, but I ended up loving it

This was all on Oahu?

Yes. My whole career.

You still live there now? Are you married? I know you have kids.

I am married now. But earlier, I married the guy I went to see in California, before the Op Pro that year.

No way.

The mountain man. Yeah. We got married, had two kids, got divorced. We're still close. In fact, he's downstairs right now at our house. He's staying here to visit the kids and our two grandchildren. So it all worked out. But yeah, he did not surf. He didn't even like the beach. It wasn't meant to be. But, I got two wonderful children out of it, and like I say, we still get along, so I wouldn't change a thing.

Do your kids surf?

Yes. I had both of my kids out surfing almost before they could walk. My daughter Jennifer loved it and actually won the Haleiwa Menehune contest. Now that she’s older and working full-time—she went into teaching like I did—she doesn’t get in the water as often. My son John-Michael is still an avid surfer. He surfs great but isn't into competition. He's gotten really involved in the surf industry and has his own surfboard
packing and shipping business. He ships boards all over the world.

And you said you're married now?

Yes. I married a wonderful man who surfs!

Aw. Where do you two surf these days?

A lot here on the North Shore, but we take an annual trip to Costa Rica. My cousin and his wife live there so we visit with them and surf some fun spots together.

How many years have you been going?

The most recent one, hmmmm, that might have been our 11th trip? Something like that.

That's crazy.

We love it down there. We almost bought property. But there are a lot of fees involved, and just a lot of work in general in terms of keeping the place up and everything. Especially now, I have two little grandchildren and it is just not worth it. Plus, it's still like my pro tour days—I don't want to be away from Hawaii for that long.