I spent much of last week posting about San Diego ironman Dale Dobson, and thus pondering the vagaries of timing. In the first half of the 1970s, Dale more or less owned the United States Surfing Championships (4th in ’71, 1st in ’72, 3rd in ’75), but for me Dobson always comes to mind as the slightly tragic figure of 1968, when he became the world’s best longboarder—10 minutes after everybody else went short. From a distance, it almost looks like he got pranked. First big contest of the year, the Santa Cruz AAAA, at the Rivermouth, and here comes Corky and David and Skip with their brand-new 7'10" miniboards dripping amniotic fluid all over the beach, and there’s Dale standing alone off to the side with a 9'6" noserider in one hand and a buggy whip in the other.
But there’s a twist! Dobson wins the contest. Great waves, no judging errors, and Dale takes a clean victory over David Nuuhiwa, who at that point could have built an ashram next door to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and filled it with two-thirds of the American surfing population and a Beatle or two. (Dale on the left, below, and Nuuhiwa on the right.)
And another twist. At that point in time the short surfboard apparently wasn’t fixed in everyone’s mildly pot-addled minds as a sure thing. Or at least not in America, anyway. Keep in mind that the Santa Cruz contest was held more than a year after Bob McTavish made his first deep-vee Plastic Machine; six months after the Windansea Surf Club went to Sydney and got rolled by the shortboard-riding Aussies; and three months after McTavish and Nat Young famously rode their vee-bottoms at Honolua Bay. Done deal, right? Slamdunk for the new equipment! That’s what I always thought But nope. Drew Kampion, in his SURFER coverage of the AAAA, tells us “this contest would either cement or shatter the surge of surfers to the banner of the Mini,” and that “there was still doubt,” and that “few surfers in Santa Cruz were sure that the shortboard was a real and a functional thing.”
Then I realized that American surfers hadn’t yet seen Hot Generation (with Young and McTavish in their famous Come to Jesus finale sequence at Honolua), and hadn’t read much about shortboards beyond the fact that McTavish had been shaded as the “spin-out king” after his wipeout-filled Plastic Machine debut at Sunset during the Duke contest in December. When Kampion was on the beach that weekend at Santa Cruz for the AAAA, SURFER had yet to run a single feature on the new short sticks. (The article immediately following Drew’s AAAA coverage was “The Challenge from Down Under,” which had all those great John Witzig pics of Young and McTavish; see above.)
On the second and final day of the Santa Cruz contest, Drew comes around—sort of. “It was now evident,” he writes, “that the shortboard was the innovation of the year and perhaps of the decade.” And this for the closer: “Dobson’s win over the shortboard is pyrrhic. He has won the battle; he may lose the war.” But did you catch that “perhaps,” followed by the “may”? That’s Drew creating some wiggle room for himself—just in case, I don’t know, it turns out shortboards cause cancer or baldness and everybody runs back to the safety of their noseriders.
Epilogue: Dale Dobson spent the next 10 or 12 years on shortboards (see above), then went back to his 9'6", and through the ’80s and early ’90s won every longboard contest on God’s green earth three or four times over. So you might say that, during that epochal weekend in Santa Cruz, rather than being a step behind the curve, Dobson was in fact way WAY ahead.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you next week!
[Photos: Brad Barrett, John Witzig, Warren Bolster]