Kemp Aaberg Interview
A surf icon. Literally.
Kemp Aaberg, possibly the nicest guy to ever set foot on the sands of Malibu, turned 74 earlier this year. I called him at his Southern California home and took him back, way back, to when he was a gangly teenager—styling gangly teenager, sorry Kemp—getting jostled around the North Shore in the back of a rattletrap woody as one of the featured surfers in Slippery When Wet, Bruce Brown’s first movie. Came out in 1958, and made Aaberg a West Coast surf star. The film is amazing if for no other reason than to see the North Shore back when it was nearly moon-like in its emptiness. Aaberg had the time of his life on that trip, which was made all the sweeter by the fact that he pretty much fluked his way into the project. His gain. Surfing’s gain. You think good style is the highest calling when it comes to riding waves? Kemp’s back-arch turns at Pupukea will have you kissing your fingertips in appreciation and respect. SURFER liked his style so much that a shot of his signature back arch was the magazine’s first logo back in 1961.
* * *
How old were you when you you filmed Slippery When Wet?
I was 18.
Bruce Brown says in the film that you’d only been surfing for two years at that point. I can’t quite believe it. You bomb Sunset on a pretty big day and look great doing it. That true?
Amazingly so, that’s right. I came from Santa Monica Canyon, and we skimboarded most of the time. It wasn’t until Mickey Munoz came up and started surfing at the campground near there that we even knew about surfing, and that was 1956, which is when I started.
How’d you get picked to go on the trip?
I was a sander for Dale Velzy. Dale told Bruce to come down to the shop, pick out a few Velzy guys, and make a Hawaii film. A promo deal for Velzy Surfboards. So Bruce showed up, took a look around the shop, and I just sort of got in the way of his finger. He said “How ‘bout you?” I didn’t know him well, it was a total fluke, I was just standing there sanding boards. For me it was really exciting. I’d just graduated high school and I was down surfing the Trestle as much as I could, and I was mad about surfing at the time. To get the connection through Bruce to go to Hawaii was a dream.
But you must have already had a rep as a good surfer, right?
I don’t think so, not really. I was just surfing a lot with my friends at the Trestle. I really don’t know why he picked me.
What did you expect from the North Shore before you left?
My idea was, Hawaii has warm water, and the biggest and best waves in the world. Boy did I want to get in there and mix it up with a challenge like that. And flying on an airplane! That made it even more of an experience. You didn’t really do that back then.
What were you riding?
A 9′3″ Velzy-Jacobs, with a candy-apple red glass job done by Bobby Patterson. A beautiful board, before it got all banged up.
I imagine that you probably just had that one board right? The pre-quiver days.
Isn’t that amazing? We all brought just one board each. Bruce didn’t even bring a board.
How crowded was it on the North Shore then? Most of the time it looks like you guys are surfing all by yourselves.
It was the middle of the work week when we showed up, so it was wide-open. Almost nobody. Living on the North Shore was a unique thing to do then. So yes, we did have it mostly to ourselves .
Bruce rented a cute little cabin on the beach. We could see the break at Pupukea from our windows. We all just lived on beans. I slept on this little baby crib mattress; I used my suitcase to sort of extend it. It’s in the movie. Amazingly enough, I slept great on that thing.
Talk about surfing Pupukea. You’re the absolute star of that segment.
Just beautiful clean faces coming in and breaking down towards the Pipeline area, which of course we didn’t even consider surfing; Pipeline looked unrideable at the time. Pupukea was a beautiful spot where you could do those beautiful arch-backed turns. I can’t believe those still look good, that was more than 60 years ago. That was the time where I’d figured out how to bank the board, get it on an edge, and swing it around on the face of the wave. It was at Pupukea that I figured out I’d gotten much better at surfing.
Were you terrified when the surf picked up? You certainly hadn’t seen much surf like that back home.
We were just so excited to be there, our minds were made up that we’d ride anything, whatever came up, we’ll jump into it. It didn’t get all that big on that trip, though. Just small to medium waves. I came back later and got into riding Waimea, but not on that trip.
Who surfed the best?
Freddie Fowler. He didn’t show up on the film that much, but he really had a fabulous hold on surfing, very beautiful turns. He gets my vote.
Still pal around with some of the guys?
You know, I drove a UPS truck in Santa Barbara for 25 years. Figured it was time to get solvent and get a job. Anyway, I’d make deliveries to Bruce’s house. I’d pull up his driveway in the big UPS truck, up there behind Refugio, and there’d be Bruce, napping, or sipping on his orange juice, and I’d say, “Here Bruce, here’s your package,” and he’d sign, and I’d take off in the truck. And just a few years before, Bruce and I were off hopping around Oahu searching for surf spots.
I used to see Henry Ford all the time in Dana Point. Just ebullient and fun. He’s the one who’s ready to party, even though he’s older than I am. He’s a guy that’s weathering these years best. Still surfing pretty well.
You still surfing?
Depends on the season. We’ve had a long, fabulous indian summer down here, with beautiful conditions and beautiful waves. I’ve surfed some up near Refugio. But I don’t follow surfing real closely, not like I used to. I’ve grown frustrated with crowds, and with courtesy. Lack of courtesy, that is. And the way people surf has just changed so much, over all these years. When Slippery came out, people were really still figuring out how to ride surfboards. Real good longboarding was still years down the road.