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For the Tourmaline Gang, Surfing Gets Better as Years Go By

August 18, 1986|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — Raymond (Skeeter) Malcolm is standing next to his station wagon in the parking lot of Tourmaline Surfing Park, looking out over the frothy white breakers where he and his buddies have spent the last three hours surfing.

Twin rivulets of salt water flow from the still-wet hair down his back, framing the logo printed on his faded red T-shirt: "There's No Surfer Like an Old Surfer."

Turning, his eyes appear to have captured the clear-blue essence of the sea, his face the bronze glow of the sun. He lifts a cup of steaming hot coffee to his lips and walks to the front of his car. He reaches through the driver's side window and sticks a cassette of Hawaiian music into the stereo.

"This," he informs a visitor, "is real surf music. Surfing started in Hawaii, you know, so we idolize everything that comes from there--especially the Aloha shirts and the island music that artists like Ray Kinney and the Harry Owens Hawaiian Band popularized back in the 1940s."

Malcolm is the unofficial leader of the Tourmaline Gang, an informal group of 10 aging surfers who for the last decade have come here almost every weekday morning, starting at 7, to prove to the world that surfing is by no means only for the young.

The oldest member of the gang, Dan O'Connell, is 71. Malcolm, a mere youngster by comparison, is 63. And except for two members in their 40s, all the rest are over 60.

Every one of them has been surfing for more years than the oldest Beach Boy has been alive. Malcolm, who recently retired as principal of Einstein Junior High School, started surfing in 1936.

"It's a good, free feeling," Malcolm says, putting on a pair of weather-scarred Wayfarer sunglasses. "You pit yourself against nature, and it's an excellent workout. It really keeps you in shape."

Some members of the Tourmaline Gang, like Malcolm and 66-year-old Ralph Dawson, met as kids in Ocean Beach and have been surfing local waters--from Sunset Cliffs to San Onofre--ever since.

Others, like O'Connell, learned to surf on the East Coast or in Hawaii and met the others in just the last few years.

But they all agree on one thing--no way are they going to let advancing age put an end to their fun.

"I'm going to surf as long as this old bag of bones can come down here and get up on a board," O'Connell says. "Getting out in the ocean makes me feel good for the rest of the day."

"I like to sail, too, but I tell you--I'd give up the sailing before I gave up the surfing," adds 61-year-old Bud Calwell. "It's kind of my tranquilizer. It's a sport you can do for a long while or a short while, but no matter how long you're out there, it's pure enjoyment."

Malcolm himself, however, wins the medal for determination.

"I want to end up like old 'Pops' Proctor," Malcolm says while pouring himself another cup of coffee. "He was still surfing into his 90s. When he died four years ago at the age of 98, one of us put his ashes in an old Hawaiian war canoe and scattered them out at sea.

"That's the way I want to go, too--but I figure I've got a lot more waves to catch before it's my time."

On a recent Tuesday morning, the half-hour "tailgate party" that always follows each surfing session neared its end. One by one, the members of the Tourmaline Gang packed up their boards and headed for home--and several hours of well-deserved rest.

By 10:30, only Malcolm and a visitor remained in the deserted parking lot. And with the suddenness of a 12-foot breaker rising from an ocean lull, the old surfer was overtaken by a wave of nostalgia.

"When we began surfing, the short, light balsa-wood boards that came along in the late 1950s--and really popularized the sport--hadn't yet been invented," Malcolm said, his blue eyes sparkling like the mid-morning sun.

"As a result, there were very few of us around. The boards we rode were big and heavy and made of solid redwood. We'd order them from this company in Los Angeles. They'd send us these huge planks of redwood with the general shape outlined, but of the same thickness throughout. And then we'd shape them ourselves.

"When the boards were finally done, they were about 11 feet long and weighed anywhere from 90 to 110 pounds. We were all scrawny little kids, and more often than not our boards weighed more than we did."

Transporting his and his friends' boards to and from the beach was never a problem, Malcolm said: They were stacked up on the roof of his Model A, on a steel-pipe surf rack he made himself.

But lugging the heavy boards down the steep slopes of Sunset Cliffs, San Onofre and other still-popular surfing spots was a chore almost as strenuous as surfing itself.

With the invention in the late 1950s of the light boards--which weighed as little as 20 pounds--surfing became the rage all along the Southern California coast, Malcolm said.

"And for awhile, the sport got pretty rowdy. Bands of young surfers would get together to keep non-locals out of their particular surfing spots, and the feeling of friendliness that we had shared as kids disappeared.

"But while this territorialism bothered us old-timers, it didn't really affect us. Even today, the kids respect the fact that we were here first."

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