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Hermosa Rides a Wave of Nostalgia

The Aloha Days Surf Contest harks back to when the South Bay dominated surfer culture.

August 10, 2000|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fresh from his daily baptism in the salty surf, a ritual he's performed as an avid surfersince age 9, Abel Ybarra is discussing his favorite pastime.

"We would get up before class--sometimes skip class. My mom would have to pull me out of the water and drive me to school."

Of course, the waves aren't what they used to be when Hermosa Beach was "surf central" for some of the best surfers of the era, from the 1950s--when surfing took off faster than you could say "Beach Blanket Bingo"--to the 1970s. The high, lingering crests at Hermosa were some of the best along the Pacific Coast. In response, a surfing culture surfaced that brought Hang Ten, Beach Boys music and the Woody (the ultimate surfer-mobile) to the nation's consciousness.

In honor of the local surf culture, Ybarra, now 39, and his wife, Corinne, started the Aloha Days Surf Contest and Hawaiian Festival, which makes its fourth appearance this weekend. The event is not only a showcase for area surfers but also an opportunity for landlubbers to watch the competition and immerse themselves in the Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures adopted by the surfing community.

Polynesian and surf bands (including the Fabulous Nomads) will perform throughout both days. Hawaiian delicacies and other food will be sold, and arts-and-crafts booths will fill the plaza area near the Hermosa Pier.

Ybarra still has an affinity for the sand and surf--and the daring wave jockeys he grew up trying to emulate. Guys like Greg Noll, Hap Jacobs and the late Dewey Weber mastered the waves--and built the boards that provided for optimal performance.

"Everybody came here to get their boards made," Ybarra recalls. "All the board manufacturers were along PCH [Pacific Coast Highway]. It was the place to go till the early '70s."

Since then, says Ybarra, most of the veteran surfers have moved on, and even the ocean floor has changed. "The waves aren't as big," he laments. "It's hit and miss now."

But through Aloha Days, Ybarra hopes to raise enough money to preserve the memory--and memorabilia--of surfing's heyday with a museum, which he plans to put at the end of the pier.

"I've surfed all my life," Ybarra says, "and my whole thing is that I want to do something for these legends who brought surfing where it is today, before they kick the bucket."

The money raised since the first Aloha Days in 1997 is in a trust, Ybarra says, until he and the city can agree on just where to put the museum. Meanwhile, he continues to raise money from the festivals through vendor fees and to keep track of area surfers past and present who have donations to make.

Among Ybarra's mentors who still ride locally is Sonny Vardeman, 63, who will compete in the Aloha Days' master's division, for ages 46 and up.

There is also an open division for women, a buffalo division for men 225 pounds and up, men's divisions for ages 25 to 34 and 35 to 45, a keiki division for ages 16 and younger, and a junior division for ages 17 to 24. Last year, 16-year-old Nick Weber (no relation to Dewey) won the junior division (the age requirements changed this year), and he'll be back to defend his title this year.

Much like Ybarra, Weber has grown up with the beach as his backyard. But unlike in Ybarra's day, Weber and his contemporaries don't have to skip school to catch the best waves. Most of the South Bay high schools, including Palos Verdes Peninsula High, where Weber will be a junior in the fall, have surf classes in the morning. He also rides for the high school surf team.

"We dominate," he says confidently.

Surfers are judged on style, maneuvers on the waves, the height of the wave and how long the surfer can stay with it.

Weber, who earned bragging rights with the first-place trophy in the long board division at Aloha Days last year, modestly admits that skill is only one of the keys to winning. "I was pretty lucky last year," he says. "There are a lot of good surfers around the South Bay."

Ybarra likens the sport to golf, in which each player has only himself or herself to depend on. If you're on that day, he says, you win.

For many young men--and women--surfing continues to be a way of life. Weber, like Ybarra, has been influenced by the generation that came before him--he mentions Chris Dredesen, a well-known competitor around the South Bay and Weber's high school coach, and Jon Wegner, who uses his surfing expertise in making custom surfboards.

While he doesn't have any aspirations to surf professionally, Weber echoes what Ybarra and other avid surfers say: "I'll definitely surf till I die."

"When you're out there," Weber adds, "it's a different experience from anything else, it's unlike any other sport."

"When you're on the water, nothing else matters," adds Ybarra. "It's just you with Mother Nature. Only a true surfer knows the feeling. You've got to do it to know what it's about."

BE THERE

Aloha Days Surf Contest and Hawaiian Festival, at Hermosa Beach Pier and plaza area. Surfing begins 7 a.m. both days. Festival hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Free. Beach parking varies. Information: (310) 372-0358.

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