Henry Ford

by Glenn Sakamoto on March 15, 2011 · 11 comments

Henry Ford is a legendary California surfer who starred in Bruce Brown’s “Slippery When Wet” and “Surfing Hollow Days.” Mentored by Hoppy Swartz and LeRoy Grannis, Ford was fortunate to be a part of surfing’s golden age – surfing the South Bay and Malibu in the 50s and being an early pioneer of the North Shore in Hawaii. We spoke with Henry to learn more.

What was life like growing up?
Growing up in Hermosa Beach was incredible. We were entertained by the beach every day. We really had the greatest playground in the world and the greatest mentors in the world. I grew up on 22nd Street in Hermosa when Leroy Grannis lived a block away and Hoppy Swarts lived another block away. In my high school graduating class alone there were people like Greg Noll, Bing Copeland, Sunny Vardemann, Dewey Weber, and Rick Stoner. We all lived next to each other and hung around the beach all day. It was just great!

And there were those days at The Cove. Rolling tires down the hill. No leashes, no wetsuits – no lunch! Just a bunch of friends. We’d light the tires up to stay warm. These were the days of bliss. Just surfing together and enjoying the greatest sport on Earth.

Who were you influenced by back then?
Just a lot of the people who were lifeguards and the people around there. People like the Meistrell brothers who created the Body Glove brand of wetsuits, shapers like Dale Velzy and Hap Jacobs. I used to ride my back to the Manhattan Beach pier and Velzy would let me clean his shop for free. I worked for Hap during those years when he was with Velzy/Jacobs and I worked for Hap exclusively until I took a job as a lifeguard. Hermosa Beach back then was a hotbed of surfing in the early 50s. Back then we would have people like Dora and Gordon from Clark Foam come down. It was just a great surfing community.

I do want to say this about our mentors, we would be able to ride their boards after they got out of the water because we showed respect. And they trusted us to show respect. It was a really important part of my life to grow up around these kinds of people – Hoppy Swarts, Leroy Grannis, the Meistrell brothers, Hap Jacobs, Velzy. These guys were great examples of surfing and beach life and just being a “waterman.” It’s a great term that I want to apply to those early pioneers. It was important to be a waterman.

Do you consider yourself a waterman?
I did until I passed 70! (Laughs) I am a rescue waiting to happen!

Who inspired you when you were growing up?
If you lived in Hermosa Beach you were part of a family. There was no localism or any of that. At that time, there were only a couple hundred guys on the whole coast. But a good portion of them were right there on Hermosa Beach. We lifeguarded, went surfing, and simply being watermen.

If you lived near the Hermosa Pier, you had all these great guys like the Meistrell brothers and Bev Morgan. If you went five blocks north you had Bing Copeland, Sonny Vardemann and Rick Stoner. If you went a little further you had 22nd Street “Double Deuce Danglers” – Freddy Bower, Gary Stever, Ricky Hatch and all those guys. Many of them went with Bruce Browne to appear in his films.

Actually, there were three men that really inspired me. Hoppy Swarts, LeRoy Grannis, and Hap Jacobs. Hoppy was one of those true gentlemen – a true human being. He was a very close friend of Doc Ball’s and he formed the high school CIF surfing community. Hoppy’s surfing and his ability to raise a family made him a great mentor. LeRoy was the same. He would come down and take pictures and then we would all run up to his house. We would crowd into his darkroom and see “what we did that day.” And Hap was just a wonderful mentor and we looked up to him and admired him.

What meaning does surfing have for you?
I caught my first wave in 1948. And since that time it has consumed my life. It is everything to me. Surfing is probably the greatest sport ever. It’s you and the waves and its just something very special. Going down to the beach, it’s like your amphitheater – your special place where you can go paddle out and watch the sun rise and the sun set. You can be one with Mother Nature. I’ve been doing this for the last 71 years (you do the math) and I have never lost the enthusiasm – I’ve just lost maybe the ability to stay warm! (Laughs)

What feeling do you get when you are on a surfboard?
Freedom. And the freedom to express yourself and to ride a piece of Mother Nature. To be able to – challenge yourself. Every wave is different, every session is different. And every set of conditions is different and to be able to adapt to it and enjoy it, on a cold and windy winter day. It’s something special.

What are you most proud of?
I’m just proud of the fact that I have the ability to give back to the sport. There really isn’t much money in running longboard surfing events. But I’m proud of the fact that I still believe in the history of the sport – I feel it sometimes gets lost in today’s current evolution of the shortboard. A lot of people and things get forgotten. The history of surfing is profound. It’s special and should be preserved and I have that opportunity every time I work at the Surfing Heritage Foundation.

What do you consider the highlight of your surfing career?
Being on the North Shore. (Laughs) What a shocking experience! You leave California and you go to the Burbank airport. You then get on a pink cloud airline. You fly 15 hours, you step off a plane, you drive to the North Shore… and all of a sudden you say “Holy jeez, Why did I do this!” (Laughs)

It was an eye-opening experience, some of those first years (‘56-’58) we were there. The waves were so big it was shocking! Coming from California, we weren’t really honed for it. There was simply no place to train for what we were doing. Back in those days there were very few people even on the North Shore.

What made you stay on the North Shore?
Well… we had a camera on the beach! (Laughs) You had to do whatever you could and then you had your best friends watching you. And there was the challenge of it. Every night when you went to sleep, you could hear the waves crashing on the beach! You could feel the shitty little house on rattling! Waking up on a set of bedsprings (because that’s what we slept on) and you would open up the front door, and you would be looking straight at the barrel at Sunset and say to yourself, “Holy guacamole! What am I doing here?”

What is your favorite surfspot?
Well the only place I can catch a wave is over at San-O! (Laughs) I’ve had a pass to Church’s for a while and I need to renew it. As soon as I retired, I moved here to San Clemente. This whole stretch of beaches here – this is truly God’s land. Also Boca Barranca in Costa Rica!

What music are you listening to on your iPod?
Dark Side of The Moon by Pink Floyd and Freddie Pfahler.

What’s your favorite meal?
My favorite meal is a Hawaiian plate lunch.

What are you currently working on?
We take Rabbit Kekai back to Hawaii now instead of running his contest down in Costa Rica as he is in his nineties now and doesn’t travel as well. We do it in Waikiki, right at Queens. And we still try to do as many longboarding events as we can. It just gets harder and harder to find anybody that wants to support the longboard community. To most of the surf clothing companies, longboarding is like the red-headed stepchild. Longboarding reflects the history of the sport and definitely has a place and should be recognized as such. People like Taylor Jensen and Steve Newton are just lighting it up right now.

What’s next for Henry Ford?
(Laughs) Gawd, I have no idea! Couple of trips with my friend Ryan to Costa Rica. Then I’m off to Nicaragua to ride some waves with my business partner John Gillam and the kid. And hopefully the water will warm up a little bit more and I’ll spend some more time down there. It’s just getting tougher to get out of bed on these cold mornings. And tougher to put on a wetsuit, too. Getting old is a bitch!

Photography: 1. LeRoy Grannis. 2. Steve Wilkings 3. Bruce Browne 4. Steve Wilkings 5. Glenn Sakamoto 6. Unknown


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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

SLO Pat March 15, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Nice. And long live the longboard!


Jared Eaton March 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm

I grew up in Palos Verdes and Tom Blake was our swim club coach and mentor. My older brother Mike Eaton and I started surfing at the cove on the planks and later the evolution of board designs made it easier to maneuver the beach surf. I met Henry around 56′ when I could drive down to Hermosa and Manhattan Beach. All the surfers of that era were a great bunch of fun loving guys and there was a sense of adventure and camaraderie all up and down the Coast. Those were truly some of the most fun years of my life.


Marty Martell March 16, 2011 at 8:44 am

I’ve known Henry since he rode his first wave. I was fortunate to have lived in Hermosa Beach during the “Golden Years” . 22nd Street was our playground . We “Double Duece Danglers” had an unbelievable life growing up together. Henry is like a brother.


Betty Elder March 17, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Dear Henry, Thanks for posting the “grand history” about your legendary longboarding years and great friendships on your facebook profile I especially loved the memories you shared about 2 of my favorite “Longboard Pioneers” – Leroy Grannis, and Hoppy Swarts. Leroy was THE Prince of Surfing Photography ; each photograph surpassing the last, with breathless beauty.

Hoppy was my Mentor – he literally taught me (from the “sand up” ) about the basics for “staging” a successful Longboard Surfing Contest. He began with our first “C” St. Longboard Championship November, 1986 as Head Scorekeeper.

In 1987 I began putting the contest together In June. I needed Hoppy to train me regarding all the particulars; judging, scorekeeping, heat sheets, seeding advancing heats, and the mysterious “Repechage Heat”. What the hell was that? – a special heat to break ties – Hoppy invented it.

At 5am every morning I phoned him for 2 months so he could answer my many questions – helping me with every detail. He joined us again in 1987 to help with the score-keeping.

In 1988, I needed brushing up – so, he would help me at 5am, day after day. We were looking forward to another year with Hoppy heading our score-keeping table when I heard the sad news he had passed away, while waiting to fly to Santa Cruz for the WSA Surf Contest. We were so looking forward to another year with Hoppy.

Our 1988 “C” St. Longboard Championships was dedicated to the Memory of Hoppy Swarts. We will always remember him as a true Master of the Ocean, Surfing, and Humanity. He was such a wonderful human being.

Happy Birthday Henry – you are also a Legend to me. Thanks for all your help with our surf contests.
Love, Betty Elder


Rodrigo March 18, 2011 at 5:17 pm

This is really inspiring. A slice of history right here. Thank you.


Betty Elder March 19, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Hi Rogrigo –
Thanks for your comment – When I see how much appreciation is given to our “Surfing Pioneers” it warms my heart. And, it was great to read that Henry was such a great friend to them all.
Betty Elder


Pete Herrera March 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Been surfing with Henry the past few years at Old Manz. He still has the style, nothing like it. I try to watch and learn whenever he’s out ( come on warm weather ). Unreal person, full of passion and history. He’s even made up a few new surf terms! Thanks Henry! Glenn, Great interview!!


Fanneli's March 21, 2011 at 8:02 am

So good!! thanks for the awesome interviews



Tony June 22, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I had the pleasure of meeting Henry at a great spot somewhere south of the border a few days ago, along with a couple of his equally legendary friends. Thanks for sharing a bit of wisdom with us, and for being an inspiration to our kids, who are now taking the surfing torch. Hope to see you again.


Henry Ford July 5, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Hope you guys all got home safe? It was great to meet you and the gang!!!! It was like the OLD Guard meet the new Younger Guard!!! Great to see you give them the stoke and to pass on the spirit of Surfing!
Once hooked it becomes a lifelong quest for goood waves, warm water, good friends and family!!!
We welcome the boys from up North to some Mexico surfing!!!
Also right now I’m sitting at our house at Boca Barranca in Costa Rica 4-6+and near perfect long lefts like the Ranch only better than the last trip to Mexico! Stay Stoked Henry


Hugh March 11, 2012 at 9:27 am

Henry, you’re a total class act! One of the few links left to the roots of surfing as I know it. Much respect to you…


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