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!