Kemp Aaberg is a legendary surfer from California. Known throughout the world for his iconic image “The Soul Arch” used as the Surfer Magazine logo for years, Kemp also appeared in many of Bruce Browne’s early films. An accomplished Flamenco guitarist and triathlete, Kemp spoke with us about his wonderful life.
What was it like growing up?
My father was a medic in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he aspired to improve his education so we moved to Boston in 1945. Stayed there for 3 years until he got his American Board of Surgery degree and then we moved to Pacific Palisades, California. I was nine and bodysurfing at a well known state beach where Buzzy Trent was the lifeguard in charge. As a young man, Buzzy with muscles upon muscles, would stride across the sand to his tower and all of us thought he was a sight to behold; he was strong, confident and one of the few that could actually ride a surfboard.
When did you start surfing and what was it like?
I started surfing in the summer of 1956 at Point Dume, above Malibu to kind of stay out everybodys way. I could crash on the rocks on my own. It took me quite a while to get the hang of actually transferring from paddling to standing on the board. I remember the unique sensation. It was like gliding in an airglider or something. It was actually phenomenal to be able to let go and stand up and let the wave take over. It was a captivating experience. I just wanted to get better and better at it and I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since. (Laughs)
What kind of board were you riding back then?
The first board I had was a borrowed one. It was a ten foot spoon shape with a sort of trash can lid nose on it. It was made of all balsa. It was so poorly shaped we wrote a nickname on it. We called it the “Butter Knife. “ This was made before foam and it was all we had to ride. No one had come up with fin boxes or leashes. All we had was a balsa board with a little fiberglass on it.
Who did you surf with?
One name that comes up for me is Mike Doyle. He was my surf buddy all through my learning stages throughout the 50s at Malibu. And there was Johnny Fain and he lived up in the Malibu Colony with a little cottage that overlooked the beach. You could literally run out the front door and into the surf. Miki Dora of course, was omnipresent. Pretty much anyone you’ve ever heard of was down at Malibu. And they all had nicknames, too.
What was your nickname?
I can’t disclose that. It took me 25 years to bury it. (Laughs) Tubesteak did call me “Meatloaf” at one time… but that wasn’t my nickname. Tubesteak was a real wonderful character at Malibu. He came down there in the summer of ‘56 and plopped himself at the point and built himself a shack. He cut off the legs of his gabardine slacks and just enjoyed the beach for a few years. In those days you could get away with that type of beach camping because there wasn’t any laws being broken. The beach was like a big “no man’s land.”
You grew up in a rather idyllic time in the history of surfing…
It was so fun, it was unbelievable!
What was it like in the early days filming with Bruce Brown?
Working with Bruce was totally fun. It was kind of like going to summer camp. I went with him with his first movie-making venture to Oahu in the summer of 1958 after I graduated from high school. I had a job working at Velzy-Jacobs shop in San Clemente. Bruce Brown was a local lifeguard down in the area. Dale Velzy hired Bruce to make a movie for him. I was lucky to be working there at the time and Bruce sort of picked me out as a wild card to go with him to Hawaii to film “Slippery When Wet.” Del Cannon, Henry Ford, Freddy Pfahler, and a guy named Dick Thomas. There were five us in the group that you might call “surfer-actors.” Bruce was sort of winging it using both his intuition and creativity. The film wasn’t filled with giant waves and spectacle, it was actually a very fun and historical film – even in this day and age.
Tell us the story about your famous surf photo, the “Soul Arch”
That photo was taken by John Severson. At the time, he was collecting photographs up and down the coast for a little booklet called “The Surfer” to advertise one of his first movies, “Surf Fever.” That was shot on a winter day in 1959 at Rincon and it wasn’t posed or anything. Severson was running out of film and had a few shots left with his tripod perched on the inside of the cove. I happened to hit a speed bump in the water, and (Laughs) by doing that it caused me to lean back into that position with my back. When he finally developed the film, only a few pictures came out and I think that was one of them. He placed that image in his booklet and it was so appealing to him and other people that it got used over and over and became the logo for Surfer Magazine for over 20 years!
That subtle soul arch has become such an icon…
Yes. I even met some people at a recent film showing who introduced me as “The Arch.” So there you go – that’s my nickname right there! But the real move that I wanted to bring to my surfing was to do a very sharp go-left and a swinging hard go-right with the board really going and planing into a giant arc.
What are you most proud of?
There are a couple of things in surfing that I’m proud of. One is being coaxed enough by Jose Angel to ride humongus 20+ Waimea, breaking on the outside reefs. That was very satisfying because that was my goal – I always wanted to ride some big waves. And I was able to do this in the company of Greg Noll and Pat Curren. To go over that lip and drive down that face is like the feeling of escaping from a wild herd of elephants.
And the other was when Mike Doyle talked me into doing the very difficult Catalina Race in 1961. It was a 35 mile paddle race from Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach pier. Somehow I was able to hang in there on that and win it. I’ve always been drawn to endurance sports and in fact, I just about gave up surfing for ten years when the whole triathlon era came around.
What has been the influence of surfing and how has it changed your life?
The influence was in that I was able to travel and how it got me around the world. I graduated with a degree in physical education and was able to work as a phys ed teacher all over the world – places like Australia; Canberra, New South Wales, and Perth. It was surfing and the wonderment of what the world looked like that got me motivated to do that for a number of years.
And there is the social part of it and the people that you meet from all corners of the world. I met Felipe Pomar, the Peruvian surfer. All of the wonderful friends I have came from being involved in surfing.
Is it true that your brother modeled the Big Wednesday character Jack Barlow after you?
All of those characters were synthesized of course. They come from particular people that the writers knew. My brother knew me. One of them was based on Lance Carson.
Are you still surfing?
Yes, but not as fiendishly as I used to. At 71, it’s easier to get cold as you get older. I used to stay out for three hours and now I go out for an hour and a half at the most and then I am frozen. And half the battle of surfing is putting on a wetsuit!
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path of surfing today?
Jimmy Gamboa and Joel Tudor. They are both young and have a vision for riding longboards. And they are both beautiful surfers to watch. A lot of the other surfers are doing unbelievable things, but they all kinda look the same with their gyro-slapping and it isn’t a flowing, beautiful aesthetic thing. Jimmy and Joel have improved and enhanced longboarding into something really beautiful to look at.
What’s your favorite meal?
Stir-fry. Japanese stir-fry with tofu and vegetables.
Tell us about your music…
I love Flamenco guitar and Classical. It is such beautiful music. The uniqueness of the Baroque period has such a qualitative appeal that is the testimony of the genius of mankind. For example Mozart – his counterpoint was unbelievable. He could play harpsichord with such reckless abandon. Flamenco is the Gypsy music of Spain is a powerful, rhythmic style of music. The enthusiasm that it generates is amazing.
What are you most grateful for?
I think it would be impossible to single out one thing. I’m grateful for the experience of riding the planet for a while and seeing exactly what this exotic place is like. We are tiny little specks in the middle of nowhere. And as I am talking to you, we are moving at hundreds or thousands of miles per hour and there is no wind blowing. It’s an amazing and grateful experience to be among the phenomena of nature and somehow be evolving and to be able to reflect upon it. I would say eternity is the most amazing of all because you can’t package it.
Photography provided by Kemp Aaberg.