Cher Pendarvis is the living embodiment of more recent surfing history than can be squeezed into one interview. She has shaped boards, foiled fins, competed in the first professional women’s tour and been one of the first surfers to ride a fish. Cher graciously allowed us to talk to her about her life as a surfer and artist.
What was your life like growing up?
My family lived in San Francisco when I was born. My mom was an artist who always sought out beautiful places. Then, when I was about five years old, Mom and I moved to the South Shore of Oahu, as my father (a Navy officer) was deployed on a ship in the Eastern Pacific. Living in Honolulu in the 1950s was beautiful and sweet, a highlight of my young life, and this is where I first saw surfing. I was mesmerized by the grace of the surfers as they glided toward shore singly or sharing waves together.
Travels took us to the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong and then eventually back to San Diego, California. My parents divorced and my mom remarried. Life became hard for my mom and I when my stepfather (another Navy officer) came into the house. We continued to move, this time for a short time in Newfoundland and then to Florida for a few years. My father stayed in San Diego, but was out of contact. My mom and I longed to come back to San Diego, as we loved the dynamic landscape and the Pacific Ocean.
Surfing is something you were determined to do whether you had permission to do it or not. Why do you think you were ready to figuratively go to battle in order to be able to surf?
Surfing is beauty, oneness with nature… the blessing of riding moving energy on the ocean… freedom, inspiration and creativity
My stepfather had grown up in the Depression and he did not approve of the bohemian life of many surfers. He was determined that there would be no surfing: “No daughter of mine is going to surf!” I think he was threatened by a kind of joy and freedom that he did not understand. There was alcohol and violence in the home. I kept my head down, studied hard at school and escaped to friends’ homes when possible.
Mom dreamt to surf too and we quietly talked about the beauty of the waves. After school, I loved to ride my bike to the beach to watch the surfers. In 1964, she and I were at the beach on Easter weekend. I was 13. After asking permission, I borrowed the lifeguard’s paddleboard and rode my first wave standing. From that day on, I mustered up courage to ask to borrow boards when people were finished surfing. I learned to surf on my own by watching others.
When did you get your first surfboard?
In the summer of 1966, I helped out at a surf shop—patching dings—and earned $45 to pay for an old 9’7″ that had been broken in half and repaired. It was heavy in the tail and I thought the added weight helped me get longer noserides! This board weighed about 30 pounds, and I walked about three miles to the beach carrying it in all kinds of weather.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
The incredible free feeling of riding moving energy swept me away! A wave is energy made visible! Riding waves was a dream come true as I had longed to surf for years.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young woman?
The people I looked up to were my mother and teachers who were encouraging and kind at school. Mom was a talented artist, free spirit and entrepreneurially-minded businesswoman.
The first photos that I saw of surfing women in 1960s publications were of Shelley Merrick, Linda Benson and Joey Hamasaki, I was so stoked. At Ocean Beach in the late 60s, I met Judy Dibble and Joyce Hoffman, who lived in OB at the time. It was inspiring to see them out surfing. I am also inspired by special men that we’ve surfed with since the 1960s, including Thomas Threinen, Skip Frye, Ricky Ryan, Steve Lis, Jeff Ching, Larry Gephart, John Brockway, Bunker Spreckels, Ben Ferris, Larry Duff, Jon Riddle, Steve Pendarvis and others.
You and Rell Sunn were among the first generation of female professional surfers. At the time that you were competing, did either of you recognize that you were making history and, essentially, opening doors for female surfers who followed?
We were surfers and waterwomen first, purely loving the ocean and everything around it. The year leading up to the First Hang Ten Women’s Pro at Malibu in 1975 and the championships are important memories. Rella stayed with the Pro events longer than I did. I appreciated the encouragement that Rella and Jericho shared that I should continue, but responsibilities at home prevented me from traveling on tour. Also, in my heart, I am more of a soul surfer than a media person.
I want to thank our dear friend Skip Frye, who encouraged me to join WISA in early 1975 and participate in the series leading up to the first Women’s Pro. The sweet lifelong friends we made and the adventures we shared were the most wonderful blessings to come out of it.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
Oh, this is a challenge to choose just one place! Hawaii, for the love of cultural traditions, aloha of the people, beauty of the land and surfing. Australia, for its wide, expansive landscapes, pristine points and friendly people. New Zealand for its gorgeous greens and dynamic oceans. Oahu is my second home.
Who or what inspires you, whether it be as a surfer, an artist, a historian or a photographer?
God inspires. All creativity is a gift.
Surfing has always been revered as a gift from God. Quiet time in the ocean is a good time to pray, and we often ride “long life” prayer waves for friends and family who need healing and comfort … praying all the while, and sending out love.
As an artist, beauty, color, light and soul inspire my visual arts. Drawing and painting are a meditation, as is photography with my film and digital cameras.
As I love to write and have a passion for history, it’s wonderful to lift up people who inspire us, as a way to share and give back. I’m honored to write features about people we love and are inspired by.
I’m inspired by our elders, including Skip Frye, Uncle Val Ching, Jim “Mouse” Robb, Linda Benson, Dr. Walter Munk and Ruth Simmons Hilts. Skipper and Uncle Val are amazing watermen who revere God, live well, love the ocean and share wisdom and kindness with others. We love and respect our elders.
You are a true Renaissance woman—your abilities range from shaping to fin foiling to color work to glassing to photography and to art. Has it ever occurred to you that you epitomize the term “one of a kind” and that your history in surfing is unmatched by any other woman in that respect?
Thank you for your very kind thoughts. Being in the moment with whatever I’m doing, I don’t think about myself, but the project that is being worked on. I am thankful to have lived through the eras and to have wonderful, varied experiences.
Being self-employed much of my life has led to learning and a variety of experiences, working hard, solving challenges and focusing on the projects at hand. I am thankful for the opportunities kind friends and colleagues have shared, and treat all work with respect.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
A very comforting fact… that God is in control of everything. God is Love. The Lord loves each and every one of us, and each person is perfect in the eyes of God. It’s always my hope and desire to see others as God sees people, and to share kindness with all. There is strife in the world, and it’s good to share love and kindness with others. Thank you to Uncle Val for sharing wisdom from your grandmother: “Faith, hope and charity are most important in this life.” And we take these wise words to heart!
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Life is for learning, and there are no regrets. I’ve lived honestly and gracefully, and have done my best. If you realize you’ve made a mistake, ask for God’s guidance, and for His help with forgiveness and peace … for others and yourself.
What are you most proud of?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when so much creativity was going on with surfing and board-building in Point Loma and Ocean Beach, I was an artist in college, building boards with family and friends… and riding the boards that we made. Our friend Steve Lis invented the fish here. I was among the first surfers riding fish standing in 1970. Those were amazing times!
Over the last eighteen years I’ve written several educational books that combine art and technology, they’re published by Peachpit Press in Berkeley. The books are a wonderful creative challenge and require very focused work to write, design and produce. The latest is the new Painter Wow! Book, tenth edition.
I’m honored that the article I wrote about Uncle Val Ching for the Surfers Journal is helping him reach out with his teaching of the Hawaiian traditions—farming taro and arts. And I’m proud that he was recognized as a Hawaiian treasure by the governor of Hawaii and mayor of Honolulu in the summer of 2011. June 25 will forever be Uncle Val Ching Day in Hawaii! Stevie Lis asked me to help him share his life story and the origins of his fish design. I was very honored to write a profile about him for the Surfers Journal. The fish is still my favorite surfboard design. Both of these pieces are labors of love for people that we care for deeply.
Another love is surfing history and I have worked as a historian for more than 10 years. I’ve enjoyed researching the surfing history of our area… Point Loma, Ocean Beach and have created presentations and slide shows for the Ocean Beach Historical Society. I’ve also helped prepare exhibits in conjunction with the San Diego Maritime Museum and California Surf Museum and lent support with Surfing Heritage.
I’m very proud of my husband Steve. He is wonderfully creative and has a strong work ethic. Steve accomplishes a lot with just a little. He is a one-man-band building his hand-crafted surfboards, always exploring and innovating. The boards he makes stoke people and make them happy.
A few years ago Steve and I were commissioned to make a special surfboard that would be presented to the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. And in 2011, we were commissioned to make an art surfboard that would be given as a gift to Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Steve and I are incredibly honored and humbled to build these boards, and are thankful to our client who commissioned our work.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
As a young girl, surfing helped me realize independence for the first time. Riding a wave allows us to be one with nature and the moving energy. Surfing and being in the ocean nurture my art and writing. Surfing is a creative expression and healthy release. It gives me great joy to share waves with loved ones.
Every wave is a prayer and a gift. A wave is energy made visible! I reflect on how far a wave has traveled to the place where we can ride it.
Tell us about your hip replacement and how the experience of having a joint replaced has impacted your surfing.
First off, I am thankful to God and my doctor for putting me back together again. The year before the hip replacement was very painful and it was excruciating to hop up on my board, but I pushed through the pain. I did everything I could to avoid the hip replacement surgery, but in the end, the replacement became necessary.
The very forward, talented surgeon did an excellent surgery. I was able to swim two and a half weeks after the surgery in a pool or calm ocean, and continued to do water exercises. Four months after the surgery, I surfed for the first time. Having the joint replacement has given me back the active life that I love.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Love of God, my husband, close friends and family, being out in nature and keeping good thoughts for others make me happy. I appreciate the beauty that God has blessed us with. I’m also grateful for surfing, art, drawing, painting, photography and writing.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
There are many. In general, people who are true to their hearts and beliefs. With the internet today, people aren’t as isolated as they once were. Anyone can share their work and friendship through blogging now. We are happy to see young people with open minds who want to experience things for themselves … some of the things that we still enjoy … for instance, dreaming up creative ideas and pushing their own limits with art and surfboard design.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
Most of my favorite boards are related to the fish. I enjoy riding a variety of craft from longboards to short fish, surf mats and paipo belly boards.
My favorite spots are reef breaks near where we live, some point breaks in Baja and a few spots in Oahu and Kauai.
What’s your favorite meal?
An organic salad with all the trimmings; it’s a healthy meal in a bowl. Some of the ingredients are romaine, spinach, carrots, red cabbage, tomatoes and avocado. Feta cheese is a tasty topping. We like to make our own dressing using olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Well, on CD, radio and streaming… listening to IZ, Gaby, Makaha Sons, Brothers Cazimero (and the sweet Hawaiian tunes that kind Hawaiian friends have shared with us), jazz on KSDS 88.3 and Hawaiian music on KKCR.org.
What causes and organizations do you support?
Rell Sunn Educational Foundation, Sunset Cliffs Surfing Association, Ocean Beach Historical Society, California Surf Museum, Humanity United, San Diego Maritime Museum, Surfing Heritage Foundation, Surfrider, Surfers for Cetaceans, The Groundswell Society, and Wildcoast.
What are you most grateful for?
God’s love and grace. And I’m grateful for the discovery that God blesses us with family through close friendships. Friends are the family that we choose. I am thankful for my husband Steve, our lifelong friendships, artistic collaborations and wonderful, close community. Life is more tempered now at 61 years, and I’m thankful for each day.
What’s next for Cher Pendarvis?
Only God knows … in my heart, keeping close to God walking in the Light; being grateful for each day; keeping true to our hearts; sharing kindness, working hard at the work God gives us while appreciating creative pursuits, and surfing as long as I can move.
Image credits: 1. Thomas Threinen 2. Thomas Threinen 3. Michele Jacquin 4. Jim Pigeon 5. Steve Pendarvis 6. “Downstream Weather,” painting by Cher Pendarvis 7. Thomas Threinen 8. “Seaview 2,” painting by Cher Pendarvis 9. Steve Pendarvis