Pining for old days

OMBAC event brings vintage longboards out for good cause

By Terry Rodgers
Staff writer

October 1, 2002

Vintage longboards yellowed by time like the teeth of a chain-smoking coffee drinker. Men with guts like largemouth bass drinking beer on the beach at 10 a.m.

A well-endowed beauty contestant named "Ms. Emerson."

If you liked the beach the way it was before it was totally tamed and splashed with antiseptic, this is your kinda crowd.

"We're 100 percent beach people," said Phil Herr, spokesman for San Diego's Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, a 50-year-old organization that even Groucho "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would accept me as a member" Marx would consider joining.

OMBAC has dedicated itself to the art of living large. Members smoke cigars and critique each other's weaknesses with biting humor. And they are nearly always politically incorrect.

The club's motto is clearly tongue-in-cheek: "We never have any fun."

Nine years ago, OMBAC member Tom Lemmon, a labor union executive, started a surfing tournament limited to surfboards made before 1970. No leashes allowed. Wet suits optional. It's held at Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach every September.

It's an opportunity for surfboard collectors to experience the magic of equipment intended to be wave harvesting platforms.

"It's flashback time," said Herr, who describes himself as a recovering accountant. "This is a thread of history that's still alive."

It's customary for owners of the vintage boards to swap and lend boards with contestants like partners at a swinger's convention.

"We've had people shoot the pier on borrowed boards here," said Lemmon, who has a small collection of antique surfboards and knows their value.

When he started the tournament, Lemmon persuaded San Diego surfing legend Eric "Bird" Huffman to organize the event. "Bird" established the rules and assembled the judges. He still serves as the contest announcer, yammering nonstop for roughly eight hours. His running commentary on the style, verve and skill of the contestants is free-flowing and uncensored. He calls it like he sees it, and his wry observations can sometimes cause you to snort your drink through your nose.

"He'll go all day," Lemmon says of "Bird." "We just let him go and keep turning the microphone down as the day wears on."

Lemmon, 42, and his wife, Karen, along with a ton of volunteers (my estimate based on their beer guts) run this contest as tightly as Captain Joe Hazelwood did the Exxon Valdez.

OMBAC does it to raise money to manufacture balloon-tire beach wheelchairs that allow the disabled to dip their toes in the surf at local beaches.

In the past four years, the club has made 65 of these special wheelchairs. The group's goal is to have one at every lifeguard tower from Imperial Beach to Orange County.

On the day of the contest, Sept. 21, the wind came up early and turned the surf into a bumpy mishmash, but nobody seemed to care.

Joe Roper, a tribal elder who owns a surfboard repair business, brought 24 vintage surfboards to the beach for contestants who didn't have their own logs on which to surf.

Gusting winds overwhelmed Roper's shaded board compound and the two dozen antique surfboards toppled over like a grove of old-growth redwoods.

David Nuuhiwa dropped by the pier to check out the action.

The former U.S. surfing champion, whose flowing mane of gray hair gives him an aura of tribal elder, was pleased to see a contestant surfing on one of his early Lightweight "They definitely push through the chop better than modern longboards," Nuuhiwa said, describing the advantage of the heavier vintage boards. "And you don't get pushed around as much."

Out in the water, 79 contestants bullied their way through some of the worst wind-blown chop you'd ever seen.

Some of the wave riding was classic.

Showboat Luis Cruz impressed the crowd by riding a wave while standing on his head.

Music teacher Luke Schulz bombed in his first heat but won high-fives of encouragement from his 15th Street Del Mar brothers.

George Popovick was among the most talented and fun to watch. In a burst of creative overconfidence, Popovick rode a wave while lying down on his board and doing a straight-armed salute. The archaic maneuver is called a Seig Heil coffin. It's of the same vintage as the Quasimodo. The judges sipped their beers and rolled their eyeballs in disbelief.

Carmel Valley's Billy Harris, one of the best 16-year-old longboarders in the county, proved that good surfers stand out no matter what they are riding. On occasion, the judges gave the edge to a sentimental favorite rather than the surfer who appeared to dominate.

But no worries. It was all for fun and charity, not to be taken too seriously.

"We never wanted it to be a contest as much as an event," said Lemmon.

Terry Rodgers: (619) 542-4566; terry.rodgers@uniontrib.com

(KLD)