Skip Frye got very good at the best possible time for a surfer to attract attention in San Diego.
If a surfer wants a medium short board of six to seven feet, or an old fashioned board of eight feet or longer, and he wants Skip Frye to shape it for him, Frye will take a Clark foam blank some morning at the Gordon & Smith surfboard factory on Raines Street in Morena and get to work in his stall.
Although he can shape boards in all sizes, from the very short ones preferred by most surfers today, to the thicker, heavier boards used in windsurfing, Frye's favorite is the kind of board that he likes to surf on himself, the board that's light enough for speed but long enough for him to step forward or backward along the deck to stall the board or quicken it, depending on the changing shape of the wave.
His is a style of surfing that he helped to create in the 1960s when the sport caught its first full blaze of attention. He goes for grace and smoothness and distance. Corky Carroll, one of the top-rated surfers in Frye's heyday, said Frye was always a gentleman in the water, not aggressively territorial as some surfers are in a sport where more often than not there is literally no room for beginners or strangers. He said that Frye was one of the best surfers this state has produced, and that his pretty, hands-high style was especially well suited to small and medium size waves -- the normal surf of Southern California.
Frye was number two in the Unite States Surfing Association rating in 1966 and '67, number two in the Western Surfing Association in 1965, and in the two years previous to that placed first in the senior men's division of the Pacific Beach Aquafair. His name could be found frequently in Surfer Magazine's popularity poll and in advertisements for new surfing products. He appeared for a fiberglass skateboard that flexed on a turn in something of the way that a surfboard sweeps smooth on a hard bend. He appeared for Slipcheck, an aerosol you sprayed on the deck of the board for traction. And he appeared for Gordon &Smith surfboards, one ad in particular reading, "Skip is in the water for four to six hours, six days a week, testing, trying and modifying designs."
Not a bad job for a young man who liked to surf. Forty-one years old this year, Frye is back at Gordon & Smith after a voluntary layoff of four years — "my wilderness years," he calls them — during which his marriage dissolved and he retreated, in reverse of the hermit crab, from a larger shell into a smaller, and into a smaller. He gave up his job, his dwelling, his church, his car, until he was living in a backyard shed in Pacific Beach and riding a bike. In the past two years, he's recovered, and one rain-clear morning last month, was in his stall at G & S, wearing a mask and ear protectors, shaping a custom board for a friend who works at the O.B. Surf Shop.
The white paper mask over the nose and mouth was to keep out the dusk of foam that fell as he drove the power plane up and down the blank. The foam piled on the floor until he was kicking through it with his high top Converse as through new snow. The flakes settled on his T-shirt and on his G & S trunks, on his hair and knees and forearms. The noise in the rooms makes the work rather silent. He couldn't talk to the shaper in the next stall, who was also driving a high-whine plane and wearing protectors on his ears. Neither could he hear the radios in other parts of the buildings making a music of three layers: the theme for Hill Street Blues, something by Bob Segar, and loudest of all, "Peaceful Easy Feelin'."
When he'd taken the foam down to the general shape he wanted, he shut the plane off and set it on a bench in the corner, carefully looping its cord into a loose cord, then turned to blast himself clean with compressed air for a tight yellow hose, his shirt puffing up as he blasted under his arm. The air was louder than the sander and the radios. He let the hose go and took up a shear form, which is a bar about eight inches long with one side rough like a vegetable grater, and started to work up and down the top side (the deck) or the blank and along the edges, or rails. The shear form looks flat but has the slightest bed to it — it would rock maybe a twentieth of an inch if set on a flat table — which Frye had never noticed until a few years ago which he likes to point out to shapers who have been working with the tool for years.
"It's kinda neat, " he said, smiling and going into his subject with full speed enthusiasm. (The photo editor at Surfer, who years ago went with Frye and some other guys on a over night trip to the Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara, which is one of Frye's favorite California breaks, said Frye seems to operate in two modes. "Most of the time he's shy and doesn't talk, but he does talk, he's all of a sudden stoked.") "What that does, " Frye went on about the tool, "is keep the thing flat when you hold it in your hands. See? If the shear form was perfectly flat, it'd have the tendency to dig on the ends where your hands press down. Isn't that great? Some toolmaker though of that, long time ago, I bet. Somebody who really knew what he was doin'."
When the deck was right Frye picked up one end of the blank, which now looked more like a surfboard, and sighted down the length to judge its trueness and symmetry. Satisfied, he set the board on its side, turned off the waist-high neon lamps on the walls, and switch on the lamps overhead. With the shear form again he worked up and down the rail. taking a fraction of an inch off the deck side with each walk up, a fraction off the bottom side with each walk back. He made about forty trips each way, turned the board over and did the other rail the same, then laid the board flat again and started smoothing it with sandpaper backed on a think wooden block.
"Taking a lot of flats and making them into a round " is the way that Frye describes the shaping of a surfboard. The flat power plane, the flat shear form, the flat sandpaper, all produce an object that has virtually no flat surface. He likens shaping a board to sculpting in foam, but backs off from saying that it's all that difficult. He takes his skill seriously but he doesn't overestimate it; he doesn't even consider a craftsman.
"My dad, now," he said, "yeah, he's a craftsman. He can do, you name all of them, carpentry, metal working, gardening. I can shape a surfboard, but that's more like one skill, or say, two or three skills. But a craftsman is someone who knows all skills, and I wouldn't call myself that."
Working at the white, half-finished surfboard with drifts of white foam on the floor, Frye put one in mind of an Australian shearing sheep. He looks Australian, sunny and sturdy, with hair blanched by the outdoors, and blond even down to the patches on the thumbs. He has an Australian sheep dog (actually part collie), which he brings to work with him every day in his faded blue pickup, and to hear Frye tell it, Leroy the dog is as crazy about going to the beach as he is.
"Whenever he hears the words 'cliffs' or 'the point,' he goes nuts," Frye said. Cliffs means Sunset Cliffs, a surfing spot off Point Loma, and the Point is a rocky promontory at the foot of Sea Ridge Drive, the northern edge of Pacific Beach. Neither spot has particularly good waves in the summertime, when the lengthened days allow Frye to go surfing more frequently, but neither is patrolled by policemen who could ticket him for having a dog on the beach. Therefore, Frye surfs at the spots that are best for Leroy.
He and the dog are well known at the Point, where Frye has been surfing for fifteen years. Since most of the waves crumble from left to right as you face the beach, they favor a surfer like Frye who has a normal stance of left foot forward, enabling him to face the waves as he rides it. Moreover, the waves break on a shelf of rock and proceed in long lines to enter a cove, giving the lengthy rides that Frye prefers.
A similar beach of promontory and cove is Swami's in North County, named for its proximity to the onion domed buildings of the Self Realization Fellowship. Frye had two snapshots of the beach mounted on the wall with his shipping stall, together with a picture of his girlfriend, a calendar with a tide chart, a Sports Illustrated cover of Julius Erving jamming a basket over some Celtics, various clippings on the Chargers, and a picture of two local fisherman unloading a prize catch of tuna. Together these items sum up Frye's interests: surfing, fishing, his girlfriend, the Chargers, and pro basketball.
But on the opposite wall, mounted by itself, was a document that had roused Frye's admiration. Having finished sanding the rails of the board with a soft plastic net, he blasted himself clean again and stood by the document, looking it over as he talked. "That tells about the life of George Freeth," he said. "I got it from the girlfriend of a guy who works here. We all went up last year to a surfing contest in the South Bay [Redondo Beach in L.A.}, and this girl's father, who was an old-time lifeguard, brought out this album, or annual-like thing, and it had this story in it, so I had a copy made.
Freeth, and Irish-Hawaiian, was the first surfer in California. He and his wooden surfboard were brought here in 1907 by Henry E. Huntingon, who hired Freeth to put on water-sports exhibitions in his real estate development, Redondo Beach. Freeth was the greatest lifeguard of his day. He saved seventy-eight persons in his brief career, once making three trips through huge waves to rescue seven Japanese fisherman. For that feat a fishing village near the present city of Long Beach was named after him, and he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He died in San Diego from overexertion, a result of rescue work in Oceanside in 1918. He was 35 years old.
"That guy," said Frye, "was a waterman who totally gave his all. " And giving one's all to the water is something that Frye understands.
Frye was an adopted son, born in San Diego and only a few weeks old when he came to the home of Harry and Mary Frye. Three months later Pearl Harbor startled the United States into the war and called his new father, a naval aircraft mechanic, to his longest tour in the Pacific.
With no man in the house for the first two years, Mrs. Frye called her boy the Skipper. He grew into a Star Scout and a decent swimmer, whose interests were in following the weather and in building things. His parents gave him a beginner's kit for taking barometric readings and other measurements. He remembers building a racer for the Soap Box Derby and winning the prize for best construction, but admits that his dad had a hand in the project too. "I think I drove one screw," Frye said.
A frail adolescent, he retreated to bed for a week or two every fall with an onset of asthma, and he sees now, dreaded getting well enough to start another year in school. His pastimes were television and working as a box boy in the local DeFalco's supermarket (now a Von's) on Clairemont Drive. When he was sixteen his parents helped him buy a 1953 black Chevrolet sedan, which soon had a lowered front end and a tiki in the window. He burned rubber, dropped a transmission, and otherwise led the life of an ordinary suburban teen-ager.
Then one day in 1958 -- he remembers that it was a sunny afternoon after school, therefore a weekday -- his friend Bill Duncan took him to Thomas Street in Pacific Beach to try surfing. Soupsliding is actually what the beginning stage is called. It's the equivalent of the bunny slope in skiing. They waded out with Duncan's surfboard to the point where the whitewater from the broken waves still had enough push behind them to take the board, and somebody laying on it, sliding toward shore. It's like riding a surfmat, except that the board's rigid deck and the speed that the board attains in the water give the ride much greater stability. In an hour or so, the beginner learns to climb to his knees, then to his feet.
Frye liked it so much that his asthma went away. He bought a shaped balsa plank, nine feet, three inches long, and took it home and glassed it himself — covered it with fiberglass and plastic resin. He took the back seat out of his Chevy for his board to fit through the trunk and started driving every day to the beach, twenty minutes from his home in Bay Park Village, on the western slopes of Clairemont.
His parents though the newfound sport detracted too much from his schooling, and they were right. He graduated from Mission Bay High, class of '59, but dropped out of City College to spend more time in the water. At this time he had the opportunity to be a journeyman clerk in DeFalco's but passed on that and instead worked consciously and consistently on his surfing. Years later in an article he wrote for Surfer he emphasized the value of sheer practice. His point was that it wasn't enough to take off on a wave and drop to the bottom and bank a hard turn that sends a roostertail of water away from the fin; the point of every turn was to think of how you might have done it better.
Frye got better, and then got very good, at the best possible time for a surfer to attract attention in San Diego. Not only people at the beach but the city as a whole was aware of surfing as a sport. It has been given a lot of media exposure by then, in Beach Boys songs and Gidget movies, but by the middle Sixties it was apparent that the fad would endure the attention blitz in San Diego because this was one of the best places in the state to surf. No matter how bad the surfing might be in San Diego County, it was better than mucking around in the deadwater and beachbreak in Manhattan Beach. Any surfer who came down from L.A. — and many did every weekend — could smell the difference: the water was fresh with sea life. And instead of having two or three beaches to choose from in San Diego there were at least twenty places to surf between Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma and the beach at Scripps pier. To accommodate visiting surfers the city built a "surfing park" -- a parking lot with a restroom — at Tourmaline Street in Pacific Beach, and to stimulate interest it sponsored contests. Frye won most of the city's Aquafair contests and surfed most often at the Point, a promontory 200 yards sound of Tourmaline. In the mid-Sixties he was probably the most visible surfer in town.
In the meantime he had married and was raising three children. Marcia Frye worked as a waitress at Uncle Susie's (now Mulvaney's) on Mission Boulevard, and Skip was shaping for Gordon and & Smith. Like a lot of surfers, he'd learned the skill as a reason of making money while still staying close to surfing. He shaped his first board for himself, then shaped rental boards for surf shops, and finally shaped custom boards for individual surfers. Since he was a star he could test and publicize new designs; his status as a surfer enhanced his shaping, and vice versa. At one time Larry Gordon, the surfboard manufacturer and a fellow graduate of Mission Bay High, let Frye have thirty surfboards to test in the water.
The family lived right on the beach in an upstairs apartment on the present site of the Sizzler and T.D. Hays restaurants, at the foot of Grand Avenue, then moved to a house wit ha yard on Thomas Street, twelve blocks from the beach. Thomas Street had figured largely in Frye's life. He had first tried surfing there, and later, with his new wife, had lived on the street in a pretty cottage with a proper tree in front. Then they moved to the apartment on Grand, and when that became too small, they returned to Thomas and a house with a yard. Henceforth they settled into routines that bent toward the beach and toward Frye's parents' home in Bay Park. He took the family down to the water, and though Marcia didn't surf, she sometimes shared a surfboard with him to cool off during a heat wave. On Sunday evenings the family visited Frye's mother, who was bedridden. She passed away in 1968, and a few years later Frye's father remarried and moved to Santee. At about the same time the house on Thomas Street was condemned to make way for a four-story apartment building, and so the family moved to Frye's boyhood home, leaving Thomas Street for good.
Frye traveled during these years, up and down the coast to surf in contests and to Australia in 1968 for the filming of Fantastic Plastic Machine, a surfing movie that appeared again recently Channel 51. Then as now a professional surfer made practically nothing with contest winnings. In 1968 the Santa Cruz Open paid the first-place finisher $300, third place fifty dollars. Frye did not bother to drive up for that one. Probably his greatest winning was a Honda 250 motorcycle that he picked up in a contest at Manhattan Beach. He rode the bike for two years (his son, Donny, remembers being given a harumscarum ride on Ingraham Street north of Garnet where it bends a few times before turning into Foothill Boulevard), and then he sold it. Frye has never been interested in possessions or money. "I never wanted to drive a Cadillac," he said, and he never has. Instead he has been content to take the benefits of the pro surfer's life — the surfing trips, the free surfboards -- as payment enough for doing what he wants to do. When asked what he likes most about surfing, he said, "Nothing. I mean there's no one thing in particular. If you really like something you don't look at it that way — like, 'I want this out of it, or I like that.' For me, the whole thing about surfing is just being there.
He stopped entering contests in the early Seventies, by which time the fashion was for surfers to attack the wave on very short boards — to skateboard, really, on the slope of the wave — a style that Frye disliked to compete with. His name began to drop from attention, except on the surfboards that he shaped or designed, as he made the transition from professional surfer to surfer with a profession near the water. Frye's peers during the competitive years, Corky Carroll and Mike Doyle, found careers close to surfing. Carroll sells advertising for Surfing, and Doyle recently opened a sports clothes shop in Encinitas. Frye stayed with shaping because he was good at it and because he wanted nothing else. An experienced shaper averages about twenty dollars per board for about two hours' work; Frye could not only live on hat, but he could maintain a style of life that to him seemed happy for all concerned. His father's house was spacious, as was the yard that sloped southward in wide terraces onto Orten Street and caught sunshine all day long. There was room for a dog, three cats, and a beehive, for avocados and figs in the front yard. There was time in the summer, the day's work done at the shop, to take everyone to the beach. One by one he showed the children how to surf, usually at Dog Beach, the unpatrolled stretch of sand by the mouth of the San Diego River, where animals are permitted to run free.
Then in the winter of 1975, Frye's wife of ten years informed him that she was leaving — that she wanted a clean, immediate break. He would keep the three children, and she would find an apartment by herself. She went back to the restaurant business, and made enough to support herself in the manner in which she wanted to live — which was not the way she'd been living. "Whether...it was the money ... or the lifestyle," said Frye in a slow, even speech, as though listening to himself, "I don't know. She just said that she wanted more out of her life. She wanted something different." She didn't surf, and though she liked living near the beach, she grew less and less to like being on the beach with the sand and the flies.
Marcia Frye, interviewed at Stinger, a cocktail lounge in Pacific Beach that she has managed for the past three years, said she left the children with Skip at first because he had the house, and because he was free in the daytime to look after them. He was very free in the daytime: "You couldn't get him to go to work," she said. "On a sunny day, forget it — he went surfing. He used to say, 'How much money do we need this week to pay the bills?' And that's how much he'd make."
After the break, Frye began to simplify his life, and in the next few years it became more simplifed than he could have imagined. With only one income, he kept the taxes paid on his father's house and looked after the children. The extra hours devoted to them made him increasingly late for work at Gordon & Smith, until he found it easier to bring the work home. He shaped in the garage, doing special orders for surf shops and making individual boards for friends. He took the children to Calvary Chapel in North Park, usually attending services on Sundays and staying for an hour of Afterglow. He said the church meetings gave him strength when he needed it, but in time he found them less and less helpful. "Just sitting there and listening to those people," he said, "you go so far, and then it doesn't work."
He began getting regular orders from the Select Surf Shop in Pacific Beach, working first in his garage, and then in a shed behind the shop on Mission Boulevard. Slightly smaller than a two-car garage, the shed was made of corrugated metal and adobe. It had electricity for the power plane and for a light bulb overhead, and room for storing whatever he needed. He slept in the shed on a couple of occasions and eventually moved in, arranging a bed in one corner. Lauren, the eldest, had married and moved away; Donny had gone to live with a family friend; and Braden had a cottage by the home of a friend for whom she worked part-time as a gardener. Frye found no more need for a car, so he sold it and rode a bike.
For a year and a half he lived and worked in the same small space, in a half block neighborhood that fulfilled all his simple needs. On the corner was Tug's Tavern, next door was Dutch's market, next to that was Pancho's Villa restaurant, through which he had access to the shed until the restaurant closed at two in the morning, and finally the surf shop, less than sixty yards from the beach.
"Hey! I don't want people to think that it was really bad, like living in a shack," said son Donny one afternoon a few weeks ago. He was standing by the shed, where he himself had lived for several months after his father moved out. "I had a TV, a stereo, all the stuff you'd have at home," he said. "Cold shower was the only thing I didn't like, but I got used to that. I think it was a great place for seventy-five bucks a month."
No one has stayed in the shed since Donny moved out to live with his mother and her husband in La Jolla Shores. (Skip and Marcia Frye were divorced last year, enabling her to remarry.) But the space between the shed and the surf shop is still being used as an area for repairing surfboards, which is Donny's specialty.
Donny said he learned some tricks for handling fiberglass and resin by having watched his dad. He looks like his father, well built, with thick and wavy hair and a slight double chin. He started surfing when he was six years old and still considers it his favorite sport, though he doesn't give it much of his time. He hadn't been in the water since February when he'd lost his board against the rocks on the Point, his dad's favorite break. Dinged up, the board was no longer waterproof, and Donny hadn't yet bothered to fix it.
Last year Donny dropped out of Mission Bay High after his sophomore year; his immediate plans are to continue working at the Select Surf Shop as a salesman and repairman, and someday to own a small house with enough land around it to have many dogs. When asked to recall the houses he has lived in on Thomas Street, he said, "God! I had a dream about that last night. It was so real: I dreamed I was talking to Mrs. Grunion. She was our neighbor, and her husband was senile and used to go up and down the street not knowing where he was. And I was in their kitchen, talking to Mrs. Grunion -- God, what a name, Mrs. Grunion — and she was saying, "If you see Mr. Grunion anyplace, please tell him to come on back, it's dinnertime,' or something like that."
One Sunday afternoon in December of 1981, Frye wandered into Pancho's Villa to get away from the surfers who were drinking in the alley next to his shed, and found the person who led him out of his wilderness. At the end of the restaurant's bar was Donna Sarvis, a Cher-thin blond in her thirties who knew of Frye from the days when she and her high school girlfriend had come to the beach to meet guys. She was in the bar to get away from her bad marriage and had chosen this bar in particular because it didn't serve hard liquor. A football game was on the tube; she bet him on the winner, and after a few beers and an hour's conversation, invited him to watch the Chargers and the Steelers at her place, Monday night.
She was staying at Surf & Sand Motel, across the alley from the shed, having left her husband in Sacramento. With money that she'd won in a forensics scholarship competition, she was getting a divorce and was about to rent an apartment in Pacific Beach. She and Frye liked each other and continued to date in the following weeks. He helped her move to her new apartment, and a short time after that she invited him to move in. He accepted: the apartment was more comfortable than the shed, for one thing, and for another, it was on Thomas Street.
The simplified life that Frye had been leading grew quickly more complicated, but he was a match for it. Sarvis was trying to quit drinking. "Skip was wonderful," she said. "I'd get drunk and tell him to leave me alone, that this was just a trial period for me, that I probably couldn't do it, and every time he'd stick with me. He didn't try to tell me what to do. He never raised a hand to me. He just really, really cared about me, which is just what you need when you're ready to quit."
They had some skirmishes; she locked him out of the apartment when she felt he was spending too much time at the beach or at the shop, which hardly met her needs; but she admitted that the real problem was that Christmas was coming up and she thought she'd never get through it without a drink. That was more than a year ago. Two full years have gone now since she quit.
Frye went back to Gordon & Smith in November, 1981, and since has taken up fishing as a secondary pastime. He jams a pole down the back of his wetsuit and paddles out on one of his old surfboards, to which he's nailed a tackle basket, and casts his line at a place on the shore side of the kelp bed that grows off the Point. Using a soft plastic jig called a scampi, he caught a six-pound bass last year. Many of his friends are fisherman, or part-time surfers who fish for a living, and he talks with them often about the catch and weather.
The weather, in fact, is his third pastime. From the measurements he used to take as a kid, he developed the habit of keeping a weather log, a kind of diary in which he recorded his days at the beach, and in the past few years has been watching the weather with a fisherman's interest. He rises by 6:45 to watch A.M. Weather on Channel 15, which gives information on jet stream velocities over the continent, and he tries to be home by 5:30 to watch Dr. George Fishbeck's report on Channel 7 from Los Angeles. He likes Fishbeck because he gives more technical information, such as barometric readings, and because he uses more satellite photos than the local weathercasters do. At night, best of all, he might talk with a lobsterman friend on the chances of a storm coming up, and on whether the pots should be moved toward the short or farther out to sea. He says that as a forecaster he's not always right; he's always willing.
Windsurfing's probably going to be the next really big thing for this shop," he said at the Gordon & Smith factory. He had finished the blank he was working on and had signed his name and stenciled his twin-wing long on the underside, and was now standing by a stall where another shaper, Bruce, was finishing a windsurfing board with sandpaper and listening to the Padres game. They talked for a minute about the business aspects of windsurfing, and then got into the sport.
"You ought to see this picture," said Bruce, suddenly full of enthusiasm and sounding like Frye when he gets going. "Unbelievable. It shows this guy riding across the top of this perfect wave, and leaning backwards with nothing underneath him — just flying, airborne, screaming over the top."
Frye said he would probably go over sometime and check it out, then left to look in on some other parts of the factory. In the room where the windsurfing blanks were kept, a visitor asked Frye if he had ever been interested in trying the new sport.
He smiled and looked around at the unfinished boards. "Naw," he said. "I'd probably like it. And I've got too many other things to do right now. I’ve got my surfing, my fishing. I got to do things to keep this relationship going. If I tried it just once, I'd probably get stoked, and then I'd be in trouble. I'm too busy as it is."