This year there have been half a dozen wakes at Windansea, locals say, for guys who bailed before the big four-oh. More than a hundred mourners gathered at the one for Seth Johnson, on a Sunday afternoon last March; most were locals. They came to pay tribute to an outsider who first heard of Windansea from Butch Van Artsdalen when the two met in August of 1969 at a surf contest at Cape Hateras, North Carolina. Although Butch bailed back in '77 when his corroded 38-year-old liver succumbed to years of abuse, Windansea grommies and rats still talk about Butch riding the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. They talk about Seth, too.
"Seth and Butch had the same kind of purity of heart," says Seth's old surfing buddy, Hugh Duckworth, who still wears his hair in a long ponytail even though it's beginning to get gray. "Seth never wanted to be a surfing star. He just wanted to have fun," he explains. "What was remarkable about Seth is that he blended gently into a locals-only beach, without turf fights. He really put an end to the "localism" myth."
There was more to it, of course. People didn't just come to the wake because three or four kegs were keeping cool under the shack. They didn't come just to watch dolphins and pelican gather after Danny Krug, Dick Dutton, and Robin Wood paddled their boards out to the rock off Simmons Point to Seth's favorite fishing spot to scatter his ashes. They came because Seth was one of a kind.
Because red was Seth's favorite color, beach people wore red shirts over their bathing trunks at the wake. It was more than just a wake, of course; it was a festival of Seth, and people were taking photographs. "He would've liked it," whispered his widow Stephanie. "It was a perfect ending for Seth." Since then, at least 20 surfers have claimed Seth as their best friend. He was the ultimate fun hog, they agreed. At 34 he had everything — the six-foot, two-inch stance of a Central Casting hero and the smile of a fairy tale prince. Idolized by men, adored by women and children of all ages, loved by a wife and two daughters, Seth was a master at everything he did. Oh, and he was good with dogs. Even with Buck, his Australian shepherd, who was always eating nuts, bolts, and guitar strings until his teeth ground down to nothing.
Windansea people say Seth became a local legend not due to his surfing skills, not like Van Artsdalen, but from the NOT WHEN THE SURF'S UP sign painted on his van and from its outgrowth, the NOT WHEN license plates, and for what they symbolized to Windandea people. Seth milked the idea. The Branding Iron silkscreening shop in La Jolla screened his NOT WHEN THE SURF'S UP logo on T-shirts and halter tops for him, and he sold them out of his van. When the demand exceeded the supply, these T-shirts and halters were being traded in vans throughout the county. They wound up all over the United States. Before long Seth and his big white van had become a beloved beach institution.
There was nothing remarkable about the van. It was an ordinary bread truck, a 16-foot step van, until Seth put in a skylight, decorated it with posters of the Kinks and a topless female surfer,a chalkboard, and photos of his daughters, his buddies, and his dogs, in addition to a small oil painting of a surfer with a surfboard tucked under his arm standing in a graveyard late at night. The van became a Windansea clubhouse where other fun hogs gravitated. Besides being repository for a vast collection of top-of-the-line work tools which everyone borrowed, the van served as impromptu concert stage; guitars were brought out to celebrate the sunsets. If Seth wasn't surfing, he was playing drums, roller-skating, skateboarding, fishing, or checking the tides — always with a Schlitz longneck in his hand.
His van attracted beach life. Seth created entertainment; he was the catalyst for good times. On balmy nights when Seth and company were drinking in the van, they'd set up the drums and an acoustic guitar and Seth would be drumming a Kinks song and all the kids would be dancing in the parking lot past midnight and every once in a while Seth would punctuate the music by hollering out, "Are we having fun yet?" If you were looking for someone, you'd have to get five or six deep into the van before you'd spot your friend drinking a beer and shooting the breeze and Seth would poke his dark, curly head out and holler, "There's a cold one in here for you." People he'd met only once, surfers he'd met on the East Coast, would come to the Windansea parking lot to look him up. Strangers who'd only heard about his van came over, too. They said they just wanted to shake hands with the NOT WHEN SURF'S UP man.
Red, blue, and yellow were Seth's colors, and they were painted, rainbow style, on everything he owned — including his surfboards and fishing rods. Seth's wife, Stephanie, sewed his colors onto everything that was sewable. She made him a pair of red, yellow, and blue bathing trunks. Soon red, yellow, and blue bathing trunks were bring worn by most everyone at Windansea.
Some of he slogans on his van read "Not a Licensed Contractor" and "Plumb Crazy" and "Kitchen Counters of a Third Kind." He had a Mac Meda Destruction Company sticker and a bunch of E.T. stickers. With its stickers, logos, mascots, and music, the van sounded and smelled like a frat house; the beer orgies looked like surer conventions. A Frank Lloyd Wright book was incongruous next to a plastic globe being held aloft by a two-foot-high plastic statue of a nymph, labeled with the Schlitz beer logo. Seth was an E.T. enthusiast and he was crazy about the Kinks. He collected and played their music and attended their concerts with an expanding troupe of followers. The Kinks line, "Who needs a job when it's sunny?" became Seth's theme.