Jun 13, 2018
Vintage Bowls Photo Exhibit
Photos by David Darling
Decades ago, when there was a clear delineation between Honolulu's bustling, urban cityscape and the sleepy, agrarian hamlets of O'ahu's North Shore, surfers dubbed the once far-removed regions Town and Country, respectively.
Hardcore O'ahu surfers lived in Town and made the long, slow drive to Country during the winter months to surf the iconic and challenging waves like Waimea Bay, Pipeline and Sunset. These giant, barreling, and awe-inspiring waves drew the attention of a nascent professional surfing industry and, in turn, the eyes and wonder of surfers across the globe, who saw a handful of dedicated local Pipeline chargers, like Gerry Lopez and Rory Russell, in surf flicks and glossy surf magazine spreads.
Even though O'ahu's North Shore quickly became Mecca for the collective surf world by the 1970s, the real-deal, blue-collar surf scene on O'ahu was forty miles away on the south shore, at an infamous shallow reef break called Ala Moana Bowls. The fast, left-breaking wave offered a nearly year-round proving ground for O'ahu's best surfers, who flocked to the powerful, barreling wave in droves beginning in the 1960s. Over the next three decades, Ala Moana Bowls, and its gritty parking lot, would anchor Hawai'i's progressive surf scene, where surfers would push their limits, changing the way people surfed and the type of surfboards they rode. Surfing magazine witnessed enough footage over the decades to dub Bowls, "the agony and the ecstasy of the South Shore."
In 1952, the City and County of Honolulu dynamite-blasted a channel in the reef to create a new entrance into the Ala Wai Harbor. The deep-water channel skirting the flat, shallow reef created a fast, barreling wave that would grind across the reef, barreling from top to bottom—and Ala Moana Bowls was born. At first, the wave was too fast and steep for cruisey '50s-surfers toting cumbersome eight- to 10-foot longboards that resembled wooden planks. It wasn't until the early 1960s that a handful of hard-charging longboarders were able to manhandle their more refined single-fin tanks into the pitching waves.
By the 1970s—the golden decade of performance surfing at Bowls—surfboard design had changed significantly. Surfboards were shorter, thinner, and more maneuverable. A sweeping curve was shaped into the nose-to-tail outline of the new high-performance boards to help surfers fit onto the curvature of a breaking wave, which kept them from pearling—sinking the nose into the wave face and wiping out. Even the wide, keel fins popular in the 1960s were trimmed down to mimic sleek and sharp fish fins, allowing the surfers to make quick, sharp turns by redistributing their weight on the board.
Surfers were shredding, shapers were taking notes, and the surf world was watching. While the Hawai'i state championships were held at Bowls in 1976, it was the countless freesurf sessions that came to define a generation of pioneering professional surfers, and solidify Ala Moana Bowls' place in surfing history. Hawai'i surfers Larry Bertlemann, Ben Aipa, and Gerry Lopez stood out from the masses of surfers that swarmed to the grinding reef break. They were able to harness the waves' energy and put themselves right inside the gaping barrels at Big Bowl, the section of the wave that breaks into the channel. They were also able to bring a new, progressive bottom-turn to top-turn element to the sport, something that evolved in direct relation to surfboard designs that freed up the surfers to express themselves on the wave face with critical maneuvers in the most dangerous and powerful parts of the wave.
A new crop of local surfers continued to evolve the sport of surfing at Bowls into the 1980s. Buttons Kaluhiokalani, Mark Liddell, and Dane Kealoha kept the tradition of progressive surfing and board design alive at Bowls, as well as the rough, localized scene in the parking lot. Soon, fluorescent-colored surfboards dotted the lineup and long-lens photographers and videographers lined the rocks along Magic Island, attempting to nail the next surfer magazine cover shot or footage for an upcoming surf movie.
This summer, Ward Village is hosting an Ala Moana Bowls vintage photo exhibit at the IBM Building. Beginning June 28, step back in time and witness the progression of surfboard design, surfing, and O'ahu's surf scene, at the most iconic surf spot on the south shore. As the images transition from black and white to color, you'll be able to feel the progression, the excitement, the danger, and the thrill of these legends of surfing, as they push their limits at the gem of O'ahu's south shore.
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