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sharron weber: the secret surfer

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there came a significant shift in surfing from the stylish noseriding of classic longboarding to the more slashing, vertical turns of the shortboard era. Easily making the transition from longboards to the new, shorter boards, Sharron Weber was one of the stand-out surfers of her era. She won two world championship titles before largely disappearing from view. This is the mostly forgotten story of two-time world surfing champion Sharron Weber. A slightly different version of this story originally ran in The Surfer’s Journal 29.4. I am grateful to Sharron for sharing her story with me in a series of early morning interviews before she headed off to work at The Tire Warehouse in Lihue.

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On a Sunday afternoon in the early fall of 1972, Sharron Weber won her second world title in San Diego, California. Small lefts rolled through the lineup at the Ocean Beach pier, where locals had nailed the broken pieces of David Nuuhiwa’s favorite board. It was some kind of protest, whose significance no one quite remembers. A crowd watched from the beach as Weber ripped her way to victory on her red, Gerry Lopez-shaped Lightning Bolt.

The plain-spoken owner of a tire store in Lihue, Kauai, Weber was one of the most brilliant surfers of her era. But you would never know it. Unless, that is, you were there.

“She was a big part of this very special period in surfing where surfing was finding a new identity,” said Gerry Lopez. “She was one of the avante-garde.”

Raised in Hawaii, Weber evolved into one of surfing’s innovators, pushing the sport in ever more radical directions. As much as her better-known male peers, Weber embodied the shift from the longboard surfing of the 1960s to the dynamic style of the shortboard era.

In her brief contest career, Weber won six Hawaiian state titles, the 1969 U.S. Championship at Huntington Beach, and the world championships in 1970 and 1972. But by the time Margo Oberg won the first women’s professional world title in 1977, Weber was changing tires at her warehouse. Her time in competitive surfing had already ended.

She is one of the pioneers of women’s surfing. “I’m a secret surfer,” Weber said with her characteristic dry humor. “I’m known in your magazines as not being known.” She shined briefly and brightly. Then she disappeared back into her life, leaving only ripples behind.

At age fifteen, Sharron Weber dreamed of winning an Olympic medal in swimming. She was happily living in Riverside, California, filling her days with school and swim practice. That all changed one evening in 1963 when her dad came home from his Air Force job and announced that the family would soon move to Hawaii. Though some California kids might have been ecstatic, Weber cried, because she did not want to leave.

Weber and her family spent their first two months in Hawaii at a hotel owned by the Blears family, which included future world champion Jim Blears and one of Weber’s future competitors Laura Blears. On one of the first weekends after they arrived, the seven Webers walked to St. Augustine’s, the Catholic Church that sits opposite Queen’s.

A surf contest took place that day. Intrigued, Weber went to watch before heading to breakfast with her family. After a few weeks swimming in the hotel pool, Weber noticed that her white-blonde hair had turned green. “They put too much chlorine in the pool,” she said. Influenced by what she had seen at Queen’s that day, she decided she needed a surfboard.

Down by the Outrigger Hotel, Weber found a board for sale. An 8’11” Hobie with reversed stringers, the board belonged to Linda Benson who was selling it before leaving Hawaii. Benson wanted $110, which was a lot for a fifteen year old. “You gotta remember, my dad had five kids,” Weber said. “I had to earn my own money.” She used her savings to buy Benson’s board.

For the next two months, Weber and her brother carried the eight-foot Hobie two blocks from their hotel to Waikiki. “I got to surf first, because I paid,” said Weber. After two months, Weber had the basics figured out.

One year after Weber saw the contest at Queen’s on her way to church, she entered it and won first place. Soon Weber took on the more challenging waves at Ala Moana. She says the local boys never gave her any trouble in the lineup, because her surfing effortlessly established her place. In 1965, she won her first of six Hawaiian State titles at Ala Moana.

Even among the talented surfers of Hawaii, Weber quite simply stood out. Though she learned on Benson’s longboard, Weber transitioned seamlessly as the shortboard revolution began. More manueverable, the new board designs pushed her to reinvent her surfing and she readily rose to the challenge.

“There were a lot of good surfers on longboards who were unable to make the transition to shortboards,” said Lopez. “On the other hand, there were a lot of surfers who were way better on shortboards and that’s how they came into their own — Sharron was one of the forerunners of the whole new period of surfing.”

On 20 September 1969, a solid south swell sent overhead lefts slamming into the Huntington Beach pier just in time for the U.S. Surfing Championship. “Saturday the pier was juiced with precariously treacherous waves approaching ten feet,” reported Surfing Magazine. Morning marine layer gave way to afternoon onshores. Strong currents sent loose boards into the pier pilings with predictably disastrous results.

A few months before the September 1969 contest, Weber had traveled to California to stay with her sister in El Segundo. Each night, Weber drove the 405 freeway to her job at the Eastman Kodak building in Hollywood where she worked in the developing lab. In the morning, she surfed. “I would be driving on those freeways and I would be going to sleep at the steering wheel,” she said. “So I didn’t get my sleep and I only lasted two months at that job.”

By 1969, Weber had won four Hawaiian state championships and finished second to Margo Godfrey (now Oberg) at the 1968 World Championship in Puerto Rico. Though she competed in California in 1968, and won an event in Carlsbad, she still felt like an outsider in the California scene. “I had to start at the bottom at all those surf contests in California, because no one knew who I was,” she said.

At the U.S. Championship, Weber staked her claim in front of an estimated crowd of 50,000 spectators. “It was definitely an eye-opener,” she said. Wearing the helmet required by the rules at Huntington Beach, the diminutive Weber threaded through set waves that towered over her.

Lopez, her friend and frequent travel companion during those years encouraged her to shoot the pier. He argued that it easier than surfing the crowded lineup at Ala Moana, because the pilings did not move. “I went right through the pier, with that helmet and me and the board, and never crashed,” she said. “It was gnarly.”

The women’s final proved a close battle between Weber, then 21, and Godfrey, then 16. Godrey had been nearly unbeatable for the previous two years and largely eclipsed California’s queen of surfing during the longboard era, Joyce Hoffman. But in the 1969 final, Weber outsurfed Godrey to win the U.S. championship title.

An advertisement for Kanvas by Katin from the time depicts Weber in a bright red bikini, tanned, fit, and smiling. Weber stands next to Drew Harrison and Mike Purpus. Appearing in a Katin advertisement confirmed a surfer’s status. Typically the payout was one pair of trunks.

A grandmotherly figure, Nancy Katin loved everything about surfing. Katin plainly hit it off with Weber. “She asked me to move in and take care of her on the boat and run the Katin surf shop,” said Weber. “I would have never had to change tires for 45 years.” But Weber could not stay.

With its snaking freeways and mushy beach breaks, California left Weber cold. Her heart remained in Hawaii and she yearned to return. “I was not going to live in California. Sorry!”

The 1970 World Championship began with a parade through the streets of Lorne, Victoria. The organizers hoped to run the May event at nearby Bells Beach. Wearing a turtleneck sweater and flowered pants, 22-year-old Weber marched beside Rell Sunn, who defied the winter weather in a print sundress and flip flops.

Weber surfed her first heats of the contest at Bells Beach. Mainly, she remembers damaging her board on the cliffs. “I lost my board and it went on the rocks,” she said. “A tourist tried to throw it back to me, and busted the tail.” Instead of attending a luau with the other surfers, Weber spent the evening repairing her board.

Dropping swell delayed the contest’s conclusion and the organizers moved the event to Johanna. Competing the day after the men’s event finished, the women surfed a nearby left at Skeins Creek. “We didn’t even go,” said Lopez. “It was a long car ride.” The banquet celebrating the end of the championship had already taken place. The women’s event felt like an afterthought.

On a board borrowed from Keoni Chapman, Weber won the title ahead of Godfrey. “I was so thrilled,” said Weber in her understated way. She sent her parents, then living in London, a telegram to share the news.

A headline in a local newspaper declared, “Champ Sharon won the title in kitchen.” (The media at the time habitually mispelled Weber’s name.) The story had nothing to say about Weber’s surfing, but detailed her diet of health food and home-made vegetable soup. Surfer dismissed the women’s event in two sentences.

“In the women’s event, Sharon Weber won a close one from Margo Godrey. Otherwise, the women proved a disappointment.”

Winning the world title did not change Weber’s life. Time unrolled in a succession of surf sessions and day jobs. Summer days at Ala Moana faded into winter sessions on the North Shore. Lopez recalls hunting lefts with Weber at Velzyland, Sunset, and Pipeline, and he watched as she drew ever-more radical lines.

“You were watching what she did and trying to emulate it yourself,” said Lopez. “She was one of the people you could really look at, like, ‘oh man, that’s what you can do. That’s what I want to do!’ I looked up to her.”

Sometime after her first world title, Weber gave a surf lesson to a French tourist. That chance-met connection led her to a free condominium in Biarritz at Côte des Basques. By then her parents lived in London, and after visiting them, Weber flew to Biarritz.

Once she saw the lux condo, she scrapped a planned roadtrip in her friends’ VW Bus. Instead for two months, she surfed France’s Atlantic coast from Guéthary to Hossegor. Jeff Hackman and Lopez had come over to France, too, and the trip was a blur of partying, French wine, and surf. “I got a French boyfriend named Pierre, and it was just really nice,” she said.

In April, she received a letter at her parent’s house in London. A few years previously, she had taught the sons of a tire store owner from Phoenix how to surf. Now Harold Friend, “the tire guy,” was opening a store in Honolulu. Would Weber like a job?

For the first week of her new job, Weber watched, bored, as workers moved tires between warehouses and wondered if she had made the right choice. “When my weekend came and I finally went surfing, the guys were like, ‘Where have you been?’” The following Monday, Weber tried to quit the tire store. “They were like, ‘no, trust me! Life will get better!’”

After those first two weeks, the job transformed into a surfer’s dream. The tire store put Weber in charge of a van, and she drove around Oahu selling and delivering tires. “So then, we go deliver at Makaha, and we can surf Makaha. Or we deliver to the North Shore, and we surf the North Shore,” she said. “We could surf wherever there was a wave.”

When the surfers arrived at the Travel Lodge in Harbor Island for the 1972 World Championship, the contest programs remained at the printer. The organization could not afford to pay for them. “It clearly was a debacle,” said 1982 world champion Debbie Beacham, who competed in the event. Though organizer Ray Emery eventually got the programs out of hock, he could not conjure up good surf.

Surfers, meanwhile, ran wild at the Travel Lodge. Elevators got stuck between floors, cannonballs flooded the pool deck, fire alarms clanged at random. “There was even the occasional snow flurry to break up the weather pattern at the hotel,” wrote Drew Kampion for Surfing, in a sly reference to cocaine.

The women surfed their opening rounds in three- to four-foot beach break at La Jolla Shores, a low-quality wave dressed up for the occasion with light off-shore winds. Desperate for swell, the contest hopscotched among La Jolla, Oceanside, and Ocean Beach. Worse still, the surf dropped in San Diego as the final weekend approached, while just up the coast, Trestles taunted with overhead sets.

When the disgruntled surfers arrived at Ocean Beach pier for the finals, small lefts riffled through the lineup. “It was little, ankle-biter waves, compared to the big waves that we were used to in Hawaii,” said Weber. Weber’s parents were on the beach. Friend, the tire man, and his three sons were there, too.

“It was a little hard to be the defending champion and have your parents and the tire man on the beach,” she said.

But Weber did not allow the pressure to get to her. Crushed by her second place in Australia in 1970, Godfrey did not compete in San Diego. Instead Weber faced a solid challenge from newcomer Mary Anne Hayes from Florida and local talent Debbie Melville (now Beacham).

Favored to win, Melville flew through her early rounds, winning all her heats, only to have a shocker in the final. “I lost my board,” Beacham said. “It’s that typical story, I won every single heat until the last heat.” In the pre-leash era, a lost board frequently ended a surfer’s chances and one of Weber’s strengths was that it rarely happened to her.

Characteristically for the time, the women paddled out on an eclectic collection of surfcraft. Beacham rode a 7’4” Skip Frye single fin, while Weber chose to surf a much shorter board. “It was a 5’11” Lightning Bolt made by Gerry Lopez himself,” Weber said.

At the buzzer, Weber won a close victory over Hayes and as the sun set, Blears won ahead of Nuuhiwa. Weber had spent her first days in Hawaii at the Blears family hotel in Honolulu. In those days, Weber had not yet learned how to surf. Now, she had grown up to become a two-time world champion.

As the reigning world champion, Weber received a free plane ticket to the 1974 World Championship set to be held in South Africa. There was one problem. The Apartheid Laws passed in South Africa beginning in the 1950’s barred non-whites from the beaches and other public areas. “Jimmy Blears and Fred Hemings could go, but none of the Hawaiian guys could go,” she said. “So I gave them back the ticket.”

After that, there was not much left for Weber to do. The peak of her career coincided with a lull in competitive surfing. “I was in the world contest in 1972, and then everything went to a flat spell,” said Beacham. “There’s this empty space in the middle.” The culture of surfing soured on contest surfing. “Surfing is not a sport,” declared Nat Young, and it seemed that everyone agreed.

Weber watched one of the first men’s professional contests at Sunset Beach from the beach with Nancy Katin, who owned the Katin brand, and Mike Purpus. “But that wasn’t for me, either,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the girl that surfed with boys, no, no!” Women’s pro surfing remained somewhere out on the distant horizon.

Instead Weber turned her energies in a different direction. In August 1974, Weber bought a $25 ticket to Kauai. A month later, she opened her own tire store in a warehouse in Lihue.

Friend, her long-time boss, counseled against it, whether out of self-interest or real concern, it’s impossible to say. Congress had just impeached President Richard Nixon, and the economy looked uncertain. Determined, Weber opened Tire Warehouse in September 1974.

The following year, Weber competed in one of the first professional women’s contests at Haleiwa. “For me to be five days in Oahu instead of here in Kauai, that was not happening,” she said. Selling tires paid the bills. Surfing did not.

A women’s event at Pipeline might have changed Weber’s mind. “When I paddled out at Pipeline, I wasn’t the best, but I was decent,” she said. Weber quit surfing Pipeline after a traveling surfer died there. She was on the beach and participated in the rescue. The experience left her shaken. A contest might have changed her mind — both about Pipeline and about continuing to compete.

“If they had a Pipeline for girls in the next year after Haleiwa, I would have done it,” she said. “But they didn’t.”

By 1977, when she could have competed for a professional world title, Weber had moved on. She continued to surf in Kauai and occasionally teach surf lessons. A few times, Weber traveled with friends to Nomatu in Fiji. Mostly, she sold tires. 

Weber is a transitional — and transformative — figure in women’s surfing. Hoffman’s stylish longboarding slid into the rearview as Weber and a younger generation embraced the futuristic, shorter boards and the aggressive turns that went with them. Weber’s innovative style helped open a new era for women’s surfing. “She was ahead of her time,” says Lopez. Oberg and Lynne Boyer soon picked up the standard and dominated the first decade of women’s professional surfing.

Now 72, Weber lives in Lihue with her golden retriever Hoku. “Once I moved here, that was it,” she says. “This is where I’m going to die, too.”  Though she never married, Weber had three long-term relationships. The last spanned ten years and nearly reached the altar. The sticking point came when her would-be husband would not sign a prenuptial agreement. Weber wanted to ensure that she retained ownership of her business. “He went to New Zealand,” she says. “And I got a dog.” 

Every day except Sunday, she goes to work at the tire store. The red Lightning Bolt board that Weber rode to victory at the 1972 world championship rests in the rafters of her garage.

“She was good, you know?” says Lopez. He chuckles. “Yeah — Sharron was good.”

One Comment
  1. Ruth See #

    Good story ….

    >

    9 October 2021

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