Kelly, John


Lively and resourceful surfer-activist from Hawaii; inventor of the hot curl surfboard in 1937. Kelly was born (1919) in San Francisco, the son of artists, moved with his family to Honolulu at age four, and began surfing at six on his mother's discarded ironing board. Kelly got his first real surfboard at nine, a seven-foot redwood plank shaped by David Kahanamoku, Duke's brother.

It was Kelly's idea in the summer of 1937 to streamline the tail section of the planks he and his friends were riding in order to give control in bigger surf. Using a small ax and a drawknife, he reshaped a friend'sĀ board by narrowing the tail section and carving the rear planing surface into a rounded hull; the new design was named the "hot curl," and it was the foundation upon which modern big-wave surfing was built. Later in 1937, Kelly and his hot curl buddes became the first modern surfers to ride Makaha, on the West Side of Oahu. More than 25 years later, Kelly designed and marketed a split-bottom board he called the Hydroplane.

Surf and Sea, Kelly's 300-page book covering virtually every aspect of the sport, was published by New York's Barns and Company in 1965; it was later described by The Surfer's Journal as "the most intelligent, well-crafted book ever written on surfing." Kelly also did color commentary for ABC-TV's Wide World of Sports' coverage of the Makaha International contest in the early '60s.

Kelly's nonsurfing life was just as rich, if more complicated and difficult. He received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal during World War II after diving 60 feet to recover an unexploded torpedo; joined the Communist Party during the early years of the Cold War; graduated in 1950 with a B.A. in music from the Julliard School; formed Save Our Surf, one of the first ocean-based environmental groups, in 1961; was a guest lecturer in economic history at the University of Hawaii from 1974 to 1977; and later became a tireless advocate for the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

The 81-year-old Kelly was featured in Surfing for Life, a 2000 PBS-aired documentary about geriatric surfers. The following year Kelly received the first annual Environmental Award from the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.

Kelly died in 2007, at age 88, on the day of his 64th wedding anniversary; he lived in the same house where he'd invented the hot curl, 70 years earlier.