The vertigo is now upon me, having just pulled focus from the beer-scented louche magnificence of Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy to the hardcore surf jockism of Fred Hemmings. But that’s what we surf history professionals train for. Stick and move. Stories come at you from every direction. Be ready. That’s just Surf Historian 101.
I’ve always had mixed feeling about Hemmings, 1968 world champ and founder of professional surfing. I admire how, in the late ’60s, he stayed true to his squareness while everybody else floated off on an exhaled cloud of Acapulco Gold. Hemmings knew what he was about. Never tried to fake it. Fred also had endless drive and ambition; he won the big contests, then quit while he was on top in order to spearhead the development of the world tour. If you love WSL webcasts, if you think surfing benefits from having a world champion crowned each year, tip your hat to Fred.
On the other hand, what a prig. I was reminded of this side of Hemmings last week, when Surfer’s Journal posted a recent interview he did recently with Beach Grit founder Derek Rielly. On full display was Fred’s incurable injured pride (“I was never a darling of surfing”), some unseemly bragging (“I’ll stack my competitive record and performances in surfing against anyone. Anyone”), lots of hard-right politics (disbelief in global warming, a Trump-sneer for “political correctness,” a man-crush on squishy Republican senator Marco Rubio) and, most galling of all, the notion that competition is what makes surfing a “legitimate sport.” Fred’s been repeating that phrase, and that idea, for 50 years. You can take his meaning one of two ways. First, what the rest of us do, the 99.8% of surfers who don’t compete is, by implication, illegitimate. Or it is legitimate, but only by the grace of professional competitive surfing. As Hemmings’ orange-tinted president would say, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.
Last but not least, Fred, in 2017, is still beating up on surfing’s “drug culture.” This is the subject upon which he pivoted, decades ago, from surfer to surfing promotor. In 1969, SURFER Magazine ran a three-part article on promise and pitfalls of surfing for money. Hemmings wrote Part One, called “Professionalism is White!” One of the preconditions for the sport to turn pro, Hemmings noted, was that drugs had to be completely out of the picture. “There will be no room for dope in the ranks of the Professional Surfing,” he wrote, going on to cite (not by name) several top surfers whose lives had been adversely affected by drugs, and who, one assumes, would be disqualified from Hemmings’ new professional surfing circuit. Never mind the merits (or not) of Fred’s anti-drug position. Consider, instead, the hypocrisy. Hemmings’ created the Pipeline Masters in 1971. At the end of the contest, Fred handed over the trophy and a check for $500 to winner Jeff Hakman—one of the unnamed drug users from “Professionalism is White!” Heck, Jeff wasn’t just a drug user, he was a small-time (and not very good) drug smuggler. Prior to the Slater era, by my rough count, about two-thirds of Masters winners were drug users to one degree or another, as were a good many world circuit surfers during Hemmings’ reign as tour chief from 1976 to 1982. In other words, there was plenty of room for dope in the ranks of professional surfing.
I dont know, Fred. You’re a hard man to like. I do anyway, but . . . damn.