Joe Surf: A unique side of surfing past

It's not unusual for the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach to host a discussion or a Q&A with someone relevant in the surfing world.

But just this past Wednesday, the museum made a sharp turn away from the usual.

The event attracted many who entered the museum the normal way — through the front door. But there may have been others in attendance who had an other worldly way of getting a good seat.

The museum on Wednesday hosted "Night at the Surfing Museum," a discussion hosted by Ben Hansen, a paranormal investigator and one of the hosts of "Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files," on the Syfy channel.

The idea came about after marketing expert Pat Rogers contacted Brett Barnes, who is chairman of the board at the museum and also managing partner for Duke's restaurant in Huntington Beach.

Rogers is hoping to get Huntington Beach included in the tours and events conducted by Haunted Orange County, but little did she know so much of Huntington's paranormal activity was related to surfing.

In fact, Barnes didn't have to think long before relaying his own personal experience that took place in his restaurant that sits at the foot of the Huntington Beach Pier.

It was Sept. 2, 1998 and Duke's was about to open, so they had all of their employees and all of the company's executives from California and Hawaii in attendance for their first all-employee meeting.

"When you walk in and pass the hostess stand there's a big painting of Duke [Kahanamoku] bodysurfing, which came from a photo of him," Barnes said of the painting that remains in the restaurant today. "The surf was big that day, from the south. It was too big to surf because all that current was going and nobody was in the water.

"We're up front talking to our staff and our CEO looks over and says 'Wow, look at that set.' And every head turned and looked out the window and there was this guy bodysurfing in the same style as that painting of that photo, and nobody really bodysurfs like that. Everybody saw it, and I looked at Billy [Parsons] who was our CEO and I said, 'Did you see that?' Yeah, then we saw the guy kick under the wave and we expected to see him swimming back out. We all stared for 30 seconds or more and never saw the guy again."

Asked if the bodysurfer appeared to be a solid body, Barnes said, "Totally, and in the exact pose that Duke's surfing in that painting. which is a pretty iconic photo from back in the day.

"We all felt he was there saying hi to us and checking in because the timing of it was ridiculous. It was the first day we had people in the building. I was standing right there and witnessed it, it was pretty fun because of our connection to Duke. I lived in Hawaii most of my life, and that was just perfect for our first day."

The original photo from which that painting was created was taken in Hawaii and actually included not only Duke, who was an Olympic swimmer, but fellow Olympian Johnny Weissmuller, who was cropped out of the photo in some replications as well as the painting.

Barnes also has a story related to pro surfer Andy Irons, who died in 2010.

"Andy Irons and his family and I go way back," Barnes said. "And whenever (brother) Bruce [Irons] or him were here on tour they would come in for dinner. He had given us a few boards over the years when he won the U.S. Open and we had them up on the wall. We had two of his boards, actually, and just like art they have spotlights on them.

"We got the word that he died and everybody in the surf world gathered here that night when they heard about it. And we're sitting in the area where the board is, in the bar, and everybody was leaving notes underneath the surfboard.

"And then I opened the restaurant the next morning, I walk in about 8 o'clock and turn on all the lights, and that light is out, and it was working the night before. All the other lights were working except the one single light shining on his board."

Museum executive director Diana Dehm has only been in her position about a year now, but she has found the museum itself to hold a certain energy.

"Weird stuff tends to happen here," Dehm said. "Pictures fall off the wall, or just the other day, we were having a meeting there and just as we were about to leave, all of a sudden a framed quote of Eddie Aikau that's been sitting on an easel ever since I've been there fell off the easel. And the lights go on and off."

Dehm acknowledged the museum's energy could be related to its life before surfing. Dehm said the building has been a bar, an emergency room and a doctor's office in the past.

Natalie Kotch founded the museum in 1987 before she passed away a few years ago, and Dehm wonders if Kotch has something to do with it all.

"I wonder about her energy in there," Dehm said. "I honestly feel like things have turned around for the museum. People are excited about it again and we're having a lot of fun in there. And I think she probably has something to do with it. Everybody is rooting for this museum. We want to do some big things with it, and I think we're right at a turning point.

"There's definitely an energy in there and it's definitely a positive energy."

The museum is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and has big plans. Dehm said they are hoping to put together a gala, and they are scheduling a "top secret" event scheduled for International Surfing Day on June 20.

Coming soon will be an exhibit called "Boards to the Beach," which will highlight the different vehicles and methods surfers have used over the years to transport themselves and their boards to the beach.

Dehm said other plans include "programs for groms, getting the legends involved, surfboard shapers talking and not losing the art of board building with your hands instead of a computer."

The museum has already began its "On the Couch" series, in which museum board member and former surfing world champ PT Townend will conduct interviews in front of an audience.

The first "On the Couch" event held a couple of weeks ago involved actor Gregory Harrison, who starred in the cult classic surf film "North Shore," made in 1987. Rick "Rockin' Fig" Fignetti is expected to join Townend in conducting some of the interviews.

Dehm also is looking to expand the mission of the museum, including people who are involved with solving the challenges with the oceans.

"Our mission has always been to preserve the history and culture of surfing," Dehm said. "And I asked the board if it was OK to extend that to connecting the future of surfing with our favorite surfing playground, our oceans, and our next generation of groms. So we're integrating the past with the future of surfing."

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JOE HAAKENSON is a Huntington Beach-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at joe@juvecreative.com.

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