Joe Surf: 'Snake' a local surfing legend

I walked into the wrestling room at Huntington Beach High last week and was immediately introduced to him by the Surfside USA Wrestling Club president Jim McLaughlin.

"Joe, I'd like you to meet someone," Jim said. "This is Bruce."

Bruce was going to come in and help out coaching the kids at the club, having been a wrestler himself back in the day. Made sense. Then he handed me his business card.

"Bruce 'Snake' Gabrielson, Wave Trek Surfboards."

Turns out ol' Snake is a bit of a surfing legend as well, but for more than what he did in the water off Huntington back in the 1960s and '70s. If not for Snake, the National Scholastic Surfing Assn. (NSSA) might not exist today.

Snake, 66, was the founder and first surf coach at Huntington Beach High, the first high school in the nation to formally recognize surfing as a varsity sport.

He was the founder of the Orange Coast Surfing League, the first official high school surfing league in the U.S. as recognized by CIF. That league was the foundation for the creation of the NSSA.

He was the first president of the Huntington Beach Surfing Assn., a post he held from 1967-77.

The list of "firsts" attributed to Snake is as long as the 9-foot-1 Steve Walden Magic Model longboard he rides today.

His vision for surfing back then was much grander than simply getting high school programs started. Snake said his mentor was H.B. legend Chuck Linnen, and the two started the surfing program at Long Beach State when they were students there.

After Snake finished school, he started thinking big.

"I had it in my mind to get surfing into the Olympics," Snake said. "And one of the primary building blocks for that is getting it into school competition. So I thought, well, let's get the schools promoting it and eventually it'll work its way in (to the Olympics).

"At the time I was both the president of the Huntington Beach Surfing Assn. and the District 5 Director of the Western Surfing Assn., so it was easy for me to organize everybody and get the high school leagues going."

While the high school programs are thriving now through the NSSA, the Olympic dream has hit a few snags. He said he wrote the actual application for the United States Surfing Federation, which was submitted to the Olympic Committee to make it a sport, but progress has been slow because of the bureaucratic process.

"And they'd have to drop a sport to pick up a sport — that is going to be a killer," Snake said.

Snake has proposed staging the Olympic surfing competition in a quality wave pool, acknowledging that the ever-changing conditions in the ocean and choosing which waves to take would be removed in a wave pool competition.

"Surfing has gotten so big that it wouldn't take away from the traditionalist competitions," he said. "There are so many little pockets, so what? The traditionalists could still do their thing. But I think if you want to get it into the Olympics, you need to fit it in with this format.

"With a wave pool, you say here's a wave and you can judge everybody on the same wave. It takes the part of it out where you have to pick the right wave, but I think that's the way it has to be. There would still be all the best people competing. And it would also allow you to get the land-locked countries to buy in."

Snake began surfing in the early 1960s near the Seal Beach power plant, a popular spot in those days because the water was warmer, a big deal when there were no wetsuits.

He became a regular at the H.B. Pier and also liked the break between 22nd Street and the Cliffs. He was buddies with many of the surfing legends of the day, including guys like Linnen and David Nuuhiwa.

Snake, though, is not in the International Surfing Museum's Hall of Fame. At least not yet.

"What my buddies have told me is it's because I moved away," Snake said. "But I have been nominated and now that I'm back around, who knows, maybe it'll happen."

If he's ever inducted, Snake would have to pack his bags and fly across the country to attend the ceremony. The H.B. local now calls Maryland home part of the time. He moved there in 1981.

Back then he was working as an electrical engineer and was involved with communications security. The job market out here wasn't so great, so he couldn't pass up an opportunity to work in Washington D.C., which was the place to be in his industry.

He has since retired, and now returns to his old stomping grounds in the winter to get away from the East Coast cold. But during the summer, he prefers his East Coast breaks.

"The water is always in the 70s," Snake said. "And you only have to paddle out about one-third of the way compared to what you have to do here. It makes it easier for old guys like me."

He's been a pioneer for surfing on the East Coast as well, active in the Eastern Surfing Assn., which is recognized as the largest amateur surfing association in the world.

Oh, and that nickname? Snake?

"It was the locals around the pier who gave me the nickname," he said. "I don't remember being super aggressive as a pier surfer, although as a H.B. local all of us were somewhat aggressive when we were younger, but I did make the south side my home. I think Greg Duzich first started calling me Snake because of a girlfriend disagreement, but somehow the name really caught on."

"Snake" might not fit so well anymore, especially considering his latest endeavor — ukulele lessons.

"What else are you going to do when you're retired?" he said.

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at

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