Joe Surf: H.B.'s old surfer and the sea

Bob "Lefty" Phillips may or may not be the oldest surfer in Huntington Beach, but according to his granddaughter Ashlee Spuhler, the title is his.

At least until someone proves otherwise.

Phillips turned 83 this week, and also got out in the water on his 10-foot Becker surfboard, part of a routine that has him out there two or three times a week, depending on the weather and conditions. It keeps him busy and active in his retirement, even though it's only been six months since he retired as an insurance inspector.

"I enjoy the exercise more than anything else," Phillips said. "And of course, it's fun to do, and you make friends with the guys you see at the beach all the time. It's just a fun sport to keep doing as long as you can."

When he isn't surfing, Phillips loves to paint, a self-taught oil-on-canvas artist whose surf-style work can be seen – and purchased – at or on eBay.

Phillips has settled into an idyllic existence near the shore, living in Huntington Beach near the Sunset Beach border, a short walk to his home break at Bolsa Chica, and an even shorter walk to one of his favorite restaurants, Captain Jack's, which was founded by legendary surfer Jack Haley.

"We weren't really friends," Phillips said of Haley, "but we talked about surfing when we'd run into each other once in a while."

Indeed, Phillips has come full circle, growing up during World War II and moving around a bit, but living mostly in Long Beach where he went to Wilson High School. He started surfing at age 20 in 1949, but stopped surfing about a year later when he was drafted into the army.

Phillips fought in the Korean War in 1951, saw combat ("more than I wanted to"), earned a Purple Heart, and after completing his military service, eventually landed in Huntington Beach in 1962.

But while the Huntington surf scene was blowing up in the 1960s, Phillips didn't pick up a surfboard. In fact, it would be about 30 years before he surfed again.

Instead, Phillips found another passion he could pursue in the ocean.

"During that period I was into racing sailboats," said Phillips, who raced out of the Seal Beach Yacht Club. "We had three different sailboats over the years and raced them, cruised Catalina and the local islands, up and down the coast."

He had fun, but eventually Phillips came to the conclusion it was a lot less expensive to surf than to race sailboats.

"They had become so pricey because of the moorings and maintenance and so on," Phillips said. "But I still loved the ocean so I thought why not get back into surfing? So I started up again."

That was in 1980 after he had turned 50, so it wasn't that easy to get a feel for it again. "It took a while," Phillips said.

But he stuck with it, and now he's been surfing regularly for the past 30-plus years. If he's not at Bolsa Chica, he might go down to Seal Beach, staying away from any big surf.

"I'm not going to do any big wave riding at my age," he said. "Those surfers today, they're incredible. I don't know how they do what they do. It's amazing the kind of surfing they do. And then there are the big wave riders. I don't know how they get up the courage to ride some of those monsters."

For Phillips, there is one thing that he loves more than surfing and his painting: his family. He's been married to Joyce Phillips for 61 years, and together they have three children, five grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

"There's about 10 of that group that surf," Phillips said.

Joyce, however, won't join Phillips out in the water.

"She used to be the queen of the beach, but she hardly ever goes anymore," Phillips said. "I can't get her down there."

Joyce, though, doesn't need to go watch Phillips to be impressed, even after all these years.

"Oh my gosh, I think he's amazing," Joyce said. "I think he's from another planet. For someone his age to be in such great physical condition … even to be alive! He's pretty amazing, and besides that he's just a wonderful person too — to be married to me all this time.

"We've had a great marriage, a great family; we're pretty blessed."

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