Guest Post: Sea water in our veins – by Julian Adler (RIP)

Prominent Cape Town early 1960s surfer and surfboard shaper Julian Adler passed away recently. First published by South African surfing magazine BombSurf in 2008, here is an article he wrote on how John Whitmore introduced him to the sport and influenced his life (kindly republished here with the magazine’s permission).

Sea Water in Our Veins. Surfing on the Brain.

By Julian Adler

When and where did the pursuit of surfing begin? Perhaps it all started with water polo at Zoolake whilst a student at Parktown High, or body surfing at South Pier, Durban? Maybe after bunking pharmacy lectures in the early ‘50s or snorkelling and diving using homemade gear unsafe beyond belief at Millers Point Cape Town in the mid 50’s? A friend recently chirped after looking at a photo of me in full homemade regalia: “The poor fish must have died of fright before the trigger was released”. No buddy diving for me. I ran a Night Pharmacy with days free and hence was out there, stok alleen!

Maybe it was a severe case of water on the brain. I think in the final analysis it boiled down to seeing ‘The Oom’ John Whitmore and his band of followers waxing up those colourful long surfboards on Blaauwberg Beach on a glorious Cape morning circa 1960. Hooked is an understatement!

Julian with his first Whitmore board, which had belonged to The Oom himself. Cover image: Julian and feline friend. All images courtesy Julian Adler.

My first board belonged to the legend himself, a big white number with a black arrow on it. Being slight of build and already aging by surfer standards (aged 30), I used every muscle I could muster to carry the brute. Where better than Muizenberg Corner for a novice to start, decked out in a snazzy pair of ‘skatools’ (where has that great word gone?). Paddling out was a cinch and losing the board way out at sea guaranteed. Being untethered in those days was a given with no ankle strap in existence. More time was spent swimming to shore than catching any waves. Shark sightings below my board occurred on more than one occasion.

Muizenberg Corner set the stage for a particularly sad outing that required paddling out on a perfect, calm day at sunrise to scatter the ashes of our friend and fellow surfer, Graham Howes who puzzled us all being unable to face the difficulties in his young life, left a lovely wife and family behind.

The contact with John Whitmore changed our lives as a family. He was very welcoming in the Venken Lane Surf Shop and was endlessly encouraging when we stopped by to watch him glass up my custom board.

Julian Adler

The contact with John Whitmore changed our lives as a family. He was very welcoming in the Venken Lane Surf Shop and was endlessly encouraging when we stopped by to watch him glass up my custom board. Sadly, it disappeared somewhere on my return to Cape Town after 14 month Jeffreys Bay experience. 

He supplied us with Severson’s Surfer magazines, of which about 16 of those early issues starting at Vol . 3 No. 5 1962 are still in our possession. He also steered us toward the surf spots of Elands Bay, Cape St Francis and Jeffreys Bay, the Xanadu of the then newly discovered surfing kingdoms. This was virgin land roaming with sheep overlooking the world’s undiscovered surfing gems with uncluttered waves ‘a’ calling. The rugged road to St Francis was a nightmare in rainy weather.

Still a ‘kook’ when Bruce Brown hit town, during his groundbreaking round the world filming trip with two California surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August resulting in the making of possibly the first world class Surfing documentary. I had a brief moment of glory while catching a wave at Long Beach, struggling to stay with it, arms swinging like a windmill and traveling a fair way before raising a great laugh from the audience as I crashed. My moment of glory immortalised forever in this epic film. 

A photograph taken by Robert Price of this African meeting akin to Stanley’s meeting Livingston. Depicts The Oom John Whitmore meeting at the then named D.F.Malan airport this Surf Film making trio. The all too familiar presence of the South African Police was visible on the tarmac. The kook stage eventually passed and my most memorable wave to date was at Elands Bay! Wow!!! 

Like most Cape Town surfers, Julian was present when John Whitmore met The Endless Summer crew at Cape Town airport in November 1963, as was his young son Anthony, pictured here with Bruce. Image courtesy Robert Price.

Two of my three sons, Anthony and Donovan really got hooked on surfing at the age of 8. At the time I made our first board. A red number with stripes. The dream to make our own boards was realised after we purchased a mould for making our own blanks. Our enterprise was set up in a garage on a vacant plot next door. The boys were then 13 and 14. Gary Lombard, the agent for Walker Foam in S.A. took centre stage in showing us how to do the job. Well, surprise, surprise. We ended up with a blank that looked more like a cello than a blank worthy of shaping. 

The next learning curve: “get the mix right”. Another attempt blew the hinges of the mould with a mess of sticky foam all over the floor. Oh for a video clip of that lot. Boldness, be my friend! We soldiered on, eventually producing good workable blanks. Knowing one’s limitations is key, and the crucial art of shaping was not part of our arsenal. To the rescue came Ant van den Heuvel and Clive Barber, who we paid to shape the blanks. They were maestros in the field. Added our attention to detail in the glassing and finishing which the three of us mastered well. ‘Penguin Planks’ was born.

Our product was so good Rodney Lemkus of Lemkus Sports undertook to take all we could produce. All in all, I guess about 70 were made. If any of your readers would like to sell one we would love to buy one back.

Julian Adler

Our product was so good Rodney Lemkus of Lemkus Sports undertook to take all we could produce. All in all, I guess about 70 were made. If any of your readers would like to sell one we would love to buy one back.

Julian shaped under the Penguin label for a time, making around 70 boards.

The Factory like so many waves came and went lasting about 2 years. I was summoned by their School Master to be told how the boy’s grades had slumped with a serious case of water on the brain. I think the one with water on the brain was me. I sold my house, employed a manager to run my pharmacy , (with disastrous consequences). I bought a cottage in Jeffreys Bay on the main beach in front of the Savoy Hotel. In 1969 transplanted my four children to schools in Eastern Cape. Talk about a Mid Life Crisis!

Ant and Don, my two young surfers were banished from the sea and landlocked in boarding school in Grahamstown. Penguin Planks closed down under this scenario; surely their grades would improve? They certainly were better but when the surf’s up, Kowie would beckon down the road. The boys befriended Michael Wagner, another stokey whose parents had a home there. Checkmate! I was done in. I eventually decided that the lessons learnt in the surf workshop and in the surf were of greater worth than the lessons learned in school. Don’t get me wrong, learning at school and university should not be ignored.

Amazingly, most of the surf gang at the time became movers and shakers in so many fields. Names like Gordon Verhoef, Earl Krause, Robert Price, Mike Brown, Harry Fuchs, the Bokhorst brothers, Derek Jardine, Hubie Roux , the Wetsuit King – Gus Gobel , Helme Tildes, Don Espey, the Grendon family, plus many others too numerous to mention.

We all know the sheer blotting out of everything while totally involved with that great power the WAVE, that all-challenging, all-enveloping power, letting us know who is the MASTER. The WAVE, to whom we thank, give the greatest respect and humbly pay homage… SURF’S UP!

Anthony and Donovan Adler. Image courtesy Julian Adler.

Upon attaining their Matric at Progress College in Cape Town both Anthony and Donovan opted to live and work in Port Elizabeth in order to be close to St Francis and Jeffreys Bay. They have established themselves firmly in those communities. They both eventually realised their dreams of owning property on the canals at St Francis Bay. They still surf when other pursuits take a back burner and have enjoyed several trips to Bali and Indonesia with its great waves and warm water.

As a surfing family we can boast a third generation: Anthony’s son Spencer, two of Donovan’s boys Ryan and Trevor. Finally back to the source, California, where my daughter Cindy Yeoman lives – she has two surfers in the family, Daniel and Gregory.

A final tribute and thanks to my late wife Joyce Adler, nee Poole, a former Natal swimmer and record holder. Without her support and guidance, plus the understanding of my daughter Cindy and third son Gary, whose schooling was disrupted, this journey would not have been possible.

Julian Adler (RIP).

Julian was much loved in the Cape Town surfing community and beyond and will be sorely missed. RIP.

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