AN INTERVIEW WITH HENRY HESTER
“The Taxi-Cab Confessions”
In a Taxi Cab, San Diego, SoCal, November 2014
Interview by Ken McKnight
If you surfed or skateboarded in San Diego since the late 60’s then you should know who Henry Hester is. If you didn’t then the following look at him is a fun expose’ on Beach Americana California Style. Hester’s credentials are impressive, including seven times World Champion Slalom Skater, Rusty Team surfer, Windansea Surf Club Junior Member, 70’s 80’s professional surfer on the California Tour, Father and now Mat fiend of the highest caliber.
Hester is the quintessential “been there, done that” lifestyler. He has seen a full generation and a half of California surfers like few others. Growing up around the reefs and streets of La Jolla, Henry literally cut his teeth at the fickle breaks of La Jolla sharing the lineup with the likes of Reed Mayne, Tim Lynch, Pat Ahern, Tom Scripps, Paul Newman, George Taylor, Steve Ely and Tom Carroll.
It is here that local knowledge rules and Hester knows the reefs and crowds like few others and he is respected for it.
Around the same time as this surf career was progressing Henry found a parallel universe in super high performance skateboarding. He prowled the back streets, steep hills and alleys of La Jolla and Pacific Beach honing his skills like few others. And he got good at it and real fast.
These new generations of 70’s skate dogs were always eager to seek out new lineups and Henry was right there to pioneer the infamous and newly constructed asphalt mecca now called, La Costa. He shared the super dangerous hills with such stars as Bob Skoldberg, Bobby Piercy, Tom Ryan, Conrad Myoshi, Chris Yandall, Danny Trailer, Neil Graham and John Hutson. Animals, all of them!
Today, Henry Hester is as stoked as ever on the lifestyle that he has been an intimate part of all these years. And now he is over the top with all things Mats!
He divides his time between his beautiful daughter, Nina, riding and talking mats and driving his taxi cab in one of the most sought after areas of Southern California, the beach communities of San Diego’s North County.
After matting and watching Henry pick-up and progress on the bag of air so splendidly I decided to talk with him on what’s happening, Here and Now. For your reading and dining pleasure here’s a slice of Henry’s pie from inside his metered ride on the street next to Swamis with the “Taxi-Cab Confessions.”
UKMS – Henry, you have jumped into the mat world with both feet. You must like riding mats a lot!
Henry - You know, I’ve been into mats from the early Greenough years. We followed the Aussies pretty closely in the late 60’s as the v-bottoms were coming through and mat riding was on the peripheral of that scene. From my recollections, Carl Ekstrom and I made the first v-bottom (8’11”) ever in San Diego. We didn’t know, at the time if it got a fin or not! Later, I bought and rode a canvas mat at Rincon de Baja in 1970 for a Windansea Surf Club trip. Fun high tide rock rides on that thing!
UKMS – Why do you ride a mat, what do you get out of it? You’ve been surfing for over 50 years, what drives you to ride a mat over other watercraft?
Henry - I’ve surfed since 1959, you do the math… I re-looked into mats a few years ago as I had a bad right hip, couldn’t pop up and knew they were happening. Mark Thomson, the ultimate mat salesman, got me jacked with his chat and video at the Boardroom Show in Del Mar. I ran back to the car and got the cash to buy a Krypt on the spot, just as the show closed. I brought over three more guys to get mats that afternoon.
When I got that mat feeling, and you know it did come slowly for me, but I knew it (mat riding fun) was there. I’d talked to you and to people that were true believers and I bought into it and the feeling of gliding across the wave, or “being the wave,” the Zen talk you know.
It’s not like I really am but it’s true, you really get the Zen feeling of “being the wave.” Being inside that wave, doing the Dolphin/porpoise thing, doing the Pelican thing. None of that has ever been part of my M.O. when it came to surfing. I’m the wrong guy to be a mat rider. I was always a rip, shred, slash guy (laughs).
UKMS – But here you are taking to it like a duck to water or a pig in shit! (Laughs)
Henry - I like pig in shit.
UKMS – How has mat surfing changed your ocean life or has it?
Henry - Nothing has really changed. I still surf Swamis however I’m a little more surf stoked these days. I find myself pushing some limits that passed me up 20 years ago like shallow type reef breaks and spots I might not consider riding standing up.
UKMS – Do you want big ass chewing waves as your medium, or are you the Zen’d out, like Mickey Dora once said, “I’m a four foot and under guy?
Henry - Surfing, I’m a four foot and under guy. Mat riding I like a six foot face.
UKMS – When did you turn to the Mat-side?
Henry - 2012?
UKMS – You really have become dedicated to mat surfing. So when you went to the Boardroom Show and originally talked to Mark Thomson, what did he say to you to get you so excited about trying it?
Henry - Well, it wasn’t what he said so much as it was that video he had. He has the “Go-To” video when it comes to mat riding. That “Turbo Time” is the end all video, the definitive video of how mats can look really good. If I feel like I haven’t had a few waves in a while, I’ll re-watch it over and over again.
Mark is a good salesman and he was able to articulate what’s going on with mat riding and how to grip it.
UKMS – How hard was it for you to ride a mat initially? Did you get the “Magic” right out of the gate? How was your learning curve?
Henry - I had a hard time. I’m a pretty good short boarder and tear it up standing. I’ve ridden fish boards for 30 years and pretty much run down the line, no wrap around cutbacks but lip bashes here and there. Down the line mostly… on a board. So, I had a lot to unlearn. I’m not the Ocean Zen guy in this room. The “let it go” mat feeling came hard for me. Another thing was the Krypt. I gave it a good try but just couldn’t get it right. I had real problems with my initial foot break in, callous-wise. Changing fins, experimenting with long dive fins, UDTs, Duckfeet. Everything took a toll on the pads of my feet and finally dry-docked me in my first months. This and an abnormally flat period in my first mat year. All reasons to give up. No 3rd gear speeds in the first 5 months, No barrels. Lots of foot anguish and not much fun really. Sorry if it sounds negative but so true. That fall sucked. However, that damn Lennox Head video kept haunting me. I knew there was something to this. So… Did I get it right away, Hell no! I’m a textbook case of the good surfer having to struggle to unlearn everything.
UKMS – You have some serious history with the surf world, Mr. Hester. Tell us a bit about where you grew up and learned to surf. And then your competitive career. I believe you were a Rusty guy? Didn’t you surf a few Pro contests?
Henry - I came up at La Jolla Shores, when it was a legit surf spot. In the past 15 years the sand has changed and it’s turned into a 1-2’ longboard heaven. I started on a 9’1” balsa board and moved to Ekstroms in Junior High, as we all did at the shores. I got into Windansea Surf Club in 11th grade and made Junior President in 1970. In the garage years, George Taylor and I would go to our local Mitch’s Surf Shop, buy board materials for $26.00 and be surfing in two days. Experimentation was rampant in the 70s.
My high school bud, Rusty Priesendorfer, started shaping and I was getting good enough to require his pro shaped boards. At that point, I started my skate career. I did two years on the California Pro Surf Tour (the Stubbies/Trestles era) and placed top ten every meet. Couldn’t beat those Wave Tools kids from Newport (somebody with a funny name like Kwock (as in Danny and his friends).
UKMS – Tell me about your skateboard background. You are multi-World Champion in Slalom. What years? Do you still skate?
Henry - I’ve always been a street skater, cruiser guy. Again, George Taylor and I set up soda cans on my street and used them for slalom. As the second 1970s wave of skateboarding hit (the “Golden Era” to some) I found La Costa and the endless black asphalt hills. We raced slalom every weekend. It turned into a pro slalom race thing and I did well. Seven World Titles, G&S and Santa Cruz board models, wheel models and travel throughout the USA making $1,500 a month! This was 1975-79. I became a promoter of pool events under the name Hester Series in the late 70’s. That series predated Frank Hawk’s “Gold Cup” and eventually the X-Games.
I also won a downhill event in what we called Skatecars, 59mph, Guinness World Record. [Ed: Prone and going faster than everyone else? No wonder Henry became a mat surfer!] My most recent slalom event was in Texas called the Texas Sizzler in which I placed 8th at 59 years old in 2010. These days I really can’t skate with a well-deserved hip replacement coming up.
UKMS – Do you surf on anything else currently? Regular surfboards, Kneeboards, Standup Paddle boards?
Henry - No. I just mat surf. When I get back to a healthy hip, I may take up boarding again, possibly not. I’m not sure. I could easily go on a world class trip and only take mats.
UKMS – What is this thing with the air valve on the bottom of the mat that you came up with, I think it’s called a “Hestered Valve?” Seems a few folks are up in arms about it, me being one!
Henry - Well they aren’t up in arms, yet (laughs). Graeme [Webster] came up with the name. I actually came up with the idea of it thru Paul Gross. I asked him to put the valve on the bottom of the mat instead of the top. That way, the valve, wouldn’t rear back and hit me in the teeth. The valves, especially the metal ones, are nasty when they hit you. For me it’s much better, I just don’t want to get banged on my chin or teeth by that thing, especially when you’re running a 180 degree fold on the mat.
It’s so soft and if you’re coming up to bang off the white water or an off the lip (rare for us), or even paddling out, and your hands slip off the mat, the valve can come back and slap you pretty hard. With it on the bottom, well, that doesn’t happen and I can still reach around and unscrew or pull the plug. That way I can gauge and see the bubbles coming out underwater and I know how much air is coming out by the flow of bubbles. It’s pretty cool!
UKMS – Paul made the first one?
Henry - Yeah, he made the original one, an XL. Everyone seems to be worried about drag on the front edge and the thing isn’t even in the water when you’re riding on it.
UKMS – For me it just looks like a hand brake. [Henry smiles at me....]
UKMS – Do you find it difficult to tell others that don’t mat what this bag of air is all about and why it is so much fun?
Henry - I drive a cab in San Diego’s North County. Lots of surf talk goes on. I tell happy drunk people I ride a surf mat, a pool toy, so to speak and they are usually pretty interested but they can’t possibly get it in a 15 minute ride. No, people are interested and into it. I made up 2500 mat business cards with websites on where to buy and learn about mats. I’d love to give em’ all away. But yes, it’s almost impossible to explain the speed. The feeling you get on a mat. It’s difficult to articulate.
UKMS – I find a lot of people saying things like, “Oh, I use to that when I was a kid.
Henry - Yeah! I get the same thing or, “What is that?” When I first started surfing I got that vibe but since hanging at Swamis with Dave and you and Peter it isn’t new any longer for the local surfers and it seems to be accepted.
UKMS – You have been trying a lot of mats the last two years. My personal G-Mats (a Glider and a Flying Carpet), and all the 4GF's you can try. What are you looking for?
Henry - I’ve been a mat experimentation guy. However, in the past 6 months, I’ve settled on two mats. Both are round tails which I vastly prefer over a squaretail. I ride my G-Mat Glider XR most of the time, maybe 95%. Named “Stinkles” after a beach buddy, it seems to do everything I want. Lightweight holds on super shallow reef breaks and flies on flat, lined up waves. It’s the best G-Mat I’ve ridden.
I also have a semi-custom 4GF Extra Large Round tail. Paul [Gross] added 1.5” to a stock XLG as he has done for other larger round tail nuts. It is a powerhouse that truly gets past sections and isn’t bothered by side jolts from soup. I sent this mat to the boys in NSW and they gave it a go. The G-Mat likes cleaner water in my opinion.
I just sold a Vespa to a really good Swamis surfer so he could race the line at Baja’s Scorpion Bay. My daughter Nina has Mary “Surf Sister” Mills, prototype Omni, which I found too small for me. Perfect for her. Dave’s [Dubois] been on a Neumatic loaner from Kendog and loves it. I figured Pete’s [D'Ewart] Neumatic to be the best mat I had ridden until Stinkles showed up. The Neumatic was a soft flowing but rapid ride. Everything in one.
UKMS – Graeme Webster has a project with a 200/70 denier G-Mat called Phileas, which he has sent around the world for various riders to have a go on. Does this interest you? Have you heard about it?
Henry - Of course! Everybody has heard of Phileas. (Enter Kendog jab here: Everybody on the internet that is.) Looks like a great mat. I like the white on white look. I’ll get a few waves when it comes around but to be honest, I’m happy with what I have right now. It’s a cool project to get multiple feedbacks on one mat in waves all over the world.
UKMS – So what constitutes a Good mat versus a Great mat?
Henry - Good question (Henry pauses to think looks out the window waving off a potential customer to the taxi)! A good mat is one that is going to carry forward and not skip or slide out on a bottom turn. (Still looking out the window) A good mat won’t do bad things! And bad things are the skipping out, coming to a sudden stop too early on a wave, where you come out to the flat part of a wave and the mat comes to a dead stop. That can happen on a good mat. I don’t know why, but it happens.
A good mat will be fairly fast…”
A great mat will be lightweight, highly flexible, but still have an inner stiffness quality to it. So it is bendable, yet still has a feeling of solidity to it that you can get on it and ride fast, and it won't
skip out ever. There are things that mats from all the manufacturers do that don't work on some mats. For me, I have wide shoulders and I personally think wider mats go faster.
UKMS – Have you seen any mats that you haven’t tried but want to?
Henry - Yeah, every Neumatic ever made. Neumatics are the gold bar of all mats. I rode one for only a few waves and loved it right away. And you really can’t tell much about a mat till you have ridden it for a couple days in my opinion. It takes a while to get the feeling of a mat, to sort it out. As I get better at riding mats I’m able to sort them out much faster then I use to. When I rode the Neumatic it was smooth, it was quiet, and it was fast right away. It was like driving a Honda Accord, where you get behind the wheel and you don’t really feel the car. I got on it and it hauled ass on the first wave. And therein lies the problem, as I like mats, or even surfboards to give me a little bit of a challenge. The Neumatic was just too easy!
UKMS – Do you feel you have reached the apex or peak of your learning curve of riding a mat?
Henry - I feel I’m pretty far along, maybe 80%. I may not be that good at really big surf but I feel I’m a competent mat surfer. It’s easier to get better now on mats now as the equipment if far and away better than in years past!
UKMS – Can you noticeably feel the difference of mat designs, outlines, widths, pontoon placement, etc?
Henry - Probably to within a quarter of an inch. Half an inch is absolutely noticeable to me.
UKMS – Do you lose your mat much?
Henry - Good question for Dave (the movie guy who just lost a 4GF in large surf in Indo). For me? No. I lost Stinkles over a hectic rock point in PB last summer and retrieval was super tough, especially with the 8-10 local toads watching. Once I got my mat I hobbled over to them and they were totally impressed with my speed runs. One guy even said he had a 4GF! Who knew? But there have been a few times I should have let go and yet held on with one hand. Rag dolled holding on like a scared little schoolboy! No, I hold on. My fingers now have a little arthritis from gripping so hard.
UKMS – What is normal and comfortable to you in regards to inflations and how often do you adjust?
Henry - Any mat rider who’s ridden awhile will end up at a 180 fold. If I’m at a super heavy reef, something with a heavy bottom turn I may blow up 120 degrees but it doesn’t last long. I find I can’t maintain a higher inflation and usually ride a 180 hard to soft if you know what I mean. It’s a super fine line. Maybe one light breathe if I’m too soft. This doesn’t mean I’m not grabbing the mat corner bigtime on a heavy pocket turn though.
UKMS – What fins are you using currently and why?
Henry - I use black UDTs. I’d prefer the softer brown/green ones but the difference is not enough to throw down $70US. I bought some ancient all brown gummy bear UDTs and they were the best ever but one tore on the beach. Note to self: Always use 2-3 fingers when pulling on straps.
UKMS – Have you tried a lot of different fins?
Henry - I’ve tried the big stuff. Dive fins. Etc. Some worked some didn’t but after a period of insane blisters, I gave up on fin experimentation. I tried Da Fins on a water swap with Dave and found them useless as water poured off the strakes. No forward push IMHO. Recently I found some older Duckfeet Customs on EBay and intend to give them a go.
UKMS – Do you think lighter is better on mats?
Henry - It depends on where you're riding, the spot. I mean if you are surfing a place like Big Rock, where you’re riding across 8 inches of water, above the reef, you can’t afford to have the mat fold up on you at the bottom of the wave. So you’ll need a heavier mat. Maybe a canvas top mat might be better. Or if you’re in Indo with big wind and massive reefs you will really need something definitive to keep you alive.
UKMS – So you don’t necessarily need the thinnest, lightest, narrowest mat to get the feeling out of it. And that leads me to this question, how do you approach and define speed in mats?
Henry - I feel the same way about surfboards as I do mats. Short and wide equals’ faster, long and narrow equals slower. When you want to get speed, which is, sometimes, not there on a wave, you are going to need a wider mat. In my opinion speed comes with width.
UKMS – Aren’t you an active member on line with “In Greenough We Trust.” What is that about?
Henry – I’m Pretty active online. Not so much as the NSW Aussies but I get my posts in there. If I find something cool for sale or an interesting tid-bit I’ll throw it up there. It’s a great place to direct interested people. I’ve turned numerous people on to our “secret” FB group, Mara Cranic-Laws, PJ Johnson, Dickie Lund, Peter St Pierre, Dave [Dubois], Mikey Morra and a host of others. All have bought either new or used 4GF mats and most get out there regularly. There are another 30 friends of mine who lurk in the mat corners.
UKMS – Have you hit the 4th Gear much?
Henry - Oh yeah! I’ve hit 4th Gear at a place we surf near Swamis called “Boneyards.” That left at Boneyards is so fast well; you’re going to scare yourself. And not only are you going to scare yourself but your scaring others in the water cause you’re coming at them so fast.
I’ve also hit 4th Gear at Big Rock and some of the bigger beach breaks we surf.
UKMS – Do “You” go to 4th Gear, or does the wave do it?
Henry - The wave, if it’s good and hollow. When you get going real fast you’re skidding and go a little sideways. You’re holding on for all you’ve got. In 3rd Gear, your feeling all cool and maintaining your posture, but 4th Gear well, you’re pretty much hanging on for dear life. Both legs are up out of the water and you don’t have that kite-tail thing behind you. It’s a bit sketchier, but that’s the fun of it, just being a little out of control.
UKMS - So is the mat alive and controlling you at top end speeds?
Henry - You can direct it and do bottom turns, but (in 4th Gear) it is like a rider on an inner tube going down a snowfield without style. All that goodness and style, goes out the window when you hit 4th Gear. That is how much I value 4th Gear speed.
UKMS – What do you think of this new era in mats and riders, say in the last ten years?
Henry - I’ve only ridden about three years. Since then I’ve seen very little in new riders. I see interest but no commitment. I truly believe you have to be a well-seasoned speedster or fish savvy type surfer to even understand what we’re doing. Most people would never get it. We have a few kids learning to surf at Swamis and they have fun on our mats, long rides, no fins and a decent glide every once in a while. I’m going to get a mini mat someday. Just for kids.
UKMS – Do you care that others might be interested in you, your opinions and how you ride and relate to mats?
Henry - Yeah, I’m kind of a social guy. Look, originally I wanted to turn the whole world onto mat riding. I probably sold 15-20 mats for 4th Gear Flyer (that Paul probably doesn’t know I turned people onto). I have been the Pied Piper around here in San Diego. But it’s like Slalom skateboarding, it (mat surfing) doesn’t look good to a lot of people. But it feels better than it looks!
You’re lying there on a pool toy and all the 4 foot Zen stuff is all in your head, anyway, and you feel it when you ride. You aren’t bashing off the lip and that stuff people are noticing. Most short board surfers look at you as some old guy on this mat thing while they are doing air reverses and crazy stuff on their little boards and they perceive mats as being boring! [Laughs and shakes his head]
UKMS – Current mat buzz?
Henry - G has made some 70 custom mats now and he has this Phileas white mat going around. I had to look up the meaning on google but I’m not going to say it here. Latest buzz? If I can get a Neumatic that would be cool. Graeme’s mats are great and Paul always makes great mats.
UKMS – Are you in contact with other mat riders?
Henry - Not really. On a phone call basis, just Dave [Dubois] and you, Kendog. I know other guys who ride mats here in San Diego County but most surfers around here stick to their home breaks. In the past 6 months, I’ve made an effort to surf La Jolla more and I’m figuring out the reef scene. I know Cher [Pendarvis] and Pendo [Steve Pendarvis] are down south, some guy rides mats at Torrey Pines, a few others here and there but on the whole we are soloists.
UKMS – How has the mat world changed for you over the last few years with the push of Social Networking? Do you find it beneficial or too trendy?
Henry - Beneficial. I like reading about other riders, what they’re doing, riding and fins. I think social media is good, good for me.
UKMS – And if you had a crystal ball what would the Future of mat riding look like?
Henry - Well, I haven’t missed too many times with 20-30 year predictions. Asymmetric, square nose boards, surfboards like wakeboards… I AM a surfing futurist at heart. I’d say wetsuits designed with air bladders for a bodysurfing-matting experience on top and inside the wave. Maybe something like the rocky flying squirrel sky diving suits designed to turn you into the mat, anything to increase the cerebral feeling once we are on to the next level.
UKMS – Anywhere else you really want to ride your mat? If so, why?
Henry - Yes. I love Cabo but my last trip there (on a mat) was a bust. Bad surf, lumpy waves. I got a few ok beach break rides.
I’d love to try my hand in the Mentawai’s, Sumatra or anywhere in Indo. I’d take 5-6 mats. Many duplicates, all big, some canvas tops and lightweights too. I often look at the Indo waves on video and wonder if we, as competent good matters, could actually make those waves like Pine Trees, No-kandui, A Frames, 4 Bobs, John Candy’s, Rifles, Telescopes. You asked!
On a more social level, I’d love to visit the SCUMM boys in NSW Australia, Adam Williams, Eric "Da Bolt" Bridges, Paul Newman, Justin Spittle, Neal Cameron, Phil Harper and the rest. They appear to be having more fun than all of us put together!
All said and done, if I could just sit down to a big greasy meal with Da Bolt, my life would be complete!
UKMS – Henry this has been great. Thanks for taking time out of your working day to talk mats.