Do You Know This Snake? Bruce Gabrielson Interview

Bruce “Snake” Gabrielson makes his home in Maryland, but he’s a long time Huntington Beach local that has left an indelible mark on the surfing world. His circle of surfing friends reads like a who’s who of exceptional and notable characters spanning geographies and generations.

I met Snake, as he is known to his surf buds, through Worldwidesurfers on Yahoo. Over time, I learned that he is a significant personality in surfing, with several accomplishments to his credit. I caught up with Snake to uncover a few of the names and stories that weave his past.

Snake and friend
Snake (on the right) and friend, at the 2006 Longboard Team Challenge in Ocean City, MD

Jeff Schad: You’re an innovator in the surfing world. Tell us about your accomplishments.

Bruce “Snake” Gabrielson: I’ve been active with so many surfing related things since the 60’s that it’s even hard for me to remember most of them. Certainly, being President of Huntington Beach Surfing Association for 10 years, being the first surf coach at Huntington Beach High School, and founding the first high school surfing league were important in the 60’s and 70’s. Back then, I also was the chairman of the USSA’s rules committee that produced the first set of written judging rules. Probably the most significant thing I did in the 80s was getting the Amateur Athletic Union, a member of the US Olympic Committee, to officially recognize surfing as a sport. Their recognition helped surfers and surfing emerge as a mainstream sport in the eyes of the traditional athletic community.

A significant accomplishment in the early 90’s was something many folks don’t know about. While working at the Naval Research Laboratory I created the Internet’s first surfing related web site and online surfing library. Then in the late 90’s, while Chairman of the USSF USOC Recognition Committee, I wrote and submitted the formal application for surfing to become an Olympic Sport. Most recently, because of the increasing popularity of the sport and the huge number of folks taking lessons, I founded the National Surf Schools and Instructors Association, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of instruction in the industry.

JS: Of all of these accomplishments, which are you most proud of? Why?

Snake: I think my direct involvement with organized high school and college surfing, through both the Western Intercollegiate Surfing Council and the Huntington Beach High School District, was most significant to me. When I presented the proposal to the California Interscholastic Federation to make surfing a regular high school sport and they agreed was perhaps my proudest day personally. I went into a meeting of skeptics and came away with a victory. Unfortunately, CIF recognition didn’t last too many years because of legislative issues like title IX, but the impact of school surfing has had lasting effects on the sport all these years.

JS: You’ve seen and experienced revolutionary developments in the surfing world; which were most significant to you? Which were most personal to you; that you were directly a part of?

Snake: This is a tough question. I was there the day David Nuuhiwa rode the first Blackball board at the HB Pier, and also had a chance to ride the first shortboard in the Orange county area, a reshaped longboard at the Frog House in Newport Beach. The shortboard was obviously revolutionary. I think another significant improvement was the multifin approaches like the Twinzer designs. Several folks, including myself, were experimenting with stick on fins, twin fins, and such before the Twinzer was invented for the Fish. This design allowed boards to hold and maneuver much better on steep waves, and probably is the first defining improvement in modern short board surfing.

I moved to Maryland in the early 80’s and wasn’t immersed day to day in surfing innovations. Probably the biggest development and impact to me in more recent years was the resurgence of the longboard. While I didn’t start surfing longboards again until 1997, I feel the modern longboard has enabled many people to continue to enjoy the sport much later in life, something I’m personally very appreciative now.

The one modern innovation I was personally involved with is the Turbo Tunnel fin. I was talking to Bob “the Greek” Bolen one day about a long noseride I had gotten on a larger wave and mentioned how bad my board was shaking. He told me he was working on a prototype that would not only eliminate the shaking, but would also enable me to get rid of my longboard side fins. I received one of the early fins, worked with it for awhile, and became sold on how it impacted my surfing. Finally, the Turbo got into production and I became the East Coast Team Captain.

JS: Describe some of the characters in Huntington Beach, the people that shaped the culture that was and is Huntington Beach as we know it.

Snake: There have always been a lot of surf characters in Huntington, going back into the 20’s and 30’s, long before I was born. The city itself has always been tied to the surf and surfing. The HB Pier was dedicated with a surfer named George Freeth. The first two Huntington Beach surfers were Bud Higgins and Gene Belshe, also Huntington’s first shapers, and among the first West Coast surfers. There was the era of Blackie August, Robert’s dad, and then Chuck Linnen, one of the 50s and 60s surfing greats. Chuck was my mentor and is still my close friend. These individuals helped shape the culture and character of the city during the early years and the Golden Age of Surfing.

When I started surfing in 1960, the transition had started from the Golden Age to the second generation. We didn’t have big crowds and the boards were still heavy, but you could feel the soul of the sport when you were surfing with your friends. Since we didn’t have wetsuits, I remember spending hours with friends warming up around a fire, running out to catch a few waves before you froze, and then coming back in to warm up again before heading out for another couple of waves. You form close bonds with the surf buds you spend that much time with, and I think that small, close-knit surfing society in Huntington probably set the stage for the culture that exists there to this day.

The HB Pier is considered by most of the surfing world as the Mecca of modern surfing culture. Today, regardless of what you hear, Huntington Beach is truly Surf City. There are so many surfers embedded in all aspects of the local society and economy that the surf culture is the mainstream of the city. Stop by the International Surfing Museum sometime when you are in the area and spend a few minutes visiting. You will be amazed at the surfing notables who might walk in off the street to socialize. As another example, I went to an event at Huntington Beach High School last summer and was impressed at how many world champion and ex-professional surfers showed up.

The characters still exist, still impact the local culture, but there are many around now, and they tend to get lost in the numbers. Interestingly, except for a few of us, most of the original surf crew still walking are still in the area.

JS: You maintain your enthusiasm for surfing to this day, and I presume you always will. What’s your philosophy behind leading the surfing life and never losing that stoke, even when life takes some of that focus away from surfing and the ocean?

Snake: I’m probably a bit different then most folks. I live in a demanding professional and scientific environment that requires me to stay focused on technology most of the time. Surfing and getting back to my roots has been my primary way of keeping my feet in the relaxing world. I really enjoy having a good time surfing and socializing with my surf buds. Now that I’m getting to an age where surfing isn’t so easy, I find that although my body has changed, my “laid-back” way of thinking and the stoke I feel is still there. I guess the best advice I could give is even if distance, finances, physical handicaps, or family issues keep you from the ocean, don’t let your mind stray too far or you really will get old.

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