Guest commentary: An afternoon with La Jolla surf legend Woody Ekstrom

Longtime La Jolla surfer Jack "Woody" Ekstrom, 93 (left), meets Colin Friedkin at Captain Keno's restaurant in Encinitas.
(Courtesy of Colin Friedkin)

On a recent afternoon, I made my first successful pilgrimage to Captain Keno’s restaurant since returning from a year of teaching sixth grade in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Captain Keno’s, known more simply as Keno’s, is one of the last remaining unaltered staples of vintage San Diego — a mainstay on North Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas since 1970.

I met with my friend Marcelle for a drink to talk resumé-building, cover letters, etc., as she had recently earned her credential and was eager to place herself in a marketable position.

A few sips into my Elysian Space Dust, a pair of older guys walked in and had a seat next to the Captain himself. I immediately recognized one of them, who sauntered in with the aid of a walker.

“Hi ... I have to ask ... aren’t you Woody Ekstrom?” The man sat beside a black-and-white photograph from the mid-1940s of a young man about to be demolished by a shorebreak wave at Windansea in La Jolla, the likes of which dislocated my own arm three years ago during high tide.

The man was clutching a heavy redwood plank surfboard for dear life. This was the top end of surfboard design at the time. There were no leashes, Jack O’Neill had not yet invented the wetsuit and there was no 100-plus-space parking lot at La Jolla Shores.

The man I spoke to enthusiastically responded, “Yes, in person!” For an old man with a walker to enter any bar may seem rather strange to some, but I would assume that for someone one-third his age to correctly guess his identity, the same level of intrigue might be prompted.

This was Jack “Woody” Ekstrom, 93 years young, a Captain Keno’s regular and surf royalty.

I have spent many hours researching surf history through books, videos and the internet and recognized him in an instant. While I do feel bad for my poor aspiring educator friend who was overshadowed by what I presume could be perceived as a random old guy having a cheap beer in a dive bar, I saw it as a moment of almost biblical proportion: a chance to pick the brain of one of the last surviving members of the original Windansea surf crew and an original La Jollan.

Woody Ekstrom (left) and University of San Diego associate professor Jerome Hall show students images of Windansea in 2017.
Surf legend Jack “Woody” Ekstrom (left) and University of San Diego associate professor Jerome Hall show students images of Windansea during a field trip to La Jolla in 2017.

Through our hour or two of conversation, Woody told me that he first surfed Windansea in 1944 on a solid redwood plank — alone, given that many of his friends had gone off to fight in World War II.

He mentioned constructing the original Windansea palm frond surf shack in 1947 with his buds Don Okey and Fred Kenyon. The shack is now a designated historical landmark. His dear friends have since passed.

The Windansea surf shack was originally built in 1947 by Woody Ekstrom and friends Don Okey and Fred Kenyon.
(Colin Friedkin)

I mentioned Simmons Reef, just down the sand path from Windansea, named after Bob Simmons, who drowned there during a big swell in the 1950s. Woody was there that day and recalled Simmons’ demise in great detail — the empty trunks washing up on shore that afternoon, a board later washing up to be gently set up against the bluffs sans rider, and eventually the body drifting onto shore.

He recalled the Windansea and La Jolla of yesterday, including buying a paddleboard for 25 cents from steamship-fortune heir Phillip Barber, namesake of the Barber Tract of La Jolla.

Woody discussed how things were when he was young: a pristine surf paradise. He told me he has a picture somewhere of cows on the beach in La Jolla Shores, which still maintains its beauty but is a clogged popular destination for beginning surfers, amateur barbecuers and family fun. There are certainly no cows to be seen these days.

Woody surfed for 85 years of his life. When asked if he missed it, he responded: “I surfed for 80 years. What’s there to miss?”

He sipped his beer, deep in thought, posed for a photo and left, still a dude after all these years — unpretentious, yet fully aware of the impact he’s had on so many generations of surfers who
came after him.

Colin Friedkin is a longtime La Jolla Shores resident, an avid surfer and an elementary school teacher.