Photos by George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin

Mark Fragale, an avid surf-memorabilia collector, and wife, Cindy
are surrounded by surfboards in a room dubbed Mark's feel-good
room, where he keeps his treasures.

Chairman of the Board

Surf collector is happy to be
living in the past

By Greg Ambrose

AS Mark Fragale gazed out over the Atlantic Ocean in 1962 from a New Jersey fishing pier, he was astounded to see someone flying across the water on what appeared to be a giant ironing board.

Spellbound, he watched the surfer glide across the waves, enchanted by the graceful motion on the ocean. At 12 years old, Mark knew immediately that is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

He quickly bought a surfboard, but it sat in his parents' basement while he waited impatiently - seemingly forever - for a warm day. The Long Island winter is cruel, the beaches covered in snow and the ocean cold enough to freeze the blubber off a whale.

To prepare for his surfing debut, young Fragale devoured every surfing magazine he could put his hands on. He read them, reread them, then stored them in a safe place. Little did he suspect that was the beginning of a lifelong compulsion.

When he finally took his board down to the beach to ride the surf, he unwrapped a bar of wax to coat his surfboard and saved the label. He mailed letters to every major surfboard builder and got back a price list and decal. Mark lovingly preserved everything that had anything to do with surfing, including his old surf shorts from the 1960s. Collecting became his religion.

"Since the day I got the stuff, it was sacred to me."

Before long he had a subscription to every surf magazine and began indexing them and helping his friends preserve their copies.

And just when he thought he couldn't become any more committed, his obsession skyrocketed as surfers in the late '60s began abandoning their 10-foot surfboards for shorter, more maneuverable boards.

Suddenly, Fragale considered longboards art objects of rare beauty rather than functional wave-riding vehicles. His collecting efforts redoubled when he was able to pick up the unwanted longboards for literally nothing.

John Moore:
Owner of Strong Current Hawaii in Haleiwa,
where some of Fragale's collection
is displayed.

Fortunately, his parents' basement was so huge that it swallowed the flood of surfboards with room to spare.

When Fragale moved to the surfing mecca of Hawaii in 1978, he only brought a few of his treasures. But with each visit back to Long Island, and by train, boat and cargo container, the rest of his collection followed him to his new island home.

His house wasn't big enough to hold his 70 classic boards and tons of memorabilia, so his collection was spread out among family and friends.

It was a lonely business, as not many other people shared his mania for collecting and Fragale had no one to talk about it. But in the late 1980s, collecting surf stuff became fashionable, and suddenly Fragale realized that he wasn't so odd anymore.

On one especially lucky day in the early 1990s, Fragale Mark discovered that surfer John Moore was a fellow collectomaniac.

The two teamed up to create the Haleiwa Surf Museum in Moore's Strong Current surf shop, giving Fragale a perpetual venue to display his oddities. With the museum constantly rotating his stock and the inexhaustible storage capacity of his mom and dad's basement, Fragale is always hunting.

"It's very important to me to find them, there are surf items in every state." You can imagine what fun it is for his wife and two kids to go on a vacation with dad to search for surf treasures.

"It's a big-time thrill when I find a good one. It's the thrill of the hunt, the hunt might even eclipse the securing of the item."

Family and friends are his biggest source of tips in Hawaii and across the mainland, but Fragale only trusts his mother to buy something he hasn't seen. "She knows more about this stuff than all my friends put together. I consider her one of the experts in the industry."

Anyone who walks through the doors of Strong Current Haleiwa Surf Museum must be prepared to spend serious hours time-traveling across the decades back to surfing's golden years. A special display case bursts with cans of Slipcheck, surfing board games, cloth patches, decals, books, contest programs, posters and surf music albums.

Historical photos line the walls, each one a treasure worthy of careful scrutiny. And vintage surfboards in prime condition hang from the ceiling to be admired and desired.

A visit to Fragale's windward Oahu home is a more-disorienting sensory overload.

Custom maple wood floors in the living room flow into an elegantly arranged dining room and comfortable kitchen, while carefully indexed surf magazines fight for space on the shelves with every book ever written about surfing.

The lanai overflows with venerable boards in exceptional condition, hanging from the ceiling, covering the floor and a lucky few rendering the pool table unusable. "It's his feel-good room," says his wife, Cindy, "as long as he doesn't take over the house."

Some of the Haleiwa Surf Museum collection memorabilia
is on display at Strong Current Hawaii surf shop.

Every board has a story. Gaze admiringly at 9-foot, 6-inch unridden, unwaxed Morey-Pope Blue Machine with balsa stringer, and when you close your eyes you can see a bearded Bob Cooper riding it, hanging 10 on the long Rincon walls.

A grandmother bought it for her grandson who never took it in the water.

The labels on the boards are a silent litany of seemingly common names that ruled the surf industry in the '50s and '60s: Velzy-Jacobs, Dewey Weber, Hansen, Rick, Gordon & Smith, Hobie, Con, Morey-Pope, Harbour, Bing.

It's easy to overdose looking at so many classic boards, and it helps to mentally shift gears and be drawn into Hawaii's surfing past by thumbing through programs from Makaha International Surfing Championships featuring Buffalo Keaulana, Rabbit Kekai and George Downing as skinny youngsters in the early '50s.

But it's impossible to resist the allure of the surfboards. Fragale explains that the ideal board for acquisition was owned by somebody who tried surfing and gave it up. He points to a Dewey Weber with hatchet fin, gleaming as though it just rolled off the glassing rack. A guy ordered the board before he went off to fight in Vietnam. When he returned from the war, he rode it a few times and said he didn't feel like surfing anymore.

Fragale's wife indulges his mania, and his kids - Matt, 11 and Wendy, 8 - humor their dad. "It's much better than collecting cars," she says with a laugh. "I thought maybe coins or stamps might be the ticket. But if you hang onto anything it becomes valuable."

She doesn't share her husband's thrill of the hunt, though she has developed a keen eye for the classics. "I'll help him find them, but I won't help him buy them. I eye them all carefully, I don't want just any old board coming into this house."

She'd like a few more boards to magically disappear from their house and reappear at Strong Current, but not the two Fragale is most proud of: the Hynson twins. The matching Mike Hynson model Gordon & Smith guns are the only two known in the collector world, and "Endless Summer" star Hynson rode one of them in the Duke Kahanamoku contest at Sunset Beach.

"I'm embarrassed to say I haven't ridden them. I consider them too precious to ride." Fragale also hasn't dipped in the ocean the least-impressive item in his collection: a shabby-looking board with impeccable credentials. It is one of first Hobie foam surfboards from the '50s, a Hobie flexi-flyer laughed at by all the old-timers who felt that foam boards would never replace wooden surfboards.

Fragale has become much more discriminating now that he has accumulated a remarkable collection. He'll take any surf literature or memorabilia, but will only acquire a rough board for trade. His criteria are simple but unyielding: no sun damage, no rock damage. "I look at these as art, not nostalgia. Nobody wants to see a ripped-up painting."

He patiently holds on to his prizes until he ferrets out the most esoteric details of the board's past to maintain its integrity. Fragale never works on the boards, preferring to have expert restorer Paul Thorsen "make them the way they were, not the way we wish they were."

He develops an emotional attachment to the boards that paralyzes him to the point that he can't sell them, and he can't ride them.

Just like the perpetual quest for the perfect wave, Fragale eagerly follows the latest tip in his endless treasure hunt. "I'm always looking for stuff. I'm looking for stuff right now as we speak," he says with only the slightest hint of irony.

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Community] [Info] [Stylebook] [Feedback]