My Brother’s Early Days: A Portrait of a Precocious Entrepreneur
By Dan Fowlie’s Sister
To the Editor of the Surfer’s Journal:
I have observed that the Surfer’s Journal, unlike other surfing magazines, frequently presents the reader with the historical perspective as it relates to featured surfers and surfing in general. I commend your efforts in this regard as well because it is important to capture the stories and history of surfing particularly through those that experienced it in its infancy. Since the early pioneers in this sport are aging rapidly, your contribution to the historical perspective becomes more significant at this point in time! As my brother Daniel Fowlie is one of these pioneers, I thought you might be interested in knowing more about him and his real life
adventures, particularly as they relate to surfing. Danny is the builder of the famed Cantina and owner of the majority of property known as Pavones in Costa Rica.
Dan in the '40s
Danny arrived in Pacific Beach, CA, from Minneapolis, MN, in 1941 with his mother Valerie and sister Pat. Valerie married James Mack, an engineer at Convair Vultee Aircraft (later known as Consolidated Aircraft and as General Dynamics), and they added two more girls to the family, our sister Barbara and me. Because I am ten years younger than Dan, I had to enlist his help in putting this perspective together, as my memories of him start when he was around fifteen.
What stands out the most in my mind is that he was constantly working. He was always resourceful about making money and creative at making his efforts result in the highest financial return from a very young age. Before he was ten years old, he was trapping skunk, rabbits, and coyotes in the canyons so he could sell their pelts to Sears Roebuck for fifty cents to a dollar per pelt. He had spent a summer with our mom’s logger relatives on the Minnesota/Canadian border where they made extra money by selling pelts to various buyers, including Sears. San Diego would have seemed an unlikely place to many for that venture, but that did not stop Danny from seeing the potential at a very young age. He was a true entrepreneur long before the word was in common usage.
Danny was always in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, which was just six blocks from our home in Pacific Beach (or PB as the locals call it). He loved to dive, surf, and fish. He would be up before dawn and bring home a catch of lobsters and abalone before
school started. After school, he would peddle his cooked or cleaned (and pounded for the abalone) catch to restaurants in Bird Rock or La Jolla. He bought a car at thirteen with his earnings and had to wait for his fourteenth birthday to get a license to drive it! He was the only student in junior high school with a car, and, as you may know, cars were very scarce after World War II.
Chuck Snell and Dan in late '40s
In his senior year of high school, Danny would charge admission to our back yard and would show homemade surfing movies of local spots as well as films produced at Makaha. The price of admission would include a steak (Palomino filet from a local pet shop), salad, and beer, and the back yard would be standing room only. I remember the parties getting pretty loud and everybody having a really good time. Dan sponsored the surfing movies several times, each time raising the price to try to cut down on the crowd, but each time the crowds increased despite the higher admission price. By the time Danny was in his late teens, he would frequently make more in a week on his many business ventures than our engineer father made the entire year.
Unfortunately, from his English-classroom window at La Jolla High School, Danny could see the breaks at Windansea. When
he saw they were big, he would play hooky and surf the remainder of the day. Clearly, if the surf was up, he would be surfing; if there was no swell, he would be diving, and if the ocean was in between rough and calm, he would be fishing. By 1951, he had saved enough money to go to Hawaii, where he spent the winter surfing and making surfboards.
|Windansea today |
Because Dan was also exceptionally gifted with electronics, he was hired at an aircraft plant in San Diego with his buddy Jr. Knox. There, Danny was exposed to new applications of a material called fiberglass, was immediately impressed, and saw the potential for improving the fiberglass application on balsa surfboards. He had learned to surf on a lightweight hollow board built by Bob Simmons. It had rounded redwood rails and a scooped-up nose (typical of the Simmons shape), and it weighed less than fifty pounds. Simmons, who was the great board innovator of the time, was buying war-surplus balsa life rafts. He would cut and shape surfboards from them and apply a thin coat of fiberglass. The trend at this time was to make surfboards lighter, smaller, and more buoyant, and the Simmons boards were down to thirty to forty pounds.
In his typical way, Danny saw an opportunity, did some research, and launched a successful business. (Remember, he was just seventeen or eighteen at this time). He found that he could go to a wood supplier in Los Angeles, General Veneer, where he could hand pick through the bundles and find the lightest pieces of balsa to build his own boards. In 1951, he had assembled enough light balsa wood to make about twelve to fifteen boards. He made several bundles, went to the docks in Long Beach, and shipped them to himself in Honolulu “will call.” He discovered that Thalco in Los Angeles was the only company in CA that sold the relatively new material, fiberglass. They also sold resin. The “old” application process required adding a two-part catalyst to the resin, a yellow powder, and a purple liquid that was stirred into the resin, and then it required putting it in the sunlight or heating it to about 85 to 95 degrees so that it would harden. In the winter, it was very difficult to get the boards to harden correctly. Glassing technology was still in its infancy. Danny says he can remember the new resin and catalyst he took with him to Hawaii. It was a one-part mix and was a yellow powder called Sunshine Catalyst. He remembers setting the rails up toward the sun and then turning to the other rail and then to the flat bottom or top. If you left the board in the sun too long, the resin would bubble and the board would have permanent blisters that had to be sanded out and re-resined.
Danny talked about his first trip to Hawaii in 1951with Jr. Knox where they shared a $32-dollar-a-month apartment on Koa Street across the parking lot and street (Kula Kula Blvd) from the Waikiki Surf Club. Jr. Knox was
Danny’s diving buddy,
|Bob Card's and Walt Hoffman's cars at Makaha 1951 |
and he was a more proficient diver than surfer. However, Jr.’s brother Carl Knox was the surfer in the family and a member of the Windansea Surf Club.
|Makaha 1952 |
It was Carl who owned the hollow Simmons board that Danny learned to surf on, and it was Carl who had surfed Hawaii with his friend Billy Males before Dan went there. Billy Males had an unfortunate surfing accident that cost him his life. While swimming to retrieve his own board, he was hit on the back of his by a kook on a hollow board. His body was recovered by a
|Junior Knox and Dan |
group of twenty beach boys, one of whom was Rabbit Kaki. Carl returned to La Jolla with Billy’s ashes.
|Joey Cabell, Squirrelly, Buddy Boy Brown (on Squirrelly's Shoulders), and Dan at a beach funeral |
That winter in Hawaii, Danny retrieved the balsa wood he had sent from the docks in Long Beach and started his business. He shaped all the boards by hand since there was no
power equipment available. He used a hand saw, draw knives, and hand planes, as well as a few occasional strokes of an ax. Danny was one of the first to draw pictures, names, and designs on boards and then glass in the colors. He used chalk because it wouldn’t run or smear when the resin was applied. Danny also built a number of boards for Walt Hoffman and Dave Mogges’ rental business in 1952. They rented the boards to tourists at Waikiki.
|Making boards on Waikiki Beash |
Danny is a talented fine artist, and I well remember the boards he had shaped in our PB garage with the most elaborate and colorful tikis or octopuses that ran the length of the board. I often wonder if any of those surfboards are still in existence. They were so creative and unique; I have never seen their match. A few years ago, I read a comment by Mike Diffendurfer in which he said he had not made his first board but rode a Danny Mack board with a tiki chalked on its deck.
Danny said he was not the first to build light balsa boards in Hawaii. He gives credit to Mat Kivlin and Dave Rockland for making what the Hawaiians called Malibu Boards. Joey Cabell was a fast growing kid on the beach at that time and had outgrown the board Mat had made for him.
|Allen Gomes, Squirrelly, Joey Cabell, and Fowlie making boards |
Joey did not like the board at first, but his buddy Squirrley, who was taller, liked the board because it fit him better. Joey eventually grew into the board.
|Squirrelly and Dan 1951 Hawaii |
Later in 1952, Danny was drafted and served time on the front lines during the Korean War in the 25th Tropic Lightening Division. When the war was over in 1954, Danny had advanced to Operations and Intelligence Sergeant of the 27th Battalion of the 25th Combat Division. He was sent home in the advance party to the 25th Division base in Hawaii. He said that Walt Hoffman was still there serving his time in the Coast Guard, as well as a host of other surfers.
Danny spent seven more months in Hawaii until he was discharged from the service in California
|Dan in Army 1953 |
in 1954. During the seven months he was in Hawaii, he was only required to spend two of the months on the base. He took two thirty-day vacations and, because the advance party had little to do until the rest of the troops arrived, he had plenty of time for surfing and diving. He also managed to be featured on the cover and in the centerfold of Sports Illustrated surfing the shore break at Makaha in the October 18, 1954, issue.
|Fowlie, surfing the shore break at Makaha, on the cover of Sports Illustrated |
In 1954, Danny subdivided a parcel of property that he had purchased in 1949 (at the age of sixteen) with the inheritance he had received upon the death of his father, Dan Fowlie Sr. The property had been surveyed by Pat Curran and his surveyor father. The property overlooked La Jolla Shores from an area referred to as Hidden Valley. Danny sold the first lot from his subdivision for more money than he had paid for the entire parcel. The attorneys who distributed Dan’s father’s assets had opened an offshore account for Dan and instructed him to keep his liquid assets offshore. Danny followed their instructions and sent his profits to the offshore account.
During this period, Danny resumed his commercial diving for abalone, which was possible only on six-to-eight good diving days per month. Again, he had plenty of time for the beach and surfing, along with his share of partying. In
September of 1955, Danny enrolled in Orange Coast College in Newport Beach to study petroleum technology under the GI Bill. He was feeling prosperous from his success in his diving and subdivision ventures. He purchased a new Cadillac convertible and rented a house on Lido Island. On one of his first days at the College, he was surprised to run into his old friend Joey Cabell, who also attended Orange Coast, and even more surprised to note that Joey had doubled in size. In his senior year, Dan entered into a successful partnership in Orange County with one of his petroleum-class teachers buying and selling oil leases. He again sent his profits to his offshore bank. That same year, he was introduced to Miss Newport Beach. They were married and eventually had three children, Dan Jr., Gus, and Michelle. He continued with his abalone diving and fishing whenever he had the time.
|Dan's three children |
He divorced in the sixties and started several companies, one of which became Leather Gypsy Inc., a very successful venture designing and manufacturing leather purses, belts, wallets, and shoes. The company grossed millions of dollars a year in ladies’ hand bags, selling to over three thousand national stores and boutiques. One of his employees at that time, Jay (Sparky) Longley, is still profiting from his experience with Danny. Jay advertises his Rainbow Sandals regularly in Surfer Magazine and the Surfer’s Journal. When Danny closed down his Leather Gypsy business, he designed and drew a set of patterns for Sparky in 1974. Dan told Jay that if he rented a small shop, was the first guy to manufacture a great sandal, and used good materials, it would be a good business for life because it would be the first great sandal to be sold in the marketplace. The name “Rainbow” came from the multi-colored rubber that Danny used to construct the first pair of sandals, an idea he had copied from Roger Van De Vanter, a famous shoe maker in Laguna Beach who used multi-colored rubber in his elevated shoe. Sparky had seen Dan’s success, believed in his idea, and capitalized on the suggestions, and he has been successful in the business since 1974.
After shutting down his leather business in 1974, Dan started buying beachfront property at Pavones, Costa Rica, an area that was home to four or five exceptional goofy-foot breaks. Dan, always the entrepreneur, saw the potential interest in owning property at a surf spot with a perfect left and believed the coastal property would eventually be worth millions. Danny lived in Pavones and San Jose,
the capital of Costa Rica, from 1974-1981. He purchased the home of Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier, in 1976 at a deep discount price before Mr. Vesco was ordered out of Costa Rica. Danny spent a few days a week in the Vesco house and had a warehouse in La Ruca for his equipment sales and repair business in the industrial area of San Jose. When Dan had discovered that it was nearly impossible to buy or lease the equipment necessary for any construction project in Central America, he immediately sought out and obtained the distributorship rights for Yanmar (which specialized in light industrial equipment), Mikita power tools, and Fuji Roben, which produced generators, machinery, and other power equipment.
|House Dan bought from Vasco in San Jose |
During these years, Danny was also very active on the farms he was buying in the Pavones area. Danny designed and built barges to haul heavy equipment and fuel to Pavones. Then he designed and built roads, bridges, schools, and churches. The community grew and prospered. During that time, he employed eighty percent of the Pavones workforce. Danny also employed several agronomists and conducted studies on fruit trees in the area. He planted thousands of trees, including balsa, coco, all the citrus varieties, avocado and other tropical fruits, and acres of rice.
Dan also enjoyed the waves at Pavones. The good breaks include “the River” (Rio Claro), “The Esquina” (Cantina Break), “The Sawmill” (Rancho Del Mar), “Pavone,” and “Pilon.” The waves start at the river and recycle themselves through all the breaks, all great to surf. In the early years, Danny was able to keep his secret surfing spot void of all surfing crowds. Only a select handful of his friends and the friends of his children were invited to surf at what had been proclaimed as “the best hotdog wave in the world” by Buttons and Rory Russell. Spider Wells and Greg Weaver filmed the history and surf action of Pavones in 1978, 1980, ’81, and ’82, but Danny did not allow the films public showings in those years. However, during Danny’s long-term vacation at the federal resorts of the US Government, the surfers and the conmen converged at Pavones.
|Dan Fowlie Junior, Jimmy Obubo, Buttons, Frank Bruder, and John Akin at a cantina luau (from left to right) |
Danny and his Costa Rican attorneys claim title to most of the land and Cantina in the Pavones region. All the local Tico squatters and residents know very well that the property belongs to Danny. A number of the squatters (not including the organized Communist squatters that are still there) are willing to give the property back to Danny because they know he was once responsible for the only real prosperity and progress they have ever enjoyed and know that he generously improved the area specifically for their benefit.
Those who purchased parcels of Danny’s property after his incarceration knew there was a cloud on the title of the registered lots they “purchased” from the conmen of the eighties and nineties. All of the new owners knew the prices that they paid were too low to be legitimate. All were warned by local ticos and resident gringos that they were buying land that belonged to Danny and not to the conmen “owners.” Most of the conmen have taken their profits from the “innocent” buyers and left the area. Of course, some buyers remain in denial that their title is clouded. Danny believes that the courts will render all these “buyers” very disappointed when the land is ordered returned to its real owner. Many of the foreigners only have a local title from the municipality of Golfito, where recently a half dozen municipal officers were jailed for taking bribes in exchange for registered titles and beach concessions. The majority of the property involved in the officials’ charges legally belongs to Danny (who has been paying taxes on the property since 1974).
|On several occasions over the years the Nacion newspaper (as above notification) has published warnings like this in Spanish: "Warning of Disputed Property." Please note the red line from Zancudo to Punta Banco where Fowlie's land is located. No title insurance will be issued until now to Exclusive Pavones Property clients only. |
Allan Weisbecker’s article “A Night at the Cantina,” which appeared in volume 13, 2nd edition of the Surfer’s Journal had a few of the facts incorrect, which I thought I would correct. Danny was in Pavones in 1985, and on his way back to the US, he stopped in Mexico to purchase a beachfront ranch and was notified that the Orange County Sheriff wanted his ranch in Riverside County. The Sheriff was able to get permission for an illegal search of the ranch and found less than one ounce of marijuana on the compound where there were seven houses and where Dan did not even live at the time. The case was dismissed by Judge McBride in the interest of justice in 1986. The DEA mentioned in the article was never involved. I hope this letter is a positive addition to your continued efforts in presenting the historical background to the great sport of surfing.
Labels: costa rica, Dan Fowlie, danny mack, pavones, pavones land, pavones real estate, surf, surfing