Noel Forsyth - Del Mar 1986

After the Hill’s blue half pipe had bitten the dust in late 1985, skating slowed up a bit again, for me at least. We did manage the odd run to the Werribee Pipes, or maybe even Corio, but full scale halfpipe ramps were clearly the way forward for performance vert skating.

There were stories of ramps under construction popping up all over the place, but as a rule , they were invite only and I didn’t seem to be one of the “in” crowd. After what seemed an eternity, I had finally finished a boilermaker’s apprenticeship, and all I could think of was how I could worm my way out of becoming one of these bald old bastards who’d had every strand of their hair burnt off by welding sparks and arc burn.

Strangely enough, my epiphany came when watching Back to Future. Just like Michael J Fox, it dawned on me that if I didn’t do something pretty damned opposite to my current trajectory, I’d be one bald old factory coots, soon enough. My solution? 

Save up a couple of grand, quit my job and go travel  the length of the U.S. West Coast.

Part of the plan was to hit Venice, Del Mar, Upland and a bunch of other iconic skate spots. Despite some of the obviously flawed thinking involved in that lot, the other part involved the need to buy a Cadillac to conduct said road trip in.

In January 1986 my good buddy Ken Lee and I flew in to LAX, utterly clueless as to exactly what we should do next. My very first trick was to walk straight out in front of a police car on Lincoln Boulevard, Venice Beach, having looked the wrong direction for the oncoming traffic.

Before I knew it, I was spreadeagled on a Police car......

........trying to explain to the incredulous cop that I was just a dumb Aussie, not some drug fuelled zombie.

Things did get better though….By day 2 or 3, we’d purchased a gas guzzling 1974 Caddy Coupe De Ville and set out to check some classic spots like Malibu Beach, Hollywood and finally, Upland. Despite being a suburb of L.A., it turns out Upland was a 2 hours drive inland and north of Venice. It was so far that an afternoon sesh turned into a night skate…I arrived just as Lester Kasai , Caballero and a few others were calling it a day. Early February in Upland is actually pretty damned cold….not your normal vision of SoCal at all.

Undaunted, I paid my bucks and got an Upland membership card, etc.  As I quickly chucked on a new set of OJ’s the skate shop chicks couldn’t stop giggling at how stupid we were for buying an old Cadillac….evidently our little West Coast dream machine wasn’t flying at all  for the locals.

The park itself was a bit of a shock. I was used to big, craggy bowls like Corio, but most of Upland was even a generation before that…. big radius rolled lip everywhere; sandy, almost rough surface and quite a few lumps and bumps to negotiate.

I headed directly to the full pipe (of course) and stood there wondering at the best entry point. For some reason back then, I always kicked in – never a much simpler tail drop. So I set my board up on the curved lip of the 12 foot bowl on the steep side of the pipe entry. To my surprise, my board just rolled backwards and hung up instead of cleanly pivoting in. I tore most of the flesh of my palm off in the process, something made even more unpleasant by the bitter cold. This was my first run….

Back to the Pro Shop for a bandage up, where the chicks continued to laugh about the dumb Aussies with the Cadillac and the damaged dude who was riding a dinosaur era homemade board.

I got back out there, and decided I’d try the Combi Pool for something a little easier to warm up on.

Right. I’ve been to the “new” Combi at Huntington Beach and rad and challenging as it is, it’s zero on the terror scale if compared with the original.

I’m doing a bit of guesswork about the actual dimensions here, but it basically measured up like this: The square pool was 11 ½ feet deep with less than 8 foot trannies and almost 4 feet of flat vert. The round was slightly more forgiving, with 6 – 8 inches more transition and helped along by being round wall, not flat.

You took off from the entry “notch" but every time I hit the facewall in the square, the tight transition curve would fling me off the wall once I’d hit the vert. I figured more runs would sort that out but I did basically the same thing maybe 6 times in a row.

Hmmm. Perhaps the round bowl was my thing. This did work much better, but it was still huge , with  3 feet plus of pure vert before you hit the coping. Part of the pucker factor was related to the wide band of slippery tiles. You were so weightless on this amount of vert, that anything other than a smooth carve line made you start slipping around on tile. The only way to avoid this was to grind…something I managed to do a half dozen times before deciding I had beaten the bastard, like David and Goliath. Being cold, dark and inhospitable, I didn’t even end up with a photo of me at Upland.

Not so Delmar, which Ken and I visited a few days later in transit to Baja , Mexico. Delmar and Upland were the last two skateparks from the early 80’s still operating.  Within a year both would be gone, just like all those that preceded them.

Delmar was situated right next to the Delmar Racetrack, just north of San Diego. It was also almost directly beneath the 405 freeway, so not so difficult to find, even at night.

Ken and I camped out somewhere not particularly kosher and headed to the skatepark the following day. Again, the reality didn’t really match up to my starry eyed imagination. The main “keyhole” was of course the focal point of the park. This is where Hosoi went head to head with Hawk the year before in a battle between pure speedcore style and tricky, technical complexity.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised when Tony Hawk rolled up....

 .....and started skating with myself and maybe 3 or 4 others. Delmar was his home park, and it seems he “worked out” there every day. I’m sure the other blokes were also “names” of some repute, but I was too embarrassed to ask them. I think one of them was Todd Joseph – he was doing the Todd Twist – crazy layback air to invert thing, Eddie Reatagui and Tony Magnusson turned up later on, too.

Tony Hawke: Backside Air - Del Mar

Some Japanese people were there filming, and they were fascinated by my old home made beamer deck. They actually interviewed me about it – I think Ken set me up – told them I was the “famous Noel Forsyth” from Australia. I can only hope they saw my skating later on and figured out they didn’t really need that particular footage….

As for the park, well,  it was impressive to look at but far from perfect. The big Keyhole pool wasn’t really a keyhole shape at all. It was more like a water balloon, but I’m sure that name just wouldn’t have flown.

It was generally pretty rideable but had some serious sticky outy coping , and the right hand side of the entry had a big scoop of wobbly over vert. No matter – finally this was something I could ride, even if the locals made me look like a kook.

The long deep halfpipe was pretty disappointing – it had a “sag kink” right along the entire length of the inside wall. Of course, locals wouldn’t have given this a second’s thought – like anywhere, they’d adapt and blast on, regardless.

The tight backyard style pool was just that – it was so tight that the lines were tough to figure out. Given more time, though, I reckon I would have liked it a lot. Then there was a square pool with red and orange tiles. I remember seeing pics of Wally Inouye skating it in 1979/ 80. This one was also pretty tough to ride -  it was deep and pretty vertical and the coping was mighty harsh too.

I know it sounds like I was a cry baby complainer, but reality was that none of these bowls was easy to ride for a “roll up on the day” novice.

My delusions of slash and burn skate action had to be wound back a tad....

I did manage to get a foot or so of frontside air out of the keyhole, but with Tony Hawk skating on home turf with no crowds to get in the way, it really was time to sit back and watch.

If you laid the Bones Brigade music over the top, it would have looked identical to the video. He was doing airwalks, invert varials, backside ollies and a bunch more I probably couldn’t rightly identify. Everything he did was 6 foot out or more. I’d never seen anything like it and when you get down to it, there never had been anything like it before.

After a pretty crazy run down onto Mexico’s Baja Peninsula (this is a whole other story…) we crossed the border again back into the U.S. and headed back to L.A. en route to San Francisco in the north. Being in Venice, it was only a 10 minute walk to Venice’s other worldly Venice Beach boardwalk. Along with the strange, pumped homo – erotic body builders, there was the Rasta rollerskate–from–mars weirdo (soon to progress to Rollerblades) assorted stoners and of course, bikini babes.

Set in amongst all this mayhem was the seminal Venice street skating scene.

Christian Hosoi - Venice Beach

Being the ever present showman, Christian Hosoi was both ring leader and crowd pleaser.

Along with Hosoi, there was Jesse Martinez, Johnee Kopp, Scott Oster, Aaron Murray, Julian Stranger and a host of others.

By the looks of it, the impromptu jump ramp/street skate session was a daily occurrence, drawing a crowd of 3 or 400 people, most of whom knew nothing of skating.  

Street skating was still in it’s infancy, but Venice was most certainly one of the hottest spots.

Whilst Christian and Jonnee Kopp preferred to blast from the jump ramps, Jesse Martinez was perfecting the very first street bench rock’n’slides, and Julian Stranger and a bunch of other unknowns were perfecting the art of the pavement  to vert wallride.

The only thing to interrupt proceedings was a photographer and art director from Santa Cruz that had come down to shoot an OJ wheels ad. They quickly stuck up fake “OJ Street” street signs, clicked off a couple of rolls of film and were gone inside an hour.

Christian’s party trick for the ad was to run full pace at the street sign, grab the pole and fling himself into method air position and complete two or more rotations before hitting the pavement and rolling away. Not exactly skateboarding per se, but pretty impressive to watch, nonetheless.

From L.A., Ken and I struck north, heading for San Francisco. The Cadillac’s 8 – track stereo was so feeble, it only picked up radio stations within a few miles of the broadcast source. Between crackly transmissions, we heard of a serious storm heading our way.

As it turned out, it rained solidly for the next week or more, as the San Francisco coast was battered by one front after another. In the end, the nonstop rain was enough to blow the wiring system entirely in our trusty Cadillac. A fella with questionable background taught us how to hotwire it using a screwdriver and a piece of fuse wire. This wasn’t really my favourite entertainment – I seemed to get zapped pretty hard with every start, making going for a drive just a wee bit daunting.

The San Francisco scene couldn’t have been more different to what was happening in Southern California. 

Ramp Session - San Fransisco

There were no skate parks left in the North, and the small but intense local skate scene revolved around a handful of ramps and street sessioning.

We were staying at the European Guest House in the centre of town, only one street back from Market but somehow a slightly trashed backwater. Everyone there smoked pot. Or maybe that was just the crew we hung out with and we didn’t actually meet up with anyone else. Every day I made tentative enquiries about skate spots or where we might run into anyone else who skated. Jim was about as Irish as an Irishman can get, but he had a Gonz board, and seemingly knew some fellas that knew other fellas….

Anyway, we headed off to a pretty marginal, gritty, banky bowl where we found some kids who knew some other guys.....

.... and finally to what must have been the only vert ramp happening in San Francisco at the time. It was a back yarder, but quite substantial. What shocked me a bit was that fact that it was maybe 8 ½ feet deep but had 18“ of straight vert. Tight trannies, plus quite a bit of vert, but very smooth (too smooth) ply and slippery PVC Coping. There was a fairly crowded session going on, and unless they called me in I was simply never going to get a run. I can’t really remember why, but I didn’t dig tail drop entry and had to set my board up to kick. Even this 5 second delay was likely to make them yawn…. not my board though. I was still riding exactly the same 10.5” x 33” 5 ply / hardwood beamer as I’d started making in 1979 /80. They weren’t outwardly laughing at me, but that’s not to say they weren’t behind their hands….

There were some pretty reasonable ramp skaters there, but no one recognisable or even vaguely “pro-ish." The only fella I recognised was Jake Phelps – the editor of Thrasher mag and a styley dude he was too. He did great laybacks and drifty frontside airs and stuff, but he wasn’t what you’d call new school - even then.

The ramp was kind of a disappointment.....

.....being as tough to ride as I found it, but hey; I went, I saw, I rode – whatever. From then on I was strangely hit by the Frisco “street scene” bug. It was kind of cool scooting around town blasting booster airs off of fire hydrants (yeah, the real Yank variety) and all the trashed old junker cars that seemed to be almost everywhere around the centre of town. It was only a year or so after I got back that I saw  the footage of the Santa Cruz / Nor Cal guys doing jump ramp sessions in front of the Exploratorium in the Embarcadero area near Pier 15.


Noel Forsyth - San Francisco 1986

From Northern California we headed up through Oregon and Washington State into Canada and then far inland towards Banff. With 4 on board in the Cadillac and all our packs and possessions in the trunk, the skateboard had nowhere to go but be strapped to the roof. We raised a few eyebrows driving through mountain passes and the occasional snowfield with a skateboard on the roof. It was however, an easy conversation starter and we met some cool people all along the way from Santa Barbara to Seattle and back.

Most of these people had some kind of useful advice, such as: do NOT be seen out and about wearing red and blue headbands in a mixed group – anyone from either clan might shiv you for being such an idiot, or: the guys on the street corners making joint toking gestures are interested in buying pot off us – why? Because we’re driving around in a green Cadillac, of course! A seriously pro  dope dealer wouldn’t be seen in anything else….

Unknown - Wallride
Unknown - Wallride

Venice Pavilion

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Tony Hawk - Invert Varial
Tony Hawk - Invert Varial

Delmar Keyhole

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Unknown - Invert
Unknown - Invert

Delmar Keyhole

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Christian Hosoi
Christian Hosoi
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Somehow, in our naïve ignorance, we managed to make it out of the U.S. in one piece, with a mountain of memories and crazy times behind us…