It takes a lot of diehard, hometown pride to stand by east coast waves sometimes, and not many surf movies feature this stretch of Atlantic coast — but there are some filmmakers here.
Bethany Beach resident Dan Herlihy has been shooting surf footage since the 1960s. Through the 1970s, he worked for various companies, selling stock footage, and, living in Hawaii, promoting surf films from California and Australia.
Originally from Ocean City, Md., he started surfing as a teenager (early 1960s). The search for waves took him out to the west coast in short order, out to Hawaii by 1965 and down to Puerto Rico by the late 1960s.
Herlihy remembered setting lines into unknown territory — invited down to P.R. for competition, he discovered Tres Palmes on a side trip. “I ran into a guy from California who’d started a surfboard company down there, and we went looking for spots,” he recalled. “The whole north coast was still unexplored at that time.”
They spotted the big waves out in the distance, a mile offshore — according to Herlihy, it doesn’t start breaking there until there’s at least a 15-foot swell. He claims fame as the first surfer to ever ride Tres Palmes.
Herlihy lived here and there, always near great breaks, until 1973, when he returned to the east coast (Bethany). He continued to travel, though, before and after the arrival of his son, Colin, in 1980.
“We’ve been traveling together for a long time,” he recalled. “I started taking Colin back to Puerto Rico when he was 6 —– he kind of grew up between the two places.”
Colin’s had his own successes along the way (he’s a former East Coast bodyboarding champ, and Hawaiian World Invitational finalist), and found himself cast as leading man in his father’s “Time Has Come” film (2003).
The film has been well received — as Herlihy reported, a Bodyboarding Magazine reviewer had deemed it “‘The Endless Summer’ of Bodyboarding,” referring to the seminal 1966 surf flick — high praise indeed.
“We did good work on that,” he stated matter-of-factly.
Through the big gap, Herlihy shifted toward more of a 9-to-5 lifestyle and made furniture for a number of years — and developed some waterproof, breathable fabrics for the surfing industry, of all things. “I felt it was something that was needed, so I did a lot of homework, and wound up with two patents,” he said. “But film was always a passion.”
He got back to his roots in 1998, and established A Better Life production company. Herlihy seems to be making up for lost time, because since wrapping up “Time Has Come,” he’s thrown himself into not one, but two surfing documentaries.
The first is about evolution in surfboard design. Back in the 1930s, boards had some shape to them, but functionally, they still weren’t much more than flat planks.
Herlihy managed to hook up with pioneers John Kelly and Wally Froiseth. Apparently, these early surfers were getting fed up with the basically straight-in ride they were getting on what Herlihy recognized as “ancient boards.”
“They came in, took an adze to the board, and put a ‘V’ in the bottom of the tail,” he explained. Thus appeared the “Hot Curl” boards, so named because they kept surfers in the curl — with the ability to set a rail, they could take a diagonal line across, rather than just straight down the wave.
Fins appeared on the scene not long thereafter, and innovations continue to refine surfboard performance today, but Herlihy’s documentary focuses on those first few critical modifications.
With Froiseth (and his son and grandson), photographer Bernie Baker (Hawaii) fellow Bethany resident Ed Timmons (editing) and Peter Interland (writer), Herlihy has the workings of a major production in hand.
The project group reproduced the 1930s era with utmost integrity, even going so far as to procure vintage bathing Jantzen swimsuits (found in New York, with the tags still on them) for the surfers.
And legendary board shaper Jim Phillips signed on to carve out nine redwood balsa surfboards — exact replicas from that time period.
According to Herlihy, they weigh between 40 and 50 pounds, and are varnished, rather than fiberglassed. They’re hard to steer, compared with modern boards, and the surfers won’t be wearing leashes, either (there weren’t any in the 1930s). They had Phillips carve nine because they anticipated a couple of them would end up in the rocks.
Herlihy shot a good deal of footage last year, and anticipated his son will make a cameo appearance in the film. However, he said Colin wouldn’t be around for a second shoot this fall — he’d be working toward a marine technician degree down in North Carolina.
They’ve signed up Bonga Perkins for center stage, though, and Herlihy applauded his ability as a surfer, but also generally, as a waterman.
So, that’s one project. He’s working with surfing great/history professor Tom Stone (University of Hawaii) on the second. It’s to be another documentary, this one detailing the ancient rituals associated with surfing in Hawaii.
“There’s an incredible amount of ritual involved,” Herlihy pointed out. Every stage has its reverence — the selection of the tree, the offering of redfish, buried in front of the tree, then actually chopping the tree down, then storing the wood in a shed for a certain period before actually carving the board.
Herlihy said they’d been granted access to one of the more remote areas, normally off-limits to outsiders, and the villagers had allowed them to film the harvest of a mango tree.
For both projects, he said he hoped to steer away from the traditional surf odyssey film, and appeal to an audience beyond the surfing community. But there’s a lot behind shooting video for television, as he explained. First, the audio and exposure had to be right on the money — in the “legal zone,” as Herlihy called it. “We want to avoid the phrase, ‘we’ll take care of that in post-production,’ because that’s really expensive,” he pointed out.
He said the newer cameras didn’t even use videotape — everything went right onto a hard drive — and it was now possible to set up a computer, right on the beach, to make sure they were meeting those production standards.
“We try to shoot during the golden hours, early morning and later afternoon,” he continued. “And to get one hour’s worth of footage, we probably shoot 30 hours.
He said they had a lot of footage, but were still probably a year away on both the Hot Curl and ancient ritual projects.
In the meantime, editing continues apace, and he said he was generating some commercial footage (surfing apparel) to stay busy. For more information about projects underway at A
Better Life, contact Herlihy at 539-5998.