90-year-old Leigh Josephson is a humble man. He is unlikely to tell you that he rode his first wave in Santa Cruz in 1948, or that his surfing buddies included Hobie Alter, Jack O’Neill, Rabbit Kekai, and Duke Kahanamoku. He is mum about the fact that he judged some of the early Makaha International Surfing Championships, or that in 2002 he was inducted into the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame. Or that he served in the Korean War. Or that he’s been married for 68 years, and has five kids. I got all of this from his proud daughter, Kristin. She wrote us a note saying that her father has been wearing Birdwells since the ‘60s, and that he planned to wear them in the 2020 Hanalei Bay Swim Challenge, which he swims in every year (sadly it was cancelled due to the pandemic). Kristin and I spoke via phone when she was visiting her parents this summer at their home on the Big Island. She warned me that her father’s not good at tooting his own horn. Then she passed me on to Leigh.
Wow, Leigh, what an amazing life you’ve led!
Well, it’s been a great life, yeah, but it hasn’t been an unusual life. It’s not like I was a big-wave master or anything like that.
But surfing has been this giant force in your life, right?
Yeah. I started out bodysurfing. Okay. See, in 1950 I was in the Navy, and I did a little surfing and bodysurfing and swimming while I was in the Navy down in San Diego. And after the swimming season there, they gave us our choice of duty, which was, in my case, Pearl Harbor, in 1952. So yeah, that’s when I really started getting into surfing.
Did you live in Hawaii from that point on?
No. I got out of the Navy and I went to school at Berkeley and taught a few places in the Bay Area, including Capitola near Santa Cruz. And then, after that, in ‘64, I came back to Hawaii.
What subject did you teach?
Math and PE and some science. When I taught at the elementary schools in California, you just taught the whole thing. When I came over to Hawaii, I was teaching at a kindergarten-through-12 school, ‘Iolani School. And that’s what I taught, a lot of math, a little science, and coached swimming and water polo.
For how many years were you a teacher?
Did you hit the surf before school?
Yeah. Of course. ‘Iolani School is just a few miles from Waikiki Beach, and so there were a bunch of old guys that I surfed with every morning.
When you think about your life in the water, what are your fondest memories?
Mostly the guys and the fact that, in the good old days, it wasn’t nearly so crowded. We got better and better boards, so you were more agile on the waves, but there were also more guys. But the really early morning crowds had it pretty good. We surfed Queens, and we called ourselves the Ohua Street Gang. You’d just paddle out from there, and there weren’t too many guys.
Do you still surf?
How long ago did you give up the board?
Oh, it was in the last 10 years. I had a buddy who got to where he couldn’t do it anymore, so we said, “What the hell, we’ll bodysurf.” And yeah, we thought: that’s not bad. No board, no wax, no nothing. Just you and the wave. And so that’s what we do. And it’s very nice out in Honoli’i. And when he finally left and went back to Honolulu—he’s 96; he’s in Honolulu now—I found out that as I aged and quit board-surfing that my neck… You know how the old guys get kind of a slope in their neck and stuff?
So it’s uncomfortable to prone-paddle and try to hold your head up. So bodysurfing is easy.
What do you like most about bodysurfing?
Oh, hell. Well, if you’re talking about the actual waves, the drop and takeoff is the most fun and the first little bit scooting in. Then you usually roll out and go back for another ride. I just like it because you get a lot more waves than you do when you’re board-surfing. You can see board-surfers around, and you’ll out-surf them five or 10 to one. They do a lot of waiting, and we just get a lot of rides.
Got any good advice—as far as how to live the good life, and how to keep it going?
Well, I suppose one thing is to really know what you want out of your life. There’s an awful lot of guys who think they want a lot of money, or whatever the hell. And I have a buddy here, and we talked about it. And we talked about the fact that it seems like every time you make a move, it’s a little closer to what you want. And it’s kind of like Brownian movement in chemistry. You bounce around and bounce around a little, but you end up where you want to be, if you know what your goal is. And an awful lot of guys just think they should do this or that or something. For instance, maybe I wanted to be a greater water polo coach and go coach in a college someplace. Well, that would have taken me away from Hawaii, and I don’t want that. So my goal was to be here in this weather and this surf and this warm water. And so that’s what I wanted, and that’s what I shot for. And I’m here. And so I think that’s a problem with an awful lot of guys—they don’t really know what their goal is.
How have you managed to stay so healthy?
Well, in the first place, I don’t do anything that is really damaging. I have a beer a day, maybe. I never have more than one beer in a day. And I don’t have a beer every day. And I never smoked, and I’ve never been drunk. So that part is just one thing. But I think a bigger thing is probably just being lucky. Luck. My dad lived to 97 and went elk hunting at 97. He got his last elk when he was 96. He didn’t get one when he was 97, but he went out with the guys, and they’d have a two-week camping trip in Oregon there… I was lucky. I know that. I realize that. And people ask me, “Hey, what’s the secret?” I don’t even like to talk about it because I think that’s bad luck [laughter]. And I’m 90, and I hope to keep going on as long as I feel good. And I do feel good. I don’t have anything serious wrong with me.
Well, that’s a good thing. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Okay. I can go to the beach now?
Go to the beach and have fun. And I appreciate the chat.
[laughter] Okay. All-righty.
Got any great Birdwell stories? Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next year is our 60th anniversary and we'd love to feature some on our blog.