Fred Hemmings – Biography
Surfing world champion, successful businessman, and conservative politician…on paper it doesn’t add up. But with his short hair, straight edge, and traditional approach to riding waves; Fred Hemmings was never really in sync with surfing’s mainstream. He stood steadfast on traditional equipment amid the maelstrom of the shortboard revolution, remaining conservative even while being part of what was still a relatively hedonistic activity. While many were puffing doobies and finding their centers, Hemmings was organizing the future of the sport against the “better judgment” of surfing’s then majority.
Born in humble conditions in 1946 but geographically blessed to be raised just miles from Waikiki’s perfect summer swells, Hemmings roamed Honolulu as one of six kids. After an early period of shaky health (actually contracting Polio), he learned to surf at age eight and just seven years later won the juniors division of the Makaha International. As a young surfer competing on the Westside in during what he calls the “Romantic Era” in surfing, Hemmings rubbed elbows in the lineup daily with legends like George Downing, Rabbit Kekai, Wally Froiseth, Buffalo Keaulana, and Peter Cole. He cites his greatest influence, however, as the legendary Duke Kahanomoku who became his teacher by example in terms of both his surfing and character. Watching such watermen in action would prove powerful in Hemmings’ development as a surfer. He continued to improve and won the juniors event again in 1963. A year later, he won the men’s division, snatched second in 1965, and won again in 1966. Eager to prove his skills on a broader stage as part of the Hawaiian team, Hemmings crossed the Pacific to take first at the 1964 Peru International Surfing Championships before capping a stellar competitive journey with a win at the 1968 World Championships in Puerto Rico.
This event was a competitive zenith for Hemmings, and it also exposed his idiosyncratic place in surfing at the time. With the shortboard revolution firmly in bloom, journalists described Hemmings’ win as a surprise by his beating out described upstarts and harbingers of the radical new school of surfing – most notably Nat Young and Midget Farrelly.
But Hemmings contends that this is a false characterization of the event and that, in fact, the only surfer riding a true short board in the final was Reno Abellira. In response to claims that his win was a “surprise” or a “fluke,” Hemmings says, “Forget my feelings. Look at the record. At the time there were several tabloid surf kings. I was not one of them. But I won at Makaha, in Peru, and in Puerto Rico. The contest expectations were based on tabloid fantasy instead of surfing performance. My winning was no fluke. I was in the finals of most every contest I entered.”
Later, standing in his blue blazer and slacks to receive his trophy, he appeared a counter to the 1960’s counter-culture. An ideological salmon struggling against a tide of prevailing surfing stereotypes, Hemmings broke the mold of the proverbial beach bum, personally and competitively, and in turn, may have filled the role of the true surfing rebel of the time.
A year later, he retired from competition, focusing instead on forging a new track for surfing as a truly professional sport. He began by organizing the Smirnoff World Pro-Am Surfing Championships. In 1971, Hemmings started the Pipeline Masters (which would become one of the world’s premier surfing events) and then became the creative force behind the International Professional Surfing tour in 1976 before founding Hawaii’s prestigious Triple Crown of Surfing in 1983. Although he later was forced out of the IPS through an organized coup led by former world champion Ian Cairns, he had essentially built the system that is the basis for today’s professional surfing tour. Hemmings remained firm in his conviction that surfing should be legitimized. He railed against drugs that were rampant in the sport and actively advocated drug testing surfers on tour.
Veering away from surfing, Hemmings packed up his determined ideals and took them to the United States senate. Elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives, he became floor leader and in 1989 and was later voted in as the Republican candidate for the Hawaiian Governor’s race but was defeated. He ran again in 1994. Hemmings served as a Republican state senator from 2000 to 2010.
Organized and success-driven, Fred Hemmings amassed a list of surfing titles that are a testament to his commitment to the sport: Given the Duke Kahanamoku Sportsman Award (1969): named to the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame (1999) and International Surfing Hall of Fame (1991); named one of the Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century for Hawaii by Sports Illustrated (2000); voted Waterman of the Year by the Surf Industry and Manufacturer Association (2002).
In addition to sports commentating for television and hosting his own radio show, Hemmings authored The Soul of Surfing is Hawaiian in 1997. This cemented a deep and varied career that touched every corner of the surfing experience including travel, journalism, canoeing and paddle boarding, contest organizing, and, of course, competition.
3rd – 1958 Makaha International Surfing Championships – Jr. men
1st – 1961 Makaha International Surfing Championships – Jr. men
1st – 1963 Makaha International Surfing Championships – Jr. men
1st – 1964 Makaha International Surfing Championships – Sr. men
1st – 1964 Peruvian International Championships, Lima, Peru
2nd – 1965 Makaha International Surfing Championships
5th – 1965 World Surfing Championships – Peru
1st – 1966 Makaha International Surfing Championships
2nd – 1967 Makaha International Surfing Championships
3rd – 1967 Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic
2nd – 1967 Peruvian International Championships
2nd – 1968 Makaha International Surfing Championships
1st – 1968 WORLD SURFING CHAMPIONSHIPS, Puerto Rico
2nd – 1969 Peruvian International Championships
5th – 1969 Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic
2nd – 1969 Makaha International Surfing Championships
1st – 1969 Haleiwa Sea Spree