Nostalgia Sunday – Riding the waves
Israel’s Lee Korzits won the gold medal this past weekend at the Sailing World Championships in Perth, Australia. Her achievement, along with Gal Fridman’s Olympic gold medal and Shahar Zubari’s bronze, is remarkable on its own. Even more so, given how new pro surfing is to our young country. And, like most things Israeli, it started with a dream.
Before surfboards arrived on our shores, there was the hasakeh, a sort of platform on which lifeguards would stand and paddle. Used from at least the 1930s onwards, there are several theories as to how this banana-shaped wood vessel came into being: one that it was used by Arab fishermen, another that it was based on a 1926 design by legendary surfer Tom Blake.
Its use by the Israeli Navy was immortalized in song in 1972.
Riding the waves on a hasakeh, however, was not surfing. According to an online essay about the History of Surfing in Israel, that began with Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, an American surfer and physician visited Israel in 1956. Wikipedia states that he volunteered for the Israeli army during the Suez Canal crisis but was rejected. Nonetheless, during his year-long stay, he found happiness on the beaches of Tel Aviv where he conceived of a dream: to found the first Olympic surfing team from the young state of Israel. Paskowitz imported six long-boards imprinted with the Israeli flag and began scouting the beach for potential talent and for someone to manage the project.
“…he arrived on Frishman Beach, [where] he found a lifeguard named Shamai Kancepolsky, also known as Topsea, and presented the idea to him. Says [Topsea's son] Nir Almog, ‘There was an immediate chemistry between them and my father decided to take on the project.’
‘At that time, lifeguards caught waves using hasakehs alone. Dorian gave them lessons and slowly, the lifeguard booth gang began surfing. In those days, [before breakers were built] Israel had high waves that broke on the shore itself… and going into the sea to surf was considered an act of bravery bordering on insanity…”
“A few years passed and the gang gained experience… but there was still no Israeli representation abroad. Dorian [Paskowitz] returned a second time, bringing a load of surfboards with him that were distributed among the new members.”
“Nir Almog adds, ‘In the Sixties, a huge storm damaged the storeroom where the surfboards were stored, and broke some of them to bits. After that, my dad decided to restore one of the big ones and shortened it to 1.80 meters. I was the only one in Israel with a shortboard.”
“In the early Seventies, a paratrooper commander by the name of Yair told Topsea that the army used a material — a aerated plastic called polyurethane foam — made by a company in Haifa. The material was similar to that used to make surfboards. Yair raised the possibility of manufacturing surfboards made of this material… Topsea and Nir began trying to design surfboards… and began a small surfboards producing industry. Most were rented out, and so a new generation entered into surfing…”
Topsea managed a small workshop on Hilton Beach and, along with renting out Hasakehs, designed surfboards. He, his wife Naomi — Israel’s first female surfer — and their children, all became lifelong surfers.In 1977, son Nir founded Almog Surfboards, Israel’s first pro surfboard company. Topsea co-founded the Israel Surfing Association in 1986.
The sport has continued to grow in popularity; according to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, “Israel is home to about 15 surf shops and 10,000 surfers”.
Paskowitz, by the way, gave up practicing medicine to become a professional surfer. He and his family founded and run Surf Camps and are known as The First Family of Surfing. In August 2007, he founded Surfing 4 Peace together with his son David (along with Israeli surfer Arthur Rashovan and eight-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater) to deliver surfboards to the surfing community in Gaza.
A wonderful online photo archive, can be found at the Topsea Israel Surfing Center website. Topsea’s youngest son Orian runs the center, carrying on the tradition and legacy of his father. The Center also hosts a YouTube channel where there are more videos about the legendary Shamai “Topsea” Kancepolsky and the history of surfing in Israel.