A Queen and a King

The Story Behind the Most Famous Santa Barbara Surf Shot Ever

<strong>Swell stacking:</strong> Easily the most iconic picture taken of one of North America’s most iconic surf spots, this nearly 40-year-old image of the Queen, captured by legendary local lensman Steve Bissell, truly has stood the test of time. And, for those who bemoan the crowds of today, don’t worry — the lineup was pretty full back then, too; just start counting.
Steve Bissell

One very fine day in 1973, Gary Ward and I were surfing Rincon and it was just perfect. We both had to leave around 1 p.m. to get back to work, but the look and feel of the Rincon on that day was more alluring than silver or gold. She was alive and dancing before my eyes. From the lineup, I glanced at the cliffs above and knew where I had to go. I had never seen her lines so clean and pure, just stretching to the horizon. What surprises, I wondered, awaited a drive to the top of the hill?

I knew, even had I not had my Nikon with me, I needed to experience that view. Moving slowly and cautiously, I drove up the small twisty road, occasionally glancing at Gary and thinking too much about the consequences of trespassing. Sign after sign ate away at my desire to capture one of the world’s most classic waves in all her glory as I thought about jail, long and tearful goodbyes to my wife and daughter, and the loss of my precious freedom. But the vision, or the promise of the vision, drove me on.

Lo and behold, we made it to the top, and when I looked around, nobody was in sight. The ranch house on the property seemed abandoned, and all three main gates were left wide open, inviting us to explore on this beautiful day. As we drove down into the magic setup, I felt the simple beauty of life surge through me, and I just fucking ran with it.

“Go, man, go! I will direct you where to stand … just go look at the surf.”

Forgetting caution, I found the perfect field and the perfect view and I told Gary, “Go, man, go! I will direct you where to stand … just go look at the surf.” Gary ran down into that field and just lost himself, staring out silently at the waves. A few excited Nikon F clicks later, I yelled “Let’s go!” and just like that, we were gone. I felt like Sinbad, like I had just stolen the most beautiful image of a queen, forever mine, to share with the commoners!

About a week later, I got a call on the business line in my kitchen. The voice on the other end wasn’t the average person wanting to order some print or such. The voice was scary. “Is this Mr. Bissell?” he asked. “Yes,” I said meekly. “Well, Mr. Bissell,” the voice boomed, “this is Mr. Bates. The mayor of Carpinteria just informed me of your trespassing on my land to obtain some fantastic photo that has just been published in a surfing magazine.”

I remembered the big R.H. Bates road signs from our illegal journey, and immediately regretted our trespassing romp. I was sinking fast into worry, but Mr. Bates shook me back when he began to laugh and said, “You know what, Steve? I’d love to order some of those great shots.” He was playing with me, and instantly his great sense of humor made me love him!

I told him I’d be more than happy to give him some prints. One sunny Santa Barbara week later, I made the same drive up the sacred grade, only this time I had permission. I was met with a smile from a very big man whose looks matched my imagination of what a pioneer of this very special place would look like.

He took the prints, showed me around his ranch, and loaded my crappy car with millions of avocados before sending me on my way. Thinking back, it really was one of those moments I live for. When, like on a roller coaster, you are going down fast one minute and the next you’re meeting an icon of Santa Barbara and he turns out to be a great guy with a classic sense of humor and a true lover of life.

Today, the Queen lives, and the King lives on in the memories of those who knew and loved him.


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