There's a good chance Ralph Noisat caught the first wave in San Diego. He died in 1980, and as he wasn't a man to brag, his pioneering role might have been lost were it not for his board. He made it himself when he was a boy, and it was still in the Noisat family home in 1998 when Ralph's daughter, Margie Chamberlain, was preparing to sell the Mission Hills residence. Chamberlain realized the heavy wooden board might have historic value, so she called the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. No one there knew anything about Noisat, but the museum staff was thrilled to accept the board when they heard what Chamberlain had to say about her father. Chamberlain, who has lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, for more than 30 years, doesn't know the whole story. What she does know is that her father's maternal grandfather worked on the construction of the Pioneer Sugar Mill in Lahaina, Maui. Her father's mother spent at least part of her childhood there, before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, marrying, and having Ralph in 1896. From what her father later told her, Chamberlain got the impression he was close to his grandfather; he may have even visited him in Hawaii, where the older man lived for many years. "My dad knew some of the Hawaiian royal family members," Chamberlain says. "He had a lot of the sense of Hawaiian history, which I can only imagine he got from his grandfather."
Although Chamberlain doesn't know how her father came to make the seven-foot-long, square-tailed board, "He always talked about the wood being koa," she says. She has the impression he may have surfed on it in Northern California before 1910, the year he and his mother moved to San Diego. He would have turned 14 that year. Noisat enrolled as a freshman at San Diego High School and got involved with track and field and student government; he managed the football team. He also surfed from 1910 to 1914, he told his daughter years later. Chamberlain doesn't know where he surfed, but he wasn't riding the waves alone. "When he was telling me these stories of his youth, it always sounded like he had this little circle of friends," his daughter says. Whether his pals borrowed his board or fashioned copies is another detail that's been lost.
Before he reached his 18th birthday in 1914, Noisat enlisted in the Navy, embarking on a military career that would last 30 years. Chances are he wasn't here when one of the most famous surfers in the world arrived.
George Freeth, born in Oahu in 1883, was the son of an Englishman and a half-Hawaiian woman. A champion swimmer and high diver, Freeth taught himself the ancient Hawaiian art of riding waves, a skill that by the end of the 19th Century had almost disappeared from the islands. By 1907 he was so adept he caught the eye of writer and travel adventurer Jack London, who later described Freeth's aquatic prowess in The Cruise of the Snark. London was among those who provided letters of introduction to the young Hawaiian as he prepared to sail to California, where he hoped to make his fortune promoting surfing and other water sports.
Less than three weeks after departing Oahu (on July 3, 1907), Freeth was surfing at Venice Beach. The spectacle attracted the attention of at least one newspaper reporter and has since inspired the claim that Freeth was the first person to surf in California. (This seems unlikely, according to the staff at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. They point to a newspaper article that details how, in 1885, three members of the royal Hawaiian family who attended a military school in San Mateo surfed at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz.) Freeth's water skills distinguished him from most Americans of that era.
Drownings were so commonplace they were scaring away tourists from resorts in Venice and Redondo Beach. To counteract the negative publicity, railroad magnate and Redondo developer Henry Huntington hired Freeth to show off his surfing skills, and the developer of Venice followed suit. Freeth's performances included standing on his head while riding the waves. And in the years that followed, he improved water safety off Southern California, teaching fundamental water-rescue skills to a cadre of young men who later formed the lifeguard services of Los Angeles County, Long Beach, and San Diego. At times Freeth took a more hands-on approach to lifesaving, most notably when he rescued 11 Japanese fishermen during a violent winter storm in December 1908. Eighteen months later, the United State Congress saluted his bravery by giving him a Congressional Gold Medal.
For all the acclaim, Freeth struggled to make a living. He got a break in 1915 when the moneyed and well-connected San Diego Rowing Club asked him to coach the club's swim team. Freeth took the job, and it seems likely he would have surfed in San Diego at least in the summer months, when to earn extra money he taught swimming in Coronado. By May 1918, after 13 men died in a single day in rip currents off Ocean Beach, that community had secured Freeth's services as a lifeguard, and as a July 17, 1918, San Diego Union article attests, he couldn't resist showing off. "Four thousand beachgoers received a surprise and enjoyed a succession of thrills and healthy laughs yesterday at Ocean Beach when George Freeth, lifeguard, presented his unannounced surfboard dive," the paper reported. "Riding on the crest of the wave in the usual manner, Freeth suddenly leaped, clearing the board by at least three feet, turned a somersault, regained his balance on the board again, then completed his stunt with a dive."
If he wasn't the first to surf in San Diego, Freeth's presence here had more impact than Noisat's. For one thing, Duke Kahanamoku almost certainly came to San Diego because of Freeth. Seven years younger than Freeth, Kahanamoku was another champion swimmer and accomplished surfer from Hawaii, where Freeth had been his coach and they had become friends. In October 1914, Kahanamoku came to California and joined the Los Angeles Athletic Club's swim team, then being coached by Freeth. After Freeth moved to San Diego, the Duke (considered the father of modern surfing because of his later promotion of the sport) traveled down the coast to visit his buddy. That was around 1916 or 1917, according to local amateur surfing historian John Elwell. Elwell says Kahanamoku surfed the OB Pier, and when he did, he asked a teenaged lifeguard named Charlie Wright if he could store his board in Wright's beach shack. Elwell, who interviewed Wright a few years before his death in 1994, says Wright encouraged Kahanamoku to use the shack but asked if he might try the board. "So Charlie surfed the board and also got the dimensions and later copied it," Elwell says.
By the mid-1920s, Wright, who was something of a showman as well as an entrepreneur, was putting on surfing demonstrations at special events. The California Surf Museum has one photograph of Wright surfing on New Year's Eve of 1925 next to the Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach; on his shoulders he bears a young woman wielding a torch.
But by the late 1920s, Wright wasn't using his board for much besides the occasional exhibition. Emil Sigler says he found it near the Mission Beach lifeguard station when he went there the day after his arrival in San Diego in 1928. "It was two pieces of thick pine, bolted together. And it had an iron tip," recalls Sigler, now 96 and still living in his Normal Heights home of many years. He asked whom the board belonged to and then tracked down Wright, who told him he could use it as much as he wanted. "Just put it back where you found it. Lean it against the seawall," Sigler says Wright instructed him.
Born in San Francisco, Sigler had wanted to become a fisherman, and since school didn't interest him, he often ditched classes to hang out at the Fleischacker Pool. Some of the pool's lifeguards were Hawaiian, and Sigler says one day during an outing to the beach they gave him a couple of rides on their boards. That triggered his interest in surfing. Like the Hawaiians' boards, Wright's 125-pound behemoth "was so heavy, it was steady, real steady," Sigler recalls. "It was a lot more steady than the other boards later on." It was so massive, in fact, that a rider couldn't make it turn in the water, and the varnish was so worn "you had to be careful you didn't get any splinters," Sigler says. Still, he enjoyed riding the combers off Queenstown Court in Mission Beach.
Sigler says Wright warned him away from surfing at Ocean Beach, claiming that the outflow from Mission Bay, which at that time streamed under a bridge rather than through the present channel, could be tricky. "You could get knocked out or something, and the tide'll take you out," he says Wright told him. One day while jogging on the beach, Sigler noticed another spot that looked promising. At the north end of Pacific Beach, just south of Pacific Beach Point, the waves seemed particularly well formed. The board was too heavy for Sigler to carry that distance, so he hauled it aboard a ten-foot wooden dory and rowed north from Mission Beach. He unloaded Wright's board at the beach that's now known as Tourmaline and caught some impressive rides. He never saw anyone else surf there for years; he thinks he was the first.
Kook Boxes, Square-Tails, and Redwoods
Sigler will tell you he was the first serious local surfer, but Lloyd Baker dismisses that claim with a snort. Sigler "surfed a little bit," Baker acknowledges, "but he was not very agile. Not that he wasn't strong and not that he couldn't have become a better surfer, but he and Don Pritchard and Dempsey Holder [two other early surfers] were never, ever stylists. They went out and tried, but when they got up it was like you never thought they were going to last for more than 20 feet before they fell off or something."
Baker says he and his pal Dorian Paskowitz and a handful of other teenagers from Point Loma and La Jolla were the first true San Diego surfers, so obsessed with riding the waves, they developed confidence and elegance though their boards were primitive. At 85, Baker's a big man who moves with an easy grace. He and his wife live in a house tucked into the hillside above the Morena Boulevard Costco, overlooking a communal tennis court. He used to be a tennis addict too, but the cement surface wreaked havoc with his knees, so 20 years ago he switched from tennis to golf. He plays that almost every day. He gave up surfing about 1975, when tennis and skiing had become all-consuming.
Born in San Diego, Baker and his family moved around California in his early childhood, but in 1934, when Lloyd was 13, they settled into a house at Portsmouth Court in Mission Beach. Dorian Paskowitz lived a couple of blocks away. In the years that followed, "We went to school every day together," Baker says. "We swam in the morning before school. We ran together. We dated together. We did everything together."
School was Point Loma High, which they reached by riding the streetcar that ran south on Mission Boulevard and over the bridge to Ocean Beach. (That bridge was later torn down when the Mission Bay jetty was created.) "On the other side of the bridge, we'd get off and take a bus up to school." In their sophomore year they built paddleboards in the high school woodshop. Paddleboards had been invented in the late 1920s by a Wisconsin native named Tom Blake who had found his way to Hawaii and become fascinated by the ancient Hawaiian boards in Honolulu's Bishop Museum. In an attempt to devise something that would work like the old planks (as surfboards were called) but be lighter, he had come up with a design that was essentially a surfboard-shaped hollow box. Dubbed a cigar box or a kook box, paddleboards became popular with lifeguards for rescue work, but they could also be used to ride waves. Baker and Paskowitz copied this design and learned to stand up on the boards in the surf that sometimes formed at the entrance to Mission Bay. "Those boards probably lasted a year, year and a half," Baker estimates.
Besides being unwieldy, the boards "were a pain in the ass, because as soon as they got just a little warped or they got in the sunshine or whatever, why, they started leaking," Baker says. When a fellow named Pete Peterson moved from Hawaii to San Diego, where he got a job at the Mission Beach Plunge, he brought with him a couple of square-tailed solid-wood Hawaiian boards, and the boys studied these with interest. About the same time, they learned about boards that promised to work better than paddleboards or Hawaiian planks.
Around 1930, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of prefabricated homes started building surfboards as a sideline. Although the company used solid redwood at first, it later began importing lightweight balsa from South America for use in both the home-building and surfboard-manufacturing businesses. The balsa "was beautiful stuff!" Baker recalls. "They had it all milled, and it was very pretty." But a surfer couldn't simply order a finished board. He had to request that a block of wood be manufactured to the shape and dimensions he specified. "They'd put it together in any configuration you want," Baker says. "You could actually go through their bins and pick out the pieces you were going to have them glue up." Some pieces were harder, some softer; they also varied in weight. "You could pick them out so the board balanced. You'd pick out redwood pieces with pretty grains of wood." If you wanted a "runner" of redwood glued down the middle of the board to stiffen it or along the sides (the rails) or tip (the nose) to protect the softer wood, you could order that too. You drove up to L.A. to pick up your order, then took it home, where with woodworking tools you shaped the simple geometry into a board that planed over water with power and speed. Or if you had a friend who was good at shaping, you might press him into service.
Baker became renowned for his skill at shaping the Pacific Systems Homes boards. Today he downplays his ability; he says he wasn't great compared to subsequent generations of shapers. But for a few years in the late 1930s, he worked on probably 40 or 50 boards. Baker worked on boards for Paskowitz and for the small gang of Ocean Beach and La Jolla boys who had started surfing, as well as others. He did it for free. "We were happy to do the work and pass the board on to somebody that would use it." Because they were lighter, weighing 45 to 65 pounds, the balsa/redwood boards were more responsive in the water, and with the addition of a fin (introduced by Tom Blake in 1935), they became more maneuverable.
Kimball Daun, one of the Ocean Beach boys, doesn't remember when or where he met Lloyd Baker, but he says it didn't take long to realize they were kindred spirits. Born in a house on Larkspur Street 83 years ago, Daun remembers wandering over to the water, unsupervised, when he was six or seven, and teaching himself to swim. Not long after that, he became friends with another kid named Skeeter Malcolm, who lived a few blocks away on Voltaire and shared his love of the ocean. By the time they were eight or nine, they were bodysurfing on "the big beach." Somehow they heard that Duke Kahanamoku had surfed the Mission Bay channel back in the 1920s, and that piqued their interest.
Their first attempt at following his example involved a paddleboard owned by an older teenager named Bob Sterling. "He would take it out on the ocean, usually on calm days, and paddle round on it." Sterling was willing to lend his board to the younger duo. Daun says he and Malcolm took it to an area of Ocean Beach where few swimmers were in the water; they didn't have to worry about other surf- or paddleboards, because there weren't any. They took turns pushing each other into the shore break, and while the nose would sometimes take a dive and the board come to an abrupt halt, at other times the board surged forward. Then whoever was on it would pop up into a crouch, balancing for a couple of seconds before tumbling off.
They couldn't steer at all, but they had fun on Sterling's board, Daun says, until the day one of them caught a good-sized wave and nosed in hard enough to hit the bottom. "All of a sudden, the board was just sunk, which was unusual." When they got it onto the sand, they realized "four feet of the plywood bottom of the board had peeled off and was just hanging under it. We thought, 'Oh my God, this is ruined.' " Sterling was a hulking fellow, and they quaked at the thought of his reaction. They loaded the casualty on a wagon and hauled it to Daun's house. "I said, 'Well, we gotta glue it,' but we didn't have any glue. So we went on Green Street, which was the next block over, and dug the tar out of the cracks in the street. We put it in a can, melted it, and poured the seam all the way around. We scraped off the excess and nailed it down with the tar in there. When we got finished, you could see the black here and there." It seemed to hold, though Daun and Malcolm never pressed their luck by borrowing the board again.
A bit of larceny enabled them to get a board of their own. This happened one night when the boys were walking home from the high school. "Out around Coronado Avenue, someone was building a new house," Daun says. On the building site, they spotted "six magnificent redwood boards that they were using for the window frames. They were about 12 feet long. No one was around, and in those days no one stole anything." Daun and Malcolm hoisted the boards on their shoulders and headed down the hill for the home of a friend who had a big basement. He refused to harbor their plunder, so they continued on to Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. "The boards would bounce because of the distance between us. We were walking along, and a couple of Ocean Beach cops drove around the corner, and oh my God, I thought we were going to die right there. I said, 'Don't look, don't look, don't look!' " The police slowed down but didn't stop the boys, who reached the safety of the garage adjoining the café and barbershop on Voltaire operated by Malcolm's parents. Later, "Skeeter told his dad that my father had bought the wood, and I told my dad that his father had bought it," Daun says. The only problem with this was that "when my dad went down to get a haircut, one of us always had to be in the damn barbershop to keep the talk away from the surfboard."
Somehow that worked. Three-quarters of an inch thick, the boards were far too thin to be made into a solid surfboard, so Daun and Malcolm set about building another box with cross-members. For this they needed screws and plywood, which cost little -- but more than they had. "But Skeeter got 20 cents a day for lunch money, which was unheard of for me," Daun says. "I had my mom make three sandwiches for me, and I'd take two and give Skeeter one. That way he could save his lunch money." They earned a bit more from chores. "We finally got the board built, and at 11 feet long, it was slow in turning, just like all big boards. But for a hollow board made at minimal expense, it was easy to catch waves."
Daun says he and Malcolm (who died in 1993 after a long career as a teacher, coach, and principal) later graduated to boards fabricated from the Pacific Systems Homes balsa/redwood blanks and shaped by Lloyd Baker. So did three other Ocean Beach friends of theirs. They all attended Point Loma High. Baker could look out from his music-appreciation class and assess the surf conditions. If the day looked good, he would sweep through the building, poking his head into the other boys' classrooms and catching their attention. They'd get up and leave. Someone always had an old Model A or some other vehicle they could pile into. "The teachers didn't like it," Daun acknowledges. "But that's how much we were into surfing." Every minute of their waking lives, they were either doing it or thinking about doing it.
San Onofre to IB: The Best Waves Are Claimed
The weight of the boards limited the choices of where these first hard-core surfers surfed. "See, in those days, those boards were nose-heavy," explains Bill ("Hadji") Hein, who by the late 1930s had joined the small band of regulars at Mission Beach and at 88 continues to surf today. Because of the boards' tendency to "pearl" (or plunge beneath the water), "You had to be selective in where you could go. You had to have a wave at least four to five feet high, and it had to have slope in front of it, not a curl," he says. In San Diego County, the most reliable places to find those conditions were San Onofre, Windansea (in La Jolla), Pacific Beach Point, Sunset Cliffs (south of OB), and Imperial Beach.
Often compared to Waikiki in Hawaii, San Onofre began luring Southern California surfers as early as the 1920s. According to Emil Sigler, the location's remoteness encouraged some at the all-male gatherings to swim naked, in a day when men wore bathing suits that covered them from neck to knee. By the 1930s, San Onofre was the setting for the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships, the first organized surfing contests in the world. These were not cutthroat affairs, according to Jane Schmauss, the director of the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. "Those guys didn't care a feather or a fig about who was the best surfer," she says. But they were curious about each other's boards and techniques, and the San Onofre gatherings provided an opportunity to compare notes. "We had campfires and luaus," Hein recalls. "It was the Hawaiian Islands spirit."
San Onofre was too far away for everyday surfing. So was Imperial Beach for all but the few guys who lived there, and most of the time the IB surf wasn't great anyway, Baker says. But in the winter, when the surf came up at Tijuana Sloughs, "Then Dempsey [Holder] would call, and we'd go down." It might happen only three times a year, Baker says, "usually for three to four days. Then there wouldn't be any other surf for a month or so. And the beach surf [in Imperial Beach] wasn't any different than the beach surf at Mission Beach or anywhere else" — unpropitious for boards that might weigh 70 pounds or more.
The waves off Sunset Cliffs were excellent year-round, although access to them wasn't easy. A fellow could make the long paddle south from Ocean Beach or approach from the cliff top or the Theosophical Society. "We used to take our surfboards and just leave 'em in the brush and carry them down the little trail and surf there day in, day out," Baker says.
At Windansea, the reef causes the swell to break abruptly, creating powerful waves that often have a tubular shape. But no one rode Windansea until 1937. One day a young glider pilot named Woody Brown, riding a homemade hollow board, and a handful of other young men from La Jolla "found great surf at Bird Rock and Pacific Beach Point, where we rode 20-foot waves, taking off right on the edge of the kelp," Brown recalled in a 2000 Surfer's Journal article. He and his buddies then ventured out at Windansea. After that, Ocean and Mission Beach surfers began joining them, at least on occasion.
Most, however, considered PB Point "the absolute best for us," according to Kimball Daun. "You always had a long right slide. When the surf was really big, you could actually ride all the way over to Tourmaline." As at Sunset Cliffs, access to the water off the headland wasn't easy. "You had to drive up La Jolla Boulevard and jump the curb," Hadji Hein recalls. Japanese-American farmers were growing fruits and vegetables on the bluff, and the surfers would drive through an opening in their fence and down a mud road leading south to a canyon. They'd park their jalopies there and walk the rest of the way to the beach. "There were beautiful oleander trees all along there," Hein says. The surfers would pick the blossoms, bring them home to their girlfriends, and they would make leis. "That was the spirit we had in those days. We'd play Hawaiian music and all that sort of thing."
One other way at least a few people reached Tourmaline Beach was via a City of San Diego lifeguard truck. By 1935, Emil Sigler had overcome the handicap of being blind in his right eye (the result of an early childhood accident) to come in second on the city's lifeguard-screening exam. He wound up working at the Mission Beach lifeguard station, which had an old Model A. Sigler says he would often rise early and load up a couple of the local kids like Baker and Paskowitz with their boards. He would drive north along the sand, going under Crystal Pier, to Tourmaline Beach. The group would surf, then return in time for Sigler to start his work shift by 9:30 a.m.
An encounter on that truck resulted in the Ocean Beach boys getting their nickname. As Kimball Daun recalls it, Sigler had driven up to Crystal Pier and stopped to chat with Daun, Malcolm, and a couple of their OB cohorts. Finally Sigler started the engine to drive back to the lifeguard station. "Well, Skeeter and I were going to have to walk down to Old Mission Beach," about a mile south of the pier. "So we jumped on the back of the truck. It had handles to hold on to. When we did that, the truck bottomed out." Emil Sigler chastised them, "So we jumped off and Emil worked the thing out of the sand, then we'd jump on again. Pretty soon it was 'You goddamned vandals!' He picked up big rocks and started flinging them at us! That was the first time we were called the Vandals." The name stuck.
The Original Surf Club, by Default
Were the Vandals the first San Diego surf club? They weren't an organization. The Mission Beach surfers formed the first formal association of local wave riders around 1938, with the support of a city councilman named Fred Simpson. Lloyd Baker was the first president, and the group held meetings in a little room on the north end of the bathhouse that was located at the Mission Beach seawall, near Queenstown Court. But the club "dropped into oblivion when the war came along," says Hein, who was one of the first members. "Everybody had to go into the service, and it just went kaput."
World War II Wipeout
World War II took a heavy toll. One casualty was San Diego's first surf shack, constructed around 1938 on the cliff top overlooking PB Point. "Don Okey was the instigator," recalls Hadji Hein. "His father was a manager at a lumber company in La Jolla." The small band of young men who surfed Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla built it. "We stored our surfboards in there; left them overnight," Hein says. "Nobody bothered them. Sometimes there'd be as many as six, eight, nine boards in there." But around 1940 the federal government confiscated the land and bulldozed the bluff top. The local citizenry rechristened the site Gunnery Point "because the sailors had machine guns along the bluffs. Airplanes would tow targets out over the ocean, and the gunners would shoot at the targets," Hein says.
Almost all the men over 18 went into the military service, leaving behind only youngsters and those few people who'd gotten a deferment. Among the former was Woody Ekstrom, who moved with his family into the house at 349 Gravilla Street, in southern La Jolla, in the fall of 1940, the year Ekstrom turned 13. He taught himself to swim and soon made friends with a 14-year-old named Bill Isenhouer. By the following summer, Ekstrom and Isenhouer were spending whole days at Little Cove, not far from Ekstrom's house. Other times, Ekstrom would catch a ride with a lifeguard going up to La Jolla Shores. "I took my mother's ironing board with me and used it to ride the soup," Ekstrom says. "It was wood, about five or six feet long, and I'd just push off into the soup, standing up. That was really the beginning of my surfing."
The United States had entered the war by the time Ekstrom bought a board intended for use in the ocean. "It was a paddleboard that I got for 25 cents from a fellow by the name of Phil Barber. Grandma had given me a dollar for my birthday, so 25 cents of it went to buying that board." It was almost 13 feet long. "Then in late 1943, I got my first real surfboard for $7.50 from a guy I went to high school with. He had found it on the beach. The war was going on, and I think it was just lying on the sand." Ekstrom says he soon figured out who had shaped it. "In those days, there were so few surfers, it wasn't long before somebody said, 'Oh, that's a [Lloyd] Baker shape.' It was balsa and redwood and was 11 foot 2 inches long and 72 pounds -- in very good shape."
Ekstrom thinks he used that board on the afternoon of December 31, 1943, a day that still shines in his memory. The previous summer, he'd borrowed a board and spent a month living on the beach at San Onofre, but Ekstrom says his La Jolla pals hadn't noticed how much he'd improved. That New Year's Eve day, a group of them were out at Windansea. "They got slaughtered. They lost their boards into the rocks, and everything was bad." Ekstrom, who'd been practicing south of there, at Big Rock, announced that he was going to Big Rock instead. "It was a north swell, and it was just right," he recalls. "So the guys said, 'All right, Woody. Let's see you go out.' So I went out at Big Rock, and I rode one wave after another. At the New Year's party that night, I was the center of attention, because I had really learned a lot," he says. He continued to improve, and by 1945 and 1946, he'd acquired a reputation as one of the best surfers in Southern California.
Men were returning home from the war by then, but the beaches still felt empty, according to John Elwell. Elwell was almost 13 on V-J Day. He'd grown up on E Avenue in Coronado listening to his father's stories about Hawaii in the 1920s. The senior Elwell had brought back pictures of Hawaiians surfing that made John marvel. He says his father taught him how to bodysurf, "and the other thing we did is listen to a great radio program called Hawaii Calls. It was the most fantastic program! They'd start with the drumbeats, and you could hear the wind blowing in the palm trees and the swishing of the girls' skirts." He moans at the memory. "You could hear the surf on the beach. Hawaii was wa-a-a-ay out there." Surfing was one way to connect with it.
He was 14 or 15 when he tried surfing himself, using paddleboards that the lifeguards at North Island had abandoned. "They were just terrible!" he says. "They had little plugs in them to drain them. The older they got, the more they leaked. After every third ride, you had to go let the water out." He got his own board after a while, and he says spending time on it had more allure than the workaday world. "Of course, the government put all this fear into you that the Russians had the Bomb, and we had the Cold War, and at any time we could have a nuclear attack." Duck-and-cover drills were a common interruption at Coronado High School. Elwell says he and his peers resolved to enjoy life while they could. "We felt, 'Let's get as much surfing as we can.' "
1950s: The Surfing Boom on New-Tech Boards
Radical breakthroughs in surfboard design and construction were made around the beginning of the 1950s, including the notion of wrapping balsa in fiberglass (which was invented just before the war), then coating it with polyester resin. This made the balsa waterproof so it no longer soaked up water. It also protected the fragile wood well enough that surfers could stop using weighty redwood rails, noses, and runners. The result was boards that were much lighter and more responsive.
Bob Simmons is generally credited with perfecting this innovation. A native of L.A., Simmons had a strong incentive to make surfboards lighter: as a teenager he'd collided with a car while riding his bike and permanently injured one elbow. He'd taken up surfing as a form of physical therapy and had fallen in love with the sport, but the heavy redwood/balsa planks were hard for him to lug around. Eccentric and brilliant, Simmons had studied both aerodynamics and hydrodynamics at the California Institute of Technology; then he'd dropped out during his senior year to work on the war effort. He'd moved to San Diego in 1949 to finish up a mathematics degree at San Diego State. But designing and riding boards engaged most of his attention.
Simmons was the first to use Styrofoam in a surfboard, according to Elwell, who's writing a book about Simmons. Because polyester resin melted the Styrofoam, Simmons encased the foam in plywood and balsa, and the result worked so well he made and sold about 100 boards throughout 1949. Simmons also applied hydrodynamic principles to shaping all-balsa boards, giving their noses a spoonlike shape, adding twin fins and concavity to their tails, and making their rails more rounded. But Simmons was hardly the only creative designer. The first all-foam boards, reportedly used at Windansea in 1951, were invented by La Jolla surfer John Blankenship. And hundreds of surfers shaping elsewhere in Southern California added to the potential for ideas to emerge.
Carl Ekstrom's birth in 1941 was perfectly timed for him to enjoy the ensuing renaissance. Thirteen years younger than his brother Woody, Carl remembers being plunked down on a surfboard, riding tandem, at Windansea when he was 6 or 7. He couldn't swim, and when he got washed off the board, "It was a scary deal," he recalls. On more than one occasion, he almost drowned. But his fascination with surfing overcame the early traumas. Before he learned to swim, at 11, he rode homemade skateboards. Ekstrom believes the first skateboard in the world was created in La Jolla by another La Jolla boy named Peter Parkins. "That was in '47," he says, adding that Parkins was "a real hot surfer at Windansea. A lot of boards were being built in his garage. We called it Parkins' Palace. It was just a dirt floor and shop out behind the house."
To make the skateboards, Ekstrom says he and the other kids removed the steel wheels from old-fashioned roller skates and attached them to two-by-fours. "And we were riding down the steepest, biggest hills in La Jolla. That was the name of the game. It was like big-wave riding. But it was scary because you'd go so fast you couldn't step off, and the boards would get the wobbles." The hill leading down to the Cove was one of the bigger challenges. "We'd see how high we could get on it and still make that turn at the bottom." Ekstrom says the cobblestone pattern imprinted into the concrete increased the hazard. "We were always looking for smooth cement because of the steel wheels. The steel wheels would really slide too. They weren't grippy enough."
Once he learned to swim, he borrowed surfboards and practiced on the waves in front of the Marine Room at La Jolla Shores and at Little Point, just north of Windansea. "Boards were bigger back then. You could get some real floaty thing that you could almost stand up on in still water." Although there were "quite a few" older teenage boys surfing by then, preteens were scarce. But before Ekstrom turned 12, he had his own board, and he joined the crew at Windansea.
Ekstrom says that board was a balsa/redwood hybrid that had been shortened. He and another kid bought it from Fat Wally Robinson. "We went in doubles, and we were doing lawn work to pay for it. It didn't cost much, and it wasn't worth much. We called it the Box. It knocked out one of my front teeth almost immediately, root and all, at Windansea. It came back in the whitewater, and it got me." After another year or two, he wanted something better, but he didn't have much money. So Ekstrom says he started hanging out with Al Nelson, helping him glass -- apply fiberglass and resin to boards. Nelson "was coming onto the scene as an early shaper. He was doing most of the boards for the guys in La Jolla. People came from up and down the coast for his boards." Ekstrom says for a while Nelson was shaping on the beach at Windansea, under the landmark palm-frond-topped shack that was erected there in 1946. David Cheney and Pat Curren, also excellent surfers, shaped boards there too. "But there were lots of balsa shavings, and one day someone threw a match in, and there was a fire." The blaze didn't destroy the shack, but the shapers moved their operations elsewhere.
"We were always looking for places to build boards -- in garages or wherever. You'd go from friend to friend." When Ekstrom was 15, he was glassing boards in a garage that he rented across the street from the shell shop overlooking La Jolla Cove. He says one day Nelson discovered a couple of vacant dirt-floored garages behind Al's Market, in the alley between Nautilus and Westbourne. Nelson set up shop in one, using extension cords to bring in electricity from a nearby house. When it seemed that this arrangement might be stable, "I moved into the garage next to him," Ekstrom recalls. "We were paying nothing, because no one even knew who owned the buildings. There were no locks on anything." One day a bulldozer showed up, "and it was time to get out." But it was idyllic while it lasted.
Much about the surfing scene was idyllic. "People call the '60s kind of the golden era of surfing. Well, to me, it was the '50s because of the balsa boards," says Skip 8. "That's when things really lightened up, and younger people and women could start taking advantage of [the sport] because the boards were light enough to take down to the beach. That's when [surfers] really started maneuvering and turning. The boards even kind of looked gold." Frye says he wishes he'd started surfing when he was 11 or 12, in the early '50s. "I would have liked to experience that whole era. It was such a neat time. The environment was so much simpler and purer, and the freeway wasn't happening -- it was just old 101."
Frye grew up in Bay Park. He swam a lot and was in the Boy Scouts, but he didn't spend much time at the beach because his parents "weren't real beachy." During his junior year at Mission Bay High School, a neighbor with a balsa board took him to Pacific Beach between Grand and Thomas avenues. "Right south of the lifeguard tower is where I caught my first soup. It wasn't actually a swell. We shared the board, and that was that. I just became totally fascinated with it."
Frye and his best friend, Mike Hynson, haunted the beach. "I'm not sure exactly who started first, but we kind of grew up together in the sport," Frye says. "He was really a type-A personality — he would go for it. I was kind of a shy guy, so I'd just tag along.... When Mike knew there was a big name around, he'd go see what the guy was all about, learn from the guy, and try to outdo him." Shadowing his friend, "I was exposed to a lot of people and places I probably normally wouldn't have gotten exposed to." In later years, both Hynson and Frye became legends for their surfing and board-shaping, and in the winter of 1963, filmmaker Bruce Brown took Hynson around the world to costar in The Endless Summer. Upon its release in 1966, the film helped propel surfing into the cultural mainstream.
Before the sport made that transition, though, crowds and competition weren't part of the landscape, Frye recalls. "The information age wasn't anything like it is now, so we never knew where swells came from." A few individuals like Bob Simmons understood the relationship between storms and surf and studied the patterns, but to most surfers, the appearance of a big swell seemed almost mystical.
If Pacific Beach and the La Jolla beaches felt uncrowded in the 1950s, the North County beaches were Edenic. Jens Morrison says when his family moved to Leucadia from Palo Alto in 1955, "All these beach towns were just little hillbilly Podunk places, with no entertainment other than the La Paloma Theatre. There was nothing happening at all. It was tomato fields, flower fields. Lots of animal husbandry."
The Morrison family settled into a house on an acre of land at 910 Normandy Road, where 15-year-old Jens acquired two horses, two goats, a cow, and an assortment of sheep, chickens, ducks. At San Dieguito High School, he became friends with a boy named John Hunt, who told him he should check out Moonlight Beach. "I had no car, no transportation except my horse. But I would just get on Midnight and ride bareback down Normandy Road to Orpheus to Vulcan." In those days, the Pacific Coast Highway was easy to cross, and Morrison would ride parallel to the railroad tracks for a while, then turn right to go down to the beach. "I would tie my horse up near the lifeguard tower. John was the one that first got me on a surfboard."
At first Morrison and Hunt borrowed boards from county lifeguards (whose numbers by then included John Elwell). "We would just fiddle-diddle around in the inshore. Then eventually in the summer we would paddle out to the kelp beds and spearfish. There was no word for pollution. It didn't exist." Morrison says as he and Hunt improved in their surfing and acquired their own boards, they became aware that a handful of older guys were surfing around the old pier (later demolished) in Del Mar. Cardiff, too, commanded the allegiance of a small local crew. "There were some other little places in-between."
Morrison says eventually the better surfers from Moonlight Beach and other North County surf spots discovered Swami's, the stretch of sand below Encinitas' Self-Realization Fellowship Temple. Spending most of their time there is "how we got to be really good surfers. Because it's a reef break. It's way harder. We were the first people to really surf Swami's and surf it well," he says. The regulars at Swami's scorned those who rode the waves "Adolph straight-off," making a beeline for the beach. Instead, everybody wanted to surf like Oceanside's Phil Edwards. "He was a huge influence on a whole generation of people." Emulating him, the Swami's group started turning in a variety of ways, "and also nose-riding was a major, major big deal. Basically, moving around on the board."
The experimentation went on summer and winter, despite the icy water. Wet suits didn't become ubiquitous until the early 1960s. "People now are wimps," Morrison sneers. He says the '50s were a time "when men were men, and you just did it." A handful of girls did it too, among them a blond pixie from Encinitas named Linda Benson. She became so accomplished that she won the women's championship title in the Huntington Beach contest held in 1959, then captured the women's world title in Makaha, Hawaii, the following spring.
Most pleasures were more commonplace, Morrison says. The Swami's crew ignited old tires, creating blazing bonfires, and the local fire department, with a benevolent nod, would caution the kids to be careful. Being hassled for sleeping on the beach was unimaginable. "There were no cops!" Morrison exclaims. "Nobody got you for anything! Nobody arrested you. Nobody kicked you off the beach." The beach was uncorrupted by strife or vice, as Morrison remembers it. He wasn't fond of school, and he recalls days when he'd ditch and head to Swami's, knowing he could find a board in the bamboo at the top of the stairs. "If it wasn't mine, there'd be somebody else's. We used to leave them overnight." He recalls standing on the cliff on winter mornings, looking down upon perfect conditions: five- to six-foot waves, no hint of a breeze. "And I wouldn't go out because there was no one to go out with. I'd be too scared. We would wait for one or two other guys to come down; then we'd all go surfing." When he drove up to Malibu to surf in the summer of 1958, he was stunned. "Some guy ran over me on a big wave. I'd never seen so many people on surfboards in my life."
Gordon and Smith Step Out
In June 1958, the first modern polyurethane foam boards began appearing. At first these inspired scorn. "We used to call the guys that rode them Spastic on Plastic because the boards were kind of bendy," recalls Skip Frye. "They had a funny feel," concurs Pacific Beach surfer Larry Gordon. "They vibrated a little bit, whereas balsa was nice and sturdy and stiff, and it didn't flex at all."
It didn't take long for surfers to realize that flexibility was a good thing. A flexible board could bend into a turn, flow through it better. The result was greater speed and maneuverability. Foam had other advantages: it wasn't porous like balsa, and it didn't have to be harvested from the forests of Ecuador. It could be created, as if by magic, from a couple of easy-to-obtain chemicals.
The first individuals to master this alchemy were a Laguna Beach surfer and shaper named Hobie Alter and his associate, Gordon ("Grubby") Clark. But Larry Gordon and his buddy from Pacific Beach Junior High, Floyd Smith, followed quickly in Hobie Alter's footsteps. The San Diego pair had started surfing together in the fall of 1955, and within months, Larry Gordon was going out up to three times a day.
The first board he owned was heavy, and since his dad was a chemist who had started a San Diego plastics company, Gordon felt comfortable taking a do-it-himself approach to improving the wood. He peeled off the fiberglass and reshaped the board, drilling holes in the deck to remove weight and gluing veneer over the holes; then he reglassed the board with epoxy, rather than polyester resin. This saved him only three or four pounds, he recalls today. "But it gave me the experience of working on a board."
He later ordered a balsa-wood blank, which he got someone to shape. He glassed it himself and used it for a year or two. But the new foam boards were making a stir. They were also tough to obtain. If you wanted one, you had to drive to Dana Point to place an order with Hobie Alter. "Then you had to start calling after three weeks. Finally it'd be finished, and you had to go back to pick it up." Gordon says he and Smith realized if they could figure out how to make the foam boards, they'd have no trouble finding San Diego buyers.
They needed a "plug," or model, from which to create a mold, so in the spring of 1959, they ordered a board from Hobie, specifying a width, thickness, and length big enough so that smaller boards could be shaped from it. (They didn't let on what they wanted it for.) They built the mold in a corner of Gordon's dad's factory. "At the time, he was building car bodies for an electric car, so he was making a lot of molds." All the materials for mold-making were on hand.
They ordered the necessary chemical components, then bought large paper ice cream containers, "the kind you see in 31 Flavors," Gordon says. "You get the two components in there, and you mix them really well. Then you line the mold with paper and pour in the mixture as evenly as possible. It's kind of the same principle as cooking a waffle." Heat generated by the interaction of the two components, along with a foaming agent, makes the glop expand and fill the mold. "But there's a lot of technique," Gordon says. On his and Smith's first try, the mold yielded only three small, shapeless blobs, and subsequent attempts also resulted in disaster. Gordon says it took a couple of weeks before he and Smith were producing serviceable foam blanks. To each of these they added a thin strip of redwood down the centerline (a "stringer," to give the board stiffness). They then shaped the blank with the tools in common use for working on balsa, covered it with fiberglass and colored resin, and polished it.
By the fall of 1959, Gordon and Smith were making and selling boards out of the garage at Smith's apartment (in an alley off Balboa Avenue, between Grand and Garnet). "People would seek us out and want boards," Gordon says. "It was a constant stream of people." This increased at such a brisk pace that the duo moved in January 1960 to bigger quarters at 763 Turquoise Street. For a few months, they had no competition in San Diego, and when it did appear, Gordon says, "We had better team riders and better promotion." Gordon and Smith's volume grew steadily throughout the 1960s, peaking at about 3000 to 4000 boards a year, and when the shortboard revolution appeared in 1968 like a tsunami on the horizon, the San Diego firm was the only U.S. surfboard manufacturer to ride out the huge changes that followed. The company emerged in the '70s as the largest surfboard maker in the world, a position it held for several years. (Although Gordon and Smith still manufactures boards here today, another San Diego company, Rusty Surfboards, now ranks as the largest maker in San Diego and the second or third largest in the world.)
Gordon says even in the earliest days of the company, his partner's marketing skills were evident. "One day in 1960 or '61, he came up with the idea that if kids would bring in their T-shirts, he would silkscreen 'Surfboards by Gordon & Smith' on the back of them. When we announced that, we had a line around the shop down the street. Every Saturday we'd do it." Kids brought in their shirts, usually Towncrafts purchased at JCPenney, three for a dollar, and walked away with one of the world's first items of surf apparel. The Turquoise Street store might also have sold paraffin for waxing boards, Gordon says.
Surf Shops: A New Marketplace
Woody Ekstrom says a case can be made that the first local surf shop was McCall's, a long-extinct La Jolla store on Prospect between Herschel and Girard. During the early 1940s, it sold paddleboards along with other sports gear. Others like John Elwell argue that the first true surf shops were surfers' garages. Shapers would be in business for a while, then disappear, and during the short lives of their operations, most of them sold nothing but surfboards.
A retail surf shop that preceded Gordon and Smith's storefront was an enterprise known as Burland. By the spring of 1958, it was operating out of a single-story building at 853 Turquoise (the current site of a VFW hall), a joint venture of Billy Burgener (the son of Clairemont developer and later congressman Claire Burgener) and Windansea regular Wayne Land. "They were kind of working on a different plane. A lot of what happened there revolved around humor," says Carl Ekstrom. Someone might spontaneously pick up a $50 bill and burn it. It was the Hawaiian influence, Ekstrom says. "The main thing was take care of your friends and not hold back." Burland didn't last long before going bankrupt.
Problem: Too Many, Too Rowdy. Solution: A Surf Park
In 1965, on the day before Tourmaline Surfing Park's official dedication, San Diego Union sportswriter Jack Murphy described it as the first surfing park in the United States. The sport by then had attracted 10,000 surfers in San Diego alone, and they'd formed 30 surfing clubs, according to Murphy. The boom had created tensions. "A surfer, by popular definition, has long, bleached hair, the physique of a lifeguard, and the manners of a juvenile delinquent," Murphy wrote. "He violates property rights, litters beaches, drinks excessively, smokes pot, stages wild parties, surrounds himself with adoring beach bunnies, and earnestly avoids work in all forms."
In the water, encounters between surfers and nonsurfers could be harrowing. When he started out, Larry Gordon recalls dodging and kicking out and surfing right through the swimmers at Pacific Beach. "And I can remember thinking, 'This is pretty unsafe. I wonder why they don't do something about it.' " Anytime there was a good north swell, surfers jammed the streets of the Sun Gold Point subdivision above PB Point, Gordon says. They'd lay their boards down in the street; some of them changed into their trunks in the open. Gordon chuckles at the memory of one newspaper article describing irate property owners, who believed such behavior threatened the value of their $25,000 homes.
Bo Smith says the mayor of San Diego finally responded by convening a group of swimmers, surfers, and other water users. Smith was a surfer who defied the popular stereotype. Now 84 and residing in a nursing home, he was in his late 30s at the time, a secondary school administrator and otherwise upstanding citizen. He says the advisory group met every other week for months, planning ways to designate areas that would satisfy the various interest groups. The idea for the surfing park arose out of this process, he says.
Many surfers hated that idea, Gordon says. "There was a lot of mistrust between the surfers and the authorities.... We thought for sure they would build that surfing park for us, and once it was built, it would be the only spot they would really let us surf in; that we would be considered ungrateful spoiled brats if we still wanted to continue surfing at Bird Rock or Crystal Pier or the Mission Beach jetty or all the other spots we had been surfing at." Despite their opposition, the park was dedicated on May 29, 1965. One irony is that although surfing today remains legal at dozens of places along the coast, Gordon surfs at Tourmaline 90 to 95 percent of the time. Everything turned out well, he says. "I was wrong."
Wolfe's Pop-Cult Spin on Windansea
By 1966, Windansea Beach was more famous than Tourmaline, thanks in part to Tom Wolfe's article "The Pump House Gang." The hard-core Windansea surfers were not impressed. Those guys were winning surfing championships and partying so hard they made the average pack of frat boys look like a Boy Scout troop. Wolfe wouldn't have been accepted in the parking lot where they hung out, according to Carl Ekstrom, who at the time belonged to the Windansea Surf Club and was creating custom boards beautiful enough to hang in an art gallery. (In 1968, in fact, Andy Warhol purchased an Ekstrom board for that purpose.)
The young kids who talked to the New York writer were members of "a side group," Ekstrom says. Although some of them surfed at Windansea, they by no means made up the heart and soul of the place, as Wolfe's article suggested. The story involved "a lot of artistic license. He wasn't telling it quite the way it was." And Wolfe's account of Bob Simmons's death was so ludicrous, it's no wonder spray-painted letters appeared on the pump house declaring, "Tom Wolfe is a Dork."
More than anything, what Wolfe offered his readers was a glimpse into an age-segregated society of ultra-cool, lean, tan surfer-teens. In the article, they sneer at the "black panthers," an older couple (almost 50!) who dare to sit on their beach, she wearing black street shoes, "out of which stick a pair of old veiny white ankles, which lead up like a senile cone to a fudge of tallowy, edematous flesh, her thighs, squeezing out of their bathing suit, with old faded yellow bruises on them, which she probably got from running eight feet to catch a bus or something." The gang intimidates the woman and her husband into leaving. The teens can't conceive of ever growing up and turning into such revolting creatures themselves.
What impresses these kids, what they talk about, according to Wolfe, is the story of Bob Simmons's wipeout. Simmons, according to Wolfe, was "a fantastic surfer" who rode "the really big waves" and wiped out at Windansea one day. "His board came in but he never came back and they never found his body." Although that was "very mysterioso," the most mysterioso thing "was how he could have died at all. If he had been one of the old pan-thuhs, hell, sure he could have got killed. But Simmons was, well, one's own age, he was the kind of guy who could have been in the Pump House gang." The truth, as most of the Windansea crew knew, was that Simmons had died a dozen years before, when many of Wolfe's Pump House gang members had not yet started kindergarten. And at the time he wiped out, he was 35 years old, far beyond "the horror age of 25, the horror dividing line."
Death on a Rogue Wave
John Elwell was in the water the afternoon Bob Simmons died. "I rode the wave before him, and I was swimming back out. I saw it happen. He took off real late, and the board came over the top. It was, like, the biggest wave of the day, what we call a rogue wave. He took it and went off of his board, and the board came over like a guillotine. Hit him right on top of the skull."
Elwell didn't see the blow; he later surmised that this was what happened. At the time, Simmons's fall just looked like a bad wipeout. Other witnesses saw what happened next. Carl Ekstrom and Ronald Patterson and Mike Diffenderfer were standing on the cliff, watching the waves, which had been growing bigger all afternoon. Ekstrom remembers Diffenderfer saying, "Look, Simmons is bodysurfing." That was odd. "He was a guy you'd never see without his board," Ekstrom recalls. "And I remember looking out and not seeing anybody, just seeing white water, water water, white water. It was a great big set." Ekstrom didn't think any more about it until later, when Simmons's friend Bev Morgan showed up and asked about him. A local kid by then had retrieved Simmons's board and hauled it up on the beach. More ominous was what Morgan pointed out. Simmons was in the habit of stashing his clothes in one corner of the surf shack. When he finished surfing, he always got them immediately. "But the clothes were still up there."
Although people looked for the body that night, it washed up a few days later. A woman glimpsed it early in the morning and called police. Ekstrom says Don Okey was standing in the parking lot, speculating where it would come in, based on how the waves were breaking, when a body appeared in the top of a wave. A third Ekstrom brother, Bob, raced into the water and grabbed it.