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Cal Porter's Then & Now
BiographyThere are many famous opening lines from great works of literature: “It was a dark and stormy night”, Bulwer-Lytton, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens, “Call me Ishmael”, from Moby Dick, but ever was there a line more to the point than, “I Am Born”, in Chapter 1 of David Copperfield. So that’s where I will start. It happened to me in the year 1924, and by my calculation that makes me 88 this year.
I surfed at an early age. I had older brothers, and we had surfboards of one kind or another before I was five years old. I’ve surfed all my life. I’ve bodysurfed all my life. I dived for lobster and abalone and fish for dinner, and I sold them to restaurants and fish markets. I had a small fishing boat and fished commercially. I taught swimming. And when I was old enough I became a lifeguard so that I could earn a living and still be on the beach and in the water. Lifeguarding put me through college and graduate school. I became a teacher and then a school principal for many years. But I never left the beach. All my spare time and days off were on the beach. It’s a good thing for me that my family shared my love for the ocean. Most of our trips were to the watery places of the world, where the sea was warm, the water was clear, the diving was good, and the waves were beckoning. I lifeguarded for almost 40 years. And now many years into retirement I’m still on the beach. I live on the beach. Through my windows I can see the beach. And when that day comes and it’s time to “shuffle off this mortal coil” (Hamlet), I will return to the sea once more.
FIVE LITTLE KNOWN BUT FAMOUS SURFERS
1. He was thirty years old in 1866 and working as a reporter for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He was one of the first reporters sent from the mainland to provide readers with information about the tropical and exotic Sandwich Islands that were little known at that time. He spent four months in those islands that would be renamed Hawaii, sending back twenty-five articles that became big hits with readers back home in California. He had just adopted a pen name for these stories that he would use for the rest of his writing life. After Hawaii, Mark Twain would go on to write about Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher and dozens of other characters in stories for the next forty years.
Twain wrote about everything he saw in Hawaii but he was so fascinated by the naked natives surfing he just had to try it: “I tried surf-bathing once but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too, but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but the natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly”. In 1866 Twain was probably the first American surfer ever.
From the first edition of Mark Twain’s “Roughing It”, 1872
2. The Snark was a forty-three foot ketch, a sailboat with two masts and an auxiliary seventy horsepower engine. It set sail from San Francisco and reached the Hawaiian Islands in the early summer of 1907. Jack London was already a famous author when he made this trip having written “The Call of the Wild”, “White Fang”, “Sea Wolf” and many others. At the conclusion of this long sail through the South Seas he would write another well known book, “The Cruise of the Snark”. At Waikiki Beach London was introduced to George Freeth the preeminent surfer in the islands who would start the popularization of surfing in California that same year. London, like Twain before him, had to give surfing a try. In his journal he goes to great lengths in describing his first two days of learning to surf. First day, first attempt in shallow water: “The water gave me a passing buffet, a light tap, but a tap sufficient to knock me off the board and smash me down through the rushing water to bottom, with which I came in violent collision and upon which I was rolled over and over. I got my head out for a breath of air and then gained my feet”. And the next day: “I shall never forget the first big wave I caught out there in deep water--------I was conscious of ecstatic bliss at having caught the wave----------It was my second day at surf-riding, and I was quite proud of myself, I stayed out there for four hours”.
London, on a later Waikiki trip
3. Besides Kamehameha and other Hawaiian kings has there ever been another king that surfed? Only one that I know of. At the time he was a prince, twenty-six years old, and the heir apparent to the throne. It was 1920, and Edward, the British Prince of Wales, journeyed to the shores of Hawaii on H.M.S Renown for a stay of three days. Duke Kahanamoku was quickly recruited to take charge of teaching the future King Edward the Eight and his friend Earl Mountbatten how to surf. They were in the water for two to five hours all three days. Edward learned quickly and was soon on his feet; Mountbatten never made it up. Edward was probably the first British surfer ever, royal or otherwise. In another sixteen years Edward would be King of England, but of course his reign was short lived when Wallis Simpson entered the picture and England said no to the idea of this American divorcée ever becoming queen; abdication ensued. There is no record of the good prince ever surfing again.
4. If I were asked to name the most unlikely person to take up surfing, this next one would be high on the list. She is the best selling novelist of all time with four billion copies. Outside of the Bible and Shakespeare hers are the most published books in history. In addition to other works, she wrote sixty-six detective novels, mainly featuring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Many of her works were filmed and on stage. All this and she never went to school when she was a child, her mother believing that education destroyed the brain. Agatha Christie travelled to Hawaii with her first husband, Archie, in 1922; she was thirty-two years old. Both she and Archie had experienced prone boogie boarding on the coast of South Africa on the voyage to Hawaii and were eager to try stand up surfing once they reached Waikiki. Both became quite good at it. In Christie’s words: “I learned to become expert ---the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right in to shore standing upright on my board. It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known”. In 1922 Agatha Christie was surely England’s first female surfer. She wasn’t royalty like Edward VIII but later she did become Dame Agatha Christie and also “Lady” since her second husband was knighted.
Agatha, Hawaii, 1922
5. This surfer is about as unlikely as the one above, and much older than any of the preceding was for his first attempt at the sport. The setting is Muizenberg Beach, a popular spot on the South African Coast, and coincidentally where Agatha Christie did a bit of prone surfing ten years before on her way to Hawaii. He was seventy-five years old in March of 1932 when he arrived at the beach to try his hand at surfing. He had already written over fifty-five plays such as My Fair Lady, Caesar and Cleopatra, Candida and Major Barbara, all made into movies as well as many more. George Bernard Shaw made quite a stir when he appeared on the beach, board in hand, with his long beard and white hair. The South African Travel News the following week wrote that, “Mr. George Bernard Shaw had the beach to himself for his initiation into the delights of surfing. After a few minutes practice be becomes as adept at the exhilarating sport as many of its younger devotees”.
George Bernard Shaw in Action, 1932
Three Brits and two Americans,
Four writers and a king.
One thing in common,
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 11 , 2012
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
IN THE EYE OF THE ARTIST - EARLY SURFER GIRLS IN THE U.S.
Captain James Cook of Great Britain, commanding His Majesty’s Ship, The Resolution, witnessed the sport and pastime of surfing when he “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands in 1777. Surfing is well described in the ship’s journals, and the ship’s artist left illustrations of the sport. Girls surfing the waves of Hawaii have been depicted by artists as long ago as 1819 when an etching was done by French artist, Jacques Arago, entitled “Wahini of the Sandwich Isles”. The artist of the scene below and many other artists throughout the nineteenth century found Hawaiian female surfers, usually in a state of complete undress, a great source of inspiration.
Island of Maui, 1873
In the United States, however, there are very few early illustrations of females surfing the waves, and no photographs until probably the mid-thirties when Doc Ball with his camera caught Mary Ann Hawkins in action at Palos Verdes Cove. Then again, the coverage of male surfers in the U.S. in those days is skimpy as well, one reason being that there were very few surfers back then, plus the complete lack of awareness of surfing on the part of the American public. So it seems a bit of an anomaly that possibly the first depiction of a surfer in the United States came at such an early year; and was a girl, not a man. Nineteen years before George Freeth arrived in California from Hawaii in 1907 and introduced the sport to a public that had never even heard of surfing, the cover of a well-known magazine depicted a girl standing on a board fully involved with riding a wave. The date on the magazine was Saturday, August 18, 1888, and the location, of all places, was the coast of New Jersey. The publication was The National Police Gazette out of New York City that often used for its cover rather racy pictures that today would seem more than tame. The picture was of a young Hawaiian girl with long flowing hair done by an artist who, it would seem, knew very little about surfing. The caption under the illustration read, “A Gay Queen of the Waves”.
“Asbury Park, New Jersey, Surprised By the Daring of a Sandwich Island Girl”
Did this Hawaiian girl really surf at Asbury Park in 1888, making her probably the first girl to surf in the U.S. by a great many years, or was she just a figment of the artist’s imagination? And did he actually see her surf or just create the image from what he had heard about the event? The short description on page fourteen of the Gazette certainly makes this surfing event sound believable: “A group of summer loungers on the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey, were watching the extraordinary antics of a dark eyed, bronze faced girl in the sea a few mornings ago……….She is as completely at ease in the sea as you or I on land, and the broad plank obeys her slightest touch”. The surfer girl’s scanty bathing attire was also described in detail by the Police Gazette. There was some thought at first that this could be Hawaiian Princess Kaiulani, age 14, stopping off on her way to be educated in England but the date didn’t match.
The next depiction of a girl surfing in the U.S. probably wasn’t until 1911, twenty-three years after the Asbury Park etching above. And even this date was very early on since by 1911 there were only a handful of surfers in the whole country, all male, who took up the sport after George Freeth’s 1907 and 1908 surfing photos at Venice and Redondo Beach appeared in Southern California newspapers. This girl wearing the latest in proper surfing attire, stockings and all, was on the cover of the July 1911 Sunset Magazine and she is beckoning one and all to hit the surf on the beaches of Los Angeles.
The young lady (a regular foot, left foot forward) appears to be a very good surfer who never falls off her board since there is not a drop of water on her or her costume; which is a good thing since swimming with all the weight of salt water added to that outfit could prove difficult.
While there were drawings of girls surfing in Hawaii in travel guides and advertisements at this time, very little evidence of art work involving girls surfing in the U.S. could be found between the 1911 magazine cover above and the 1923 cover that follows. This is the January, 1923 edition of Judge Magazine, price 15 cents, the same price as Sunset twelve years before. Some things hadn’t changed but this surfer girl certainly had, but only in the mind of the artist. He was way ahead of his time with this rendition; no girl in 1923 would dare appear on a public beach in that attire. She might risk arrest if she did. She looks like a great surfer, however, as she moves toward the nose to hang ten. I have added a photo of what in reality girls did wear in those days, a far cry from the girl that this artist captioned as his “Gulf Streamlined Model”. I was a kid living at the beach in the 1920’s and have a hazy memory of such things.
The Artist’s 1923
The Real 1923
During the 1930’s there were a few girls who took up surfing, although I never saw one out in the waves where I grew up on the beaches of Playa Del Rey, Venice and Santa Monica. I did see Mary Ann Hawkins, a fine surfer, a time or two at Palos Verdes and I heard that Hermosa Beach had a couple of girls that surfed, but it was a very small total number in the U.S. The artist of the picture below probably never saw a girl surfing but he did a good job of putting her on the surfboard with a parallel stance and dressing her in the latest of practical but attractive aquatic apparel. This scene is apparently in the early 1930’s since her partner, the goofy-foot surfer just behind her, is wearing the full length bathing suit of that time.
Over eighty years have passed since the artist rendered the drawing above, and 125 years since the “bronze skinned” girl surfed at Asbury Park in the first ever depiction of a surfer in the U.S. Today girls are surfing all over the world, and images of girls surfing are everywhere, on billboards, magazines, books and ads.
I guess we’re not in 1888 anymore.
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 16 , 2012
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFING THE EARLIEST PHOTOS
The identity of the first surfer in the United States is unknown, and in all probability will forever remain unknown. I’ve written about this before, and also used some of the material and pictures in this article before, too. However, in this story we will zero in on the four earliest photographs ever taken of surfers in the United States (excluding, of course, Hawaii where surfing has been going on for hundreds of years). Maybe older photos of U.S. surfers will eventually surface from some forgotten album or dark closet, but for now the four that follow are the oldest ever found. There are a couple of earlier, written accounts of surfing activity reported in local newspapers, however, but none accompanied by photos. On July 20, 1885 the local Santa Cruz, California newspaper printed an account as follows of three Hawaiian Princes who had been sent to the mainland to live and go to school in nearby San Mateo: “The breakers at the mouth of the river were very fine today. Three young Hawaiian Princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surfboard swimming as practiced in their native islands”. Then again in the Santa Cruz paper on July 23, 1896, in one sentence, it was reported that, “The boys who go in swimming in the surf at Seabright Beach use surfboards to ride the breakers like the Hawaiians”, but again no photos.
Here then, in reverse order, are the four earliest photos of man and surfboard in the U.S. that we know of:
1907, George Freeth, Venice, California
George Freeth arrived in California from Hawaii in 1907 and then proceeded to amaze onlookers with his demonstrations of the unknown art of surfboard riding, gaining him the title of, “The Man Who Could Walk On Water”. The Santa Monica Daily Outlook newspaper first mentioned his name in print in October of 1907 describing him surfing near the Venice breakwater. This would place him alongside the Venice Pier in the ocean in front of the Venice Saltwater Plunge where later I was a high school swimmer and lifeguard in the late 1930’s. Some of my fellow lifeguards had known Freeth well, and worked, swam and played water polo with him. He became a legend, a lifeguard, and an instructor of all things aquatic. He was the first to surf many of Southern California’s beaches and popularized the sport. The above photo is the first showing a stand-up surfer in the U.S., and it used to be thought the first ever photo of U.S. surfing.
1906, Wilfred Dole, Point Grenville, Washington, a year before the Freeth photo.
Wilfred, a couple of years later with probably the same white board.
The two photos above came from the Surfer’s Journal Magazine of October, 2006. Like George Freeth, Wilfred and his family were from Hawaii and had left the islands for the mainland in 1891. In the early 1900’s he attended Stanford University where he met Ralph Emerson. Ralph’s family owned a lumber business on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and soon Wilfred and two other Dole brothers were working summers there. The Doles had a knowledge of surfboard making from their years living in the islands and were soon building boards at the mill to use in the nearby surf. These boards were made of cedar and were thin and finless and looked like they were used mainly for prone surfing, but chances are the boys jumped to their feet occasionally to give it a try. Some of the boards were built as early as 1902 but the first photo of one is the one above in 1906. Ralph and Wilfred later became very successful and named their business, “The Aloha Lumber Company” perhaps influenced by Wilfred’s birthplace, his surfing background, and his Dole Pineapple family roots.
East Coast, before 1906
This fellow at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina appears to be sitting on his board and glancing back over his left shoulder anticipating the arrival of the next wave. Whether he’s going to bellyboard the wave or jump to his feet we’ll never know. The writer of this postcard has it dated 1909. However this same postcard below was sent in March of 1907. This is obviously a summer photograph, certainly not taken on a cold winter day in March since the water is crowded with bathers enjoying the ocean. So the photo had to have been taken, at the latest, the summer before in 1906, but probably much earlier than that since postcards remain on the racks for many years.
Card dated 3-24-07, but the photo is no doubt earlier than the 1906 Wilfred Dole photo above.
Unknown surfer with board, Santa Monica, Ca. 1898-1904
When I discovered this picture of man holding surfboard in the photo archives of the Main Downtown Los Angeles County Library some years ago it was labled, Santa Monica Pier, 1880. That seemed a bit early for what is seen in the photo. After it was published in the Surfer’s Journal Magazine along with my article about it, then receiving many responses from readers and doing further research on it, it seems that it was indeed dated by the donor of the photo many years too early. The pier is clearly the North Beach Bathhouse Pier which wasn’t built until 1898. Furthermore, a former head of costume and wardrobe for the movie studios pointed out that men were not wearing those woolen, tank type swim suits in the photo until closer to 1900 ( in 1880 they had sleeves), and the ladies’ blouses and skirts were closer to that date also. The pier and boardwalk in the photo were pretty much destroyed in the storm of February, 1905, as seen in the photo below, which means the photo above had to have been taken on a summer day between 1898 and 1904. I corrected the date for the library.
North Beach Bathhouse Pier and Boardwalk after the storm of February, 1905
And THE WINNER IS!! To come to the conclusion of all this, the man in the photo standing at water’s edge on Santa Monica Beach in the scratchy, wool bathing suit with his feet in the water and holding his board under his arm, is Number One, his is the oldest photo of man with surfboard in the United States.
That is, until someone comes up with an earlier one!
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 15 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
GIRLS DONT SURF
Growing up on the beach at Playa del Rey I like to think I surfed in the 1920’s, if you could call it surfing. I was just a young kid but I had older brothers and early on we had boards of various kinds; many of them homemade and on the primitive side. Then in the early 1930’s we acquired a used, commercially built redwood board from the Pacific Systems Homes Company, the first to build them. Some years before that Tom Blake had invented the hollow paddleboard in the late 1920’s and first put a fin on one in 1935. The Thomas Rogers Company of Venice started building them commercially. By the middle 1930’s I had two of these boards and kept one of the paddleboards at my house and the other at a friend’s house alongside the south jetty of Ballona Creek where we could ride the nicely shaped, right peeling waves along the rocks. This was after I had peddled my bike the mile down the beach to his house. Pacific Systems also started building the much lighter, balsa redwood boards in the mid 1930’s. I didn’t acquire my first one of these until 1939 when I purchased one from Santa Monica and L.A. County Lifeguard Chauncey Granstrom for fifteen dollars since he was getting a new one. That board is hanging on the wall as you enter the Zuma Beach Lifeguard Station where it has now resided for almost sixty years. It had been repaired and reshaped through the years by master board craftsman Pete Peterson of the Santa Monica Lifeguards.
That briefly accounts for the 1920’s and 1930’s but what does it have to do with the title of this story? Well, during that time who was surfing? On the entire stretch of our Playa del Rey beach from El Segundo to Venice during those years I saw four other surfers, two of them my brothers and the other two the brothers who lived on the beach where I kept my second paddleboard, and no one else. However I had heard there were some surfers down in the Hermosa area, and then when I was old enough and headed north to Venice I found that there was a small group of surfers between the now long gone Sunset and Venice Piers, mostly paddleboarders. There were some fine waves there in those days and there was even a club, one of the first, The Venice Paddleboard Club, formed in the mid 1930’s. And on the beach were many of my school buddies who lived nearby, a few belonged to the surf club, and a lot of girls hung out there too. What I didn’t see at all during those mid 30’s and earlier was a girl on a surfboard. When I asked the guys if a girl ever went out on a board the answer I always got was, “Are you kidding, girls don’t surf, they could never learn, it’s too hard, and besides the boards are too heavy for a girl to carry”.
The Club, 1938, no girls
Of course we know now that girls had been surfing for two or three hundred years in Hawaii and other islands. Captain Cook saw them when he discovered Hawaii and anchored off the islands in 1778. Artists have depicted them on engravings and canvas through the years, usually on unrealistic looking surfboards and in a state of some undress. Hawaiian queens, princesses and commoners alike enjoyed the sport.
Although the real life “Gidget” stated recently, “I was the first girl surfer”, there had been a good many before she hit Malibu Beach in the summer of 1956. The first one I had ever seen was one day at the surf break referred to as Palos Verdes Cove, Paddleboard Cove or Malaga Cove but usually called Bluff Cove in those early days. I went that day with a couple of older friends and it had to have been 1938 or 39. There was usually a group of the regulars there that I didn’t really know very well because I didn’t go there often, but I knew who they were, maybe Jim Bailey, Tom Blake, Tulie Clark, Doc Ball, Leroy Grannis, guys like that. But on this day there was a girl in the water surfing with the guys and doing just as well as they were. I had never seen a girl surfer before. Later I learned that there was a Hermosa girl that surfed occasionally, and maybe one or two others on the coast someplace but this was my first. I asked and found out that she had been surfing for several years in the 1930’s and was no doubt California’s first girl surfer and the best. She was a champion swimmer, great bodysurfer, won paddleboard races and was the first female to enter the Catalina to Manhattan Beach aquaplane race. As time went on she gradually inspired many other girls to give it a try. I later saw her surfing at San Onofre on occasion and I think once at Malibu, but I never managed to meet her. Mary Ann Hawkins went on to become a movie stunt woman and taught swimming for a good many years in California and Hawaii.
And she married a surfer.
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 03 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE UNKNOWN SURFER
The mystery will probably never be solved. More than likely the question of who was the first surfer in the United States will never be known for sure. We know about the Hawaiians, Tahitians and other islanders surfing hundreds of years ago in the Pacific but here in mainland U.S. it remains a mystery. I’ve written before about the three Hawaiian princes who attended school in the San Mateo area for a time in 1885. The Santa Cruz newspaper mentioned that one day these three were in the ocean “giving interesting exhibitions of surfboard swimming”, but there are no photographs and it is not known what is meant by that quotation. Then there is the photo in a previous article of mine of a man, not in the water but standing on the beach in Santa Monica with a surfboard under his arm, sometime probably between 1898 and 1904. Then along comes Hawaiian George Freeth arriving in California in 1907, and it has long been thought that he was the first surfer, or at least the first to be photographed in the water with a surfboard. There are several photos of him in the ocean at Venice and Redondo Beach back in those years.
Now a postcard photo has been discovered that predates any other photograph that anyone has ever found of man and surfboard in the ocean in the U.S. The photo was taken at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.
This fellow appears to be sitting on his board and glancing back over his left shoulder anticipating the arrival of the next wave, which is a familiar sight to any surfer. Whether he is going to belly board that oncoming wave, knee board it or attempt to jump to his feet, or whether he’s regular or goofy-foot we’ll never know, but he is on a surfboard of some kind. This card was sent by a vacationer in September of 1909, and he writes that he wants the recipient to find him in that crowd in the water; obviously kidding because the photo was taken much earlier as we will see in the picture below.
This is the same postcard mailed a couple of years earlier, March 24, 1907. The writer says he needs a swimming lesson, and the Sea Shore Hotel in the picture has been gone for a long time. Looking at this photo with the huge crowd in the water, it is obvious that it is a summer scene, certainly not the month of March in the cold of wintertime. This means that the latest the photo was taken would be the previous summer of 1906, and probably much earlier since postcards stay on the racks for many years.
Well, then, there it is, 1906 or earlier, this beats them all, the first photo of someone in the ocean in the U.S. on a surfboard, such as it is. It’s difficult to see in the picture what that board is like, or the size and shape of it, but it’s definitely wooden since that’s the only material known to float back in those days. Whether this guy could do aerials and 360’s, who knows, but it sure doesn’t look like he was going to get many tube rides out of those little beach break waves in Wrightsville, North Carolina over a hundred years ago.
Submitted By Cal Porter on April 01 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFING, THE FIRST SIGHTING
Captain James Cook of Great Britain, commanding His Majesty’s Ship Resolution, was on a Pacific voyage attempting to find the fabled Northwest Passage. It was never found since it didn’t exist but Cook did find the Hawaiian Islands in the year 1777 which he named the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich. There is some dispute over whether there had been other explorers there before him but since there is no record of this or any evidence found on land or sea Cook is generally given credit for this discovery. From Hawaii he then explored the coast of North America, later returning to the islands. He never left. A dispute arose over the theft of a small boat, and in the ensuing scuffle he was stabbed and killed by a group of natives.
Captain Cook Captain Cook and the photo source: wikipedia Resolution Arrive in Hawaii, 1777
Captain James King took over the task of keeping up the ship’s journal thereafter. His entry in March of 1779 is what is generally accepted as being the first description ever recorded of “he’e nalu”, the Hawaiian word for surfing, and he and the sailors the only outsiders that had ever witnessed the sport. In reading the ship’s journals again recently this is what King reported: “Whenever, from stormy weather, or any extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost heights, they choose that time for this amusement: twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore. As soon as they have gained the smooth water beyond the surf, they lay themselves on their board, and prepare for their return. The object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore. The boldness and address, with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous manoeuvres was all together astonishing”. So there you have it, the generally accepted idea that this was the first time surfing was seen by anyone other than the natives and the very first time it was written about. Or was it?
Surfing in Hawaii as Cook’s Artist Saw it The Death of Captain Cook in Hawaii
Captain Cook made two previous voyages to the Pacific Ocean. On the first, in 1769 in the ship Endeavour, he was sent to the island of Tahiti to observe and record the transit of Venus across the Sun. On this voyage he also explored Australia and New Zealand. In reading through his journals of his stay on the island we find some interesting observations about the surf in Tahiti. But more than Cook’s, the journal of botanist, Joseph Banks is even more enlightening. Banks was a brilliant botanist and naturalist with a keen sense of observation sent along with Cook to study and bring back samples of plant life. He gathered up some 30,000 specimens, including at least 1400 plants never seen before. It is said that 240 years later the Natural History Museum of London still hasn’t cataloged all of them. Banks took copious notes on everything he saw on Tahiti. The following is what I read in his journal about what he observed along the coast one day before returning to the Endeavour: “---We saw the Indians amuse or excersise themselves in a matter truly surprizing. It was in a place where the shore was not guarded by a reef as is usually the case, consequentially a high surf fell upon the shore, a more dreadful one I have not often seen: ---I think no Europaean who had by any means got into it could possibly have saved his life. ---Their chief amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe. With this before them they swam out to the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness. Sometimes they were carried almost ashore but generally the wave broke over them before they were half way in which case they dived and quickly rose on the other side --- and the same method repeated. We stood admiring this wonderful scene for full half an hour, in which no one of the actors attempted to come ashore but all seemed most highly entertaind with their strange diversion”.
In his own journal of this trip to Tahiti in 1769 Captain Cook accurately describes a native that he saw canoe surfing one day: “He sat motionless and was carried along as the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him on the beach. Then he started out, emptied his canoe and went in search of another wave”. But Joseph Banks saw something quite different on the day he observed natives in the water. From what I read in his journal it appears that the natives he saw had taken an old canoe and altered it or reshaped it considerably, no doubt for better use as a wave riding vehicle. They shortened it substantially and used only the stern part of the canoe thus providing just enough flotation for one person, or perhaps enough for two people to climb on for a tandem ride as Banks described it. He states that he observed them catching wave after wave for a half hour with this wave plank. Maybe not quite the same as what the crew of the Resolution saw in Hawaii some years later, but it certainly sounds like something close to surfing as we know it. And this was ten years before the generally accepted date in Hawaii for the first time Europeans had ever seen surfing, and the first time it was written about.
Surfing in Tahiti Today, photo source: Surfline
Submitted By Cal Porter on Jan. 26 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFING IN MALIBU, THE EARLY YEARS
It was quite an adventure coming to Malibu over 70 years ago to search for surfing and diving spots in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. There were no public beaches along the entire 27 mile Malibu coastline then, all were privately owned and most were of the no trespassing kind. In the early years of my life you couldn’t get into Malibu at all since the whole stretch was owned by the Frederick Rindge family and protected by a fence and armed guards. There were very few surfers in those days, the 1920’s, but only two of them ever tried and succeeded in surfing beyond the Rindge property line fence that stood where Duke’s Restaurant is today. Tom Blake and Sam Reid did it in 1926 by parking before reaching the boundary line, eluding the guards, and paddling the several miles to what is now called Malibu Surfrider Beach. No one else surfed Malibu until many years later. When the State of California finally forced the Rindges to open the fence and allow a highway through their property in 1929 access was made easier but the beaches were still all private.
Paradise Cove The Old Days Zuma Beach and Point Dume
Today, 80 years later, almost all of Malibu’s beaches are accessible either by being owned outright by the County of Los Angeles or the State of California, or by ingress made possible via the many public easements spaced along the Malibu coastline where all beaches from mean high tide line to the water are open to all. Wide open, public beaches in Malibu are found at Topanga, Las Tunas, Surfrider, Corral, Westward, Zuma, Nicholas and Leo Carrillo. There are also the pocket beaches of El Matador, La Piedra and El Pescador located in West Malibu.
But back to the adventure and what it was like long ago in the 30’s and early 40’s in our search for surfing and diving at those places mentioned above, and at other beaches in Malibu. The following is what we found as we drove north from Santa Monica. Luckily I had older brothers and surfer friends in my earliest days of surfing that had cars before I hit that magic age of sixteen when I could reach Malibu on my own. The first glimpse of good waves was Topanga Point, a beach totally owned at that time by the Los Angeles Athletic Club. It was a fine surfing spot but populated with a solid line of private homes rented out by the club. No one surfed there in those days. You could park your car down by the Topanga Canyon Road and walk in, but the times we tried it we often heard the term trespassers directed our way. Some years later surfing started to catch on with a few of the artist and Bohemian locals who had moved in. They also wanted the surf all to themselves. We did become acquainted with some of the interesting characters who lived there, but not with Charles Manson and his group who later moved in across the street. Eventually the State of California thought the area would be a dandy public beach so the property was bought and all the houses torn down by the late 1970’s. The beach was opened to all, and only a lifeguard building remains on the sand today, with plenty of surfers in the water.
Next on our trip north we would reach Las Tunas Beach, about a mile from Topanga. We found some decent diving there but no surfing. There never were any homes along this stretch so access was easy when I was a kid even though it was all privately owned by the Rindges. No one was ever there to say no. The State purchased it for the public in the early seventies and a lifeguard tower is there.
Driving up the coast from there in our surf search we would now enter the old Rindge Ranch property at the Las Flores Inn, built in 1916 (now Duke’s). This is where the fence had been, and a few miles beyond we would stop at the Malibu Pier, a much shorter pier than the one there now. This surf spot was simply referred to as Malibu, and was fairly well known to the few surfers around in those days. It was so good there that hardly anyone ever ventured off to look anywhere else in Malibu. During the 1930’s there would seldom be other surfers in the water, it was best to bring friends along. There was a fence along the road but easily circumvented, and seldom were we asked to leave even though there was a Rindge home on this private beach that was built in 1929 and is still there today. During the early 1940’s, WWII caused the pier and point to be taken over by the Coast Guard, so access was iffy but sometimes possible. Many years later the area grew in popularity to such an extent that the State bought the property soon after the Gidget era in the late 1950’s and made it a public beach. It is now called Malibu Surfrider Beach, one of the most famous and crowded surf breaks in the world.
Malibu, 1940’s, Cal and five friends on a wave.
If we ventured beyond Malibu the open stretch of Corral Beach would soon appear. There were never homes along this privately owned beach and no fence but the surfing wasn’t worth a stop because better things were ahead. Latigo Point was just beyond with good surf and plenty of abalone for diving. The State purchased Corral in the late 60’s for public beach use. It is sometimes referred to as Dan Blocker State Beach after the actor who was “Hoss” in Bonanza and once owned some of the beach there.
The Point Dume area was never taken over for public beach use, it is private. In the 1930’s, early 40’s we would drive our car out through the empty fields over dirt trails looking for a way down the bluffs to surf and dive. I never saw anyone else on the beach, although Buzzy Trent told me he had surfed there. There was not one house on the point where now there are many hundreds. Paradise Cove didn’t exist, and the pier there was not built until 1945.
Westward and Zuma Beach were faraway outposts in those days. Zuma was the first ever purchased for a public beach in the Malibu area. The County of Los Angeles started buying it in the early 1940’s after there was a default in paying county taxes on the land. It was opened as a public beach in 1945 with one lifeguard; I worked there soon after. As teenagers, long before the takeover by the county, we would occasionally surf and bodysurf the fine waves there in the crystal clear water. It was all private property with six beach homes on the sand but we never encountered any problems. We usually went in the water at the southern end of the beach in front of the old duck hunting lodge that was on the marshy lagoon there. The gun club, the four homes on Westward Beach and the six on Zuma, one of which I later rented from the county for 25 dollars a month, were all torn down eventually and replaced by parking lots. We found the surf there ran from being very good to not so good depending on many variables, but we always loved going there with not another soul on the beach or in the water. There were no homes at all across the street in what is now Malibu Park; there was only a shed in Zuma Canyon. A store called The Trading Post where supplies could be purchased stood at Trancas
Zuma Beach and Malibu with no Houses
If we drove beyond Zuma over the two-lane highway we were really getting out in the wilderness. We didn’t discover Nicholas Canyon Beach until the late 40’s; we called it Zero Point. There were only a couple of houses in the area, it was private, gated, and no one else surfed there. L.A. County started buying the beach, bluffs and houses for a public beach in the early 60’s, and then tore down the houses, one of them being mine. Great waves, great diving, with crowds of surfers.
Leo Carrillo State Beach was our last stop in Malibu, beyond was Ventura County. It was all privately owned in those early days and called Phillips Ranch after the rancher that owned it and lived there. We surfed there alone on this private beach by climbing through a fence and avoiding the horses, Phillips didn’t seem to mind. The State acquired the property for a public beach in the mid-1950’s, removed the ranch house and built a lifeguard building. The break is usually referred to as Secos by surfers today.
Phillips Ranch before it was Leo Carrillo State beach
I surfed, dived and swam all of Malibu’s beaches when I was young, and later worked as a County Lifeguard at every one of them. I was the first lifeguard ever assigned to famous Malibu Surfrider Beach in 1959 as well as many of the other beaches. At 85 I can look back at well over 70 years of enjoying these beaches and waves through the years, and I’m still at it. I have lived in Malibu now for sixty years. It has changed though. There were few people living here and few houses in Malibu back then, and the waves were empty. Still it’s the best place I can think of to live.
But I do miss being able to swim out to almost any reef in Malibu and plunk off a tasty abalone for the evening meal. They’re all gone.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 01 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A DAY AT THE BEACH
It was an early 1930’s Packard Phaeton automobile, a two-seater, no top, open-air car that was the height of luxury in its day. Once long ago it had a fancy convertible top and a window between the front and back seats that separated the chauffeur from the passengers. A wide running board on each side of the car allowed an easy step to comfortably enter the Phaeton. Two big spare tires, one mounted on each side of the Packard above the fenders, afforded ideal space for wedging in and securing a surfboard or two. If need be, an additional couple of boards could rest upon the back seat and extend at an angle into the open air. We finished loading the five boards that we would be needing for the day, and now we were ready.
Packard Phaeton - photo source: gilmore car museum
It was a pleasant morning over sixty years ago in September of 1948, and the five of us had decided that a surfing trip to Malibu was the right thing to do that day. In addition to myself, the other members that day were Peter Cole and his twin brother, Corny (the owners of the Packard), Buzzy Trent, and Don McMahon, a Santa Monica Lifeguard (Don and his partner, Gene Selznick, later became the top volleyball team on the coast). Buzzy, Don and I sat in the rear seat, with the Coles up front. Peter and Corny were 17 years old and always ready for a surf jaunt. Buzzy was 19 and also a Santa Monica Lifeguard. I was the senior citizen of this bunch, being several years older and a Los Angeles County Lifeguard for many years. I don't clearly remember the equipment the others brought, but Corny Cole recalls that Buzzy, Peter and he were all on Simmons boards; flat bottomed, balsa-redwoods with about three feet of plywood on the nose. They always rode Bob Simmons boards and paid him 20 to 25 dollars for them. My own board on this trip was an old balsa- redwood, a Pacific Systems, that I had bought sometime in the late 30’s from Chauncey Granstrom for $15.00. Chauncey was a surfer, and had worked for both the Santa Monica and L.A. County Lifeguards in the early days of professional lifeguarding. I was anxious to try the board this day because I had just picked it up from Pete Peterson in Santa Monica. Pete was the top waterman of his day and I had known him since I was a teenager lifeguarding in the old Venice Saltwater Plunge where Pete swam and worked out. He took a look at my board one day and said that he would like to do a little reshaping work on it, and bring it up to date; after all this was the 1940's, not the 30's, he said. So I took it down to where he worked on surfboards, and all other things aquatic, in his shop beneath the Santa Monica Pier. This was the first "under the pier" surf shop, long before Velzy's shop under the Manhattan Beach Pier. During the1930's Pete had his shop in his garage on 17th Street in Santa Monica, which could possibly be called the very first surf shop. So Pete got out his planer and other tools and started to work his magic on my board, and in a couple of days it was ready and looking good, slimmed down, with a little two inch fin on the tail and a new nose. Alright then, I was ready, with this newly re-shaped board I should no doubt be able to surf just as well as Peter Cole and Buzzy Trent (yeah, right, fat chance!).
Cal and balsa board early 1940’s
That morning we all met at the Marguerita Ave, Santa Monica home of the Cole brothers where we piled into the Phaeton to take off on the long trip to Malibu. We could have saved ourselves the trip and surfed right there at Santa Monica Canyon, our home break, where Peter said I used to teach them bodysurfing tricks when they were kids. The waves were great there in those days. The beach was much narrower, and peaky surf broke over a rocky bottom; a rocky bottom where you could dive and get all the lobster you wanted in no time. But all that changed long ago with the widening of the beach that extended well out beyond the former shoreline, burying the rocks under the sand and changing forever the way the waves break.
Arriving at Malibu Point we saw the usual: nice chest to chin high, glassy waves with one surfer in the water. So I said you should have seen it in the 30's, it was really uncrowded then. I believe Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin were on the beach that day. Peter and Buzzy stopped to talk while the rest of us paddled out. Simmons arrived later.
One of us had brought a camera, and we got the idea that all five of us should get on the same wave and have our picture taken. A girl we knew on the beach obliged, and we recruited the other surfer in the water, who Corny says was Kit Horn, to join us, and now we had six on the wave. It's not often nowadays that you want five other surfers on a wave with you at Malibu but it happens anyway. The camera must have been a two dollar Brownie since the photo is so dark and blurred we almost look like we're wearing wet suits that hadn't been invented until many years later. It's hard to tell who's who on the wave, this was over 60 years ago, but Corny Cole was recently looking at the large blowup of the photo I have on my wall and thought that Peter was first on the right, with the well-built Buzzy 5th and the skinny guy, me, 3rd.
Malibu Surfrider Beach, 1948
Joe Schecter, the figure carrying the balsa- redwood in the foreground, dates the picture. Joe lived in the Malibu Colony and was immortalized by having "Old Joe's", a surf break in front of his house named after him. Joe was also ahead of his time. Surf booties had not been invented yet, but Joe always wore rubber tennis shoes to surf in, they can be seen in the photo. He claimed they gave him a better grip on the board and kept his feet warm. We all laughed at "Old Joe" and this strange innovation of his.
Afterthought: The board I used that day, re-shaped by Pete Peterson, has hung for over 50 years on the wall of the Zuma Beach Lifeguard Station. Names and deeds of early lifeguards are inscribed thereon.
Second Afterthought: Little did I know on that day in 1948 that many years later I would be assigned as the first lifeguard at the new Malibu Surfrider Beach when the county took over the point soon after the Gidget era.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 13 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
That is the question! Which beach was the first ever surfed in the United States? What city, beach town, or sandy spot has that distinction? We know that in Hawaii and the South Pacific the sport had been practiced for hundreds of years. But in the Continental United States, where was surfing first done?
THE FACTS OF THE MATTER
There is concrete evidence and photos that George Freeth from Hawaii surfed in California in the year 1907. It is known that he left the islands on July 3, 1907, and three weeks later was spotted surfing the waves at Venice Beach, California. It was mentioned in the Daily Outlook newspaper of Santa Monica on July 22, 1907 that a surfer was riding the waves near the Venice breakwater, and drawing large crowds. This means he was more than likely surfing in the ocean next to the Venice Pier and in front of the Venice Salt Water Plunge, my old hangout where I was a high school swimmer and lifeguard many years later. This is the place where most of the beach-goers and tourists gathered in Venice. The first time Freeth was actually mentioned by name in print, describing him surfing at Venice, was October of 1907.
Redondo Beach, California
The City of Redondo Beach might take exception to this whole idea since Freeth also demonstrated his surfing prowess in that city to great acclaim, but all the evidence and dates point to this being later in 1907, or maybe the following year. Freeth, “The Man Who Could Walk On Water”, as he was billed, had been employed by promoter and developer Henry Huntington to give surfing exhibitions in Redondo for the prospective real estate buyers he brought to the beach city on his big red streetcars. Freeth became a lifeguard and instructor at the Redondo Beach Salt Water Plunge and beach.
Santa Cruz, California
Well then, if all this is true, Venice, California should be called Surf City, USA since surfing was first performed there. But what about Santa Cruz, California? Is it perhaps the real Surf City? The first evidence for this claim appeared on July 20, 1885 in the local Santa Cruz newspaper which stated that three Hawaiian princes, the Kawananakoa brothers, who were going to school in San Mateo, were in the ocean that day, “Enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands”. But with no photos or other evidence it’s not clear just what they were doing or what these boards were. There was almost no stand-up surfing in Hawaii at this time, since the missionaries frowned upon all such activities. Then some years later, on July 23, 1896, the Santa Cruz newspaper reported another incident: “The boys who go swimming at Seabright Beach use a surfboard to ride the breakers like the Hawaiians”. But during the late 1800’s, in Hawaii, surfboarding consisted mainly of riding the waves while lying down on short belly boards, so maybe that is what those Seabright boys were doing. It wasn’t until after 1900 at Waikiki that George Freeth and a few others started stand-up surfing once again.
Kawananakoa Brothers of Hawaii. photo source: Bishop Museum
Santa Monica, California
I have written before about the old photo I discovered in the archives of the downtown, main Los Angeles Public Library clearly showing a man holding a surfboard on the beach in Santa Monica that was taken between the years 1898 and 1904. What he did on that board once he had it out in the waves is unknown, but it is the earliest photo of man and surfboard in the United States. I sent the photo to The Surfer’s Journal Magazine and it was published in two different issues. It also made its way to The Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente.
Santa Monica, 1898-1904 photo source: lapl.org
Other Early Surf Cities
Other beaches that were surfed early on are San Diego, Oceanside, Huntington Beach and Ventura. It is thought that George Freeth was the first at each of these breaks and also possibly Palos Verdes. This was accomplished through the years from 1910 to 1919, the year of his death from pneumonia at the age of 35. Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii was the first to bring the sport to the east coast, surfing in Atlantic City in 1912. Also in 1912, en route to the Olympic Games in Stockholm, he stopped to surf in Corona del Mar and Santa Monica. He surfed much of the Southern California Coast in the next few years, including Huntington Beach next to the pier right in front of where Duke’s Restaurant stands today. Malibu was first surfed in 1926 by Tom Blake and Sam Reid, and Palos Verdes first in 1929 (unless George Freeth was there before). Windandsea was surfed by Woodie Brown in 1937. Trestles was first surfed in the late 1930’s. Whitey Harrison and Bob Side surfed San Onofre in 1933. Rincon was surfed alone by Santa Barbara Lifeguard, Gates Foss in 1938. The Duke and some locals surfed Santa Cruz in 1938. There could have been others there sooner, and maybe even those three Hawaiian princes in 1885. My friend and I surfed Baja in 1939. There are countless other firsts, but last but not least, and much later, Mavericks was first surfed by three Half Moon Bay surfers in 1961. It apparently was not surfed again until 1975 when Jeff Clark surfed there alone for fifteen years.
Mavericks photo source: wikipedia
Huntington Beach now bills itself as Surf City but it was far from being the first beach surfed in the U.S. Huntington and Santa Cruz recently waged quite a battle over which was entitled to be called Surf City. So just which was the first place ever surfed in the United States? Well it looks like it has to be Venice Beach in 1907, or was it Santa Cruz many years earlier in 1885, or perhaps Santa Monica sometime between 1898 and 1904? We’re just not sure. But then who knows, could there possibly have been an unknown surfer way, way back, who built himself a board of some kind, or brought one back after a trip to Hawaii, and then surfed somewhere, some time, unobserved, and long before any of those mentioned above?
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 19 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE MYSTERY SURFER
For many years it has been thought that there were only two, or maybe three possibilities for answering the question of who was the very first surfer in the United States. We know that surfing was practiced in Hawaii for hundreds of years, and probably at other islands in the Pacific as well. But who was the first to stand on a board and surf a wave in America? The evidence has always been strong that Irish-Hawaiian George Freeth was that surfer. Freeth was well known in Hawaii for his surfing expertise. Even famed novel writer Jack London (Call of the Wild) sang his praises. It is also well known and documented that Freeth left the islands, shipped off to California, and rode his first wave in America at Venice, California in July of 1907. It was witnessed by many and mentioned in the local newspapers. There are photographs of him surfing at that time.
Freeth, photo source: lapl.org
Other contenders for the first surfer title are the Kawanakoa brothers, three Hawaiian princes who were living and going to school in San Mateo, California. There are no photos of these three surfing but on July 20, 1885 the Santa Cruz local newspaper mentioned that the brothers were in the ocean, “Enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands”. There is no way to know what is meant by this, whether they were actually standup surfing or perhaps belly boarding in some fashion, but it is a possibility. However, there was little standup surfing going on in Hawaii during this period of time since the missionaries frowned upon such activities. George Freeth is credited with being one of the first to bring back surfing to Hawaii during the early 1900’s.
A third possibility is based on one sentence contained in the Santa Cruz newspaper, dated July 23, 1896. The paper was appropriately called, “The Daily Surf”, and the sentence read as follows: “The boys who go in swimming at Seabright Beach use a surfboard to ride the breakers like the Hawaiians”. Again there are no photographs so we’re not sure what these boys were doing out there that was like the Hawaiians. In Hawaii in the late 1800’s surfing had almost become extinct; there was some prone riding on very short boards, however, so maybe that’s what they were doing.
And now a new possibility comes along. In going through and studying countless old photographs from the archives of the Los Angeles Downtown Library I came across a photo not seen before. It is labeled, “Santa Monica Pier, 1880”. Then repeats it again, “The pier in Santa Monica, 1880”, and then goes on to state, “This is not the same pier as today’s Santa Monica Pier”. What the photo clearly shows is a man at the water’s edge in a full length wool bathing suit holding a square tailed, round nose surfboard under his arm.
photo source: lapl.org
Is he coming out of the water after doing some standup surfing, or was he using it as a belly board? 1880 predates the Hawaiian princes by several years, and is twenty-seven years before Freeth rode his first wave alongside the Venice Pier. This would change the entire history of surfing in the United States. I made a copy of the photo, wrote a short article to go with it, and sent it off to the Surfer’s Journal Magazine. They didn’t know this photo existed and published it in the next edition. Immediately many interesting responses and challenges ensued after the magazine came out. The best was from a lady of 88 years who had been head of costume and wardrobe for ABC and film studios. She maintained that the year couldn’t be 1880 since men didn’t start wearing the tank type of woolen bathing suits seen in the picture until about 1900; they were still wearing half
sleeve suits. Furthermore, the attire for women in 1880 was more frilly and bustled than what is depicted in the picture.
1890's bathing suits. photo souce: lapl.org
Other readers stated that the pier in the photo wasn’t even the Santa Monica Pier at all. Consequentially, after studying every pier photo in the library’s files and every beach history book I could find, it is true that this pier was in Santa Monica but was called the North Beach Bathhouse Pier, and was built in 1898; thus the 1880 date had to be in error. This pier and the boardwalk seen along the beach in the photo were pretty well destroyed in the storm of February, 1905 as this photo shows.
photo source: lapl.org
It follows then that the photo of the summer crowd on the beach and the man with the surfboard under his arm had to be taken sometime between 1898 and 1904. I spoke to the manager of the photo archive about this dating error and learned that all of their photos are donated, some a very long time ago, and all they have to go on is the information provided by the donors. The manager asked me to let them know of any other dating mistakes I found as I went through their old beach photos. I found many.
So there you have it. As for who was the first surfer in the United States, we’re not really sure about those three Hawaiian princes in 1885, or the boys in the water at Seabright Beach in 1896, but this new found photo still predates George Freeth somewhere between nine and three years. So who was this mystery man in the photograph? We’ll probably never know, but could Freeth himself somehow have sneaked over to California unbeknownst to anyone and surfed those pristine Santa Monica waves before 1907? He would only be a teenager so it doesn’t seem very likely, but is it possible?
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 01 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
BAJA, THE EARLY YEARS
My friend was sixteen in 1939, and he had a car. It was his first car, a Chevrolet, a late 1920’s model, probably about a 1928 or 1929. It was called an Imperial Landau model because it was partly convertible and partly solid top. It was considered a classy automobile in its day. It had a folding top over the rear passenger compartment making it possible to either tie surfboards onto the roof or slip them into the rear seat pointing skyward out the back. We did both on this trip. My friend would be doing most of the driving until later on in the trip since I didn’t have a license as yet, although I had been driving my older brothers’ cars for some time.
Chevrolet Imperial Landau Convertible. photo source: http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/4707598
We were heading for Baja. We knew little about the place. We had never seen photos of the area and we had never talked to or knew of anyone who had ever been there, let alone surfed there. This was to be an adventure of discovery. Our friends wondered why we were going so far away to go surfing, since there were plenty of uncrowded waves close to home at that time in the 30’s. But it was ok with our parents. Parents didn’t seem to worry nearly as much in those days as they do now about their kids going off camping and exploring at an early age. So off we went, leaving Venice, California in the early hours of the morning, hoping to reach Mexico before nightfall. Cars were much slower then and susceptible to problems and flat tires, and with no freeways it was slow going down Highway I directly through all the Southern California beach towns.
And south through all the beach towns we went, squinting in the early light to see signs of possible surf as we passed Huntington Beach, Newport and Dana Point. San Onofre looked pretty good, and from Oceanside on there was size and shape. All of these surf spots would have sufficed, but no, we had to go and see what this Baja place was all about, and it was a foreign country to boot. We approached the border just past San Isidro not knowing what to expect. The Mexican border guards didn’t seem at all concerned that we were a couple of teenagers going into Mexico driving a rickety old car.
photo source: http://www.cyclonesurfboards.com/blake.html
What they wanted to know was what were those two odd looking things tied to the roof of the car? The first question was, “are those glider wings?” and “why are you taking them into Mexico?” Well what they were were a couple of paddleboards, Tom Blake models with copper screw-on caps, as I recall. But explaining to the guards that you paddled these objects out into the ocean and then turned around and stood up on them trying to get back to the beach just didn’t register. They hadn’t heard of surfing and said they had never seen these things taken across the border before. Wow! Could we have been the first? Impossible! But this was the 1930’s and with an excellent surfing beach just on the California side of the border called Tijuana Sloughs, why go further, and into a strange land?
We were finally allowed to enter Mexico and headed straight through Tijuana and over the hills toward the coast (no short cut or toll road for another 25 years or so). We camped on the beach, and surfed excellent waves from north of Rosarito Beach and all the way south to Popotla. We dived for our sea food dinners in the crystal clear ocean with our water goggles (no fins or masks yet). In the week we were there we never saw another person even close to the water. All of these surf spots have now been given names, such as Baja Malibu, Baja Santa Monica and so on.
Empty lineup at K39
They are all good and crowded these days, too. Returning to the border many days later we now had to explain to the American guards what those things tied on the roof were. Being very suspicious, they pulled us aside and asked us to take down the boards, unscrew the caps, tip the boards on end, and show them what we were carrying inside these containers: tequila?, rum?, something else illegal? Once satisfied, however, by smelling and tasting the liquid, that we were bringing nothing into America but salt water, we were sent off on the long trip home. Once we reached home, anyone we could talk in to listening to us had to hear the story of our great adventure south of the border, the first of many more trips to Mexico in the next 60 years.
Addendum: This story was originally published in The Surfer’s Journal Magazine last year, 2008. It elicited quite a bit of interest and response. What surprised us was that no one in responding challenged the idea that perhaps we were the first to surf the waters of Baja. We were sure that someone would lay claim to an earlier date than 1939, but it didn’t happen. Not yet, anyway. Of course, since I was fifteen at the time and am now eighty-five, just maybe there is no one still living from that era to step forward and stake a claim.
Submitted By Cal Porter on April 16 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
While pursuing a pastime of mine of searching through accounts of early Pacific explorations, shipwrecks, beachcombers, castaways and such, I came across an interesting piece of surfing lore. The following information is from the ship’s journal of Thomas Raine, captain of the British ship, Surrey, and the book Castaway in Paradise by James Simmons.
On April 8, 1821, Captain Raine and the Surrey, en route to Australia from Valparaiso, Chile, made a stop at Henderson Island to effect the rescue of three castaways. These three were survivors of the whaling ship, Essex, which had been rammed twice and sunk by an enormous sperm whale. They had survived on the island for 111 days by living chiefly on birds’ eggs, an occasional land crab, and very little water. Captain Raine took them on board and set sail for Pitcairn Island, 100 miles to the southwest, where he hoped to add to his provisions.
Arriving on the afternoon of the next day, they were warmly welcomed by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and the one surviving mutineer himself, John Adams. Only a half dozen ships had ever stopped at Pitcairn before. The Bounty mutineers had arrived there 30 years before, in 1790, after fleeing from Tahiti and Captain Bligh.
The crew of the Surrey could not believe their good fortune. They had found a paradise where the men were not only full of good will, but the women were beautiful and extremely hospitable. In addition to this companionship, the sailors feasted on roast pig, island delicacies, and an excellent homemade whiskey.
The next day the islanders put on a water show for their guests with a form of surfing they called “sliding”. Captain Raine was amazed by this demonstration and wrote the following account taken directly from his journal, one of the earliest descriptions of surfboarding, April 10, 1821.
“The women and men amused themselves with sliding, as they term it, one of the strangest, yet most pleasing performances I ever saw. They have a piece of wood, somewhat resembling a butcher’s tray, but round at on end and square at the other, and having at the bottom a small keel. With this they swim off to the rocks at the entrance to the little harbor, getting on which they wait for a heavy surf, and just as it breaks, jump off with the piece of wood under them. And thus with their heads before the surf, they rush in with amazing rapidity, to the very head of the bay; and although amongst rocks escape all injury. They steer themselves with their feet, which they move very quickly.”
1821!! This is well over a hundred years before Tom Blake is credited with putting the first fin on a surfing vehicle. I got to know Tom Blake quite well in the late 60’s and early 70’s when he was living in his van at Zuma Beach and I was lifeguarding there. I am sure he had never heard of the finned surfboards of the Pitcairn Islanders.
As a side story of some interest, Herman Melville, 20 years later, met the son of one of the Essex survivors on the whaling ship, Acushnet. He listened to the tale of the sinking of the Essex with some interest. The story of a great white whale versus man and ship stuck in Melville’s imagination and slowly developed over the years into the world’s greatest sea novel, Moby Dick.
Addendum: This article was previously published in The Surfer’s Journal Magazine in early 2008. It caused some interest and response. The director and founder of the British Surfing Museum contacted me to say that my discovery had made quite an impact on the British surfing timeline, setting it back over a hundred years. They would have to make many changes in the museum since those surfers at Pitcairn Island were the children of British sailors and were therefore British. Before this article they had no factual records of any Brits surfing until well into the next century. He also felt that probably some of the mutineers themselves might have indulged in surfing since there is not a whole lot else to do on Pitcairn, although we’ll never know about that. The director also invited me to come to England, visit the museum, have a beer or two, and surf the coast of Brighton with him.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Jan. 30 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE NAVY STREET LIFEGUARD
I was eighteen and it was my first day as a Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard. I had previously worked for some time as a lifeguard at the Venice Salt Water Plunge for thirty-five cents an hour, but I was old enough now and my time had come. My older brother Lee and I had reported in that morning to the Venice Lifeguard Headquarters at Sunset Pier, where Captain Myron Cox was ready to hand out assignments. For wages of seventy-five cents an hour we would be happy to work any assignment. The captain went down the list and told my brother that he was sending him to what was then called “Street End” where Washington Boulevard meets the Pacific Ocean. At that time this was a nice quiet beach where just a few beach lovers gathered, mostly the local residents. The rail lines for the big red streetcars that brought crowds of inlanders to the seashore didn’t reach the beach at “Street End”. There was no lifeguard tower there; the lifeguard spent a relaxing day in a beach chair under an umbrella. “Pension Beach” was a term sometimes mentioned in describing this spot. However, when my name came up Captain Cox said, “Porter, you’ll be working Navy Street”. Now it just so happens that Navy Street Beach at that time was the most heavily attended beach and most crowded swimming area of all the city beaches from San Pedro to Ocean Park. From morning to night hordes of beach-goers would emerge from the big red electric street cars and from the automobiles that brought them here from near and far. One reason for this influx, besides the beach and ocean, was the fact that Navy Street Beach lay alongside the Ocean Park Amusement Pier with its roller coaster, fun house, games, sideshows, two dance halls, two movie theaters, bandstand, countless restaurants, and everything else that could entice visitors to the beach. This pier was not the sanitized, orderly, organized, secure Pacific Ocean Park Pier that was created on the site some twenty years later, a la Disneyland. No, this pier was the real thing, gritty, noisy, a bit seedy, and wide open with saloons, rides, two-headed geeks, girly shows and barkers shouting for customers.
The section of the Ocean Park Pier alongside Navy Street Beach where I was stationed was called The Lick Pier. The main attraction on The Lick Pier when I was a kid in the 1920’s and 30’s was called The Bon Ton Ballroom. By the time I was a lifeguard there it was renamed The Lick Pier Ballroom and then later changed to The Aragon. It always featured name bands. The worry for the lifeguard on the beach was that a celebrant that had visited the bar at the dance hall too often might lean over the low railing and fall off the pier and into the ocean. And it did happen, I was there. Underneath the pier was the darkly lit and forever damp Lick Pier Bath House, run by Mark and Maime, where locker rooms, bathing suits, towels and umbrellas could be rented, and a hot shower was waiting at the end of the day. Next to the bath house was a hamburger stand where uneatable food was served and music blared out day and night, with the late 1930’s One O’Clock Jump or maybe In The Mood repeated often. On the sand near my tower was a volleyball court, one of the first and one of the few courts existing along the beaches in those days. Beach volleyball had only been around for a few years, and it brought its own crowd to Navy Street. Attractive girls were plentiful. From Headquarters, to get to my small, white, wooden lifeguard tower alongside the pier, I daily rode on the Beach Tram, an open air conveyance that carried people along the boardwalk from one beach to another from Venice to Santa Monica. Everyone paid a nickel for this privilege except lifeguards; we rode free, and down the strand we went past the seedy but once grand hotels where Charlie Chaplain, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford once stayed.
Crowded Boardwalk with nickel tram center and the Plunge on the right
We had our share of action at Navy Street with such large crowds, which seem even bigger than today since the beach then was so much narrower and everyone had umbrellas. We had plenty of rough water rescues, lost children, first aids, drunks, and fights. Scores of spectators watching from the pier were always witness to everything that happened on the beach. Many of our toughest rescues seemed to be caused by a long lifeline with floating buoys that stretched from the beach some distance out into the ocean. The line was there presumably to help swimmers but when a strong lateral current was running bathers would lose their grip on the line and would be swiftly swept under the pier. I counted at least fifteen swimmers floundering and holding on to the pier pilings on one occasion. When this would happen the phone in the tower was quickly taken off the hook before racing to the water for rescue work. This would signal that help was needed, and soon the emergency car would arrive with additional rescuers. The guards down the beach at the Rose Avenue and Dudley Street towers, quieter beaches, would respond to help out. We would bring to shore many scraped and bleeding victims but due to quick action and response no one ever was lost.
Navy St. Beach in the foreground with the Venice pier in the background
Since those years at Navy Street over sixty-five years have passed. I’ve worked most beaches from San Pedro to the Ventura County line, but I think I can truly say that Navy Street had to be the most interesting, different and exciting of them all. And with good bodysurfing and board surfing to boot, with waves peeling to the right off sandbars built up by the pier’s pilings, this was a unique place. Today the Ocean Park Pier with all its activity is no more, torn down years ago. And all those many colorful characters that I knew and who defined Navy Street are memories, One-Leg-ged-Jake, The Apache, Foggy and Soggy, Jack-Okay-Okay, Nature Boy, but that’s another story. The beach there today is one long stretch of sand, indistinguishable from the miles of sand to the north and miles to the south. Lonely “Street End” beach where brother Lee spent many peaceful days, is now covered by a giant parking lot, has its own fishing pier, many shops and restaurants, and throngs of beach-goers. Well it’s all just not the same today, still great beaches of course, but just not the same. I don’t remember ever going to work at Navy Street and not having an exciting day.
And the nights weren’t too bad either.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Jan. 12 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE ZUMA BEACH STORY
Aerial view of Zuma Beach on the left. Old Pacific Coast Hwy with trestle over a dry creek in the foreground center. Photo 1924
Aztec emperor Montezuma, contrary to popular belief, had nothing to do with the name Zuma Beach, although sometimes after a rough, tough day of lifeguard rescue work at Zuma we referred to the whole event as Montezuma’s Revenge, but that’s as close as he comes to the name. It was the Chumash Indians who referred to the beach and surrounding area as Zuma, roughly translated to mean abundance or plenty. It was an apt name since there was and still is an abundance of animal and plant life there, and two perennial streams for fresh water, Zuma Creek and Trancas Creek. Human communities had thrived for 10,000 years at Zuma before the Spanish arrived, living off the land, with a plentiful supply of deer, rabbits and coyotes, and with fish and clams in the ocean and a variety of edible plant life on the land. The uncomplicated life of the Chumash changed forever though when Spain claimed all the land in the 1700’s and eventually established boundary lines and doled out sections of property to individuals in the form of land grants. Through the years there were several owners of Rancho Topanga-Malibu-Sequit, of which Zuma was a part, and then in 1891 easterner, Frederick Rindge, bought all twenty-six miles of the Malibu ranch for ten dollars an acre.
The Rindges ran cattle in the Zuma area and did some growing on the land. They had a few outbuildings in Zuma Canyon but their main home was in Malibu Canyon where they lived an idyllic life as wealthy ranchers. After Frederick Rindge died the State of California and the railroads increasingly eyed the rancho for a possible coast highway and rail line. In her fight with these two factions over the years Rindge’s widow exhausted her finances and had to start selling pieces of her land in the late 1920’s. By December, 1941 the Marblehead Land Company took on the job of surveying, subdividing and selling all of Malibu. When Marblehead defaulted on property taxes owed to the County of Los Angeles on Zuma Beach the county stepped in, foreclosed and began taking over the land. There were six private beach homes on Zuma and three more on the sand at Westward Beach, most owned and lived in by Hollywood personalities and musicians. There was also a large frame building at the edge of the lagoon where Zuma Creek meets the beach. It was a lodge or gun club that hunters used in order to shoot ducks and other animal life. The county bought this building and assigned the first and only lifeguard there for the new public beach. It was in October of 1945 when Duke Fishman entered into the red log book, “It is an honor and a privilege to be the first lifeguard at Zuma Beach”. Soon the county bought one of the beach houses and converted it to the official lifeguard headquarters, and then through the years purchased all of the nine homes. The captain lived in one, the maintenance foreman lived in another, and when I transferred to Zuma beach as a lifeguard in 1949 my family and I were soon living in a fine, five bedroom beach home for which I paid the County of Los Angeles twenty-five dollars per month. Of course today in Malibu even twenty-five thousand wouldn’t rent that house. The swimming was good, the surfing was good, the diving was good, and we put up a volleyball court in our front yard, and life was good, it was very good.
Zuma beach house with barren bluffs in the background, photo early 1950's
From one lifeguard the first year, to a slim crew of commuters the next year, 1946, to a full crew in 1947 of guards who could live and sleep in the headquarters building for the summer if they chose to. The beach crowds in the 40’s were not what they are today at Zuma. There was no Kanan Dume Road through the mountains to bring beach goers from Agoura, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley; and there was no Malibu Canyon Road to bring the San Fernando Valley crowd. Pacific Coast Hwy was only two lanes in some stretches, and followed the original route along Old Malibu Road on the way to Zuma. But there were plenty of rescues in the rough surf and lots of action for the crew whose numbers were only a fraction of the number there today. There was a great comradery among the guys who worked together and lived together, creating lifelong friendships.
There were many movies filmed at Zuma Beach in those days, and there still are. Lifeguards sometimes got in on these for good wages, oftentimes in costume, but basically we were there as lifeguards. For instance I was in miners’ gear seeking gold in the 1898 Alaska gold rush movie The Spoilers, but behind my back I was carrying my rescue float just in case. There were many scenes of dories heading to shore through the rough surf bringing dance hall girls to the Klondike and the eager, waiting miners. One mishap and we were in the water on a rescue. In Planet of the Apes I was mainly there to rescue Charleton Heston if he fell off his horse and into the ocean. Later many TV shows were filmed there, even Baywatch.
Zuma beach house from the water. Today the hills in the background are covered with homes, photo early 1950's
Changes: Today all the houses have been removed and replaced with parking lots. The hunting lodge was torn down long ago, and Duke Fishman passed away after many years as the lifeguard greeter at Catalina Island. The headquarters house was demolished and replaced by a modern building. Where we had one emergency car that couldn’t be driven in the sand there now must be close to a dozen all terrain vehicles. The original four lifeguard towers have grown to around fifteen. Living in Malibu we had to drive twenty miles to pick up our mail in Pacific Palisades, but not today. There are now three traffic lights on the highway at Zuma Beach alone; back then there was not a stop of any kind between Santa Monica and Oxnard. There are two supermarkets and two Starbucks, but at that time there was only The Trading Post at the north end of Zuma that sold everything. Where we put up one volleyball court the beach is covered with them now. Besides the name Zuma Beach there is Zuma View Place, Zumirez Drive, Zuma Ridge Motorway, Zuma Canyon, Zuma Creek, Zuma Mesa, Zuma Sushi, Zuma Travel, Zuma Jays, Zuma Video, Zuma Zoom and Groom, Zuma General Store, Zuma Orchids, Zuma Arco, Zuma Café, and the list goes on. Famed singer, Gwen Stephani, named her new son Zuma, Neil Young named his rock album Zuma, in 2004 Zuma was the name of a popular video game, and Malibu resident, Susanne Sommers, starred in a movie titled Zuma Beach. Today across the Highway from Zuma Beach the hill sides are covered with mansions and swimming pools. When I moved to Zuma in the 1940’s there was nothing but tomato and lima bean farming going on there.
If the Chumash who were here a thousand years ago were here today they would be amazed. But if they stood on the beach and only looked seaward they would find that nothing has changed. The white sand under their feet and the same beautiful ocean with its crystal clear, cold water is there. The powerful white water breakers are still rolling in unchanged for thousands of years and probably thousands to come. The Chumash Indians would feel completely at home in their Zuma, their land of abundance.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 29 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE LAST LIFEGUARD
Exterior view of the Venice Saltwater Plunge, early 1900's.
The Venice Hot Salt Water Plunge was built in 1907 and had seen better days. It was the creation of Abbot Kinney, the founder of Venice, California, along with the canals and the amusement pier to fulfill his dream of creating, “The Venice of America”. The Plunge was showing its years when I went to work there seventy years ago, but I loved the place. I started as a towel boy, then beach boy, locker room boy, and finally lifeguard, my goal since I was a young kid. Each of these positions had interesting aspects to them.
The Beach Boy. As beach boys our main job was to see that the customers were happy. A chair or back rest here, a dry towel or two there. And the beach had to be cleaned every morning and kept clean during the day. It was a nice outdoor job and there was always the possibility of working in an occasional swim or bodysurfing session.
The Locker Room Boy. Now being a locker room boy was something else. Besides just opening and locking the dressing room doors for the customers and handing out towels there was more to it than that. I’m not sure I ever understood the policy, but we locker room boys worked both the men’s section and the separate women’s section. Maybe girls couldn’t be hired or something. However, throughout the women’s locker room there were signs everywhere informing the ladies that we boys were there, and to please not remove bathing suits until in the private dressing rooms, not even in the showers. Well, I guess some ladies weren’t paying attention when reading was being taught in school, or they just decided to ignore the signs. They always acted like it was a complete surprise when they saw us, and sometimes a lot of giggling ensued. At first, as a young teenager, I was embarrassed and wished for a reassignment, but after thinking it over for a few days I resigned myself to do my job, and resolved to treat this episode in my life as a valuable educational experience, and to do my utmost to make the best of it. Which is what I did.
Venice Lifeguards: L - R, Top - Bottom: Christy Miller, Unknown, Frank Rivas, Unknown, Elmer Orr, Wally O'Connor & George McManus. Photo 1922.
The Lifeguard. Soon I was taken away from this demanding job and was assigned as a lifeguard. Frank Rivas, the chief lifeguard, had watched my swim workouts many times, and had seen me in all of our Venice High School swimming meets where I was a free style sprinter, 50 to 200 yards. It was a happy day in the late 1930’s when he asked me to join his crew, and who could resist a salary jump to thirty-five cents an hour. Heck, you could go to the Venice Movie Theater next door for fifteen cents and get a hot dog for a nickel. I was by far the youngest lifeguard; many of them had been there for years, a couple since the 1920’s. Some of them had doubled as gondoliers in the heyday of the canals. We usually had two guards in the twelve foot deep end, one of us under the high diving boards. There were one or two in the shallower end and even a lifeguard for the kiddie pool. I was usually at the deep end with Frank the chief, who also stood guard over the back door to the beach in case someone tried to sneak in without paying. The pool guards also used to be responsible for the ocean swimmers in front of the plunge but in 1926 the Los Angeles Beach Lifeguard Service was formed and took over the responsibility. We still helped out when called on, and I knew that I would take the beach guard test as soon as I was old enough, eighteen being the minimum age.
All the beach guards came to the plunge to work out and I got acquainted with all of them. It was special when the “Glamour Squad” would arrive. These were the Santa Monica Guards who were usually preceded by a follower or “groupie” who would announce in a loud voice to all, “Get ready, the Santa Monica Lifeguards are coming”! Then in would come Pete Peterson, the greatest swimmer, surfer, paddler and all around waterman of the era. Pete starred in many short movies demonstrating his tricks of water skiing, aquaplaning and surfing. Then there would be Paul Stader, movie stunt man, high diver, director, and double for Tarzan in all the movies. Freddy Zendar, MGM stunt director, and underwater expert was there. Even Buster Crabbe, Olympic swim champ, and the star of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movies would come. Girls would gather to watch. Knowing these guys even got me a few movie jobs, swimming in Esther Williams films, or in some costume drama. More glamour was evident when comedian, Bob Hope, and his radio cast of Jerry Colona and singer Francis Langford, would pop in before and after dining at Bob’s favorite restaurant, the famous Jack’s at the Beach, which was at the northeast corner of the plunge building. We knew the chef at Jack’s well, and he would feed us plunge lifeguards free; my favorite was the apple pie ala mode.
Interior view of the Venice Saltwater Plunge.
Charlie Walters, the manager, had grown old with the plunge. I think he had been there from the beginning. One day as usual I walked in the main entrance, where Charlie always stationed himself, to report for work. I had my plunge lifeguard trunks on and Charlie saw me, looked up, and shouted, “Where did you get our lifeguard trunks? Did you steal them?” I said, “Charlie, you know me!” And Charlie said, “I’m calling the police, an arrest will be made”. Luckily, Elmer Orr, who had worked as the plunge swimming instructor for thirty years, was nearby and overheard. He came over and said, “Charlie, you know Cal, he’s a lifeguard here, he’s worked here for a couple of years”. Charlie took another careful look and said, “Oh, yeah, okay, I guess I forgot”. I’m glad he recognized Elmer Orr. I began to wonder how much longer Charlie and this old relic of a building were going to last. A couple of nights later a somewhat similar case of mistaken identity occurred when my brother, Lee, who was a beach lifeguard, and I were watching a movie next door at the Venice Theater. Somerset Maugham’s, “Moon and Sixpence” was playing when three policemen raced down the aisle toward us, grabbed my brother by the arms, dragged him out of his seat, and up the aisle to the lobby. I followed, and when we got under the bright lights the officers took a hard look at my brother and said, “Hey, this isn’t the guy, he doesn’t even look like him, sorry bud”, and off they went. Back to our seats we went to finish seeing one of my favorite movies about an artist who runs off to the South Sea Islands and a native girl.
The engine room in the basement of the plunge was a scary but interesting place. A pipeline that ran out from the pool under the sand and out into the ocean alongside the pier for about 200 yards brought sea water into the boilers to be heated and treated and then piped into the plunge. It was noisy and hot down there. Everything out of the past was stored there. It looked like nothing was ever thrown away. Rental bathing suits dating all the way back to the opening in 1907 were there. Some of us would occasionally don those old, scratchy wool suits and go out and mingle with the crowds on the beach and boardwalk. We would amuse them (I hope) by running around and acting goofy with our imitations of the silent movie comedians like the Keystone Cops and Charlie Chaplin.
All this fun came to an end in the early 1940’s. By then I had become an L.A. City Beach Lifeguard at the amazing salary of seventy-five cents an hour; I was finally rich. The old plunge building was condemned and boarded up, as was almost all the rest of the salt water plunges up and down the coast; relics of the past Beach goers no longer arrived in the big red streetcars, they drove to the beach in their cars and had no use for a dressing room or a plunge. They swam in the ocean. I would poke my head into the boarded up lobby of the plunge from time to time and I would see Charlie Walters still sitting there. He would look up and see me and always say, “We’ll have this place opened up again any day now, it won’t be long”. But it wasn’t to be, it would never happen. The amusement pier was soon to follow with condemnation and removal. “Venice of America” would never be the same. Abbot Kinney, the founder, had been dead for many years. The offices of his sons on the third floor of the plunge were closed and abandoned. It was over for all the private, hot salt water baths and semi-secret massage rooms upstairs. The rows and rows of upstairs locker rooms that hadn’t been used for years would be reduced to scrap. The hot fountain in the middle of the pool that the old folks and kids loved is a memory. The day and night music from The Flying Circus on the pier is heard no more. I can no longer climb to the rooftop skylight and jump through the opening, dropping forty feet into the deep end of the pool. And there is no more looking out the front glass windows to see where Hawaiian surfer, George Freeth, caught that wave in 1907, long thought to be the first ever ridden in the U.S.
Sometime before the plunge was completely demolished, lifeguard captain and Olympic swimmer, Wally O’Conner and I gently forced open a boarded up side door at the plunge that we had been using for years. We entered with our water goggles in hand. The water was cold and dark when we dived in but we wanted to be the last ever to swim in the Venice Plunge. We left the old place, that we had known for so long, happy with that thought. And we had each picked up about seventy-five cents in coins from the murky bottom.
There were no professional, paid, beach lifeguards in the early days of the plunges, only plunge lifeguards. When beach lifeguard forces were first established in the 1920’s and 30’s many , if not most, of the lifeguards hired came out of the salt water plunges, including many of the captains put in charge. Although I came along a bit later, I have been told that I am the last living lifeguard that came out of that tradition. I’m proud of that.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 15 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE ROAD TO SANTA CRUZ
Neptunes Natatorium and Pleasure Pier, Santa Cruz, CA.
Poster for the Duke's performance at the Santa Cruz Natatorium
It's the last one standing in California. It was called, “Neptune’s Natatorium”. The building on the beach at Santa Cruz served as a heated, salt water plunge from 1907 to 1963. During those years hundreds of thousands of people swam in its warm waters. The building is still there today looking as majestic as ever, but now inside there is a miniature golf course where the pool once was, and dozens of shops, games and cafes have been constructed around it.
I often travel to the Santa Cruz area. I have three granddaughters in college nearby. My son and daughter and daughter’s husband all went to school at the University of California at Santa Cruz. My daughter and family live not far away. On this particular trip we leisurely drove up the coast checking all the beaches and surf spots along the way. Ventura had decent size waves. Santa Barbara was flat but the beach was beautiful as always. The road soon turns inland and emerges at Pismo Beach where there were some nice, medium size breakers near the pier. Again Highway 101 heads inland and the ocean isn’t seen again until the turnoff to Highway 1 at Salinas that runs south to some of California’s best beaches at Carmel and Monterey and north through Moss Landing, Aptos and Capitola Beach. Moss Landing had excellent surf with few surfers in the water. Arriving at Santa Cruz, and after having my fill of seeing fine waves at the area’s many beaches, we headed for the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Neptune’s Natatorium.
The Natatorium lasted much longer than most of the plunges in California. The majority of them were gone by the 1940’s and early ‘50’s. By 1963 this one could no longer sustain itself financially. But during its glory days it was immensely popular. It is estimated that seven million swimmers visited the plunge in its 56 years. Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian Olympic swimmer and surfer, performed there in aquatic shows more than once. He was billed as, “The greatest swimmer of all times, the mighty Hawaiian natador who revolutionized and astounded the aquatic world”. He was all that and more during the late teens and early 1920’s. He also gave surfing demonstrations at Cowells Beach just north of the plunge. Ruth Kahl was billed as, “The Human Submarine”. She established the world record for underwater swimming there at the Natatorium in 1938, 303 feet. Clyde Hawthone was the fastest swimmer in the world in the early 1900’s. He established world records there in the 100 yard sidestroke long before today’s Australian Crawl stroke was invented. The Neptune Swimming Team, representing the plunge, was one of the best in the country.
After our nostalgic trip to the Natatorium, a must stop on this journey north had to be, as usual, another visit to Mavericks at Half Moon Bay to check on the waves. We stopped to see the new Ritz Carlton Hotel and golf course built on the former desolate, wind blown sand dunes south of Half Moon Bay on the way. The surf was enormous at Mavericks. But no one was out. Many of the top big wave surfers were there on the beach that day but the waves were wind blown and stormy and not enough shape to them to lure anyone into the water. “Maybe later” was heard all around. So our journey was over, but I can report that at least there is one old salt water plunge building left in California that can be visited to see what they used to look like. Out of all those warm salt water plunges that I swam in as a kid none remain, only the outer shell of one of them is there to be seen.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 06 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
EARLY SURF FILMS
Bud Brown and bug
I paid 65 cents in 1953 to get into the auditorium of John Adams Junior High School in Santa Monica to see what is always referred to as the first commercial surf film ever shown. It was aptly called, “Hawaiian Surfing Movies”, and played to a packed crowd of hooting and hollering surfers and their girl friends. It was a great crowd because almost everyone there knew almost everyone else there. The film was made by Bud Brown, a phys. ed. teacher who passed away recently at the age of 96. Bud had been filming surfing since the 1940’s but hadn’t gone commercial until this film. After this initial success Bud quit his teaching job and devoted his full time to making surf films, and was very successful through the years. I surfed and swam with Bud occasionally in the 1930’s at Venice Beach where we both became lifeguards in the late 30’s, he for the Los Angeles City Lifeguards and I for the Venice Salt Water Plunge. I joined him as an L. A. City Guard when I was old enough a few years after. Later we both took the Los Angeles County Lifeguard exam in the same year and went to work for the county after tying for first place with the fastest times in the run-swim-run event. Bud was a great waterman, maker of surf films, and a fine bodysurfer.
Many photographers had shot surfing scenes through the years before Bud’s epic showing in the school auditorium. In those days you could occasionally see a bit of surfing in the movie newsreels, or as part of a travelogue or advertisement, or perhaps see some footage at a friend’s house. Maybe you filmed surfing yourself as I did with an early eight millimeter. To go back to the beginning of surf movies, however, we need to look at none other than Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the movie camera in 1888. Edison? Surfing? Right, in 1906 Edison sent a crew from his fledgling movie company to Waikiki Beach to be the first to film surfing, among other things Hawaiian. Edison started to make commercial movies in 1893 and sent crews out into the field for the first time in 1897. The Waikiki film came out very well, and is quite clear in showing early Hawaiian surfers in action. The hula dancing is not bad either. I have a copy of this film and have enjoyed it many times. But this film wasn’t exclusively about surfing, and the public didn’t pay the price of admission to see a pure surfing film. I also remember seeing some surfing footage in an early Warren Miller film, but his films were about snow skiing. So then was Bud Brown’s film absolutely the first?
If commercial means charging to see a film exclusively about surfing I can go back some years before Bud’s “Hawaiian Surfing Movies”. In the late 1930’s, Tuley Clark, a student at my school, Venice High School, became one of our best surfers, and my school was full of good surfers and swimmers. His brother, Bud Clark, was later a captain of the beach lifeguards and I worked with him. Tuley started carrying a movie camera with him and filming his fellow surfers and their exploits at places like San Onofre, Palos Verdes and Venice. At lunch time he got permission to show these films in the school auditorium to any students who were interested. He always drew a good crowd, and if my memory is still intact, the price of admission was 5 cents, one nickel. I don’t know about the arrangement, whether he kept the profit, split with the school, or something else. So, does this make Tuley the first commercial surfing film maker, before Bud? Well, not exactly. The film was not available to everyone, the public was not invited, only Venice High students. So in essence it was an inside job, not a wide open to everyone commercial venture. More like charging your buddies to come to your house to see your films. So, I say, Bud Brown you truly were the first and by far the best in those early days, and you started the whole surf movie idea. Hundreds followed.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 06 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A BIG WAVE
Cal - 1st Place World Body Surfing Championships Oceanside, CA. 1980
Since that day, over sixty-five years ago, I’ve seen bigger waves. I’ve been to the North Shore many times. I’ve seen Pipeline maxing out on the third reef, and I’ve seen Sunset and Kaena Point at their finest. I’ve witnessed Peahi (Jaws) on Maui at 50 feet, and I’ve seen Maverick’s at its scariest. But that day so long ago, when my friend Perry and I arrived at Venice Beach, we had never seen waves this big before.
The year is hazy in my mind. It wasn’t before 1940 because we had swim fins. Owen Churchill invented and developed his green, rubber fins in the late 1930’s, and put them on the market for the first time some time in 1940. Only a few pairs were available but Perry and I managed to get ours that first year at a cost of two dollars and fifty cents. Before swim fins, catching waves and maneuvering on those waves was much more difficult. Perry and I were both Venice High School swimmers, and I had been working at the Venice Salt Water Plunge as a lifeguard. When huge surf like this hit the local coast the piers were often closed down, or at least the end portion where damage often resulted. As I recall, this storm caused damage to most of the piers in the area, and many boats in Santa Monica Harbor broke loose from their moorings and ended up on the beach. In those days there were five piers in the area along a two mile stretch of beach: Santa Monica Pier, Crystal Pier, Ocean Park Pier, Venice Pier and Sunset Pier. Today only the Santa Monica Pier remains.
On that day I remember that Perry and I said to each other that the waves had to be twenty feet. And with waves that size, the biggest we had ever seen, we had to go in. Board surfing was quickly ruled out; no one could have paddled through that towering white water without landing back on the beach within minutes. Bodysurfing was our only chance, and that only possible if we could reach the end of the pier and jump in. Swimming out from shore would be impossible. The problem with this idea was that the entrance to the Venice Pier was barricaded and police were standing guard to see that no one ventured out to those sections of the pier that were most vulnerable. However, knowing the pier very well, I was aware of a seldom used, secret way of getting onto the pier away from the barricaded area. Carrying our fins, we went to the north side of the pier where the Venice Plunge stood nearby, and climbed up this hidden passage beneath The Flying Circus Ride to the deck of the pier. Unseen, we made our way out to the end of the pier where we encountered waves breaking over the protective rock breakwater and coming clear over the end of the pier. We had never seen anything like this before, and we hoped that Fat Frank, who lived under the pier and trapped lobsters there, was long gone. Standing there with our swim fins in hand, we waited and hoped for a lull in the action, since we were going to have to swim some distance seaward where the waves were forming and breaking far out beyond the pier. After waiting for some time and glancing at each other occasionally to see if one or both of us were crazy, and knowing neither of us was going to back down, we jumped. We were now in the turmoiled water where as kids, in calmer times, we had dived for nickels and dimes thrown to us by the tourists from the pier. We swam seaward with all the speed our bodies and swim fins could muster, out to where the waves were forming, and we waited. We could see the waves breaking over the top of our usual jumping off spot for bodysurfing, the end of the Sunset Pier. That would never have worked on this day; the Venice Pier extended much farther out to sea. Our plan was to try to catch one or two of these monsters and hopefully ride them a short distance, kick out, and swim back for another, knowing that if we took one for a longer ride there would be little chance of swimming back through waves of that size. It worked for us.
On our first rides, we found that these waves of considerable size, breaking in very deep water, were really quite gentle with us for the first part of the ride. They weren’t breaking top to bottom with a crash like they often do in shallower water. The waves crested and feathered off the top, and we found ourselves skimming down a long slope that seemed to last forever, an incredible feeling. After riding a couple, the next wave was to be THE wave for us. We would ride it as long as we could, hang on and hope to reach shore at the end. By this time we were very cold, after making it to the end of the pier in our trunks on a stormy day, and being in the water for some time; wet suits wouldn’t come along for another twenty years. And then my wave came, it rose high above me, it was big, and I felt very small. I caught it, and down the slope I glided. I completely forgot that I was cold and tired and sorta scared, and I reveled in the speed and excitement of that unforgettable ride. Time seemed to stand still as the wave and I played together, first passing the end of the Venice Pier to the left and then the Sunset Pier to the right on our journey to the distant shore. I felt that I didn’t want it to ever end, but I knew as we approached shallower water that the fun part would soon be over. My wave, my friend, changed into a mass of white water, top to bottom, coming down hard, holding me under, tumbling me over and over in its foam and bubbles. I came to the surface, gulped a mouthful of air, and was hit by another white monster, and then another, until I was near shore and finally left the sea and found myself on dry sand. I waited for my friend Perry who soon joined me after a similar experience. We stood there for a while. Not a whole lot had to be said. We left the beach, glancing back from time to time at the tapestry of which we had just been a part.
1. I never bodysurfed a wave that big again.
2. Ironic that I, not too long after, as a Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard was assigned to the pier during a big surf to keep out anyone foolhardy enough to want to venture onto the pier.
3. Perry Black died in World War Two, piloting his fighter plane as it crashed into the ground.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Nov. 18 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
LURE OF THE SEA
Cal - Connected to the sea
What binds us to the oceans of the world, what is our connection to them, what lures us there? Surfers, of course, would say it’s the waves, fishermen would say the catching of fish, swimmers like swimming, others would say something else. But there is more to it than that, something not readily apparent, something beyond. John Kennedy once said, “We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea we are going back from whence we came”. Science tells us that man, and all other land animals, descended from organisms that once lived in the sea, and some time in the past arose from it. The fluid in the bodies of these sea creatures was sea water. When they moved from the water to dry land, leaving their lives in the ocean behind, sea water was retained as their body fluid. The content of the human body at birth is 90% water. This is not plain water, it is salt water. Even in middle age, 70 to 80% of our bodies is salt water, and in extreme old age, over 50%. Our blood is 83% salt water. The human brain is 75% salt water. Salt water regulates the temperature of the human body. We are salt water creatures.
Most of the Earth’s surface consists of salt water. Ninety- seven percent of the water on Earth is in oceans. Arthur C. Clarke, most famous for writing, 2001, A Space Odyssey said, “How inappropriate to call this planet, ‘Earth’, when it quite clearly is, ‘Ocean’”. Geological records show that the Earth has been dominated by salt water oceans since soon after the cataclysm billions of years ago. There is the same amount of salt water on Earth now as there was soon after the Earth was formed. The water you drink today could contain molecules that quenched the thirst of the Neanderthals. Our ties to the ocean are strong.
If you are a surfer, how often have you heard a fellow surfer, or even yourself, say, “I’ve got to get wet today, I have to go in”, even when there are small or no waves? We are drawn to the ocean. Shakespeare could have been talking to surfers looking for a new break when he told how we are lured, “to unpathed waters, undreamed shores”, in The Winter’s Tale. And Lord Byron in Childe Harold, 1812, wrote of his love for the sea, and apparently of finding some good waves when the sea beckoned him into its waters:
“Once more upon the waters! Yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider. Welcome, to their roar!
Swift be their guidance, wheresoe’er it lead!”
John Masefield expressed well the draw of the ocean in his famous poem, Sea Fever:
“I must go down to the seas again,
For the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call
That may not be denied”
Conclusion: We are sea creatures.
We are all of us of the sea.
We are connected to all things ocean.
We Are The Sea.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Nov. 12 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE TWO DIVES
The Zuma Beach emergency crew, late 1940's.
It was late afternoon in the early 1950’s, going into evening. Most of the lifeguards at Zuma Beach were about to go off duty when the old switchboard at headquarters lit up with a phone call. The sheriff on the line quickly relayed the information that there was a diver down somewhere between Malibu Colony and the surfing beach; emergency! With me as the senior man and driver, six of us piled into the old International Truck that was our emergency vehicle, and with red lights and siren going we headed south on Pacific Coast Highway. It would take us about fifteen minutes to reach the site and it had probably been at least that long before we had received the call. With that amount of elapsed time we realized that this would more than likely be a recovery operation rather than a rescue. There was always the chance the diver had left the water unknown to his fellow diver who had reported the incident.
Our diving equipment in the early 1950’s for rescue or recovery consisted of diving masks and fins, that was all. The aqualung had been invented some years earlier but was not available as yet. Wet suits would be along in a few years but at this time only a few experimental, primitive examples existed. None of the lifeguards had them. Even our masks and fins had only been around for a dozen years. There was no Baywatch Lifeguard Rescue Boat at that time. We did have paddleboards.
Arriving on the scene, the victim’s diving buddy quickly pointed out where his friend had last been seen, and yes, he was wearing a diving suit of some sort, and no, there was no way he could have left the water without being seen. This was a diving area I knew well, it being one of my favorites for abalone and lobsters. I had the divers spread out and we began searching the area quickly since we would soon lose our daylight. We were all pretty good, breath-holding free divers but after forty-five minutes of looking our visibility was almost gone. The unsuccessful search was over, called off. The divers all left the water. I had drifted quite a distance south in an attempt to cover as much ocean bottom as possible in the short time left. With visibility being overtaken by darkness I took one last dive before leaving the water. What I saw on that last dive was the biggest bull lobster I had ever seen, and I had dived for them most of my life. The largest California Spiny Lobster on record was three feet long and weighing over twenty-six pounds. This one had to go fifteen pounds or more. What to do? Well, the search was over, called off, the group on the beach and the sheriff had dispersed in the waning light. The only ones left were the lifeguards waiting for me in the semi-darkness by the truck. I dove again, brought the monster to the surface, and then to the beach. It fed a good many of us for dinner that night.
Some days later the diver was still missing, no doubt taken miles away by now by the ocean waves, drifts and currents, probably never to be found. My friend and I were off on a diving jaunt this day, and we eventually ended up in this same area where we knew the diving was usually good. After many dives we had done well, and after a couple more we would be through for the day. By this time I was in the very spot where the victim’s buddy said he had last seen his friend. I took a deep breath, held it, and dove toward the bottom. There below me, facing the ocean floor, was a diver. He was wearing an early version of a black wet suit and had a weight belt around his waist. It at first startled me to see another diver that I hadn’t known was out there, but the realization of who this was hit home when the surge of the sea rolled him over on his back and he looked straight at me through his diving mask. I shot for the surface and called for my friend to come and help me. We managed to get him to shore, call the sheriff, and it was soon over. He hadn’t been tangled in the kelp, and why had his body returned to the very spot where we had searched so carefully? Was it a faulty wet suit filled with water, or too heavy a weight belt that caused his demise? We could see no reason why he had drowned, and I don’t think it was ever determined.
I had gone to sea one day to find a lost diver and returned with a giant lobster. I had gone to sea another day to find a giant lobster and returned with the body of a man. Life is strange.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Nov. 03 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
View of Phillips Ranch on the point at Secos with the Rock on the left. Looks like a set just rolled through and no body out. Photo 1940's.
Looking toward Zero Point, 1940's. Note the cars on PCH.
The names of surf breaks change over the years. Names that I knew as a young surfer some 50 to 75 years ago have been altered, distorted or changed completely by new groups of surfers. And this is not a bad thing, sometimes more descriptive or appropriate or fun names come along.
For instance, in the old days when we drove north to the Oxnard-Ventura area we surfed at Hollywood by the Sea (south of the harbor) or Hollywood Beach (north of the harbor), so named because of the many movies made there. Now it is Silver Strand, Mandalay Beach, Oxnard Shores or Power Plant. Down the coast, County Line surf area is not on the Los Angeles-Ventura county line, it is some distance beyond in the little town of Solromar, thus that surf break was not County Line but was always called Solromar in the 1940’s and beyond. Seldom did you encounter other surfers there. Just south is a break now usually called Secos at Leo Carrillo State Park. It was first discovered by us way back and called Phillips Ranch. It was all private land then and fenced off, but Phillips tolerated us climbing through his barrier to surf and dive as long as we didn’t disturb his cattle and other livestock on the beach. No other surfers went there. His house was where the lifeguard building is now. We eventually changed the name to Sequit after the Arroyo Sequit canyon that meets the beach there. Secos seems to be the accepted name now, a distortion of our Sequit. A mile south is a break called Zeroes by surfers today, which is not a great change from our original name of Zero Point, named after the biggest break at Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. I lived there for many years and never saw another surfer except for friends who were invited in. Miki Dora and others often called. It was private with a locked gate until Los Angeles County took over our property in the early 1960’s, and opened it to the throngs of surfers of today. South from there the dozens of private surf breaks in the Pt. Dume area all have individual names. In the 30’s and 40’s it was all just Pt Dume wherever you surfed. There were no homes or roads in the entire area, and no surfers. You just parked your car on the bluff and tried to find a way down to the beach. A few miles south is a surf break surfers refer to as Malibu Colony, however it is not within the colony and when we surfed it we always called it Little Beach, a name it had for many years. It is fenced and private. Old Joe’s is what we called the break at Malibu Colony, named for Old Joe who lived there and surfed with tennis shoes on his feet long before booties were invented. Next is the world famous Malibu Surfrider State Beach. The break was known simply as Malibu from the 1920’s on.
Moving south past the Los Angeles City line where Sunset Boulevard meets the sea, there is a nice break aptly called Sunset these days. Seventy years ago, and for long after, everyone knew it as Pension Beach. If you were assigned there as a lifeguard in the little open tower on the beach, you seldom saw a swimmer and never a surfer, thus you were pensioned off, you were on easy street. Pension Beach or Sunset is crowded with surfers now, day in and day out, and the lifeguard is no longer taking it easy. Next door to Sunset it was, and still is, called Bel Air, but it is no longer a surfing spot due to the removal of the piers many years ago that originally caused a sand buildup and the waves. Lighthouse is what we called the break south of Bel Air. The lighthouse stood where the lifeguard headquarters is today, standing on the site where the old Long Wharf began its one mile extension into the ocean. There were fine waves there before the beach widened, covering all the rocks with sand and eliminating the waves. The area is now Will Rogers State Beach and seldom is there a rideable wave there. The same is true for south of the lighthouse, at a surf break known then as The Canyon before the sand buildup destroyed the diving and well-shaped surf. This area is also known as Will Rogers.
MORE NAME CHANGES
A few miles south of The Canyon was the Ocean Park Pier with good surf on both sides all the way back into the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. The north side was called, “The Other Side”, the south side was Navy Street. The pier is gone now and the north side is just called Santa Monica or Bay Street or Del Mar. Navy Street surf barely breaks now due to the widening of the beach, and the area is just called Venice Beach . The Venice Breakwater, however, is heavily surfed now. When I was a kid it was known as, “Fat Frank’s”, named for Fat Frank who lived under the end of the pier and trapped lobsters there. This was far out to sea at the end of the long pier where waves seldom broke unless they reached 15 feet or better. Well Fat Frank and the Venice Pier are long gone now and with the beach much wider the sand reaches clear to the breakwater and can be reached on foot. Down the beach when I was growing up in Playa del Rey we surfed along the south jetty of Ballona Creek. We called it “Ballona Creek”. Seemed perfectly logical, but now I believe it is generally referred to as Toes Over; I guess that’s an improvement. The surf spots along my beach there went mainly by street names: Sunridge, Fowling, Napoleon. Now they’re called D and W, Del Rey and Storm Drain.
Names in South Santa Monica Bay haven’t changed much, most named after piers, towns and streets such as 22nd Street where Dewey Weber held sway. Palos Verdes Cove, as it is known today, we often called Paddleboard Cove or Bluff Cove. Further south, Killer Dana as it was called met its end when the name was changed to The Dana Point Boat Harbor after the breakwater was finished, eliminating these fine waves for ever.
There have been many more surf break name changes along the California coast, too many to name, but skipping all the way down to Baja, in the early days we just named surf breaks ourselves or went by mileage in kilometers from the Mexican border, or picked names from the map. Nobody had named anything that long ago. Now in the Rosarito area there are names like Baja Malibu, Baja Santa Monica, and so on. My brother and I found and named one spot, “Little Cove”, and surfed and dived there from the late 30’s to the early 60’s and never saw another surfer, only Mexican fishermen. At K38, as it’s known now, we called it, “Outhouse”, due to a primitive facility on the point there. The break is now completely cut off by condos, houses, stores, walls and fences. At what is now K39, fifty years ago it was called, “Santini’s”, after the owner of the property who carried a shotgun and exacted a fee of two dollars to camp and surf there. About a hundred and fifty miles south of Santini’s, on the beach near San Quintin, one dark of night we pulled off the dirt road and camped and slept on the beach with a strong odor permeating the air. Being too tired to move on we managed somehow to get a decent night’s sleep. Upon awakening the source of this malevolent odor was made plain to us. Not thirty feet away, on the sand, upwind, lay a dead mule, a ripe dead mule. A dreadful sight and smell indeed. But the mule was quickly forgotten as we turned our gaze seaward and saw perfect, head-high, a-frame peaks rolling in, probably never surfed before. A fine session ensued for all, and as we took our leave those forty years ago, we decided on the perfect name for our discovery, “DEAD MULE”. And let it be known that nobody dare change, alter, distort, modify or mess for evermore with that brilliant designation.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 23 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE ART OF BODYSURFING
Cal staying ahead of the whitewater by going left on a wave between the Venice and Sunset piers, pre swimfins, Southern Califonia, late 1930's.
The purest form of surfing is bodysurfing. It is the only form of surfing where there is nothing between the surfer and the element that he is working with, the ocean wave. It is the art of riding a wave without the help of any buoyant device such as a surfboard or bodyboard. There is no other feeling in surfing quite like the sensation felt to one’s body, on its own, skimming down the face of a perfect wave and turning left or right to angle on the shoulder of the wave. The body itself, in essence, becomes a surfboard. I have bodysurfed all my life.
There is no way of knowing when or where bodysurfing originated. It probably has been practiced for hundreds of years, maybe first in the warm waters of the South Pacific, Tahiti or Hawaii. Wherever there were waves and kids some of them, no doubt, were body riding the waves in some form or other, probably long before there was board surfing. The first mention in literature that I have found is in the work of British poet Lord Byron two hundred years ago in the early 1800’s:
“I have loved the ocean,
And my joy of youthful sports was on thy breast borne by thy bubbles.
Onward from a boy I have wantoned with thy breakers.”
Sounds like he was bodysurfing to me. After all, in 1810 he swam the difficult four miles across The Hellespont, the strait that separates Europe from Asia, the first to accomplish this feat since Leander, in Greek myth, swam The Hellespont to be with his love, Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who lived on the other side.
There are many photographs of early bodysurfers from the 1900’s through the 1920’s and into the ‘30’s, including Duke Kahanamoku and the Hawaiian beach boys, all going strait in on the waves, the object being to see if you could hold onto the wave all the way to the beach. The first surfing book ever written was “The Art of Wave Riding”, by Ron Drummond in 1932 which included many photos which also showed bodysurfers riding strait as an arrow in to the beach. That’s what bodysurfing was. In the late 1930’s I was bodysurfing in Venice, and after waiting on the end of the Sunset Pier for the biggest waves and then jumping in for one, I got the idea that maybe a longer, faster and more exciting ride could be had by using the body like a surfboard, staying ahead of the whitewater on the breaking wave, and riding the shoulder of the wave on an angle. After all, I was doing this on my surfboard on these very same waves. Well with my skinny body it worked, and it was much more fun and faster, and more could be done with the wave. Bodysurfing was never the same for me. I never saw anyone else try it for some years after. Swim fins hadn’t been invented yet so it wasn’t as easy as it is today. Luckily a photographer on the beach filmed me one day doing my thing out there and that photo has been used in surf magazines and bodysurfing books to document the first arrival of modern bodysurfing. Later, when fins had been invented, others took it up.
There are many fine bodysurfing breaks along the California Coast. Most of these breaks, Malibu, Rincon, Trestles and my favorite, Zeros (because it’s a left breaking wave) are also good for board surfing making it difficult for the bodysurfer to get a wave with so many boards in the water. There also are many bodysurfing contests during the year: Santa Cruz, Manhattan Beach, Oceanside, San Diego. The Pipeline Contest on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii is probably the most exciting, with waves often reaching 20 feet. The Oceanside contest is billed as the world’s championship each year drawing three to four hundred surfers from as far away as South America, Europe and Hawaii. Many maneuvers are required to do well in this contest such as underwater takeoffs, spinners, barrel rolls, riding on the back, and getting tubed (rare). I have won my group many times in this contest, and used to enter most of the others. However, these days there doesn’t seem to be a category for fellows into their 85th year.
When I was a kid it was fun to take a break from board surfing and go bodysurfing there at the same break. There was plenty of room for both at most places like Malibu, San Onofre and most of the others. I used to bodysurf Zeros alone in the ‘40’s and early ‘50’s. Today you might get run over. Another trick was to catch a wave on your board and at the proper moment push off the board, dive into the wave and bodysurf it to the beach, swimming back out for your board afterward. Not much like this goes on anymore with surfers encased in neoprene from head to toe and attached securely to the surfboard with a long leash from leg to board. We had a little more freedom back then before all this stuff was invented. But there I go talking about the old days again.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 09 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURF AND DIVE
Cal in full diving gear of the day with a nice abalone in his left hand. Palos Verdes, 1947.
When I was young the object of most of our surf trips was two-fold: surfing, of course, but also diving. Diving gear was always packed along with the surf gear. Whether the trip was one day long or two weeks long diving gear was essential. Sea food was part of the diet for the trip, and it was plentiful sixty and seventy years ago. Face plates, fins, gloves, tire irons and sling spears always went along. In those days almost any good surf spot along the Southern California Coast and Baja also doubled as a good diving spot. Most good surfing spots are rocky bottomed, and where there were rocks abalone, lobsters and fish abounded. Even at a sandy bottomed break diving could be good, with halibut and clams waiting for the hungry surfer-diver. At sandy Zuma Beach, a decent surf spot, with no reefs for some distance, I have brought in many a lobster migrating by the dozens in a straight line along the sandy bottom from one rocky area to the next two miles apart. In Malibu in the 1930’s, 40’s and even into the 50’s almost any surfing area also meant good diving. The rocky bottom at world famous Malibu Surfrider Beach yielded all the abalone, lobsters and clams needed for a feast. County Line, Leo Carrillo, Zero, Pt, Dume, Latigo, Topanga, Sunset, Santa Monica Canyon, all good in those days, as well as the rocks at Venice, all of Palos Verdes, Laguna, and Killer Dana. What fun it was surfing at San Onofre, then taking a break to dive for dinner in the clean, clear water in the days before nuclear plants, industry, housing tracts, and runoff cut the visibility. And then in the evening at San Onofre, cooking the catch over a nice, hot fire on the beach, and afterward crawling into a sleeping bag for the night, awakening the next morning to do it all over again. No crowds, no rules, no supervision, no problems, no hassle; just a good bunch of happy surfers doing what seemed so natural.
Baja was then a paradise of surfing and diving, one end to the other. Camping anyplace was fine. My brother and I lived for almost two weeks at a surfing and dive spot we discovered and called “Little Cove”. We never saw another soul in our cove except a dory fisherman or two passing by outside the surfline. We lived almost exclusively on what we gathered from the sea. I think we just wanted to see if it could be done. Fishing license? Never heard of it.
Today don’t get caught taking sea life of any kind out of Mexican waters anywhere without paying the proper fees, getting licenses, diving and fishing in designated areas, and doing it all with a group licensed for such things. The penalty or fine can be quite severe. Today in California camping is allowed nowhere on the beach; no fires or cooking either except where pits and grills have been provided and supervised. No taking of sea life without a license, and then only the limit and proper size. There are countless other rules and do’s and don’ts along the beaches and in the water now. However, with the tremendous increase in population and beach and ocean participation seen now compared with what it was like when I was a kid, these rules and regulations are absolutely necessary and essential. Even with all the regulations our sea life has been sadly depleted, and without the rules our beaches would be in a sorry state. But still one can’t help sometimes thinking back sixty or seventy or eighty years ago to those old distant days along the waterfront, and long for the way it was.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 21 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
BAJA AT ANY COST
Hair; The surf tax of the time.
Short hair and K 181
Puerto Santo Thomas, 1970.
It started out much like any of our Baja surfing trips. We’d made plenty of them before and knew just what to do and what to take. We knew how to talk to the border guards, los carabineros, and to explain we were just harmless beach lovers on a vacation trip. Once over the border we knew how to handle la policia when they demanded more payment than we were willing to pay for an imaginary misdeed of some sort, usually a driving fine. We also knew that the fellow demanding a fee for parking, camping and surfing on “his” property probably lived many miles away, had nothing to do with the property and would take much less for his “protection”, unless he carried a shotgun. Thus we packed the VW bus with a week’s worth of food, sleeping bags and the usual gear: diving masks, swim fins, maybe a fishing pole or two, and strapped four boards to the racks and headed down the California Coast.
This was in the summer of 1970, thirty-eight years ago. The hippy culture then was somewhat on the wane, but the Woodstock festival was just the year before, the San Francisco Summer of Love was a recent memory, and styles of that time had lingered on into the 70’s, especially longer hair for men. My son and his two young friends certainly didn’t have hair down to their waists, but it was longish nonetheless, about the norm for that time. We had never had any trouble at the border on our previous trips to Baja but this time we were in for a surprise, this time was going to be different. We approached the border with no trepidation whatsoever but were very much taken aback when the guards took one look at us in the van and loudly announced that Mexico no longer allowed hippies to enter the country because they caused too much trouble. Well we insisted that none among us was a hippy, and that we were just clean, wholesome young fellows who were only interested in doing a little surfing in their wonderful country. This was all to no avail, they would hear no further discussion, and we were ordered to turn our car out of the line and head back to Hippyland, USA.
Driving back the way we came, we covered the short distance to the US border town of San Ysidro and parked the car in order to discuss this unexpected dilemma. What to do? We had come too far to give up, and visions of those shapely Baja waves were far too strong to dismiss. Maybe we could get some hats or stocking caps and the boys could tuck in and hide their hair under cover. But no, the guards would recognize us, and the car, too. Well, we could wait for nightfall or the next day and maybe there would be different guards on duty, but this was too big an if, and besides it was early morning and those waves were waiting for us right now. This left one and only one solution and it was summed up in only one word: HAIRCUTS!! Out came the first aid kit, out came the scissors. For the next half hour three young fellows, who would never be given employment as hair stylists, gave their all for the cause and did the job. When they were through and the pile of hair was gathered up, and they had looked in the mirror and saw strangers peering back, we were ready to give it another try. We turned again toward the border, this time with plenty of trepidation. As we came closer we could see them, there they were, the same two guards watching us creeping toward our fate. With nervous tension reaching a peak, and expecting the worst, we came to a dead stop before them. We smiled. We said buenos dias. They in turn took one quick look into the van, waved us through, and not a word was spoken.
Within an hour we were in the water. Who needs all that hair anyway!
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 12 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE SURFING LIFE
Cal on the right with friends and surfboards on the car roof.
Each morning, after I wake up, I check the surf. I do this by walking the few steps from my house to the bluff overlooking the ocean where I take a long look up and down the coast. It’s how I plan my day. It’s not something I do occasionally, it’s everyday. It seems that I have been doing this my whole life. Years ago, when I had to go to work or go to school, what I saw on my surf check sometimes made it necessary to make difficult adjustments to my plans, but it usually worked out. And when there was no surf, decision making was made much easier.
Surfing as kids seventy-five years ago or so, and through the early years, we didn’t know much. There either were waves or there weren’t waves. That was it. We didn’t know where they came from or what seasons of the year produced them, or when or where to go for the best of them. We just looked; we did a surf check. We went to places we knew about and hoped there would be waves. There were no books or magazines on the subject. There were no surf reports or forecasts from dozens of sources, with videos showing breaks all over the world. We didn’t know that a swell was coming at a certain exact time and exact angle, and would be best at certain beaches. There was nothing in the newspapers, not even a tide table. Word of mouth was our forecast. A friend would say hey, I hear it was good by the pier today, let’s go up there tomorrow.
We were in the water surfing or diving all year long, summer and winter. There were no wet suits. They didn’t appear commercially along the California Coast until the mid 1950’s. We knew the water was going to be cold, and we knew we were going to be cold, but it didn’t matter. When we were half frozen we got out, often thawing out by a fire if it could be done. We tried different things to stay warm, wearing a warm sweatshirt which only made you colder when it got wet, or rubbing grease on our bodies which didn’t really work for diving, and made surfing impossible. My brother and I cut up old inner tubes and tried to glue and vulcanize the sections together to make a rubber shirt. It didn’t work. It leaked badly, and you couldn’t get the stiff thing off once you squeezed into it. We tried going in the water with a tightened up, yellow, waterproof, fireman’s outfit. We almost drowned. We were ahead of our time, but neoprene was many years away.
There were no surf leashes. When you lost your board in those days you were in for a long swim. That’s why surfers at that time were all darn good swimmers and watermen. You had to be. Today I wonder about some I see out there who could be in trouble if they weren’t attached to their boards and wearing buoyant neoprene suits. Surf leashes didn’t appear until around 1971. I remember watching a surf contest that year at Zuma Beach when a contestant wore the first one. He was disqualified.
I kind of miss the old days. But I don’t miss them so much that it keeps me from wearing a nice, warm, neoprene wet suit every time I go surfing. And booties, too, to keep the feet and toes warm. And I can’t get nostalgic about those long, cold swims we had to make to retrieve a board that got away and ended up far down the shoreline somewhere. So I guess I’m really just quite happy with the way things have turned out.
Either that or I’m getting old.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 02 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
MALIBU SURFRIDER BEACH, A SHORT HISTORY
Cal at Malibu's Surfrider beach November, 1947
Of course the Chumash Indians were there first, living along the beach at Malibu Surfrider for thousands of years. They called it Humaliwo, loosely translated as, “where the surf sounds loudly”. They were there in 1542 when Juan Cabrillo sailed his ships into the cove in search of fresh drinking water. He called the cove, “Pueblo de las Canoas”. And they were there in the 1700’s when the Spanish arrived and attempted to “civilize” them.
But as for the first surfers the year was 1926, and their names were Tom Blake and Sam Reid, two lifeguards from Santa Monica. There is no record that the gun-toting vaqueros of the Rindge Malibu Ranch ever gave a thought to surfing the pristine, unridden waves of Malibu. They were there to keep people out, at gun point. Blake and Reid stopped at the barbed wire fence, evaded the guards, and paddled the two miles north to be the first ever to test the Malibu waves. The rest of the 1920’s produced few surfing visitors since it was so difficult to reach Malibu until the State of California opened the highway through the Rindge Ranch in 1929, after a long fight with the owners.
The 1930’s brought surfers, but not many. If you didn’t want to surf alone you brought friends with you. My first experience there was in the late 30’s and five or so surfers at one time was a pretty good crowd, and that was on a good summer day with a decent south swell running. Early morning was best when there was no one in the water. The Adamson House was there on the point as it is today, having been built in 1929 for the daughter of the Rindge family and her husband. It is now a museum open to the public. The famous Malibu Wall where we leaned our boards was built in 1932 and is still there in part. It once ran almost down to the pier. The old two lane highway ran alongside the wall and is now a parking lot. The Malibu pier had been there since 1905, built as a shipping wharf. Before 1938 a surfer’s goal was to reach the end of the pier at the conclusion of the ride, but that took a very large wave. After 1938 that became impossible when the pier was extended to its present length of 780 feet. A storm in 1943 wiped out the end of the pier and it was rebuilt to what we see today. There were no businesses or restaurants near the area in the 1930’s. The Malibu Inn that has been across the street for so many years was at that time located on the old Malibu Road across from the Colony.
World War 2 made it very difficult to surf Malibu. With reports of Japanese subs off the coastline the U.S. Coast Guard established a headquarters in the pool house of the Adamson estate, and the pier was used as a lookout post. Barbed wire went up and the beach was under constant surveillance. It is said that Dale Velzy made it out a time or two but not many more did. Malibu was blacked out at night with no house or car lights allowed. Long military convoys passed Malibu Surfrider almost daily.
At the end of the war in 1945 as many as ten surfers were seen in the water at one time. The crowd steadily increased, however, and then in the mid-50’s Gidget arrived and attendance soon after exploded. It increased so much that the State of California took over the beach and asked the County of Los Angeles to operate it. Before this time life at Surfrider Beach was free and easy. You could camp and sleep on the beach, build shelters, light fires and cook dinners, rent out surfboards, drink a beer or two, and pretty much do as you pleased. What the surfers didn’t want was supervision, beach rules and a lifeguard. So there I was on June 11, 1959 assigned as Malibu Surfrider’s first lifeguard. I think the idea was that I knew a lot of the guys there, I was an older lifeguard by then, and maybe they wouldn’t beat me up, at least not too badly. But it all worked out, lifeguards have been there almost fifty years now, running a tight ship, and protecting the thousands of swimmers and surfers at one of the most popular beaches on the California Coast.
So between the years 1926, with two surfers in the water, until 2008 millions of surfers have come and gone. The Point still faces due south and cranks out some of the best waves anywhere. A nice, summer, south swell works best, but first, second and third points are all ridden year around. But I sometimes stop and wonder if maybe hundreds of years ago, perhaps a group of Chumash Indians in their beautifully crafted surf boats, making for shore after a day of fishing, just might have picked up a perfectly shaped Malibu wave and rode it right onto the beach……Maybe even standing up.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 25 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE WRITTEN WORD
Tahiti - Early 1930's
There were no books on surfing when I was a kid growing up in the 1920’s and early 30’s. There were no surf magazines. There were no surfing photographs to look at. There were even very few surfers to watch and learn from. In fact there were no surfers at all anywhere along the long stretch of beach in Playa del Rey where I grew up, except my two older brothers and me. The nearest surfers we knew were a couple of friends who lived on the beach near what is now Marina del Rey several miles up the coast toward Venice. Most people had never heard of surfing. Only a few had seen surfers on any of the Southern California beaches. But we knew what surfing was and we more or less just went out and did it. We had boards, we paddled them out into the ocean, and first thing you know you’re on your feet and you’re surfing. Maybe not too stylish, but surfing nonetheless. The first surfers I saw other than the three of us was when I started to go up to Venice Beach to a place we called, “Between the Piers”; the piers being the Venice Amusement Pier and the Sunset Pier. There were only a few surfers there until about 1936 when the Venice Paddleboard Club was formed and quite a few kids joined up. I ended up surfing and bodysurfing there frequently.
The first book ever published about any form of surfing came out in 1931 and was called, “The Art of Wave Riding”. It was a slim book not on board surfing but on bodysurfing written by lifeguard, Ron Drummond, with photos and bodysurfing featuring Wally O’Connor. O’Connor was a lifeguard and Olympic Water Polo player and swimmer. I got to know him quite well in later years. I was eight or nine years old when the Santa Monica Library laid in a copy, and I was more than excited when I found it, devoured the pictures, and read it. At last, waves and surfing right there in a book.
The second book ever written on surfing was written in Hawaii by Tom Blake in 1935 called “Hawaiian Surfboard”. What a revelation when I saw photographs of actual board surfing in a book, with a written description of every wave. I was overwhelmed. Soon after in 1935 National Geographic Magazine came out with a section devoted to surfing in Hawaii using these same Tom Blake photos. This was the first time a magazine had ever featured surfing to this extent. I was eleven years old and I got out my scissors, cut out these pictures and saved them. As I write this article I am looking at these photos in front of me that I have kept safe and sound for the last 73 years.
Another book that I found shortly after the Blake book that greatly influenced me was Zane Grey’s “Tales of Tahitian Waters” written in 1931. It wasn’t a book about surfing, it was about fishing. But it had nine photographs of the biggest and most beautiful waves I had ever seen. They were taken in 1926 in Tahiti near the Isthmus of Taravao which is not far from Teahupoo, the famous surf spot known to all surfers today. I cut these photos out and also saved them for the last 73 years. They’re in front of me now. These photos so influenced me that I vowed that some day I would go to Tahiti and surf those waves. It took a while but some 35 years ago I did just that, I went to Tahiti and surfed those waves, and they were just as beautiful as those old photographs. I also went to Teahupoo, but it was unknown as a surfing spot in those days and I found no waves there. Little did I know.
The next book, and the first work to examine surfing in California, was Doc Ball’s “California Surfriders” in 1946. It was a book with great black and white surfing photos of all the known surf spots along the California Coast at that time: San Onofre, Palos Verdes, Malibu, Santa Cruz and others. By that late date I had already surfed all those spots. Then there was the first real surf magazine, “Surfer”. There were a couple of attempts at surfing magazines before but they were short-lived. “Surfer” was brought out in 1960 by John Severson who had made a couple of surf films previously. It is the longest continuously published surfing magazine, and known by some as the bible of the sport.
Since the 1920’s when I was a kid and there were no surf magazines, surf books, films or photos and very few surfers, there are now hundreds of surfing magazines at every newsstand from all over the world, countless books on surfing, films galore, and literally millions of surfers found everywhere on the globe. Time marches on.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 22 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SOUTH TO BAJA
Cal & FWD
Cal on a long road in Baja
The wave at the end of the road
Camp with a view
I had been surfing in Baja off and on for almost 40 years by August of 1977 when four of us decided to head south once again. My first trip there was in the late 1930’s as a fifteen year old, and we were told at that time that we could possibly have been the first to ever surf Baja. The trip this time was to an area I hadn’t been to before, and didn’t know of anyone else who had ever been there. It’s always great fun to explore new breaks and new beaches in a foreign environment, never knowing what you might find around the next point.
My friend had a four- wheel drive, Toyota Land Cruiser which was a pretty good surf vehicle in those days. We loaded the four boards onto the roof and packed enough food inside for the two week trip; enough food that is if we could supplement the diet with fresh fish and lobster. Off we went down the Southern California Coast very early one August morning, driving through San Diego, passing by many great Southern California beaches and arriving at the Mexican border while it was still pitch dark. We drove straight through Tijuana, and Ensenada, and the 600 plus miles down the west coast to Guerrero Negro which is just over the border into Baja del Sur. We had vowed not to stop and surf until we reached our destination, and then we could surf our way back. After camping overnight and listening to various complaints about the quantity and quality of the food, of which I was in charge, (and which of course hurt me deeply), we headed for San Ignacio for some much needed gas. The Pemex gas station had none, which was not unusual, but we found an obliging local who provided us with some out of his backyard barrels, for which we paid dearly. We were ready now for the 60 mile dirt and sand, pot holed road to our first surf stop on the coast, Punta Abreojos. Some of that stretch now is probably graded or paved, but not then. There we met nice size waves and only two surfers, but for the 175 miles of mostly off-road coastline we traveled north for the next week and a half we saw not one other surfer, diver or swimmer. The weather was hot, the water was warm, and we found dozens of good surf spots interspersed among the fish towns of San Hipolito, Punta Prieto, Bahia Asuncion and Bahia Tortugas. What seafood we couldn’t provide for ourselves we occasionally bought from the obliging fish camps.
After a great time our two weeks were coming to a close and we were heading back in the direction of the U.S. border. One last surf-out had to be taken and we stopped in an area we knew well near Punta Camilla. I paddled out and caught a nice overhead wave while my friend was still trying to push through this same wave on the way out. His longboard was torn away from his grasp, flew through the air, and struck me full speed on the back of my neck. I fell flat out unconscious onto my board, and luckily not head first into the water which is a good way to drown. Another friend reached me before the next wave hit and managed to paddle me to shore. I woke up later on the beach not knowing where I was or who these strangers were who were looking at me, and I couldn’t move my head or neck. They later told me the only thing I said was an intelligent question about whether or not I was getting a good suntan lying there in the rocks. After immobilizing me in the back of the car we drove the two hours or so to Ensenada and found a phone where a call was made to my friend in Malibu who was an orthopedic surgeon. He said get him out of Mexico, and if he can make it to Santa Monica I’ll meet you at the hospital. But the border guards had different plans for us. This was an old trick they said, claiming you were rushing to the hospital with a half dead guy who couldn’t be moved. Well, they said, we want to see what you’ve got under that half dead guy. And moved me they did, and the result was great discomfort for me. Finding nothing under me but a pool of salt water dripping from the wet suit I still had on, they sent us on our way with some mild apologies. Santa Monica Hospital kept me a couple of days with cement blocks keeping my head in one place, then sent me home with a neck brace, nothing broken.
Another memorable Baja trip was over.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 09 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
Bob Ernst(L) & Cal Porter(R) with their Redwood Balsa surfboards. Cal's surfboard was originally shaped in the 1930's.
Cal at the end of his ride on the Redwood Balsa.
It is thought that the sport of surfing in some form was being enjoyed as long as 4000 years ago. From that time until the late 1940’s, when Bob Simmons started experimenting with foam and fiberglass, surfboards were made of wood, the only material known to float. The ancient Hawaiian boards were made of heavy, local hard woods and could be as long as twenty feet, weighing well over one hundred pounds. The longer boards were reserved for royalty and the shorter ones for the everyday surfer. Sometime before the early 1900’s, lumber of various kinds was being shipped to Hawaii and redwood became the standard material for island surfboards. The making of a surfboard in those days was an individual endeavor, or an individual building boards for a friend or two or for family members.
In the late 1920’s and early ‘30’s we had a variety of what could loosely be called surfboards at our house on the beach at Playa del Rey. I was just a young kid but I had older brothers that were good at building things to worry my mother. We built boats, rafts and surfboards and were always in the water on one of these crafts. The surfboards were made from lumber scraps, including redwood that we gleaned from various new home construction sites nearby. These board strips were nailed and glued together, and even after sanding and painting could often inflict cuts and bruises and leave plenty of slivers and splinters in the body. The glue never lasted very long since it wasn’t waterproof then. The boards were usually short, just bellyboards, but some were long enough for standup surfing. But the surf was good in those days at Playa del Rey, and according to my brother, I did a lot of falling off but was shakily and successfully on my feet at three or four years old (probably on a one foot wave that he shoved me into).
The Pacific Systems Homes Company of Los Angeles produced the first commercially made redwood boards in late 1929 or early 1930. The son of the company’s founder was an avid surfer, after visiting Hawaii, and convinced his father that some day there would be a market for these things. We had a couple of these boards during the ‘30’s that we got from somewhere. They were made from redwood strips that were bolted and glued together with waterproof glue (invented by then) and were about ten feet long and weighed probably seventy pounds or so. We transported them to the beach in a wagon. They were an improvement over what we had but were certainly not as inspired or as artistically created as our homemade boards. And you had to drag a foot in the water to make the heavy things turn. Then in the mid 1930’s Pacific Systems came out with balsa-redwood boards which were much lighter and cost about forty dollars. I still have one of these today that I bought in 1939 from a Santa Monica surfer-lifeguard, almost 70 years ago. I think I paid twenty dollars for it. I had it reshaped in the early 1940’s by the best surfer, shaper and waterman of his era, Pete Peterson. Today this board is bolted to the wall at the Zuma Beach Lifeguard Headquarters on one of the most heavily used and best Southern California beaches. On the board we used our best calligraphy to inscribe the names of all of us who were lifeguards there in the 1940’s when the beach was first opened to the public.
Another board that we used in the 1930’s was the hollow paddleboard invented by Tom Blake in Hawaii. These boards were relatively light weight. After 1930 they were built commercially by the Thomas Rogers Company of Venice, California. Blake put the first fin on a surfboard in 1935. I kept one of these paddleboards at my house and another one at a friend’s house alongside the jetty of what is now the Marina del Rey boat harbor. When the angle of the swell was just right I would jump on my bike and go off to my friend’s house to catch the rights that would peel off that south jetty. Then when solid balsa wood boards came out in the 1940’s it changed everything. We put aside the old boards. And when foam blanks began replacing balsa in the mid 1950’s a new era had begun.
But that’s all a story for another day.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 03 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA’S FIRST SURFERS
It has long been thought that mainland America’s first surfer was a Hawaiian named George Freeth, befriended by famous author Jack London, and brought from the islands to California in 1907 to give wave riding demonstrations at Redondo and Venice beaches. There is documentation and many photographs to attest to his exploits on the Southern California beaches from 1907 to his death in 1919 during the great flu epidemic. He was just 35. During these brief years he was the first to discover and ride the surf at Ventura, Palos Verdes, Huntington Beach, San Diego and many other breaks. He taught countless kids how to ride waves and make their own surfboards, and in 1907 he became California’s first professional lifeguard. Freeth is in the International Surfing Hall of Fame, and there is a bronze bust of him attesting to his accomplishments at the foot of the Redondo Beach pier.
However, there is some evidence that California surfing might have started some twenty-two years before Freeth first amazed his onlookers in Venice in 1907, gaining him the title of, “The Man Who Could Walk on Water”. Three Hawaiian princes, Jonah Kawanakoa (heir to the royal throne) and his brothers, David and Edward were in America living and going to school in San Mateo, California. The sole evidence that they could have been the first surfers in California is contained in a short paragraph from the local Santa Cruz, California newspaper on July 20, 1885, “The breakers at the mouth of the river were very fine today. Three young Hawaiian princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surf-boarding and swimming as practiced in their native islands”. That’s it! What did “surf-boarding” mean? Did “surf-boarding” imply that they were standing up on these boards and riding waves, or were they perhaps lying on them and proning in on a type of small bellyboard? We’ll never really know for sure, but at this time in Hawaii surfing had almost been eliminated by the influence of missionaries who thought that exposing that much skin was not proper, and that surfing was a frivolous waste of time. Freeth, in the early 1900’s, is given credit for being one of the first to revive the art of standing up instead of lying in a prone position to surf. So there was very little standup surfing in Hawaii in 1885.
Surfing was mentioned once again in a Santa Cruz newspaper appropriately called “The Daily Surf”. On July 23rd, 1896 the one sentence article stated, “The boys who go in swimming in the surf at Seabright Beach use surfboards to ride the breakers like the Hawaiians”. This was, once again, before Freeth’s time, but what were these surfboards and how were they used?
Whatever the answer is we do know for certain that George Freeth, born in Hawaii to a Polynesian mother and an Irish sea captain father, along with later help from fellow Hawaiian surfer, Duke Kahanamoku, established and popularized surfing far and wide in the United States. One need only visit any surfable break on the entire California coast to witness the thousands of participants in the sport that they made famous.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 03 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
It was 1967, and my son was about to start college. After shopping around and looking at several campuses he chose the newly opened University Of California at Santa Cruz. It wasn’t a difficult choice since he had been an avid surfer all his young life growing up in Malibu, and Santa Cruz was one of the prime surfing destinations on the Pacific Coast. So off we went in my Volkswagen camper packed with his clothing and belongings and, of course, a couple of surfboards which we hardly ever traveled anywhere without. We left in the early AM and passed through the beach towns of Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach in the cool of the morning. We arrived in Santa Cruz early, and after transferring his gear from the car to his dorm room and seeing to a few creature comforts, we did the only sensible thing, we headed for the beach. We knew the area well and decided on Pleasure Point for our go-out this first day. He would be riding his 9’6” Dewey Weber, and even though the shorter board transition was still a year or two away I would be on my7’10” Wilken. Arriving at Pleasure Point we were pleasantly surprised by the size of the surf. My son, a known and respected under-estimator of wave size, announced that it had to be at least 10’ feet plus. Out we paddled and had a fine surf session, and this being 1967, there wasn’t another surfer in sight to share the waves with. Today, 40 years later, with the conditions we experienced that day, shoulder to shoulder surfers would be the norm; crowded to the max and almost impossible to catch a wave without several riders on the same wave with you. But in those days, long ago, even at Steamer Lane, the most famous of the area’s many surf breaks, it was possible to surf on any weekday morning with scarcely another board in the water. But not anymore. And it’s not just Santa Cruz; today all surf spots up and down the coast have experienced similar growth and popularity. The surfing industry has grown from a backyard, homemade board operation to a worldwide, billion dollar business involving everything connected with the beach and ocean.
The entire Santa Cruz area is widely known for beautiful beaches and great surfing. The beach towns to the south, Carmel, Monterey, Aptos and Capitola are all surfing Mecca’s, as well as being known for the beautiful coastline. To the north we searched the miles of beaches for surf breaks, and there are plenty of excellent ones, all the way to Half Moon Bay. What we didn’t find in our wanderings was Mavericks with it’s 35 to 50 foot waves, one of the most famous big surf break in all the world. It was named after a stray dog, and it wouldn’t be discovered or surfed for another 20 years. The town at Half Moon Bay has become famous because of Mavericks. There are many hotels, inns and places to stay that weren’t there years ago. There is a Ritz Carleton Hotel and golf course on the beach where once there was nothing but desolate, windblown sand dunes.
And now all these years later, I have a granddaughter who is attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, she’s a junior. I visit her as often as possible, and when I do I am always drawn to the ocean to check the waves at the breaks I have surfed so many times in the past. Invariably I find the surf as beautiful and inviting as ever, and it beckons to me, but it is oh so crowded with surfers now. So I find myself saying to no one in particular, not today, not for me, just too many boards out, wouldn’t be any fun. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact of my 84 years.
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 12 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
When you left your local, home surfing beach in the 1930’s and 1940’s, for the purpose of searching for a different and distant wave, there was a good chance you were headed for one of three beaches. You could be driving all the way up the coast to Malibu Beach, which was sparsely populated then, or you were headed for Paddleboard Cove in Palos Verdes, or maybe you were driving to San Onofre in San Diego County. These places were known to surfers. Most other surf breaks didn’t have names, or were known only to the locals, or were just named after the closest town or city. These areas were completely uncrowded and mainly unknown to the few dozen surfers that were on the coast in those days. The three surf spots mentioned above were at least familiar names to surfers setting off on a surf quest for a different wave experience.
These destinations all took some time to reach. There were no freeways, toll roads or super fast highways. And most of us had older, surfboard-hauling cars that were prone to occasional breakdowns and flat tires. Highway 1 was the only way to go coastwise, north or south. Highway 1 stayed close to the ocean, and ran directly through all the beach towns. San Pedro to the right, then Long Beach(where once there was great surfing before the harbor breakwater was built), next Huntington, Newport, Balboa, Laguna, Dana Point (another great surf spot obliterated by a boat harbor), through San Clemente, and at last, San Onofre.
There was a fish camp at San Onofre when you turned off the highway and reached the beach. They would try to charge you a quarter to drive in and surf. Often you could just drive straight through without paying, or sometimes you could even sneak in. Later the San Onofre Café was the landmark to turn off for the beach, and you could get a hamburger there and look at the framed surfing photos on the wall. The beach was primitive with no facilities, but the waves were good, and you could camp and sleep right on the beach. For dinner, abalone and lobster were plentiful a short distance offshore on the reefs under the forming waves. It was never crowded then, but there were always surfers there. Legends, Pete Peterson and Whitey Harrison would show up, and Barney Wilkes, the surfing dentist. Barney had a new, black shiny Cadillac, and it was the first Cadillac I had ever seen with surfboards tied on the roof. Later James Arness, Matt Dillon of tv’s Gunsmoke, would come often with his son Rolf, who became surfing’s world champion.
World War 2 brought a need for a large marine corps training base on the west coast. In 1942 the government purchased “Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores”, named by Gaspar de Portola when his expedition north crossed the area on July20, 1769, the holy day of Saint Margarita. The land passed through many owners before the marines got it in 1942. This purchase included the entire ranch and beach. Unless you were a marine or had an in of some kind it was difficult to surf at San Onofre during the war. After the war Camp Pendleton allowed a membership club to be formed with yearly dues assessed. In 1971 Governor Ronald Reagan established San Onofre State Beach with public access allowed for a daily fee.
Today San Onofre is not quite the same, but not too different from those earlier times. The old place has been spruced up a bit, and water and facilities are available, and there is a nuclear plant next door. The abalone are gone, few lobsters are found, and no camping is allowed on the beach. But most important, the waves are still there, and that’s all that really matters.
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 06 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved