With nearly half a century of surfing behind me, I have met most of my surfing heroes — the ones who hung on my bedroom wall in immortal stances, the stars of both “Endless Summer” movies, iron men facing aquatic mountains, assorted rippers, noseriders and tube dwellers. Usually, the closer I got the more the legend faded and a flawed individual came into focus. Kit Horn was just the opposite — the better I got to know him, the more amazing he was.
I knew of Kit long before I ever met him — through old black and white photos in Surfer Magazine. They said that he was among those that had pioneered spots like Malibu and I would later learn of his big-wave experiences from big-wave legends like Peter Cole who once told me, “If Kit would have stayed in Hawaii, he would have become a better big-wave rider than any of us.” Seeing Kit take the drop behind the peak on a 10-foot wave at Swami’s at an age when most men had retired to the rocker convinced me of Cole’s statement.
I think I first met Kit when he was a lifeguard at Doheny in the early ‘60s. But I never really spoke to him much until more than a decade later, when I was running a surf shop in Cardiff and he would stop by with the stoke of a gremmie, to see what was new in surfboard design. He must have been at least 50 years old when he dropped by to show me photos of massive waves off of San Francisco, with him the only one out, the only one powerful and knowledgeable enough to get out.
Then there was the time in the 1983, at the peak of a major El Nino swell where everyone was on the cliff, contemplating the 15-foot walls of water that lined up all the way to La Jolla Cove. Again, one surfer (Kit) was out and could be seen stroking for the horizon, while those of us half his age hugged the cliff with our excuses for not joining him. His tales of trips north, where he discovered Hawaiian-sized cold-water power in empty coves that he for years rode alone, or with one or both of his hard surfing sons Kirk and Brit, with nothing but barking seals for company, until the sea life itself was sent to the beach by the shadow of a great white shark.
If you didn’t know better, you would simply think that Kit was a fit and handsome older gentleman taking his big red surfboard out for a paddle. I never heard him brag about himself, leaving it to those who simply enjoyed being a bit player in a surf or dive story where Kit would shine as the hero. It was as Kit’s wife, Gwen said, “I always thought he was safer in the water than on land.” Aside from being the consummate waterman, he was always doing nice things for people in a quiet way, calling once to alert me that a finger of rebar was sticking up at the base of the Beacon’s cliff and wondering how we could get the city to remove it, so that nobody would be injured.
Yet personal injury seemed far from his mind as Kit Horn matched the elements with a power that came as close as anyone ever has to equaling them. He was a pioneer, an adventurer, a father and friend whose heroics were done far from the public eye. There will never be another like him.
Christopher Kit Horn (1929-2010) lived an 81 amazing years. He is survived by his wife, Gwen, his sons Brit and Kirk and daughters Pamela Kelso and Liz Lamberty.
Filed Under: Sea Notes