This is part of a year-long series to explore the history of Cardiff-by-the-Sea as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA — Hector MacKinnon probably never envisioned the ocean he looked out upon as he settled at the northern mouth of the San Elijo Lagoon in 1875, would become a daily destination for people riding waves on odd shaped boards. The sport was not on his radar, or many others for that matter until the early 1940s.
In fact, many of the community’s earliest surfers recall taking anything they could get their hands on to catch a wave at Seaside, Pipes, Swamis or Cardiff Reef.
“I remember we would take mattresses and try to float them in the water,” said Rosemary Smith-Kimbal, whose family has lived in the area for nearly 80 years. “We weren’t very successful, but that was all we really had back then and it was a lot of fun.”
The history of surfing in Cardiff doesn’t have a static beginning point. The timeline of local surfing annals is punctuated with the national rise in popularity of the sport. Some residents hesitate to call it a sport at all.
“When we were young, it was just something to do that was more of a lifestyle,” Bobby Lux said. “We didn’t think we were going out to Pipes to practice a sport but just to surf.”
But the rise in popularity of local surf breaks, most notably Swamis and Seaside, gave credence to the idea that surfing was indeed a form of competition. As many local surfers cut their chops on Cardiff waves, they began to compete at the national and international level.
In 1959, Linda Benson, a hometown standout known for many years for her tandem surfing prowess, became the youngest contestant to ever win the International Championship at Makaha at only 15 years old. That same year, she was the first woman to ride Wiamea, borrowing a board from the shortest guy surfing with her. Standing tall at just under five feet, Benson continued the charge as she won over 20 first place titles from 1959 to 1969.
Benson continued to impart the joys of surfing and promote the sport as she operated a surf school in Cardiff for five years and put her name on the annual women’s ASP Longboarding Championships at Cardiff Reef.
“When I got in the water the first time I was always chasing after the guys,” she said. “Now women are a part of the pack.”
Indeed, local standout Diana Brummett recalls surfing as an integral part of her childhood in Cardiff. As a member of the famed Swami’s Surfing Association, a teenaged Brummett joined brothers Gary and Billy in competing along California’s coast.
“I was determined to keep up with my brothers,” Brummett said. She regularly hauled her 30-pound longboard from her home on Liverpool Drive several blocks to the beach.
As surfing began to gain momentum as a viable sport, a young Rob Machado traveled the world from competition to competition shining a spotlight on hiss hometown breaks. While being sponsored by action sports companies before puberty is not that significant today, in the mid-1980s, Machado’s popularity was novel. While older local surfers might have been impressed with his abilities, he didn’t receive special treatment at home. “I had to earn my place on a wave locally,” he said.
On any given day, at any given time, Cardiff waves are dotted with people of all ages and skill level. An industry has grown up around surfing to support its enthusiasts, including Cardiff’s Hansen’s. Don Hansen, a South Dakota native, came to Cardiff via Hawaii in 1962 to open up shop along the edge of the San Elijo Lagoon. He began to develop a reputation as a premiere board shaper and team sponsor for many early surfers. The shop is celebrating its 50-year anniversary.
“The surfing lifestyle is something that has a very powerful draw, even for people like me who are just learning to surf,” Cliff Jones said. The visitor from Michigan brought his family to the Cardiff State Beach campgrounds recently with an eye to learn to surf. “I love it,” he exclaimed. “I’m not very good at it, but I love it and I think that’s what it’s all about.”