Remembering 100 years of Cardiff surfing

There are stacks of discount soft surfboards on mini vans — each driver, it seems, headed to Cardiff. Kids pour out into the water, laughing and screaming their way into summer. It’s nice to see that “stoke” still lives in this town.
The only things I don’t like are the divers who just brought in a 12-inch shark one of them speared, and the pop-up with the sign from a major surf wear company. They are offering surfing lessons and stand-up surfing lessons to anyone with enough cash to take a class, (nothing against stand-ups, but beginners on massive boards with paddles is not going to improve the already overcrowded lineup). Every so often I think I should join them, but too late. Plus, I don’t think they would have me anyway.
This thing we call surfing — this lifestyle that once belonged to a few outsiders — is now sold by the thousands to the highest bidders. But no matter how much money you have, you are not a surfer simply by owning a board and knowing how to stand on it. You are a surfer when you feel it to the core and understand a secret the ocean whispers in your ear. I am a surfer and it hurts me to see the life I love sold to anyone with a hundred bucks and a roof rack.
Don’t misunderstand me, just because I have surfed since 1960, doesn’t give me any more right to the waves than anyone else. Also, there were others that surfed long before I was born. The coastal Indians in their canoes rode waves to shore for hundreds of years before roads and automobiles opened up the land to the rest of us.
In the late ‘30s, Woody Brown discovered the sport accidentally after he crashed his glider off of Torrey Pines and found a piece of driftwood that he rode to shore. The names of other surfers are lost in the sands of history.
In Cardiff, artist Fred Ashley and John Largent rode redwoods and stood watch on the empty beaches in lifeguard towers. Dorian Paskowitz and the recently deceased Black Mac rode waves to the north, while the one and only Wally Blodgett and his crew rode Terra Mar. By the time I hit Cardiff in 1970, Margo Godfrey was the best woman surfer in the world. Margo had usurped Joyce Hoffman, after Joyce took the crown from local girl, Linda Benson.
I arrived in Cardiff during the second act. Phil Edwards, U.S. Champion Rusty Miller, style master Billy Hamilton and waterman Mike Doyle were gone. Don Hansen’s shop had moved from his coastal location in Cardiff, up town to Encinitas. Bill and Richard Bernard, who would go on to start the Surf Ride chain, were working for Ed Wright at Sunset Surfboards, which was located across from the Lumber Yard. The sound of power planers and the smell of resin let you know you had entered a real surf shop.
Tommy Lewis was the man in Cardiff, switching stance on waves of all sizes and gunning his purple skiff into overhead waves at George’s on summer swells. In the winter it was Swami’s where Cheer Critchlow dominated, followed closely by Syd Madden and the up-and-coming Steve Oberg, who would eventually marry Margo Godfrey and disappear to Kauai with other hot locals Mark Rodriguez and Leroy Lay. Steve Clark was so smooth and understated that few realized how deep he was riding in the barrel.
My recollection of the early ‘70s is that the swells came from further north and rapped better at Swami’s than they currently do. It seems that the reef was never worth riding in summer back then. Summers were meant for beach breaks and D Street was our spot where we watched from below as the local Black Dot crew that included “lam master” Gary Stubber, Dean Redfield, Ryan Dotson and Mike Cunnison built boards far above the cliffs in a house infamously known as “The Hanger” since most of the structure hovered far above the sand. Nobody I knew had a new car. There were no leashes, cell phones or 401 (k)’s, but we were wealthy in waves and sunshine and friends.
I was not the best surfer on the beach, not by a long shot. I wasn’t born here, but I loved everything about this area and took care of it until it became a deep part of me. I was a surfer. I felt it in my bones, in my sunburned skin and salt dried hair. Life revolved around swells, tides and shifting sandbars and a gentle peace I have not known since being rocked to sleep by the ocean’s rhythm each night. Or maybe it wasn’t all that, but don’t mess with my memories. That’s how I remember it.

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  1. mike Connor says:

    On the days gone by

    Dear Mr. Ahrens,
    Like you, I too am approaching Senior Citizenhood ( gulp!). Although I haven’t been surfing nearly as long as you ( I started in 1965 in Playa del Rey at Ballona Creek) I have a tendency to dream of "the good old days" of surfing. Call it nostalgia. But I like the version of nostalgia that reminds one of the magic of the "good old days".
    There’s an expression I heard recently : " Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be."
    Personally, I like my nostalgia to be uplifting.
    Since you have a platform for your views and actually get your thoughts published, allow me to be so impertinent as to make a few suggestions to you as a purveyor of nostalgia.
    Avoid negativity. I want my nostalgia to be free of the sour subjectivity that some writers tend to inject into their version of nostalgia. I want to be reminded of the happy, dreamy, magical times of my early days of surfing. We all know that things have changed. That’s a given, a no-brainer. No need to dwell on what’s a bummer about things these days. People aren’t dumb and can make the inferences for themselves.

    You’re a valuable asset to surf history with all of your priceless memories.
    It’s always good to have historians and writers who can capture a moment lost in time.
    Let the "magic" of that era do the talking. Allow it to come through unencumbered by one’s own filter ( or ego or bad mood).
    History is indeed important, and the best historians step aside and somehow let the history do the talking, keeping their own point-of-view at bay.
    Minimize the subjectivity. Try to edit the "I Me Mine" references.
    Thanks for your love of surfing and your memories. We need surf historians like you.
    Sincerely, Mike Connor
    Culver City, Ca.

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