People sometimes snicker when I place the words surf and history in the same sentence. Many apparently assume that surfing began the day Gidget went Hawaiian and the Beach Boys harmonized, “Everybody’s goin’ surfin’.”
But surfing is far older than anyone alive today, probably as ancient as human history, beginning when someone somewhere entered the ocean on a downed tree and was sent back to shore in a frothy sea of pure stoke. The next step was to whittle down the tree, make it narrower and flatter and wide enough to carry to the water.
Cave paintings of surfers go back around 4,000 years. And so surf history predates the history of baseball, football and the Civil War by several millennia.
But why quibble over a few dozen centuries? Let’s move forward to a time when our grandparents were young, tanned and sexy, when surfboards were made of wood and surfers were made of iron, a time when every surfer on the California coast knew each other by name.
While my father was not a full-time surfer, he did slide a few in the ’30s and ’40s with his friends the Kerwin brothers in Hermosa Beach. I believe he rode those regressive shapes known fondly as “kook boxes.” These painfully heavy, square-railed contraptions seem better suited for flat-water paddling and lifesaving than riding waves.
So it’s no wonder Dad told me surfing was too dangerous when I asked him if I could try it in the late ’50s in response to having just seen “Gidget,” dreaming that someday I too might be riding waves at Malibu (the film was actually shot up the road at Secos) with Sandra Dee (actually Mickey Munoz riding in drag.) Saltwater illusions quickly evaporated in favor of something better as I began surfing in earnest on a used Wardy Surfboard purchased with my paper route money from my friend Danny Sanchez for 45 bucks in the winter of 1962.
I’ve owned a few historic surfboards in my life — one was Dick Brewer’s third mini gun shaped by him on Maui in the mid-’60s. Another, which was actually owned by my brother David, was the Dewey Weber surfboard that Nat Young snapped in two at the 1968 World Contest in Puerto Rico. While I regret having lost those relics, I can regularly view benchmark boards at 312 Pier View Way in Oceanside, where some amazing surfboards, including one with a tiger shark bite out of it owned by Bethany Hamilton, are on display.
While exhibits rotate regularly, a beautiful collection of wooden boards from eras gone by along with wooden reproductions by legendary surfer/shapers like Donald Takayama are in sight of covetous eyes.
Surf Museum co-founder Jane Schmauss recently revealed the procuring of what she calls a “mystery board.” According to Schmauss, the wooden surfboard has a Pacific Homes System tail combined with a nose that seems to have been inspired (maybe made) by legendary board builder Bob Simmons. Hey, your guess is as good as mine on this one. This and 250 other classic surfboards made from wood and foam can be viewed daily.
The California Surf Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day but major holidays. $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, students and military. Kids are free.