When I first started planning for this episode, I thought it was going to be about Jack O’Neill and his impact on surfing in California, as a sort of tribute since he recently passed away. But as I started researching, that idea had to get reshaped, as research will so often do to your writing.
Jack O’Neill, a pioneer in the world of surfing, died earlier this summer in Santa Cruz. On July 9th there were paddle-outs around the world, in his honor.
I’m not a surfer by any means. I love being in the ocean, and growing up in New England meant summers spent in Maine, swimming in the Atlantic (so to me, swimming in the Pacific doesn’t feel too cold) and getting tossed around by waves. When I first started planning this episode, I thought it would be good to talk about Jack O’Neill and his impact on surfing in California, as a tribute.But, holy crap you guys, this episode kinda ballooned into something bigger. As I started doing research, this became a whole new thing and that happens with research sometimes. So, instead of focusing only on O’Neill, we’re gonna zoom out a bit, and talk about the history of surfing and its impact on California.
We’re gonna start this story in 1907, when a young man named George Freeth traveled from Hawaii to southern California on a trip arranged by the Hawaiian tourism board. Freeth was of Irish and Royal Hawaiian descent, and had learned to surf back home on Wakiki beach. When he arrived, he decided to check out the surf on the recently established Venice Beach. This drew attention from locals, who had never seen surfing before.
It also drew the attention of railroad baron and collector Henry Huntington, the same Huntington that would eventually give Southern California the Huntington Library (Henry’s gonna get his own dang episode, and feature heavily in some others I’m working on.) Huntington was in competition with Abbot Kinney, a real estate developer, who happened to be developing Venice Beach and had built the Venice Pier. Huntington, looking to develop the area around Redondo Beach, paid Freeth to surf at Redondo instead of Venice. Freeth’s surfing displays would attract people to Redondo, and to get there, they’d have to use Huntington’s Red Car streetcars. It was a win-win for both Freeth and Huntington.
Freeth gave surfing demonstrations every day, twice a day, on Redondo Beach outside of the Hotel Redondo, attracting publicity. This might be considered the moment when surfing really took root in California, and the birth of professional surfing.
The following summer, Freeth became a lifeguard at Venice Beach – the first lifeguard ever! In the history of lifeguarding! This is not a well-known fact, apparently. I wish I had known something about this when I was taking a for-credit lifeguarding class in college, my final essay might have been a lot better!! Anyway, Freeth became the first lifeguard in history, and introduced the idea of lifeguarding as a way to make beaches safer to swim (up until this point people did not swim at the beach). Freeth created the Venice Volunteer Lifesaving Corps with fellow surfers that had come to the area to ride the waves.
George Freeth seems to ping-pong back and forth between Venice and Redondo beach. The following summer after creating the Venice Lifesaving Corps, Henry Huntington hired him back at Redondo as a paid lifeguard. Freeth, being a surfer, was in excellent physical condition (keep in mind boards in 1908 were made of solid wood and could weigh upwards of 100lbs), and trained his lifeguards to swim well and strong. In 1912, he opened the first surf club on the mainland.
Freeth moved to San Diego to work as a lifeguard at Ocean Beach. San Diego had a huge military presence at the time (as it does today), and was a hotbed of activity during World War I. Many off-duty servicemen cycled through the port, and with that eventually came Spanish influenza. Despite being in great shape and very healthy, Freeth succumbed to the flu in 1919, and died at the age of 35. He is responsible for making people feel safe to swim in the ocean, and for establishing the California beach culture we know today.
So it’s the 1920s, and beach culture is really starting to take hold in Southern California. Surfing is still relatively inaccessible, though; boards at the time were made of solid redwood, and a 10 foot board could weigh upwards of 100lbs or more. Luckily, you’re in Southern California, where engineers and scientists are working on testing the newest materials to develop lighter and faster…airplanes.
Balsa wood was being used to build airplane wings due to how light and buoyant it was. Some industrious surfers gave this material a shot, but unfortunately balsa is also pretty porous, so eventually, your board would absorb so much water that it would sink. Not great.
Cue, Tom Blake. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1902, nowhere near an ocean, Blake met surf and swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku while he was on a swimming tour. Inspired by meeting the big Kahuna, Blake decided to move to Los Angeles to take up competitive swimming. He became a lifeguard at Santa Monica beach, and decided to take up surfing. He loved it so much that he took a trip to Hawaii to immerse himself in the culture.
When Blake came back to California, he started working on designs for a new, lighter board. This story might be apocryphal, but Blake claims to have drilled holes out of a new 16 foot board he shaped, sealing it with a thin layer of plywood and effectively creating a hollow board. Other stories suggest that Blake’s hollow board was built the same way the wings on the Lockheed Vega airplane were constructed: internal ribs topped by a plywood sheet.
However Blake managed to create his new board, he recognized its importance and filed for a patent, receiving one in 1932. He licensed the mass-production of hollow boards to Thomas Rogers Co. in Venice, where they just so happened to build…airplane wings.
Y’all catchin’ on to what’s happening here yet??
Of course, with the introduction of mass-produced boards, surfing became more accessible to a broader base of folks interested in trying it out. The creation and development of the hollow board helped drive the growth of surfing in southern California, and the aerospace industry helped drive the growth of surfboard tech.
(It was right around here when I was researching that I realized I was gonna have to completely shift the focus of this episode, in case you were wondering).
As you can probably imagine, the increase in white collar engineering and aerospace jobs, as well as the growing attraction to California’s emerging beach culture, lead to more development along the Southern California coast. Keeping beaches open and accessible meant competing with private property owners, oil companies, railroads, the shipping industry, and private boaters. Development of the coast through the building of new shipping harbors affected the shape of beaches down the coast, which had a direct impact of surfing breaks and where to find good waves. And, with the increase in population meant an increase in waste. LA’s population boom resulted in sewage runoff dumping into the LA river, which drained to the beaches and forced beach closures due to hazardous conditions (ew gross). Luckily, the idealized notion of beach culture, and in particular the surfing community, fought for the protection of beaches and is partially responsible for cities in SoCal dealing with beach cleanup.
Of course, somewhere in this, I had to go find a connection to Massachusetts. In 1900, Frederick Hastings Rindge and his wife May ended up as the owners of Malibu Point. Rindge died in 1905, leaving May to care for the property by herself. When this happened, the railroads began to hone in on Malibu Point, trying to buy out the land to extend their real estate holdings, lay down tracks, and eventually allow for development along the coast. But May would have none of it, and managed to save the land from railroad development. Of course, she also wanted to keep the land private, including the beach and the surf breaks below. Eventually she lost that battle to LA county. However, her efforts to keep the railroad off Malibu Point kept the area relatively undeveloped until private landowners began building their own homes along the now county-owned land. How does this connect back to my home state? Frederick Hastings Rindge was the founder of the Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which eventually became today’s Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. BOOYA.
Surfing and beach culture had another opponent to deal with: the booming oil business. In the 1920s, Southern California produced 1/5th of the nation’s total oil. The book that I used for the majority of my research on this episode had this really quite stunning photo of Huntington Beach from the 1930s or 40s that shows a pretty busy beach scene, and hundreds of oil derricks in the background. With people swimming in the water! So close to oil wells! Ack!
Of course, swimming this close to oil wells was bad news. The derricks and nearby refineries polluted both the air and the ocean, drumming up legal battles throughout the 1920s and 1930s over the use of the beaches – for recreation, or for oil? Luckily, in the 1930s, recreation won out. Though, I just did some googling, because as I have made abundantly clear, I know very little about things in California, and apparently drilling in Southern California is still very much a thing. I remember seeing offshore platforms the last time we were in Los Angeles, but we kinda stuck around Santa Monica and Anaheim. Anyway, the googling, I found some photos of an offshore platform in Santa Barbara, where there are naturally occurring oil slicks in the water pretty frequently? If someone listening happens to know more about this I’d love to hear about it, please leave me comments on the blog or twitter or somewhere.
Have you been swimming in the Pacific? Up here in northern California, it’s pretty dang cold, but apparently it doesn’t get much warmer the further south you go. Since surfing first became popular in SoCal, surfers wouldn’t be able to spend much time in the water because they could eventually get too cold and risk hypothermia.
You know who else was having that problem? Navy bomb divers.
CalTech physicist Hugh Bradner was an avid swimmer, water polo coach, and abalone diver. Bradner had worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, and after the war had started working on atomic bomb testing in the Marshall Islands. This work eventually got him involved with the National Academy of Science’s Panel on Underwater Swimmers, as Bradner had previously expressed concerns about divers staying under in cold water for too long. Up until this point, dry suits were the only means of protecting divers from cold water exposure – but they were made of solid rubber and not flexible.
Bradner began working on materials for a new suit, recognizing that staying warm didn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t get wet — you just didn’t want the water your body warmed up to constantly circulate out. He began working with polychloroprene, or neoprene, created by DuPont scientists in the 1930s. DuPont also created nylon, which Bradner soon began incorporating into his neoprene suit designs. The Navy needed suits that would keep their divers warm, and also absorb any shocks they might encounter in the course of their work. Conveniently, this also suited the needs of surfers.
This is where history seems to do its usual thing, taking different narratives depending on who is telling the story. I was under the impression that Jack O’Neill had invented the wetsuit, but it sounds like O’Neill, Bradner, and Bill and Bob Meistrell all began working on neoprene wetsuits between 1951 and 1952. O’Neill had the commercial viability to market wetsuits out of his new surf shop in Santa Cruz, creating the O’Neill brand so many are familiar with today.
So the wetsuit is being invented, allowing surfers to stay in the water longer and catch more waves. But what about the boards? Many boards were either Blake hollow boards, or still being shaped out of heavy wood, making it hard for all but the strongest of individuals to take up surfing.
Enter: Bob Simmons. Earlier in life, his elbow was shattered in a car accident, and a fellow patient at the hospital suggested surfing as a way to rebuild the strength in his arm. He built his first board from a Tom Blake hollow board kit
Simmons had studied at CalTech along with Hugh Bradner, but dropped out to become a machinist and began working at Douglas Aircraft. It was there that he was introduced to polystyrene foam – commonly known as Styrofoam – and began using it, along with fiberglass and resin, to make a stronger, lightweight surfboard. In order to shape his board, Simmons combined his knowledge of hydrodynamics with military R&D. His boards were designed to be similar to the hulls of naval PT boats, which cut easily through water.
Simmons never profited from his designs, though he sold them to individuals who requested a board. He died in 1954, surfing at Windansea in La Jolla. Simmons Reef is named after him.
Surfing really took off in Southern California in the post-war era, due to its established base in the 1920s and 30s, and an increase in swimming abilities aided by local and federal governments. War had driven the growth of SoCal, becoming the aerospace capital of the world. Between that and NASA’s presence, the area was booming with white collar jobs. It seems like this is really where the idealized notion of California living was born; teenagers were growing up in areas with near-perfect weather year-round, their parents were making good money, and there were tons of beaches nearby. Sounds like literally every movie I ever saw that took place in California during my childhood and adolescence.
By the mid 1950s, polyurethane foam had been developed by the defense industry and trickled down to the surfing world as a new material for boards. Surfer Dave Sweet began blowing his own polyurethane foam to make his own boards, eventually creating his own board business, Dave Sweet Surfboards. Foam boards were also being developed by Hobie Alter and Gordon “Grubby” Clark in Laguna Beach, but there’s enough evidence to show that Sweet beat them to market by over a year. John Blankenship and Bill McKusick were also working on foam boards, further south in San Diego.
Fiberglass resin was another engineering advancement that aided in surfboard design. Because the resin could hold up to the salt water, board designers were able to attach fins to the bottom of their boards. New board designs allowed for new styles of surfing to emerge, and changed where surfers could go for waves.
Of course, surfing’s boom was aided in no small part by the entertainment industry. The 1959 film Gidget introduced surfing as a wholesome sport that anyone could try – which was partially true with the newer, lighter weight boards being mass-produced. More surf movies followed, but none took hold like the 1966 hit The Endless Summer. The film follows surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson to lineups around the world, and was made on a budget of $50,000. When filmmaker Bruce Brown showed it to a crowd in Wichita, KS in the dead of winter, the reaction was telling: huge applause. When it was released to theatres in ‘66, the film raked in $30 million.
The 1960s were turbulent times for the country, and this had an affect on Southern California as well as the surfing community. Drugs affected surf culture: not only did the ingestion of drugs claim lives, but surfers soon began using their boards as a way to smuggle drugs into the country. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love is probably the most infamous of these surf gangs, creating a smuggling ring that eventually was worth $200 million, and was responsible for ½ the LSD and hash sold in the United States.
The war in Vietnam had its impact on surf culture as well (if you’ve seen Apocalypse Now you might know about this connection). 1 in 7 soldiers in Vietnam were Californians, so it’s safe to say that a fair few of them were surfers. But these surfers had an impact on their time in Vietnam as well. The military had established China Beach as an R&R facility, and once surfers saw the waves, they began sending home for their boards. Eventually, there was a small shack on the beach and a stash of boards housed there. Some surfers even ended up serving as lifeguards at the beach as more servicemen began taking advantage of the waves. Eventually, this little respite became known as the South China Sea Surf Club.
That’s just a glimpse into the immense impact surfing has had on California over the years. I really could have kept going with it, but the research would have taken far longer than I have for producing one of these episodes, and then the episode would have been even longer! This, guys, this is the trouble with history. It sucks you in and doesn’t let go! Well, maybe just for me, I dunno. I think some of you know what I’m talking about!
Before I go, I want to tell you guys about a few museums and books you should check out, if this episode has piqued your interest. First, I highly recommend the book The World In the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing by Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul. This book was the foundation for this episode and is so well written, I think anyone who even has a cursory interest in surfing and history would enjoy it.
I want to recommend checking out the California Surf Museum in Oceanside; they currently have an exhibit called China Beach: Surfers, Vietnam, and the Healing Power of Wave Riding on view until the end of the year. They also have a number of permanent exhibits that range from the evolution of the surfboard to using coastal monitoring to determine where the best swells will be. I’ll link to that on Twitter and on the blog; you can view their exhibits online if you’re too far away to visit.
Definitely check out the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center in San Clemente as well, they have some online images that I’ll link to. The International Surfing Museum is located in Huntington Beach, and of course up here in Northern California, the City of Santa Cruz operates the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. All of these museums’ websites helped with research for this podcast so I have to give them a big shout out!
That’s going to do it for this episode of A Noble Earthquake! Thanks for tuning in, I hope you guys had as much fun listening to this episode as I had writing it. This week’s intro/outro music is “Surfing Day” by Marcos Bolanos. Catch you next time!
- Neushul, Peter, and Peter Westwick. The World In the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing. Crown, 2013. ISBN: 978-0307719485
- Roberts, Sam. “Jack O’Neill, Surfer Who Made the Wetsuit Famous, Dies at 94.” The New York Times. June 5, 2017.
- Guzman, Kara. “Thousands honor surfing pioneer Jack O’Neill.” The Mercury News. July 9, 2017.
- Gustafson, Eric. “How wet-suit pioneer Jack O’Neill shaped surfing culture.” SFGate. August 7, 2015.
- Mason, Paul. “Heroes of swimming: George Freeth.” The Guardian. January 31, 2014.
- “The extraordinary surfing life of Duke Kahanamoku.” Surfer Today.
- Romero, Dennis. “A Shadow on the Waves.” The Los Angeles Times. September 26, 1994.
- Warshaw, Matt. “The Prince of Foam: Rest in Peace, Dave Sweet, 1928-2015.” Surfer. May 20, 2015.
- California Surf Museum
- International Surfing Museum
- Surfing Heritage & Cultural Center