October 19, 2005

The Old World of California Surfing

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Go about 75 miles south of San Francisco to Santa Cruz. There’s a surfing competition beginning there today, at the famous and crowded break known as Steamer Lane. It’s the O’Neill Cold Water Classic, and it usually draws a number of top surfers.

But a long time ago – way before these kind of events – there were only a few surfers here in Santa Cruz riding these Northern California waves. It was long ago – back before pop culture would make surfing famous while also ending a golden era.

There were only about 100 surfers in California in 1935. Twenty years later, there would be several thousand. Within a few years, those really good days would be over. By 1960, the sport had exploded and modern surfing – with all its popularity and commercialism – was born.

But go back to Santa Cruz in the thirties, back when they surfed beside the rugged cliffs, out in the wide, blue ocean. Back then, these surfers were on the fringe of civilization, out in the wild purity of the sea.

* * * *

The roads that lead to Santa Cruz in 1938 are isolated, rural, until the town itself appears, coming in slowly along the western horizon. Maybe you arrive in the morning; it’s cold, damp, the fog has come in off Monterey Bay.

Santa Cruz was not a big town in the thirties, and UC-Santa Cruz won’t come around until 1965. There are about 15,000 people here in 1938, some of them new arrivals hoping to start life over in a growing California.

There are still old fisherman here, bringing in more fish than anyone can afford. But Santa Cruz is also something of a tourist town for the San Francisco rich. And so it’s not really dependent on the sea, like nearby Monterey with its famous Cannery Row.

But you arrive in Santa Cruz because you’ve heard about the surfing. You’re one of the those lucky few – lucky to have discovered the sport in its early days.

You hear that a few local surfers have started a club here. It’s one of many surf clubs in California. There’s that famous group down the coast in San Onofre – it’s members all unemployed dreamers, all in love with Polynesian culture. They surf, play guitars, party; they bring their girlfriends to the beach, all in this conservative era.

They all escape the Great Depression, rebelling against the growing demands of a new America. They live this way not because it’s cool, but because it’s the only way they want to live.

And so you head to the beach now, out to the still-unnamed breaks of Santa Cruz. There, you find the ocean before you, unfolding and appearing, the waves breaking and returning, and you head out into the water to surf.

* * * *

Of course, most of these surf clubs would disband after the war came. The guys down in San Onofre were able to stay for a while, but always had trouble when the Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton came up, and wanted to use the area. The Santa Cruz Surfing Club ended in 1952, as the returning G.I.’s were ready to start families.

Yet, there must have been a day when the surf was clean, the air was fresh, and the future was nothing more than the beach at the end of a wave.

* * * *

It’s later in the afternoon here in old 1938 Santa Cruz. The morning fog has lifted off the ocean; you can see the lighthouse, and hear the bells and horns of the boats out in Monterey Bay. The day has drifted along, and a few local surfers have come out. The locals are new to the sport like you, figuring out how the ocean works.

You sit out there on your board, waiting for the right wave. It is quiet here, as the waves break between you and the beach. The ocean moves along. It’s peaceful now, but when the right wave comes, the right future, you’ll turn and take it. And then, it’s a loud, hurried rush, much faster than you thought; you’re caught up with it.

Now, one, two; you push up on the board, you stand; the ocean is with you. The water rushing forward, but you stay with it. Faster, you balance, you sense the wave, moving with it, quickly, you balance, you glide. Now the wave slows, you jump off into the shallow water, and you rest for just a second. But, you’ll head out once more, because the waves are with you now.

For now, the future is with you.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Staff Writer. Fast Times will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman