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Seasoned Surfers : San Onofre Club Celebrates Four Decades of Wave-Riding Camaraderie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 40 years, they have been wandering in the sand. They part the sea with their surfboards each day before dawn, and then the mystical, white-haired men proceed to walk on water.

The Bible, though, has nothing to do with it. This is about the beach, plain and simple. Surfing is their passion; volleyball, cards and Polynesian music their pastimes. A small stretch of shoreline just south of the San Diego County line is their home. After all, it has been in the family for three generations.

Members of the San Onofre Surfing Club, the oldest and largest organization of its kind on the continent, gathered Saturday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their first official meeting.

“A very strong human quality is to retain your heritage,” said Tom (Opai) Wert, one of the club’s founding members, explaining why the tradition continues.

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“It’s just a desire to not abandon the roots of your past,” said Wert, 68, an American government professor at Orange Coast College who wears his white hair in a ponytail. “The club is a vehicle to continue the lives (we’ve) lived in the past. There’s always that nostalgia factor that keeps people doing what they used to do.”

On Saturday, the old-timers were doing what they always have, arriving at the beach with the sun and quickly setting up tables behind their motor homes and pickups.

Founding members and surf legends started the day with a breakfast of ham, eggs and fruit, trading tales about the old days. Children and grandchildren came later for games and contests from horseshoes to boccie ball, and more than 300 members gathered for an evening luau complete with surf music by the Reef Riders, a band that formed at San Onofre almost a decade ago.

“It’s like being at a giant party every weekend,” said longtime member Alice Peterson of San Clemente. “Where else can you go and know this many people and not have to buy them a drink?”

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About a mile off Interstate 5, a dirt road brings beach-goers right to the sand. Members of the club have been parking in the same spaces for decades. Nowadays, they line up before dawn to ensure their spots.

San Onofre’s two main breaks are Old Man’s, named for the surfing club founders who are fixtures there, and the Point. In between are various “neighborhoods": Dogpatch, where dogs are allowed; the Ghetto, where the cars aren’t as fancy; and the Bamboo Room, where old-timers play guitars and ukuleles every Wednesday afternoon.

The shallow water and rocky bottom at San Onofre make the waves break long and smooth, at high and low tides, all year round. Beach-goers can count on ridable swells of one to two feet, and on good days, the breakers easily reach eight feet. Old-fashioned long boards, eight to 10 feet rather than the speedier six-foot boards, are the weapon of choice.

“Somewhere in the area, there’s always a wave,” said 75-year-old Benny Merrill, who began surfing San Onofre in 1937 and brought his two children and three grandchildren there.

Though the club has changed from an exclusive group with a private beach and a waiting list to an informal band of surf lovers working to protect the beach, its essence remains: good times, great waves and friends that feel like family.

“It was the most healthy environment one could grow up in,” said President Willie Wilson, who learned to surf at age 6 and was a gate guard at San Onofre during high school. “It was the most loving, caring atmosphere.”

Members and their grown offspring spoke lovingly Saturday morning of a carefree childhood at the beach.

“Our kids thought they were cousins,” said 62-year-old Marilyn Dowden, whose late husband was once president of the club. Added Mary Catherine Duesler: “Our children had 100 mothers.”

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Alice Peterson’s daughter, Lisa, who surfed for six months inside the womb and then began again at age 3, recalled the freedom and safety of roaming the beach, knowing someone in every car.

Each week, Liz Irwin--who met her husband, Jim, another former club president, at San Onofre in 1954 when she scratched her initial into his foot with the blade of his surfboard--took a dozen youngsters up to the bluff for a Sunday school lesson. On Saturday nights, there were long walks along the cliffs and bonfires with dancing.

“My mom didn’t have to keep track of me all the time, because everybody else did,” said Lisa Peterson-Knutson, who came from Utah with her husband for the San Onofre anniversary celebration. “It was really a tightknit family of people.”

It all started back in the late 1930s when someone brought a surfboard back from Hawaii and a bunch of guys began experimenting along the California coast.

In 1937, Frank Ulrich, an entrepreneurial gas station owner, leased the beach at San Onofre and allowed young surfing enthusiasts to camp there for 50 cents a day. But in 1943 the Marine Corps acquired the area for what is now Camp Pendleton, and the beach was closed until the end of World War II.

Many of the surfers were overseas during the war, but when they came home, they wanted to return to the water. Informal agreements with military officers provided access to the beach, but as surfing grew more popular, the Marines worried about crowd control and cleanup along the three-quarters of a mile of coast that makes up San Onofre.

Thus, in April, 1952, the surfing club was officially established, with San Clemente dentist Barney Wilkes at the helm. Five years later, the surfers began to lease the beach, controlling access and taking charge of maintenance.

The next 15 years were the club’s glory days. With more than 1,000 members, there was a 500-family waiting list. Dues were $30 a year, and applicants had to take a water safety test before being admitted.

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“It was sort of an elite thing,” recalled 71-year-old Doug Craig, a Dana Point resident who still rides the waves five days a week.

But in 1973, the federal government turned the beach into a state park. Appeals to President Richard M. Nixon--who was made an honorary club member when he built the Western White House less than a mile away in San Clemente--were to no avail, despite the protest of Assistant Atty. Gen. Robert Mardian, who had been an avid San Onofre surfer for years. Without control of the beach, the club lost its mystique.

What makes the place so special, they say, is the people.

Among the club’s more famous members are “Gunsmoke” star James Arness, whose son, Rolfe, brought many trophies back on his board; Bruce Brown, whose 1966 classic “The Endless Summer” brought surfing to the big screen; UCLA professor Donald Cramm, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1987; and Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler. Many a surfing champion was also born on that beach.

But the regulars insist that the stars were always just one of the gang at San Onofre, whose membership roster includes doctors and lawyers as well as plenty of people who work with their hands.

“The great thing is the great mixture of things,” Craig said. “There’s millionaires, and there’s out-of-work construction workers. All these guys have one thing in common: surfing.”

“The cross-section is fabulous,” he said, noting that after “dawn patrol” each day from 6 to 8 a.m., several surfers can be found straightening ties in the bathhouses. “We’ve got truck drivers, schoolteachers, bankers--it’s a unique place.”


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