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Surfing the Wave of Tradition

Somewhere along the way, the words “Surfing Center” were deleted from the “Welcome to Encinitas” sign posted on U.S. 101.

Not that the omission has necessarily bothered anyone. Most non-surfers don’t care and most surfers would rather not draw more attention to the fact that the surf is so good. Those who live in North County know that few places have more surfers per square inch.

The North County coast is and has been one of the world’s premier surf centers for more than half a century. At first there were handmade surfboards and impromptu beach shacks; now there is an industry fueled by demand for the latest boards and surf fashions.

It’s been a long ride, filled with legendary surfers and everyday ones, too.

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No one seems to know precisely who was the first surfer in North County, but by 1929 there were at least a few regulars.

Starting with small clusters of devotees in the 1930s, surfing here gradually matured throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, exploded into popular culture in the ‘60s, and became part of an international sport in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Today, cutting-edge and veteran surfers share the waves from Oceanside to Del Mar.

Many surf historians agree that California surfing as we know it was first accomplished by Hawaiian George Freeth, who rode his koa wood surfboard for the first time at Redondo Beach in 1907.

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While Freeth’s stunt captured the public’s imagination, it did not launch anything like a fad. The ocean was a mysterious and frightening place for most people at the turn of the century, and the heavy wooden surfboards were scarce and difficult to master.

In the early 1930s, there were just a few hundred avid surfers on the entire coast.

Early surfers looked for places where the waves were manageable on their heavy redwood boards. Popular North County sites were Terra Mar in Carlsbad, Cardiff Reef, Swami’s (then called Noonan’s Point after the family that owned the property) and the Del Mar pier (which is no longer standing).

San Onofre, Malibu, Palos Verdes, La Jolla and Sunset Cliffs all had small pockets of dedicated surfers.

Among the earliest North County surfers was B.J. Carlisle, who began surfing North County in 1929 on a koa wood board that he brought with him from his home in Hawaii.

Carlisle’s board weighed about 65 pounds, but was small and floated beneath the surface, making it hard to catch waves.

“On a crowded day in Cardiff there would be only two people out. In fact, it was so unusual to see anyone surfing at the time that traffic would back up on the Coast Highway in order to watch people ride,” Carlisle said.

He remembers that in 1929 and ’30, surfers had no choice but to build their own boards--but had the luxury of being able to leave them on the beach. His handful of surfing companions included Jerry Ward, who worked as a lifeguard at Cardiff and as a bodyguard for Bing Crosby.

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“We built a beach shack in Cardiff and we’d leave our boards there for weeks at a time. Nobody would bother them. Nobody would think of bothering them.”

They used mostly redwood to make boards until 1938, when they started building Laguna Soup Boards.

“We called them that because prior to them you couldn’t ride the soup on a surfboard. With those boards you could ride the soup. We would find an old balsa life raft, reshape the wood with a draw knife, and cover it with eight or nine coats of Bull Dog spar varnish.”

Whereas the redwood boards could weigh more than 100 pounds, the balsa boards finished out as light as 20 pounds.

“We built five or six of those boards right on the beach, and when people would complain about all the wood shavings, we’d pile them up and burn them.”

Much has changed in the years since, Carlisle said.

“Cardiff was so beautiful back then. The water was crystal clear and the sardines were so thick you could just about walk on them. The surfing being done at that time was different too. It was really pretty to watch. A lot of the beauty of it is gone now.”

By the mid-'40s, there were small groups of surfers and surfer-hopefuls in various parts of North County.

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Ronnie McCarver from Solana Beach learned to surf on lifeguard Johnny Elwell’s redwood board. After a typically long, hard apprenticeship, McCarver became a good surfer, but like others, thought that boards were too heavy.

McCarver experimented with making surfboards from polystyrene foam. Today, surfboard manufacturers successfully use the foam in combination with epoxy resin to make exceptionally strong, light surfboards. But McCarver had only half of the formula correct.

The resin he used to glass the board wasn’t right. “The foam was super light, but the first board we made melted. The resin caused it to disappear right before our eyes when we tried to glass it. The next board we tried to make from Styrofoam exploded from the resin. The third one broke right in the middle,” McCarver said.

“I went back to building wooden boards, and my wife’s aunt wanted to set me up in a surfboard building business. I said ‘No, it’ll never fly.’ ”

Others, however, did see a future in building boards.

Within a few years, Pat Curren, a big wave pioneer, set up what is believed to be the first surf shop in the area near the current site of La Paloma Theater in Encinitas. (Curren’s love for surfing resurfaced a generation later: his son, Tom Curren, has been a three-time World Surfing Champion.)

Among those McCarver surfed with was Don Hansen, who started Hansen’s Surfboards in Encinitas.

“Our group consisted of Woody and Carl Eckstrom, Tim Miche, June Chine and later on, Don Hansen,” McCarver said. “We surfed every day including Christmas and we would go out no matter how big the surf got. Swami’s used to get really big and I remember riding waves of 18-20 feet there one winter day.”

John Largent, a lifeguard at Cardiff in 1947, was a member of another surfing group. Angelo Rea, Hank Imm, Fred Ashley, Bill Chilcote and John’s wife, Evelyn Largent, hung out on the beach together almost every day. They built their own surf shack on the sand and erected a canvas tent for board storage.

Largent, who was a strong athlete, impressed tourists by walking on his hands down the lifeguard tower steps to the water’s edge, where he would dip his head and then walk back up the stairs to the top of the tower again.

Like many other surfers of his day, Largent built his own surfboards.

Because of his strength, he was not as interested in lightness as were some of the other surfers. Largent recalls building his boards with a redwood frame, hollow center and plywood deck and bottom. The boards were more than 10-feet long and weighed about 100 pounds.

From early on, in part because of the weight of the boards, there were few women surfers.

“I was the surf widow,” said Evelyn Largent. “John always asked me why I didn’t surf, but the boards were just too heavy for me. They surfed all year around, and without wet suits. In the winter they’d return to shore just white from the cold. But I’d be in John’s ’38 Ford with the heater on.”

Although not considered an especially dangerous sport, getting hit with a 100-pound board was always a danger.

“I used to worry that he would get hurt in big surf, and one day he was knocked unconscious by his board at San Onofre. The doctors secured his broken jaw with metal clamps,” Evelyn Largent said.

Surfing was nearly exclusively the domain of young men in their late teens and early 20s who had the strength and size to manage the long, heavy boards. They had the inclination and sometimes an occupation that allowed them to spend the day at the beach. Like Largent, many found work as lifeguards.

During the ‘50s, more people began to give surfing a try.

Phil Edwards, who started surfing the beaches in his hometown of Oceanside in the early ‘50s, helped usher in a radical new era of surfing called “hot dogging.”

Before Edwards, most surfers were content to catch a wave and ride it straight to shore. And although he never won a world championship or even a major surf contest, many consider Edwards the best surfer of all time.

Edward’s surfing peaked in the late ‘50s to early ‘60s, and by then, with the advantage of lighter boards and better designs, he had perfected his fast, stylish manner of riding waves. His radical turning and walking on the board caught the attention of Surfer Magazine and surf film makers like Bruce Brown, whose 1966 film, “The Endless Summer,” featured Edwards and became an instant classic.

Edwards grew up in Oceanside, but surfed an out-of-the-way spot in Carlsbad called Guayule (now Terra Mar) so often that he became known as “The Guayule Kid.”

Before becoming well-known outside this area, Edwards would warm up on waves here and then drive north a few hours to the crowded surf of Malibu.

There, Edwards would attract attention to himself by pretending to be an awkward beginner. He would paddle out into the lineup, kicking and falling off his board and getting in the way of the local surfers as he went. Many of the locals in the water would chasten the “kook” for bothering them.

Once in the lineup, however, Edwards would catch the best wave and ride it better than anyone had ever seen.

The Malibu locals would still be scratching their heads and wondering who and what they had just observed by the time Edwards was moving down the highway back to Oceanside with a smile on his face.

L.J. Richards, another world-class surfer originally from Oceanside and now an Encinitas firefighter, began surfing with Edwards in 1953. According to Richards, “Bill and George Draper and Jim Clark were the younger guys in our group. The more established guys were Doug Tico, Chuck Myers, Byron Jessops, Jim Truax and Ted Tuck.

“Phil Edwards made surfboards in his garage out of balsa and redwood. Like everyone else, he shaped the boards with a draw knife. I held onto the wood while he shaped it.

“Surfing was still pretty small at that time, and we knew everyone when they drove the highway either by the color of their board or the fin they had.”

It was not long before surfing swelled so big that it was impossible for surfers to know everyone else with a board.

In the late ‘50s, lightweight foam surfboards became easily available and the 1959 film “Gidget” told mainstream-America a story of teen romance and surfing adventure.

There was a hot new crew dominating Swami’s, the Encinitas break that most newcomers and old-timers agree can have the best surf in North County.

Then the Beach Boys put it on the international map when they included Swami’s in their 1962 smash hit, “Surfin’ USA.”

Surfing became a huge fad: people as far inland as Nebraska would bolt surfboards to the tops of their cars and pretend to be surfers.

Aside from being a great wave, Swami’s was also at the small end of the funnel for those who wanted to be seen surfing a premier spot.

In the early and mid-'60s, surfers at Swami’s included U.S. Men’s Champion Rusty Miller and U.S. Women’s Champion Linda Benson. Malcolm McCassy, Doug Erickson, Mike Hynson (who co-starred in “The Endless Summer”) and L.J. Richards also stood out. The kids at the time: Tommy Lewis, Cheer Critchlow and Syd Madden moved slowly in on their heroes. The new surfers rode lighter surfboards made of fiberglass and polyurethane foam. And they led the way in the mid-'60s transition from long boards to short boards. Many older surfers backed off from the sport rather than make the change.

The transition was one of the most significant in the evolution of surfing: board lengths plummeted from an average of 9-foot-6-inches to about 7-foot-6-inches.

Short boards continued to drop in length and weight--some as short as 5-foot-10-inches and as light as 5 pounds.

Most avid North County surfers today have more than one board, and top pros, while they usually don’t pay for surfboards, can have a quiver bulging with as many as 30.

The most successful pro surfer from the area is Brad Gerlach, who last year was the second-rated professional surfer in the world.

Gerlach, 26, of Encinitas experiments with a vast number of surfboards. He likes some, dislikes some, breaks some that he likes. If he doesn’t like them, or breaks them, he will get them replaced immediately. The task of building a board today requires the labors of at least five skilled craftsmen, all plying their trade by hand.

Gerlach, who is not surfing the world tour this year, has covered the globe in search of good surf and a world crown. But he always returns to his home in Leucadia. “I love coming home. I like seeing all my old friends and the waves here are excellent. And there are a lot of hot young kids in North County. One of the best in small waves is Rob Machado.”

Machado, 18, has been touted by many top pro surfers as a future contender on the international circuit.

The climate is right for young surfers in North County. It is not even necessary for them to skip school to catch a wave. Torrey Pines High School in Del Mar and San Dieguito High School in Encinitas both run surfing as a physical education program during school hours.

Along with the newest generation of surfers, a lot of surfers who pioneered North County surf spots are again back in the water these days. The ‘90s have brought a mixture of short boards, new long boards, body boards and the occasional surf kayak.

While surfing has felt the sting of recessionary times, at last count there were at least 22 surf shops, 23 surfboard manufacturers, 2 surf schools, 3 wet suit companies and numerous surf-related clothing companies.

There are several surf clubs with more than 100 members each, countless surfboard repair shops and back-yard surfboard builders, and dozens of restaurants with surf themes. There is even a surf museum, located across the street from the Oceanside pier, which has begun to pull together artifacts that tell the story of California surfing.

Today, traffic probably won’t come to a stop because two people are surfing Cardiff, the ocean is rarely crystal clear, boards weigh a fraction of what they did in 1929, and wet suits keep surfers as warm as the heaters in their cars.

Most of the beaches popular 60 years ago are still popular, although tastes in waves have evolved with board styles. Whatever the weather or season, dedicated surfers of all ages daily ply the breaks along the North County coast.

The bumper stickers on cars topped with surfboard racks sum up an outlook that has stood the test of time: “A bad day of surfing is better than the best day of work.”


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