It’s a hot, glaring day at the Newport Dunes, the kind of day that calls for a hat. Lorrin Harrison is wearing one, a bell-shaped number that covers his tanned face like a small umbrella.
Harrison, who turned 80 in April, is proud of that hat. He fashioned it himself out of straw, just the other morning, in a few quick hours.
“It was simple. I needed a hat, so I put together a hat,” Harrison says, casually touching the brim. “Not many people I know can do them, but I make them all the time. I’m pretty good at it.”
That tells something about Harrison, known as “Whitey” since his earliest surfing days in the late ‘20s. He has busy hands and a can-do attitude that’s turned him into something of a legend, especially where waves break and outrigger canoes are launched.
The San Juan Capistrano resident made his first surfboards out of redwood planks, joining a small band of riders who became known in the Southland as “The Beach Boys” way before the Wilson brothers adopted the name for their garage band. When not surfing, Harrison learned the outrigger craft, both in California and Hawaii, where the sleek boats originated.
That eventually led to Harrison helping to form the Dana Outrigger Club and Kalifornia Outrigger Assn. in the ‘50s, two groups that are still around. He was the steersman for the association’s first 26-mile race in 1959 from Newport Beach to Catalina Island, now an annual event taking place Saturday as part of the two-weekend-long SeaFest at the Dunes.
While watching the outrigger teams practice this afternoon, Harrison turned his attention to that first race. “Enough about this hat,” he says. “I bet you want to know about the race. I guess that’s why we’re here.”
The days before were vivid, especially for the “Hawaiian all-stars” crew, which was flown over to generate local interest. Most had never been to the Mainland and were predictably awed. There were parties (“We had one, kind of a luau, where everybody got to eat all the goat they wanted. They liked that.”) and the chance to learn about each other (“Hawaiians love life; they know how to enjoy themselves. We all got along just great, and everybody lived it up.”).
When the contest started, Harrison’s team, many of whose members had little outrigger experience, did well. They kept up with the Hawaiian boat but then ran into some rough winds in the open sea. The canoe turned over, pitching out the crew. Before they were settled again, 11 minutes had been lost and the Hawaiians cruised to victory.
“Part of it was that we were really tired,” Harrison says. “It can be pretty difficult paddling out there, and (the Hawaiians) were used to it because they travel between islands back home.
“I had the toughest job because the steersman never gets to take a break. I was in that canoe the entire time. By the end, I was about as thirsty and exhausted as I could be.”
Harrison went on to compete in several other races and trained other outrigger enthusiasts, something he still does today. Something else he does is surf, as often as three times a week at his favorite spot near San Onofre. As far as anyone can tell, Harrison is the oldest active surfer in the world, a distinction that has brought a bit of celebrity.
Harrison was honored at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside on his birthday and has made a little money off his small fame. He’s been featured in national car rental commercials, and one for an auto wax has just come out.
Harrison, born in Garden Grove, grew up in Laguna Beach, spending “all my time” either near or in the water. He learned to swim at an early age and would walk the dusty roads to Corona del Mar to watch George Freeth, the Irish-Hawaiian credited with first introducing surfing to California.
Freeth was a romantic figure, and Harrison was impressed. Encouraged by his fifth-grade teacher, the boy built his first board, a three-foot bellyboard. Soon, the planks got bigger and smoother, as did the waves he tried. In those days, before marinas and seaside developments requiring breakwaters, the swells would often reached 20 feet or more, Harrison recalls.
“In Corona del Mar, there was this break, kind of like a horseshoe wave, really pretty but huge. It would reach 25 feet some days and we’d go out and ride ‘em. I got knocked around more than once, but what a thrill. It was heaven for a kid.”
He’s nearly drowned several times, but one accident stands out. It was in the early ‘50s, and Harrison was riding a “heavy old redwood board” at San Onofre. He took off on an eight-foot breaker with a few friends, and then came the spill. All the boards ran together, most aimed at Harrison. One, maybe two, struck him on the head, leaving Harrison unconscious.
“I was completely paralyzed, even when I came to under the water,” he says, the memory now more amazing than terrifying. “When they got me out, we knew I had to see a doctor, but it was a Sunday night and we had trouble finding one.
“When we finally did, he said I was lucky to be alive. It was a terrible concussion that left me almost blind in my right eye. I stayed out of the water for a couple of weeks, probably the longest I’ve been out of it.”
Like most surfers, the young Harrison fantasized about Hawaii, its mystical waves and its most famous rider, Duke Kahanamoku. He decided it was time in 1932 and stowed away on an ocean liner. Harrison was caught and thrown off but tried again later. The next time he made it.
He soon tapped into the beach scene, surfing with Kahanamoku and making living-money by working with outriggers who took tourists for rides. He studied the way the traditional canoes were built and appreciated their history. Harrison realized they hadn’t changed much from those used by islanders to meet Captain Cook and other explorers.
After returning to California, Harrison continued his surfing, winning various contests, including the 1939 Southern California championship. He also experimented with surfboard design and materials, using fiberglass in the construction.
Dana Point surfboard manufacturer Hobie Alter is generally recognized as revolutionizing surfing with lightweight, speedier boards in the ‘50s, but many say Harrison should get some credit for paving the way.
Besides the changing technology of surfing, Harrison has watched how the sport has evolved over the years, from a relatively obscure hobby to the high-profile, often commercial field it is today. The contests now pay well, and clothing and other lucrative endorsements come to the top performers.
But the biggest development, one with annoying repercussions, is how popular it’s become. Ask anyone who surfs and the same complaint comes up: Man, it’s packed out there.
“Yes, it’s really different now, there weren’t too many of us then,” Harrison muses. “Sometimes it felt like the waves were just for you. Now, there are crowds everywhere.”
When not venturing to the beach or bay, he continues to tinker with board design, but his latest project involves a large Sycamore trunk that “would make a great canoe.” There’s a hitch, though: The tree was cut down two years ago and should sit for three more, to ensure that the wood is dry enough and doesn’t warp later.
But Harrison is eager to start carving. “I tell you, I’m ready to get going on it,” he says, grinning. “Maybe I can hold off, but I don’t know. I’m not one to wait too long; it’s just not like me.”