Lorrin (Whitey) Harrison, a California surfing legend who stowed away on ocean liners as a youth to surf Hawaii’s waves, has died in Hawaii at age 80.
Harrison, a resident of San Juan Capistrano, suffered a heart attack Wednesday at his second home on the island of Hawaii, said Paula Tompkins, a family friend.
“I spoke with members of his family” Thursday morning, Tompkins said, “and everyone is quite shocked.”
Several members of Harrison’s family were in Hawaii with him when he died, including his wife of 46 years, Cecelia, and a daughter, Marian.
Steve Pezman, co-publisher of Surfer’s Journal and a former editor of Surfer magazine, said Harrison personified Southern California’s surf culture and was one of a handful of people older than 70 who still surfed regularly.
“He was part of the lore and legend of surfing,” Pezman said. “And Lorrin was a major player in the culture in those naive days when California wasn’t carpeted with subdivisions.”
Harrison has been interviewed on the “The Tonight Show,” highlighted in Life magazine and featured in commercials.
Although he underwent quintuple-bypass heart surgery in 1984, he continued surfing, canoeing and diving. He once said: “Being on the ocean is life itself.”
At his 80th birthday celebration at San Onofre State Beach in April, Harrison donned his signature palm-frond hat and surfed for more than an hour before beaching his board among a crowd of well-wishers.
Phil Edwards, 55, a well-known longboard surfer in the 1960s, recalled that, after Harrison’s bypass surgery, he “was back in the water surfing within two months. He started surfing too soon and he ripped out his stitches and had to go and get them restitched. He was a classic.”
Harrison, born in Garden Grove in 1913, began surfing while attending Orange High School. He traveled the world searching for the perfect wave.
He was among the earliest Orange County surfers to tackle the Corona del Mar break. It was in the 1920s, when surfboards were carved from kiln-dried redwood and weighed 135 pounds.
Harrison and his sister, Ethel, also a surfer, would make the three-hour walk along the bluffs from their summer home in Laguna Beach to Corona del Mar before Coast Highway was completed.
Pezman, who plans to publish a recent interview with Harrison in November’s Surfer’s Journal, said Harrison often had stowed away on ocean liners headed for Hawaii in the 1930s and would rent an island cabin for $7 a month.
On one of the trips, friends said, Harrison was brought back to a stockade in San Francisco after he was discovered sleeping in a lifeboat.
In Hawaii, Harrison became enchanted with the people, including a young Hawaiian named Duke Kahanamoku, who would later foster surfing in Hawaii and California. He returned to California inspired by the Hawaiian aloha spirit, Pezman said.
Harrison rode the waves at Corona del Mar until the jetty was built, forcing him and a small cadre of surfing pioneers south to San Onofre.
“I used to see him on the beach at San Onofre,” said surf photographer, LeRoy F. Grannis, 76. “Back in the ‘30s, everybody would always go there when there was a big south swell. It was like a big luau, and Whitey would compete in surf contests and then sing and play his ukulele.”
Grannis also recalled Harrison’s competitive spirit in a surfing contest at San Onofre.
“In those days,” Grannis said, “the highest scorer was the one farthest out on the shoulder of the wave. Well, I was the farthest one on the shoulder heading in to shore, and I felt a shove in my back and fell off. It was Lorrin. That happened in 1948 or ’49 and I still remember it to this day!”
In 1936, Harrison introduced outrigger canoe racing to California, after being a spectator to it in Hawaii. In 1959, the first club competition featured a team from Oahu racing Harrison’s team from Avalon to Newport Dunes.
“The Hawaiians made the 30-mile crossing in five hours,” Harrison said. “We did it in 5 hours, 11 minutes. That was the beginning of outrigger canoe racing on the mainland.”
Despite his years, Harrison still raced regularly in the masters’ division. There are an estimated 14 outrigger canoe racing clubs from Santa Barbara to San Diego, and 14 more clubs in the San Francisco Bay-Monterey areas.
Throughout his life, Harrison held odd jobs such as building outrigger canoes and making surfboards. His wife’s family owned land dating to the land grant era in South Orange County, and friends said the couple were wealthy, although they seemed unaffected by that wealth.
Harrison leaves his wife, who surfed for more than 25 years, six children and 26 grandchildren and great-grandchildren--all of whom surf.
Funeral services are pending.