At a reception in the mountains above Santa Cruz, dozens of surfers of a certain age, balancing wine glasses and pizza slices, basked in their closeness to a little piece of their sport’s history.
The celebrants at the San Lorenzo Valley Historical Museum had known the basic story for a while: In 1885, three Hawaiian princes visiting Santa Cruz on a break from military school wowed the locals with, as a newspaper report put it, “interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands.”
According to many historians, that was the first documented instance of board surfing in California, perhaps the first on the U.S. mainland. But now, a Santa Cruz real estate appraiser and lifelong surfer named Kim Stoner has gone an extra step for local pride, using century-old records to trace the princes’ boards back to redwoods grown just a couple of miles from the museum.
“It all tells a story,” said Stoner, 58, gesturing toward copies of documents that drew a crowd inside the redwood structure, originally an Episcopal church. They were deeds covering a swath of about 400 acres just down California Highway 9, on the site of what is now the rambling old Brookdale Inn. In 1885 it was the Grover Brothers lumber mill and several hundred acres of ancient redwoods -- the raw material, Stoner contends, for this surfing first.
For a town that unsuccessfully battled Huntington Beach over rights to the name Surf City USA, this was big.
“Oh, my god, this is just absolutely huge -- monumental even,” said Thomas Hickenbottom, an author who was signing copies of his recently released history of Santa Cruz surfing. “That this San Lorenzo Valley redwood played such an important role in the development of early surfing -- well, it’s just fascinating.”
A ukulele quintet was strumming the Beach Boys’ greatest hits. People ate cupcakes with candy surfboards jauntily sticking out of ocean-blue icing. Middle-aged men in Hawaiian shirts couldn’t help but run their hands over a polished 90-pound redwood surfboard crafted by Michel Junod, a noted local board shaper.
Some surfing experts are quick to point out that although the princes might have been the first chronicled mainland surfers, the sport’s roots span the globe.
Ancient Peruvian pottery, for instance, is adorned with images of fishermen in reed boats riding the waves back to shore after a day’s catch. On Africa’s west coast, British explorer James Edward Alexander wrote in 1835 of “boys swimming into the sea, with light boards under their stomachs.”
Many historians say the sport exploded in the early decades of the 20th century in Southern California. Irish-Hawaiian athlete George Freeth -- described by Jack London as “a young god bronzed with sunburn” -- gained fame as the father of professional surfing, astonishing locals at Redondo Beach and elsewhere on the Southern California coast.
“The story of the princes is sort of elegant, and a nice connection to Hawaii and the idea of surfing as the sport of kings,” said Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing and a former editor of Surfing magazine. “But it didn’t light the fuse the way Freeth did. He was really the Johnny Appleseed of surfing in America.”
Still, the surfing culture is deeply embedded in Santa Cruz. Earlier this year, the city was rocked by a lawsuit alleging that an entrepreneur had stolen the logo of the 63-year-old Santa Cruz Surfing Club, an institution with revered local surfers among its members.
“I don’t know of anywhere in the world that seems to have invested more of its identity in surfing,” Warshaw said.
It wasn’t always so.
On a hot afternoon in July 1885, the young nephews of Hawaii’s Queen Kapi’olani were quite a novelty, drawing a crowd as they frolicked on their makeshift 15-foot boards at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. They were students at St. Matthew’s Hall, a military school in San Mateo. On summer break, they were staying near the beach, at the home of a former maid for the royal family.
Stoner ferreted out accounts of a planing mill a few blocks away, where immense redwood slabs from the Grover Brothers’ sawmill in the mountains were fashioned into planks, doors, beams and perhaps -- for visiting royalty -- rudimentary surfboards.
In Santa Cruz’s chilly waters, the pastime didn’t catch on right away. In the latter part of the 19th century, surfing had ebbed even in Hawaii. Non-island diseases had decimated the population and missionaries discouraged Hawaiians from shedding their clothes to ride the waves.
“They were wasting time when they should have been doing God’s work or growing crops for missionaries to sell,” said Ben Finney, a retired University of Hawaii-Manoa anthropology professor. “I read a terrible description of missionaries extolling the piety and industriousness of natives on Kauai who’d sawed up their surfboards to make desks and chairs.”
Eventually Hawaiian surfing revived -- partly thanks to the redwood that was being imported for construction from the mainland’s Pacific coast. The redwood was lighter than native koa and more maneuverable, said John Clark, president of the Hawaiian Historical Society and an expert on Hawaiian beach culture.
The princes returned to Hawaii and one of them -- Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole -- went on to achieve iconic status.
In 1893, Prince Kuhio, as he is known, was imprisoned for treason in Hawaii after trying to restore the deposed Queen Liliuokalani to her throne. A hero after his release, he was the territory’s congressional delegate for 18 years, working to set aside land for native Hawaiian homesteaders. He came to symbolize Hawaiian pride, and his birthday -- March 26 -- is a state holiday.
His story seems a world away from modern Santa Cruz and a kelp-strewn beach practically in the shadow of the boardwalk’s roller coasters.
Naish Dhillon, manager of the city’s farmers market, knew about the Hawaiians but had a more urgent concern. Recent rains had created a sandbar at the river mouth -- where the teenage trio surfed in 1885 -- and waves were rolling in.
“They’re breaking here today and they don’t do that often,” he said, with his board under his arm. “It’s perfect.”