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Surf’s up at UCI exhibit

A portion of an image taken from an illustration from Capt. James Cook’s “A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean” shows what is believed to be the first of a surfer.
(Don Leach, Daily Pilot)

Editor’s note: This adds information about how to donate items to the surf collection.

Surfing culture may be synonymous with “The O.C.,” but there was a time when the water sport was new here.

On Wednesday, UC Irvine’s Langson Library opened a display of surfing-related items, including photographs, travel journals and magazines. Some of the items date to the 18th century but most have local roots.

One item is an archival photograph taken in Corona del Mar of the first surf contest staged on the U.S. mainland: the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships in 1928.


Steve MacLeod, the curator and public services coordinator in Special Collections & Archives at UCI, reflected on surfing’s evolution since the late 1920s.

“Most people just made [their surfboards] right on the beach because they couldn’t carry them anywhere,” MacLeod said. “CdM was one of the really significant places where people surfed.”

MacLeod explained that the construction of jetties negatively altered the beaches. Only one beach benefitted from the jetties, and got great acclaim for it: The Wedge.

Another photo on display, taken in 1954, shows one of the first surf shops in Orange County and the roots of a successful surfing company: Hobie in Dana Point.


Besides chronicling the early days of surfing in Orange County, the collection also boasts an artifact dating to the 1700s, which serves as a historical point of reference for the sport.

Captain James Cook, the 18th century British sea explorer, published a number of journals about his travels to exotic locales and his encounters with indigenous peoples. UCI carries a first edition copy of his last journal, which details the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii.

It was during that expedition to what would become known as Hawaii’s Big Island in February 1779 that Cook was killed during a fight with natives.

His journal details Hawaiians riding on the first surfboards and provides an illustration that shows the earliest Western-recorded manifestation of surfing.

“It describes it as an activity that was unique, that he hadn’t seen before,” MacLeod said. “It’s a fairly interesting account of what surfers do. It talks about what the boards look like and efforts to get through the surf.”

The library’s collection of surfing artifacts has drawn interest from a German scholar whose doctorate is tied to surfing.

In 2010, Konstantin Butz, a doctoral student at the University of Cologne who is studying surf and skate culture, stopped by the Langson Library to see the collection.

“Since I am highly interested in the history of skateboarding and Californian punk music, it was just a logical step to go and check out the special collection at Langson Library and have a look at where the whole board action might have originated,” Butz said in an e-mail from Germany.


Butz is writing his dissertation on the subculture phenomenon of skate punk, which developed in Los Angeles and Orange County during the ‘70s and ‘80s. He visited the library to see how surf culture shaped the future for skateboarding.

“It influenced popular culture all over the world and it is interesting to have a condensed look at its origins and developments,” he said. “Plus, [Langson] is only a few minutes from some really great surfing spots…"

The exhibit will be up through the end of the school year. To donate items to the collection, visit MacLeod’s blog. For more information, visit