City Lights: Sands mix to unite the surfing world

There's that song "Yesterday's Gone" by the 1960s British duo Chad & Jeremy that goes, "We walked together hand in hand/cross miles and miles of golden sand." The first time I set foot on an English beach, I wondered if they had composed those lyrics while vacationing somewhere else — considering that the beach looked like a tiny sliver between the rocks and water, and the sand was more muddy than golden.

As it turns out, though, a lot of beaches around the world are far from golden. For evidence, stop by the International Surfing Museum in downtown Huntington Beach — at least, before the U.S. Open of Surfing begins and parking becomes a rare commodity.

In one corner of the museum at 411 Olive Ave., Director at Large Gary Sahagen keeps a display of jars and bottles of sand from beaches around the world. The samples don't come from his own globe-trotting voyages, but from visitors who have stopped at the museum over the years.

First of all, there is one from England — Cornwall, to be exact — and it looks as dense and ground-pepper-like as I remember from years back. There's also black sand from Maui, red coral from Australia and containers from such diverse spots as Galilee, Morocco, Monaco and Iwo Jima, that last one courtesy of a World War II veteran.

"I even had someone here yesterday who was smelling the sand," Sahagen said. "She was saying, 'Oh, that smells just like the beach in Monaco!'"

The museum began building its sand collection in 1996, when Huntington hosted the International Surfing Assn.'s annual World Surfing Games. During the contest's opening ceremony, participants mix together buckets of sand from their home countries as a symbol of unity.

In 1996, the organizers gifted Sahagen with a sample of each country's sand mixed together in a plastic bucket. That container, which covers nearly a dozen countries, sits at the base of the display. The other vessels, many of which sport labels from their native lands, have nearly filled the shelves by now, and Sahagen said he has a second cabinet in storage.

That eclectic mix points out a key fact about the Open: Despite having the phrase "U.S." attached to its name, it's a true global event.

"Many people have said over the years that the corner of PCH and Main Street is the New York Times of surf culture in the world," said Steve Bone, the president and chief executive of the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau.

With the Open regularly drawing hundreds of thousands of people, Sahagen may have his hands full next week with foreign visitors. So far, he expects to make shelf space for at least one more jar.

"A couple days ago, I got a promise from Argentina," he said.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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