How the Coastline Craze Caught On
August 14, 2013 1 Comment
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
August 14, 2013
Huntington Beach, Calif.
If you’ve hung around the beach enough in the summer, you’ve heard someone refer to a surfboard as a “plank.” Come to this surf town about an hour south of downtown Los Angeles and you’ll learn why.
The International Surfing Museum occupies just one floor of a tiny beach house a few blocks from the pounding waves of the Pacific, but it’s full of great historical artifacts, among them a 9-foot-long, 4-inch-thick, 100-plus-pound surfboard made of redwood planks. According to a small display that explains the evolution of the surfboard, that’s what they used to be before we discovered polyurethane foam, fiberglass and epoxy resins. They were actually pieces of wood—the Hawaiians often used wood from native koa trees—hand-crafted and glued together with a decent amount of air space in them so they would float longer. They didn’t have fins, but a drain hole. Every hour or so you had to lug this board, which probably weighed close to 200 pounds by then, up on the beach, drain it and let it dry out. That’s why in the early days surfers were so buff. They had to be, to lug around these weighty monsters.
Many of these early wooden boards came from an unlikely place: Pacific System Ready Cut Homes, one of the largest homebuilders in the world by the start of World War II. The founder’s son, Meyers Butte, convinced his dad that making surfboards would be a good way to diversify the business. Pacific System was one of the first companies to mass-produce surfboards in the U.S., and if you bought one of their homes in Southern California in the 1940s it most likely came with a free surfboard.
Even as surfing became more popular, there were still many people who made their own boards, and the museum has one of the rarest: a 14-foot, 5-inch-thick redwood board that was probably built in the 1940s and then sat in an attic for five or six decades. It has the usual drain hole near where the fin is today, but it also has what the museum initially thought was a second drain hole on the top of the board closer to the front tip. When the curators asked about it, the original owner’s grandson said, “Oh, no, that’s where the sail goes.” The museum thinks it could very well be the first board made for windsurfing.
This is all well-told here, with a display of boards and informative plaques and panels that explain the evolution of the surfboard, some of them pioneered by guys who caught big waves right here. Guys like Corky Carroll, a five-time U.S. champion who’s considered by many to be the first professional surfer. He still runs a surfing school here, and some nights you can find him playing music at Duke’s Surf City, a popular bar named for the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968). There’s a life-size statue in the museum of the 6-foot-1-inch Hawaiian, who surfed here and promoted the first-ever professional competition with the 1959 West Coast Surfing Championships (now the U.S. Open).
Of course, anywhere there was surfing there was surf music. The museum also has on display guitars, gold records and posters, including one from the quintessential surfer movie, “Endless Summer” (1966). There’s also a vintage poster from “Battle of the Surf Bands,” a local annual concert that even in 1992 featured Dick Dale, widely known as the King of the Surf Guitar, and Jan and Dean.
About 50 miles south of Huntington Beach, tucked next to the military-surplus and barber shops that cater to the Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, is the California Surf Museum. It occupies a traditional storefront that’s been remodeled and is about twice as big as the International Surfing Museum, and its collection is more extensive. And that’s appropriate, since surfing has continued to flourish in California more than perhaps anywhere else.
The California Surf Museum currently has a special exhibit, “The Magic of Windansea,” celebrating 50 years of one of the most eclectic surfing clubs on the California coast. So-called Plank Boys—including Lloyd Baker, considered to be one of the first U.S. surfboard makers—started surfing the waves off Oceanside in the 1930s. Initially, an ad hoc club of outstanding surfers formed. It was sometimes called the San Diego Surf Club but eventually became known as Windansea. In the 1940s, it started hosting the Windansea Luau and in 1948 hosted the first-ever Pacific Coast Surfing Championships.
The club disbanded several times and got back together over the years. But it was in 1963 that the group really made a name for itself. It put together a team almost on a whim, went north to the Malibu Surfrider International Surfing Tourney, to what many regarded as the surfing capital of the universe, and won most everything. That same year, a Windansea team also won what was then known as the West Coast Surfing Championships at Huntington Beach. The club has been legendary among hard-core surfers ever since.
The museum has put together a comprehensive collection of surfboards, photos, news clippings and memorabilia, including surfboards that belonged to famous club members. There’s also a brief history of “The Shack,” the small beach structure made of locally harvested eucalyptus poles and a date-palm thatched roof. First built in 1946 so that club members had a place to get out of the sun and stand up their boards to drain and dry, it has been rebuilt several times due to storms and sits 12 feet back from its original site because of beach erosion.
The museum also has its own collection tracing the evolution of surfboards, from a 1923 finless redwood board that weighs 67 pounds to a 1966 foam-and-fiberglass Magic Sam model that’s also 9 feet long but weighs one-third as much.
Both museums are worth a stop this summer to learn where surfing began, how it has changed, and who were some of its most famous pioneers. You might even run into one of them.
Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.