California Authors


Surfing in Huntington Beach

Mark Zambrano | Arcadia Publishing

Book Review by Chris & Craig MacDonald

The history of HB's exciting growth as an international surfing mecca is documented in incredible photos and well-chosen words by local Historian Mark Zambrano's, "Surfing in Huntington Beach," a new Arcadia Book. He did intensive research in archives, museums as well as interviewed many surfing pioneers, who helped create "Surf City USA."

Today, HB is the home of the U.S. Open of Surfing, the HB Surfing Walk of Fame, the Surfers' Hall of Fame, the International Surfboard Builder Hall of Fame, Surf City Surfing Dogs, the National Scholastic Surfing Association and other student surfing groups, HB80s-Sunset Sixties and many other annual Surfing Contests.

But how did it get this way? Zambrano's thorough research shows that Huntington Beach has been known for its surfers quite awhile. The first one to attract a crowd was Hawaiian sensation, George Freeth, "The Man Who Walked on Water." He hit the waves on a wide-nosed redwood board in HB on June 20, 1914.

This thrilling, unique sight was enjoyed by amazed spectators on shore. "Those stationed on the east side of the pier could see him riding the waves with the ease and grace of a sea gull," recorded the Huntington Beach News. People were awestruck.

Real Estate Mogul Henry Huntington, the city's namesake, paid Freeth to promote his Pacific Electric Railways "Red Car" as well as his developments in Southern California, hoping people would purchase his property or at least vacation there.

Freeth arrived in HB in the Red Car that stopped by the pier.

Duke Kahanamoku, who had seen some of Freeth's impressive exhibitions in Hawaii, became a surfing ambassador around the world. Known later as "The Father of Modern Surfing," the former Olympic swimming champ, especially helped promote the popularity of the sport in Australia and HB.

In fact, The HB International Surfing Museum, 411 Olive Ave., is dedicated to Duke. It was founded by Natalie Kotsch, a Canadian native who never surfed but loved the culture and wanted to promote it, and another non-surfer, Ann Beasley. (Today, Diana Dehm, the museum's executive director, and others help keep surfing history and culture alive through fascinating exhibits and concerts.)

And what a culture it is—from award-winning surfers and creative surfboard manufacturers to surf clothing retailers and entertainers, like Dean Torrence (Jan & Dean), who lives in HB.

Zambrano shows in words and photos how Bob Higgins and Gene Belshe, HB's first full-time lifeguards, made their own 135-pound redwood surfboards in 1927. Six years later, local lifeguards sponsored the first Surfing Contest in HB.

Dwight's Beach Concession became HB's first Board Rental Business in the 1940s. Dwight's son, Jack Clapp, still runs the popular business today. The author provides insight in how adventurous men and women rented all-rubber, inflatable surf mats and, after World War II, the role fiberglass and bolsa played in the manufacture of lighter surfboards.

"The combination of Baby Boomers, Postwar Technology, the popularity of ‘Gidget' and the Beach Boy's ‘Good Vibrations' helped surfing gain a new found acceptance among the masses," Zambrano wrote. "One of the biggest boosts to surfing was the invention of foam board, with its lightweight, streamlined design."

He shows how surfers became known for how they stood or maneuvered on the boards and were given nicknames, like Dick "Iron Legs" Thomas. And the impact locals like Gordie Duane had in the popularity of the sport. Duane, who fell in love with surfing in Hawaii while stationed in the Navy, opened HB's First Surf Shop on the north side of the pier in 1956.

A year later, Jack Hokanson opened Jack's Surfboards. In the early 1960s, Jack was one of the first to market "Sidewalk Surfing," building skateboards resembling small surfboards.

Zambrano explains how Bill Holden was one of the most-liked shapers and helped Bob "The Greek" Bolen start his famous shaping career by selling him a foam blank. The likeable Bolen, a self-taught surfer and shaper, opened his shop on Pacific Coast Highway in 1960 and quickly became one of the top board-makers in the world. (He still shapes them today.)

The book tells how Jan Gaffney, one of the first female surfing stars opened a popular health food bar on Main Street. In 1963, Jan and Dean sang "Surf City"—the first surfing song to top the Billboard Charts. It helped create the California sound and surfing culture. A year later, Bruce Brown's "The Endless Summer" documentary film was released, featuring HB surfer Robert August.

In 1964, the US Surfboard Championships were broadcast from HB on ABC's Wide World of Sports, further popularizing the city and sport.

Zambrano provides photos showing how Hawaiian-born David Nuuhiwa became known for his "nose rides," "floating at the tip of his board for impossible lengths of time" in HB.

A Shortboard revolution kicked off around 1967, as board lengths began dropping from 10 feet to under 7, with their weights cut in half. The next year, innovative Bob Bolen released his 6-foot-8 inch Maui Bullet.

Zambano said longtime lifeguard and surfer Chuck Linnen taught Corky Carroll how to "shoot the pier" (surf through the pilings). Carroll went on to become a multiple champion.

Another legendary champ, Jericho Poppler, is one of the most decorated competitive surfing women in the world. She co-founded the Women's International Surfing Association. Surfers loved The Golden Bear (restaurant and concert venue across from the pier), known for its wide variety of incredible headline entertainers for decades.

(In 1974, Chuck, Rick and Carole Babiracki made the Bear roar even more. Dick Dale, "King of the 'Surf Guitar," Jimmy Buffet, Jerry Garcia, and No Doubt were just a few of the talents who loved playing there. Van Halen was once "an opening act" at the Bear.)

Another popular Surfer Hangout, was (and still is) The Sugar Shack Cafe, opened on Main Street in 1967 by Pat and Mary Williams, to teach their kids about working hard. In 1979, their daughter Michele and husband, Tim Turner, took it over. (Now its run by their boys—Surfers Hall of Famers, Timmy and Ryan—and daughter, Holly.)

Zambrano does a good job exploring the significance of a very special local group. From 1970-1980, "The Hole in the Wall Gang"—a coalition of surfers (including Chris Cattel) shapers and industry leaders—helped define the competitive scene in HB. Sponsored by Gordie's Surf Shop, they were some of the best amateur surfers anywhere—going unbeaten in competitions for four years! In 1977, this talented gang beat a group from Hawaii to become "The Nation's Top Team" at the U.S. Surfing Championship" in San Onofre.

In the mid-1970s, Australian Surfers Ian "Kanga" Cairns and Peter "PT" Townend were recruited to coach the National Scholastic Surfing Association. They also started the OP Pro Competition, which was later replaced by the US Open of Surfing. Longtime surfer, Gary Sahagen, has been instrumental in the success of the HB Longboard Crew.

Zambrano throws kudos to HB's most famous voice, surfologist "Rockin' Fig" Fignetti, who announces many surfing events and for more than 20 years gave surf reports on an LA Radio Station. He still has a popular shop on Main Street. Also on Main are longtime businesses—Jacks Surfboards and Huntington Surf & Sport. (Across the street, on the Pier, is the Surf City Store.)

There are so many sensational men and women surfers and businesses here, you really need to read "Surfing in Huntington Beach" to appreciate just how this town, once known for Oil, became a Surfing Mecca.

(Editor's Note: Chris MacDonald was on the board of the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum and Craig was a docent.)

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