My utter absorption in surfing had no rational content. It simply compelled me; there was a deep mine of beauty and wonder in it. . . I was a sunburnt pagan now. I felt privy to mysteries.
— William Finnegan — Barbarian Days: A Surfing Memoir

  HUNTINGTON BEACH — In the century since surfing spread from the South Pacific to the coasts of the warming world, a handful of beaches have become legends.  Rincon.  Malibu.  The Pipeline.  But here in California, there is only one “Surf City.”  

        Let other beach towns have their sail-saturated marinas, their mansions perched on bluffs.  Huntington Beach has 18 miles of sand, a dozen surf shops, a surfing museum, a Surfing Walk of Fame, and that other key ingredient — relentless sunshine.  So in the words of those boys from upcoast, most of whom never surfed a day in their lives, “Let’s go surfin’ now. . . “


        Like a rogue wave, surfing swept over America in the 1960s.  I was 10.  I caught the wave.  Too young and scared to buy real boards, “my buddies and me” surfed sidewalks, careening on skateboards down hills we named for Hawaiian beaches.  We watched inane movies — “Beach Party,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” — and thought them cool.  But only later did I look into surfing’s own saga.  There, as behind all waves, lay hidden currents. . .

        South Sea islanders were riding waves long before Captain James Cook spotted them in the 1770s.  Yet surfing did not go global for another 150 years.  The wave first swelled in Southern California, and the first man to catch it was named Huntington.

        In 1907, industrialist Henry Huntington vacationed in the new American territory of Hawaii.  There he saw men paddling enormous planks out from shore, then “walking on water.”  Huntington, interested in promoting his Southern California hotels, hired one such water walker.


        George Freeth (on left) is “the father of American surfing.”  Freeth followed Huntington home to Redondo Beach, and began surfing daily in front of the Hotel Redondo.  Freeth later came to Huntington Beach to “shoot the pier,” riding a wave between pillars of the city’s new seaside structure.  But Freeth had California waves to himself until the heyday of the Big Kahuna.

        Born in Honolulu, raised in its waters, Duke Kananamoku (on right) could swim like a fish.  In 1912, after winning Olympic gold in the 100-meter freestyle, The Duke took a victory lap.  On beaches from California to Australia, crowds watched him swim and “walk on water.”  The Duke went on to win more medals, appear in movies, and serve as sheriff of Honolulu.  Yet surfing remained a coastal curiosity until it went pop.

        Surf City’s Walk of Fame is a sidewalk inlaid with dozens of medals.  Most honor top surfers or “local heroes,” but a few feature icons of “surf culture.” One such honoree is Gidget.  Yes, there was a real girl behind that giggle, and when Kathy Kohner’s father turned his daughter’s surf nickname into a novel, the wave began to crest.  


        From the first “Gidget” movie (1959) to the Summer of Love, surfing owned American pop.  Guitarist Dick Dale, another Walk of Fame honoree, twanged out surf rock.  (Click here for a sample of surf songs.) The Beach Boys had fun, fun, fun, and surf lingo, from gnarly to bitchin’ to wipe out, became embarrassingly common.

        Little of this “coastline craze” is found in today’s Surf City, not even in its International Surfing Museum.  Celebrating surfing as a serious sport, the museum doesn’t mention the Beach Boys.  Instead, rotating exhibits focus on surfing in different decades, on George Freeth and the Duke, and recently on the connection between “Surf and Skate.”  Then there are surfboards, videos, and a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records noting Surf City’s record-setting 66 people riding a single board.

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        Back by the pier, Jack’s Surf Shop has grown from a small board maker into a coastal franchise featuring beach attire.  Across the street, cement slabs imprinted with hand-and-barefoot prints of famous surfers front Huntington Surf and Sport. Step around the statue of The Duke to enter.

        Like the blinding sun overhead, Surf City’s celebrations shine on.  Every Tuesday night, Main Street hosts surf bands.  Then there are surf art festivals, a senior surf day, even a Surf Dog Competition.  And each July, 50,000 people gather on the sand to watch the U.S. Open of Surfing.

        Before leaving, I stroll the pier.  In the water below, two dozen dudes bob in the swells.  As I know from body surfing, catching a wave takes patience.  Paddle/swim out, not too far, not too far, turn. . .  Here it comes. . . Closer, closer. . .  NOW!

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        Some waves pass but if your timing is right, the surging water becomes you.  For ten, twenty, perhaps fifty seconds, each surfer IS the ocean, swirling, sliding, streaming toward shore.  A surfer may not be “sittin’ on top of the world,” but nothing on land comes closer.  In Barbarian Days, New Yorker writer William Finnegan nailed it.

        “It was, once again, a glorious wave, with hues in its depths so intense they felt like first editions—ocean colors never seen before, made solely for this wave, this moment, perhaps never to be seen again.”