California surfing

Pete Peterson, Lorin "Whitey" Harrison, and “Ignacio” at San Onofre in the 1930s, revealing California surfing in its beginnings; frame grab from video.

Way before surf forecasting, leashes, Mavericks, foam blanks, and the I-5, there was surfing in its infancy in California. "It's surfing the way it used to be," says legendary surf photographer Don "Doc" James of his old film that sat hidden in a drawer for 50 years “like a time capsule.”

“Doc” passed away in 1996, but his footage was recently unearthed, and a few things stuck out to me in this blast from the past:

-The surf spots. For Los Angeles-based surfers, there were basically four surf spots to choose from: Malibu, Palos Verdes, San Onofre, and Long Beach. They knew enough to hit Malibu and San O in the summer, and Palos Verdes and Long Beach in the winter. One can only assume there were no stories of localism and violence plaguing Palos Verdes back then. Because there were no freeways and the vehicles were made of wood and often breaking down, San Onofre was a mission to get to, yet the trip only cost 50 cents.

-The surfers were ripped! With no fast or overly processed foods to speak of and 10-foot boards weighing up to 100 pounds, surfers in the 1930s were in amazing physical shape. "They didn't go to gyms. They got enough exercise through swimming, surfing, and lifeguarding. They were pretty healthy men—look at the pictures of these guys," says Doc. No beer-bellied bozos were shredding the lineups of San Onofre and Malibu until decades later…

California surfing

A crowded day at Malibu in the 1930s, revealing California surfing in its innocence; frame grab from video.

-There were no crowds. "We used to hope there would be somebody out there to go surfing with," says Doc of the old days at Malibu. "We used to sometimes leave our surfboards behind the sand dunes, come back the next week, and they'd still be there. Nobody would ever steal a board; it was the age of innocence.” Can you imagine leaving a surfboard made of redwood and balsa at Malibu today? That thing would disappear faster than you could say “Gidget.”

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