Monday, July 22, 2013

Boards on the beach

ABOVE: An unidentified surfer shooting the pier, circa 1970. This pier was knocked down by a winter storm in 1983, rebuilt, and the present-day pier re-dedicated twenty-one years ago in July 1992. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   "The first use of boards was about 1912 when they used a piece of 1 by 12 board about 4 feet long and pushed off from 5 foot water. This type of board caused many accidents to the stomach area as it nose dived to the bottom causing injury...There were no surfboards on the coast except the one belonging to George Freeth of Redondo Beach and it was a very makeshift one made of several boards with cross p1eces nailed to hold it together."
                                        An Early History of Surfing in Huntington Beach, 
                                       Delbert "Bud" Higgins,

   The U.S. Open of Surfing is in town and the beach is host to thousands, watching surfing competitions from bleachers, marveling at skaters defying gravity at the "skate bowl" constructed on the sand, and dancing barefoot to live music.  It is a multi-million dollar event, attracting thousands to the beach, with an international following.

   It's sometimes hard to imagine that the original surfers put their toes in the sand here---the original Surf City---a century ago.

OVERLY DRESSED - A fully-clothed crowd at the Huntington Beach pier and bandstand, circa 1914.  One of the top songs of that year, "I'm on My Way to Mandalay," listen at (Photo, Library of Congress)

   Delbert "Bud" Higgins, one of Huntington Beach's first lifeguards and the city's first fire chief, recalls meeting "the Hawaiians" in the 1920s.  Locals had already been playing around with boards in the surf.  Hawaiian surfer George Freeth demonstrated the sport of wave-riding in 1907 at Redondo Beach and was a featured part of the 1914 re-dedication of the pier.  

LOCAL HERO - Irish Hawaiian George Freeth is reported as diving into the "boiling surf" from a Southern California pier, rescuing local fishing boats from crashing into the rocky coast. Freeth taught writer Jack London how to surf in Hawaii, prompting London to write Riding the South Sea Surf for Ladies Home Companion in 1907.  London further glorified surfing in The Cruise of the Snark in 1911. (Image, Los Angeles Herald, December 17, 1908)

LEFT:  Freeth arrived in Southern California in 1907 and his surfing demonstration was a highlight of the Huntington Beach pier re-dedication ceremony in 1914.  Freeth's surfing demonstrations also were a popular event at the Breakers, Atlantic City, and at Coney Island, New York. (Photo, Wiki Commons)

   By the 1920s in Huntington Beach, Bud Higgins and others were enamored with the sport and inspired to make their own boards after meeting "the Duke."  

   "Duke Kahanamoku from Kahaliana and two other Hawaiians came over from Hawaii to make a movie and spotted the surf at Corona Del Mar, surfed there...It was there I first saw their boards, talked to the Hawaiians and invited them to surf the Huntington Beach Pier," recalled Higgins in a personal history he wrote in the mid 1960s.  

   "They visited here on several occasions surfing the west side of the pier. After surfing here they stashed their boards, which were 11 feet long and l8 inches wide," Higgins remembered.  "They said if we should make new boards, they should not be longer then 10 feet." 

   Surfing legend Corky Carroll wrote about Higgins on his blog, "Bud was born in 1908 and became a Huntington Beach lifeguard. He grew up riding what we would call a 'bellyboard' these days, along with body surfing."   Carroll notes the boards crafted in the 1920s were vastly different than what you'll see on the beach today.

CALIFORNIA GIRLS - Girls at the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1930. Today, their granddaughters and great granddaughters surf the pier.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   "They weighed 135 pounds. Obviously these were not all that easy to carry around. You just didn't see guys riding their bikes down to the beach with a board under their arm in those days," writes Carroll.  Surfers holding a board under one arm, bicycling, skating, or walking barefoot to the beach is an everyday site in Huntington Beach today.

   "By Bud's own account, they would wind up using old telephone poles that were weather beaten and had become lighter just to get the weight down to a "manageable" 100 pounds," continued Carroll.  "...these dudes took to attaching metal "nose guards" on their big wood boards to protect them from damage caused by running into the pier. Can you even imagine getting run down by one of these massive board/ships with a big macking metal nose guard? Amazing that they didn't just knock the pier over on the way through."

   Higgins remembered his first attempt at making a board, with friend and fellow lifeguard Gene Belshe in 1927.  They used---what else---California redwood, the lumber available for local home building.
   "We went to the San Piedro (sic) Lumber Company to inquire about lumber. We found we could buy a solid plank of kiln dried redwood 20 feet long, 24 inches wide, and 3 inches thick for $40. We purchased the plank and cut it in two so we would each have a 10-foot board," recalled Higgins

LEFT: Delbert "Bud" Higgins and Gene Belshe with their first boards. Higgins wanted everyone to "see the coast from the top of a wave." (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives; also Huntington Beach Lifeguards, Images of America, Arcadia Publishing)

   The boards absorbed so much water after hours of daily surfing, that Higgins and Belshe put them in a room in the "Saltwater Plunge" used for drying towels, to help dry them out.   He described the boards as being slippery and hard to maneuver, and that getting hit with one meant certain injury, often requiring stitches. 

THE PLUNGE - The Saltwater Plunge was located on the north side of the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1922.  Beach goers could enjoy a swim without worrying about the big waves that later made Huntington Beach famous. (Photo, Library of Congress)

  Higgins confirmed Carroll's account of using telephone poles, "We also found that in the rural part of the city the telephone company had old lines using 4 by 6 inch redwood poles that were weather beaten and light. We traded them for our new planks and made the boards out of the old poles having them planed to thinner planks." 

   As surfing took off along the coast, there were a variety of jerry-rigged boards.  Higgins recalled some "made wood frame works and covered them with metal, soldering the seams to make them waterproof. They sounded like a can bouncing on the pavement when ridden on a wave and were not too successful."

BOARDS UP - Carrying a board was the first test of fitness.  Huntington Beach Longboard Crew at a surfing contest, circa 1938. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   According to, Higgins is reported to have surfed the Huntington Beach pier "while standing on his head."   Early surfers were allowed to jump off the pier with their boards, to save a little time and effort paddling out.  

   As reported in Historic Huntington Beach's July 4, 2013,  post, one of Higgins' famous feats of daring for the annual celebration was to set himself on fire and dive off the pier.  (We feel compelled to remind those readers who self-identify as knuckleheads: none of these stunts are allowed any more.)

THE ONE AND ONLY - Duke Kahanamoku at a surf contest ceremony near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1963. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

SURF CULTURE - By the 1960s, surfing had attracted a huge following and a distinct So Cal culture.  Generations of Huntington Beach residents learned as children and continue to surf into their golden years. (Test photos, City of Huntington Beach archives, circa 1963)
FIFTY YEARS AGO - Crowds gather for a surfing contest near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1963. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives) 

 Left: A young surfer with a hand-crafted wooden board, circa 1928.  Oil wells that once lined the coastal highway in Huntington Beach can be seen in the background. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)   

   A century after the first splash of boards near the pier, Huntington Beach retains an unabashed fondness for surfers.  Welcome visitors, to the U.S. Open of Surfing.  

   While you're here, visit our Surfing Museum,, and stroll our Surfing Walk of Fame   

Above and below: Opening day of the U.S. Open of Surfing, surfers in the junior men's competition make it look easy.  (Photos courtesy of Mark Bixby, July 20, 2013; See more of Mark Bixby's photos at his public Facebook page~you must be logged in to Facebook to view~

HISTORIC DOWNTOWN HUNTINGTON BEACH WALKING TOUR STOP #21:  The Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum is housed in a 1935 Deco/Moderne building at 411 Olive Avenue, just a few steps northwest of Main Street.  Walk inland up Main Street from the pier, turn left on Olive and find the Museum a few steps down the street.  Don't be surprised if there is a surf band playing in the parking lot.  Walking tour maps are available at the kiosk at the foot of the pier.

WEBCAM MINI VACATION - Can't visit in person?  View the Huntington Beach pier area on four different webcams at HBCams,

ONE OF THE LAST SURF SHACKS - Learn a little more about the Higgins family: The Gordie House

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  1. Wow, so much history in HB. Thanks for the trip to HB's awesome past!


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