Surfers play a large role in constructing the identity of California's cultural identity, yet are largely neglected compared to other realms of coastal tourism and recreation. This page is dedicated to the millions of surfers who continue to support the multi-billion dollar industry but do not appear in movies and magazines. Not only do surfers help support the economy, they also help protect the environment with their dedication seen through their participation in international humanitarian programs.
Let us begin with the advent of surfing in California:
Surf culture did not magically appear in California one day, it has evolved geographically and socially over the decades. For hundreds of years Hawaiians viewed surfing as more than a sport or fun activity, it was a way of life that allowed them to emphasize their spirituality with nature. Pioneers such as Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth were born in Hawaii and lived in the Polynesian culture. Freeth brought the Polynesian surf culture with him when he moved from Hawaii to California. While Kahanamoku took up his career on the East Coast in Atlantic City, New Jersey being publicized in film, Freeth showcased his exploits on the local beaches of Southern California for large groups of curious spectators.
The popularity of surfing was spread by Jack London after receiving a surf lesson from Freeth in 1907. London wrote about the experience in Woman's Home Companion magazine. The first printed ad featuring George Freeth surfing at Venice Beach appeared also appeared in 1907, after becoming California's first professional lifeguard.
The first public exhibition came two years later at the opening of Henry Huntington's Redondo Beach Plunge. Southern Californian beach goers watched Freeth's exploits with curious eyes. He taught many young boys how to ride waves and make their own wood boards.
Freeth ushered in the age of fathers taking their children to the beach to learn how to surf. His technique was the surfing style until the advent of big-wave surfing.
In the 1950s-60s surfing popularity rose due to films like Gidget (1959) and The Endless Summer (1966), which showed beautiful teenagers spending their days on the beaches of Southern California catching waves and enjoying the sun. Surf films helped create a shared community and promote consumption of surf products such as board shorts and bikinis.
Kathy Kohner, was 16 years old when she spent a whole summer on the beach in Malibu. She wrote down her expereinces in a daily diary that her father, Frederick, turned into a novella called Gidget. The novella was then turned into a film in 1959 by Universal.
Popular surf films like Gidget were not cherished by all surfers inlcluding Surfer magazine founder, John Severson. Severson favored more pure surf films such as Bruce Brown's Endless Summer, which he felt accurately portrayed surfing instead of the endless beach parties. Nonetheless, the popularity of these surf movies persuaded many people to take on surfing, resulting in a new identity of California surf culture.
For everyday surfers like Dennis M. and Bill Kent, surf films like Gidget were recognized as releasing during the time when surfing was becoming to boom in Southern California.
Bruce Bown's iconic documentary, The Endless Summer, debuted in 1966 at a time when surf culture was still a part of the underground. Following the adventures of surfers such as Robert August, Michael Hynson, and Nat Young, the film tracks the ambition of every soul surfer in finding the perfect set of waves. Newly inspired surfers took to the beaches in search of their own secret spots while trying to imitate moves done by their favorite surfers.
This film also gave rise to the surf and travel culture, enticing surfers to go abroad and discover the world for themselves. The experience of traveling, surfing, meeting new people, experiencing new things, and always being ready for the unexpected is part of the surfer lifestyle.
In this digital age, even surfers are looking to network with fellow surfers around the world. There are huge communities online where ordinary surfers can create their own surfer profile and share their own photos and videos of themselves surfing.
For example, this site SurferShot offers:
"The Surf Community is a social network designed for surfers. Build your own custom online surf profile and share it with the surfing world. Upload your surf photos and surf videos , spark discussion in the forums , and share your surf life on the world's fastest growing surf community! It's free and always will be. Whether you just picked up your first board the other day or you've been surfing for years, this is the place you want to be. Join the online revolution today"
Another site sponsored by Billabong is the "I Surf Because..." blog:
Here, surfers can also construct a profile and showcase their surfing skills to people around the world. A winner was chosen every week based off who had the best captioned photo of themselves surfing, answering the question of why they surf.
By creating a digital portfolio, the everyday surfer allows themselves to experience having their skills published in an exhibition. Most surfers enjoy networking with other surfers to discuss hot topics such as surf spots, upcoming beach events, and new merchandise. The act of sharing and collaborating plays a large part in the construct of the modern surfer and surf culture itself. It also reflects the ancient Hawaiian surf culture which resembled more of an art form than today's big-wave surfing does. The practice of building ones own board from scratch creates a connection between the surfer and nature.
Consumption of Surf Culture
The Surf Rider Foundation, in partnership with Surfer Magazine, created the Surf-First Surfer Survey over a ten month period to document the recreational, demographical, and economic characteristics of surfers in 2008. The data reveals the economic impact surfers have in specific coastal areas. According to the results:
"Our analysis reveals that American surfers have a median age of 34 years old, have a college education or above, and are employed full-time earning $75,000 a year. In addition, surfers in the U.S. make approximately 100 visits to the beach each year and spend $66 per visit. This amounts to more than 36 million spent each year in coastal communities when summed over our sampled subset of surfers. Our findings suggest that surfers should be considered an important user group in coastal zone management."
Read more about the survey here.
The everyday surfer does not fit this profile perfectly but does still spend a significant amount of money at the beach and on surf related merchandise like boards, wax, and clothes.
Compared to contemporary professional surfers, in the 1960s when surfing rose from the underground to popular culture, the style was about matching the flow of the wave and gracefully synchronizing themselves with nature and the spirit of the ocean. The aggressive style of surfing today is a reflection of the convergence with competitions and individual attempts to become famous through publication.
The excitement over competitions has evolved into another form of surfing in search of the ultimate thrill. The advent of tow-in, big wave surfing has brought in endorsements and sponsorships that will pay big money to capture surfers being towed into a huge wave.
The film Biggest Wednesday (1998), showcased famous surfers being towed into 30-50 foot waves at Jaws beach in Maui, and the Northshore in Oahu. The surfers who are financially motivated to risk death surfing big waves has created a tension reminiscent of the tension that first arose over the divide between long and short boards.
Bill Kent explains how the Pro-AM surf contests held locally were beneficial to ordinary surfers by allowing them to surf with pros.
The Divide Between the Pure and the Professional
Outside the competitive world of surfing lies the close relationship between many independent surfers, such as Bill Kent, who views sharing waves with fellow surfers as one of his biggest enjoyments.
The corporate endorsements paralleled with the demand for high performance has disassosicated surfing from its history and the rest of the surfing world that does not receive attention. For example the Quiksilver surf film, Sufers of Fortune (1994), shows a boat of rich, white, male surfers arrive in a yacht to a run-down dock on one of the Malawais Islands of Indonesia and laugh at some of the impoverished locals.
Gordon McClelland, an avid collector of surfing art who contributed many of the Laguna Art Museum's Surf exhibition pieces, said that surfing's most alluring aspect is also its most elusive.
"Surfing is this pure thing," he said. "You take this board, you paddle out and ride the waves. All the things in this show, all this external stuff is like the road map that tells you about surfing, but none of it is surfing. It cracks me up because I have these mounds of stuff. But surfing; you can't bottle it, you can't package it, and it's not about the money, because you can't sell what it really is. What it really is is all the beautiful things that happen to you when you're riding a wave."
Board shorts and tank tops are the modern style for many California surfers however, in the 1950s, 501 Levi's and a rolled-up t-shirt with a pocket were the common sight. At this time in the Long Beach area, school dress codes required t-shirts that had a pocket on the front because, "it wasn't considered underwear," according to Bill Kent.
In the 1960s, Dennis M. and his friends in Huntington wore corduroys instead of blue jeans. He bought his shirts from Penny's, called the Penny's Town Press Shirts, with thick necks that bled when washed.
Boardshorts or 'surf trunks' have existed in many forms but in recent years they have come to exemplify the surfer image. Everyday surfers like Bill Kent wear boardshorts every single day. In 1959, after listening to a complaint by surfer Corky Carroll about not being able to find a durable pair of surf trunks, Walt Katin used his sewing machine to create the first pair of Kanvis by Katin surf trunks.
Hang Ten was created in 1960 by surfers Duke Boyd and Doris Moore. Originally selling strictly surfboards, Duke Boyd soon recognied the consumer demand for surf merchandise and altered his inventory accordingly. Hang Ten is now a huge global apparel and lifestyle company that sells the bulk of its products in Asia.
The dedication to helping others is an unrecognized aspect of surf culture. The actions of everyday surfers go far beyond the annual beach cleaning and protest of coastal development, moreover, they have formed large multi-faceted international organizations that assist in the education and preservation of the world's coastal environments.
Many surfers take part in protecting the environment through organizations such as the Surf Rider Foundation and its many sponsored programs. Founded in 1984 by a group of surfers in Malibu, CA, the non-profit organization has grown to over 50,000 members and volunteers who participate in water quality, beach preservation, and sustaining local marine ecosystems.
List of Sponsored Surfrider Foundation Programs:
- Respect the Beach - A coastal education program to inform students
- State of the Beach - A continuously updated report published by the Surfrider Foundation that evaluates coastal environments by a number of "Beach Health Indicators"
- Blue Water Task Force - An all-volunteer led monitoring program that tests and reports on coastal water quality.
- Ocean Friendly Gardens - An outreach program designed to reduce urban runoff and residential water consumption.
- Rise Above Plastics - An educational program designed to raise awareness of and reduce the amount of plastic pollution in our marine environments.
- Know Your H2O - A program designed to educate people on the link between freshwater management issues and the impact on our oceans, waves, and beaches, that advocates for practical and environmentally sound solutions.
- Beachapedia - A wiki-based coastal information resource drawing on expertise of Surfrider Foundation experts and activists.
SurfAid is a non-profit humanitrian organization founded in 2000 by a New Zealand surfer Dr. Dave Jenkins on an international surf trip in Indonesia. Being a doctor and a pure surfer, he dedicated himself to helping the native populace acquire the proper tools to combat malaria and unsafe drinking water. The education programs continue to this day on islands off the West Sumatran coast such as:
Nias Island, Sumbawa, and Sumba
List of Sponsored SurfAid Programs:
Everyday surfers appreciate a clean ocean to surf in, therefore the extension into humanitarian issues is a reflection of the surfers intimacy with nature. It should not be a surprise to discover the leaders of ocean and water related environmentalism are surfers and regular beach goers alike. Through the dedication of these everyday surfers, the beaches of California are kept in prestine condition.
For example, in 1991, the Surfrider Foundation and the EPA won, at the time, the second largest Clean Water Act in history. The lawsuit resulted in two paper mills spending $50 million to reduce ocean discharges at their facilities near Eureka, CA. In addition, the two mills helped to create the Humboldt Area Recreation Enhancement and Water Quality Fund.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Commerce upheld a California Coastal Commission decision to deny the $1.3 billion extension of California State Highway 241 that would have impacted the popular and world-renowned surf site Trestles near San Clemente, California.