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New exhibit in Huntington Beach surf museum details “Finding California Surf”

They were adventurers who set out with one goal, to find new waves to ride.

It didn’t matter that their big wooden boards weighed 100 pounds or that there wasn’t another soul out in the water. They’d paddle the ocean for miles to discover perfect peaks, traverse cliffs to hidden surf spots and brave cold water in a time before wetsuits, all in the name of finding new waves to ride.

A newly launched exhibit at the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, “Finding California Surf,” highlights how early day surfers discovered the state’s wave-rich coastline, detailing how many of the spots were found and grew in popularity only to be wiped out of existence as developments altered the ocean.



The display, which will be unveiled during the museum’s re-opening party on Tuesday, Dec. 7, was created by Executive Director Peter “PT” Townend, who traveled the coastline while the museum was shut down during the coronavirus pandemic to collect the artifacts and details to create the exhibit.

“Arguably, surf culture was invented in California. I don’t think anyone has really told the story about these guys and the adventures they had trying to find these surf spots and what it must have been like,” he said. “Those guys were explorers, basically.”

The first documented wave riders in California were three Hawaiian princes who sailed from Hawaii to Northern California to attend military academy in 1885. When they saw the waves near Santa Cruz, they built boards and became the first-known surfers of California, according to the exhibit.

“No one has proven otherwise,” said Townend, the first professional world champion and a longtime surf historian who has storage boxes filled with the sport’s relics.

In telling the story of California’s early surfing years, the exhibit also reminds visitors of what’s been lost.

Dana Point was once home to the area’s biggest surf break, dubbed “Killer Dana,” which was killed when the harbor was built.

“Look at how big that wave is,” Townend said, pointing at a photo of a surfer charging a bombing wave.

Long Beach was once considered the “Waikiki of California,” with waves rolling in where the Queen Mary now floats.

“When people see that, they just trip out,” said Townend, noting the surf spot there at the mouth of the Los Angeles River was once called “Flood Control.”

Corona del Mar was one of the first surfer hangout spots, until a rock jetty was built at the harbor mouth that blocked the waves. It was there that famed Olympic swimmer and Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku could frequently be found and where he cemented his lifesaving legacy after rescuing eight people from drowning using his surfboard in 1925.

“Think how different surfing culture would be in Southern California if they didn’t do that, didn’t do that and that,” said Townend, pointing at images of waves breaking at each of those three now-extinct surf spots.

There is, of course, San Onofre’s still-existing surf scene, which rose in popularity after Corona Del Mar was destroyed and surfers ventured farther south for a new place to ride waves.

“Look at how crowded San Onofre is,” Townend said of a photo that captured the scene decades ago, only with wooden boards strewn across the sand. “It’s as crowded as it is today.”

Palos Verdes Cove was a spot discovered in the late ’20s, known as California’s “Little Waikiki.”

“Look how they used to have to walk down the cliff. Imagine trying to carry that thing back up the hill?” Townend said of a picture showing surfers hauling heavy redwood boards down the dirt path.

The South Bay was arguably the first “surf city” with early day surfers such as Dale Velzy opening up the first surf shops in the ’50s, Townend said.

The first guys to surf Malibu – farmland at the time – had to paddle for miles to reach the perfect waves, but then befriended the ranch owner so they could have easier access to the surf.

“You couldn’t see another surfer,” Townend said. “When you look at Malibu today and the crowds, it’s crazy.”

There’s also a new section in the museum called the “Surf Art Corner,” where installations by eight area artists will be showcased.

Among the first to be shown are pieces from Sandow Birk, a well-known artist whose work goes beyond surf; San Clemente artist Joshua Paskowitz; Huntington Beach’s Ricky Blake and Dave Reynolds; and pro surfer Courtney Conlogue, who in recent years has been mentored by famed artist Phil Roberts. Artists Roy Gonzalez, Matt Beard and Ron Croci also have work on display.

The “Finding California Surf” exhibit purposely ends with a section about “The Endless Summer” film, which opened up surf exploration beyond California as adventurers sought waves around the world.

Still today, there’s untouched waves to explore. Townend said in recent years he found a spot in China, a perfect point break comparable to Noosa in Australia, completely empty of surfers.

“There’s still places,” he said. “Just not in California.”

But actually, there are new places to surf in California. Foil surfing allows waves that don’t break to be ridden. Areas of coastline never surfed before have transformed into surf spots with the new technology that lifts surfers above the wave.

The “Finding California Surf” exhibit showcases more than just the milestones of early wave riders, it also celebrates the endless pursuit surfers endure for the thrill of the ride.

“When you get addicted to riding a wave, you just can’t give it up,” Townend said. “You always think you’re going to get a better ride tomorrow.”

The opening event is 5 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 7, and is open to the public and free of charge. For more information, visit

Source: Orange County Register

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