The Scene at La Jolla’s WindanSea: Surf Culture lesson taught at The Shack


Legendary WindanSea Beach surfer Jack “Woody” Ekstrom said he bought his first 79-pound 11-foot balsa redwood board in 1944. “That was the first surfboard I owned, and I paid $7.50. It was a good deal,” he explained during a guest lecture for University of San Diego (USD) students at the local surfing spot.

Every four years, USD Associate Professor of Anthropology Jerome Hall teaches a “Surf Culture and History” class at the university. For the 2017 winter semester, he took his students on a field trip to WindanSea where Ekstrom and another veteran surfer, La Jollan Ken Haygood, taught them about the culture and history behind the local surf scene.

“You’re in for a real treat today,” Hall told his students as the class got underway at the iconic surf structure known as The Shack. “You’re sitting under a piece of surfing architecture.”

Hall said California surf “pedigree” descends from the Hawaiian tradition. “In the late 19th century, a Hawaiian princess who surfed visited Northern California, and then with a group of people coming up after the Second World War from the Islands, we have this great cultural transmission,” he explained, adding that the surf tradition developed into “local micro cultures” that came down to particular breaks or beaches.

Surf chronology

Haygood, who holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology, assembled a timeline on the history of surfers at WindanSea for the occasion.

Before the 1940s

“What you had at WindanSea was almost what you see today, a rocky shoreline, not a good white beach for kids to play, and where the surf is sometimes dangerous. People didn’t come here for normal beach activities,” Haygood said, reporting that only a few “ardent swimmers and surfers” would venture into the ocean at the Neptune Place beach.

The underwater surface of WindanSea makes its surf break unique in Southern California. “This is the closest thing we have to a Hawaiian break, a reef break along the North Shore, anywhere along this coast,” Hall explained.

The ’40s to the ’60s

“WindanSea began to come alive in the 1940s,” Haygood began, “Because young people and people who were in the military were surfing here a few at a time, and others began to say, ‘Hey that looks like fun!’ ”

Board surfing was starting to root in the West Coast, according to Haygood’s class notes. “A few surfboards were manufactured and relatively inexpensive ($35). Lots were homemade, sometimes hollow.”

Skimboarding gained popularity in The Shores, body surfing at Boomers Beach, diving for abalone and lobster at The Cove and surfing at WindanSea. “Surfing then was primarily a summer sport when the water was warm. In the winter, surfing without a wetsuit or leash, if you lost your board, you could be in 55-degree water for 15 minutes — if you could swim!” Haygood said.

“Here’s where the cultural anthropology comes in,” he continued, “A lot of people are getting into surfing; we’ve got older guys who know the culture, the rules, regulations, language, the attitude, and the younger people who were coming in and taught all that. The elders brought in the neophytes and began to teach them the culture.”

A sort of “tribalism” began to develop at the surf enclave, according to Haygood. “It was sometimes called the ‘WindanSea tribe,’ and nobody liked that name. But there were all the characteristics of a tribe coming in. Ekstrom would be the historian of the tribe; he would remember everybody who had done everything and so forth.”

A kinship was in the making at WindanSea around the “aloha” spirit, Haygood explained, where the teachings being passed along, were not only surfing techniques, but an attitude that many carried forward into the world.

“We didn’t ‘drop in,’ ” he said. “That means if I go and catch a wave, the other guys would back off, not take the wave. Also, we don’t crowd out or cut across, we shared waves with another surfers.”

Ekstrom reported Hawaiian-style celebrations taking place at WindanSea among surfers, such as luaus with food, music and dance that helped expand the “aloha” spirit.

The ’60s to the 2000s

Haygood called this era “The Invasion of Surfers.” With the emergence of polyurethane and styrene, surfboards could be easily shaped. The appearance of the shortboard (smaller, lighter and more “surfable”) broadened the scope of surfing from just a few locals to bigger crowds.

“T-shirts reading ‘Long Boards Rule’ were often worn by older guys but sneered at by grommies (young surfers),” explained Haygood. “Times were changing fast. Good wave spots like WindanSea became crowded. Really young guys and girls became expert surfers.”

With the changes came the formation of surf clubs and the first glimpses of Localism (the exclusion of strangers) arose. Haygood said the WindanSea Surf Club was created in 1964 “and swept the contests. WindanSea was suddenly famous among hardcore surfers and was referred to as the ‘heaviest surf crew ever.’ ”

Surf was slowly becoming a worldwide phenomenon, and WindanSea’s small crews transformed into larger groups. For Haygood, movies like “Ride the Wild Surf,” “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” and “Beach Blanket Bingo” drew crews to the sandy beaches of La Jolla. “A lot of young people said, ‘I want to do that! I want to go to the beach and get on a surfboard,’ ” he added.

The shift from a small group of locals surfing at WindanSea to the attraction of big crowds created a sense of competition for the limited space on a wave, he explained. “The shifts came from a sense of belonging to a small group to being simply one of many — from longboards (smooth and graceful) to shortboards (fast and furious).”

After the year 2000, Haygood said he stopped surfing. “Many of us, as we get older, something happens, one way or another ... in my case, it’s balance. I can still catch a wave, but I can’t get up. So the wave crashes on me and it’s no fun!” he said.

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