“Surfing in San Diego” highlights La Jolla


By Katie Reynolds

La Jolla Light

Flip flops, board shorts, wet suits, surfboards - San Diego is immersed in modern surf culture.

But authors of “Surfing in San Diego,” John Elwell and Jane Schmauss, are quick to remind us it wasn’t always that way.

Displaying photos of the San Diego coast from 1907 up through 1960, the book presents early California surf legends, telling the story of how surf was introduced to California, portraying the evolution of surfboards, and showing the way in which original beach communities sprang up around surf culture.

Not to mention the fact that the book includes pictures of some epic waves on our local beaches. Overall, the book paints a picture of how surf suddenly exploded onto the San Diego scene and dramatically changed our city.

According to the California Surf Museum’s Web site, surfing was started in Hawaii around 1,000 A.D. by Polynesian natives. It wasn’t until 1907 that Irish-Hawaiian George Freeth - who also happens to have been the first La Jolla Cove lifeguard - brought surfing to Redondo Beach, according to “Surfing in San Diego.”

Immediately afterward, surfing erupted simultaneously up the coast as parents, kids, women and men all grew to accept surf as part of coastal culture. By that time, surfing had evolved significantly, but these surfers still rode waves without wetsuits or leashes on surfboards that could be purchased for $5 and weighed between 50 and 100 pounds.

Although the book offers pictures of most of the beaches along the coast of San Diego County, it features an entire chapter on La Jolla. A treat for surfers, the novel displays the camaraderie that came along with the new era of surfing. Offering a photo of the original WindanSea shack, the book recounts how surfer Don Okey and other volunteers built it to provide shade, a changing room, and locker for their boards.

Author John Elwell said, “La Jolla has something to be really proud of at WindanSea. It has some of the best breaks in the world. The WindanSea surf crew was a wild, independent, and innovative group. But all of the surfers along the coast were friends.”

From Greg Hogan’s description of how he and friend John Donnelly discovered Black’s Beach together in 1960, to pictures of luaus at WindanSea, the book shows how surfing brought people together and shaped a new La Jolla.

This emerging La Jolla combined surf culture with art. San Diego artist Mike Dormer created a surf cartoon character; then, he and artist Lee Teacher took a life-size statue version down to WindanSea, naming it Hot Curl. Although city officials recognized it in a ceremony, the large nosed, big bellied, longhaired surfer was there for only a few weeks before he was destroyed. A picture of it, along with his story, is preserved, however, in “Surfing in San Diego.”

These are just a few examples of a medley of stories and photos collected from a range of people in the creation of this book.

Author Elwell has spent his life working on documenting surfing in various ways, including taking part in surf documentaries and films like “Liquid Stage,” “Riding the Giants,” and the Smithsonian discovery series on surfing. Along with practicing photography, writing and studying history, he surfs, of course. Although he grew up surfing and life guarding in Southern California beaches, he and a group of buddies were the first to surf big waves on the north shore of Hawaii.

His favorite beaches to surf in San Diego depend on the season. “WindanSea has the best summer break, Sunset Cliffs is nice in the fall, The Tijuana Sloughs are the best in the winter, and when the surf is really good, it breaks a mile long in Imperial Beach,” he said. A lot of the photographs and information within the book come from his personal collection.

The other author, Schmauss, has been collecting surf history in various ways since 1986. About the book, she said, “There is so much information, this has never been done before. WindanSea could have their own book.” Schmauss is trying to portray a history of San Diego surfing that is true to how it is. She says, “That is what bothers me about how surfers have a bad rap. These men are CEO’s, doctors and lawyers who happen to surf WindanSea every day.”

After collecting surf memorabilia in a restaurant she owned at the time, Schmauss co-founded the third named author of the surfing history - the California Surf Museum (CSM).

Founded in 1986, the CSM is a non-profit organization run mostly by volunteers. CSM offers new exhibits yearly on different subjects like boards, surfers, shapers, artists, surfing legends, photographers and all things surf culture. The Web site is fun and informative - offering secret surf spots, surfboard giveaways and information on the origins of surfing. It is only because most of the photographs they used in “Surfing in San Diego” came free from CSM that they were able to make the book at all.

The photographs and captions within the book paint a truly entertaining picture of a San Diego that has blossomed because of surfing. It also revives memories of an old La Jolla that is slowly changing. Describing what has drawn people to La Jolla’s beaches over the years, Elwell said, “[renowned surfboard shaper] Bob Simmons said there is more surfing in San Diego County than in the rest of California. La Jolla is right in the middle of all of that. It has good sand, clear water, an abundance of all good things.”

The book is available at the California Surf Museum, various surf stores and bookstores in San Diego.

The book launch is at Trophy’s Restaurant and Sports Bar on Sunday, Aug. 5 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. World Champion female surfer Linda Benson, many San Diego surf manufacturers and local surf icons will be there along with Elwell and Schmauss. The best part? All the proceeds from the book will go to the California Surf Museum.

For more information contact the California Surf Museum at (760)721-6876, or visit their Web site at