From the perspective of my office, with its sweeping views of Sunset Cliffs, I think about the surf below, whether the conditions will align for me to paddle out between classes, see familiar faces, and find restorative solace.
As the associate dean of foundational explorations, I oversee a program that brings together different strands of knowledge to inform and transform our students. This makes me wonder about the different factors that have informed and transformed the legacy of surfing the Cliffs. In the fall of 2020, I’ll be teaching a course on the origins and evolution of surfing, and with that in mind, I’d like to share some ideas about the Cliffs’ surf culture. Just as different pulses of oceanic energy come together to produce waves, the indigenous surf community and the wave riders of PLNU have contributed in unique and overlapping ways to the tradition of this place.
Historically located between Adair and Ladera streets, Sunset Cliffs has hosted surfers since the 1930s. Lifeguards were the first to try the sport, using rescue boards fashioned out of plywood and redwood and resembling an alaia, a long finless plank traditionally used by Polynesians, which weighed up to 100 pounds, or hollow “kookboxes” weighing 20 pounds less. These boards were well-suited to the flatter waves, which accommodated their level contours.
Consistent surf existed from fall to spring due to the angle of the coastline, while offshore underwater canyons and kelp beds helped channel and smooth waves. The waves went largely unridden. Lifeguard Raymond “Skeeter” Malcolm, widely credited with first surfing the Cliffs in 1935, did so only after paddling south from Ocean Beach or by descending one of the sketchy natural staircases on the Cliff’s face. Population pressure didn’t exist, as urban development concentrated on the bay side and further north in O.B., while the military controlled the southern tip. A surf haven in the making, the Cliffs were remote and wild, ruggedly beautiful, and abundant with swell, as seen in period photographs and postcards.
The Second World War drafted the few surfers away from the Cliffs, leaving neighborhood kids, too young for service, to pick up the slack. Borrowing or building boards, they regularly dragged their equipment to water’s edge and taught themselves to surf. Jim “Mouse” Robb, Howard Danner, Joanne Hilbun, and Marsh “Scooter” Malcolm spent many afternoons paddling, learning how to read the waves, tides, and winds, and how to position themselves for incoming swells. “Kook cords” or leashes didn’t exist, so falling required them to put in the hard yards of becoming well-rounded watermen, able to swim, dive, and breathe in rough water. This in turn encouraged their understanding of local marine life, not just reefs and kelp beds but also lobster, abalone, and fish. It also bred an interest in adjacent activities like spearfishing, boating, and sailing.
William Martin, a student at Dana Jr. High School, recalled cutting class to spend afternoons in front of the Theosophical Society [which from 1900-1942 was located where the PLNU campus now stands]. After diving for “ab” [abalone], he would surf the eponymous wave, explore nearby caves, and build fires to get warm. Robert Baxley, who would later become a California Superior Court judge, would bring abalone and lobster home for supper. Naming waves became part of their generation’s pastime, with inspiration coming from marine life, material culture like the Society’s old garbage chute, streets like Pescadero, individuals like Rob Lubscomb, and friends and family who regularly surfed particular spots.
Tailgating strengthened the camaraderie of the Cliffs’ culture. Hanging in the newly built parking lots for après-surf conversation, eating and enjoying refreshments, and playing guitar became a common occurrence. The Sunset Cliffs Surfing Association, established in 1951, brought together surfers from nearby beach towns to talk about waves and equipment, with surfing ability being the main factor in becoming a member, according to Rick Van Woy, past president of the association. Ability was tied to local knowledge, adding an exclusive patina to club membership. Over time, as surfing became more popular and crowds began to appear, members and locals became more sensitive to surf etiquette and style. They controlled crowds by enforcing hierarchies at specific peaks.
If wide competence in the ocean, an individualist ethic that still embraced friendship, and respect for local ways were staples of Cliffs’ culture, so was practical innovation. Terry Martin, who surfed the Cliffs while a student at Point Loma High, shaped his first board in 1952. Planks were heavy while kookboxes leaked, so he began experimenting with balsa wood and, later, polyurethane cores wrapped in fiberglass and resin. These boards were lighter and stronger, and when foiled or curved on the bottom, more suitable for a wider variety of waves and people than previous designs. Helping to progress and popularize the sport, Martin went on to develop signature models for Hobie Alter, at one time the largest surfboard manufacturer in the world. By his death in 2012, Martin had shaped 75,000 boards, more than anyone in history.
Surfing achieved national, if not global, appeal and a wave of popular culture (The Beach Boys, Gidget, The Endless Summer, etc.) followed. Cliffs surfers weren’t immune to commercialization, however, as local surf shops, name brands, and Woodie wagons testified. Yet their core interest remained surfing. Black wetsuits and clear surfboards were the sartorial look while wearing leashes (which appeared in the 70s) came to denote outsiders’ plebeian status. Eric “Bird” Huffman, proprietor of Bird’s Surf Shed, sold t-shirts and sunglasses to help cover the rent but focused on surfboards, particularly those shaped by local craftsmen. His pure devotion to the craft transferred to another aspect of Cliffs’ culture: that of existentialism.
Viewing the Cliffs as “sacred ground” where honesty was prized and false pretense washed away, Huffman saw the beauty of the place as inspiring peace with God, a higher power, fellow surfers, and even one’s self. Similarly, shaper Skip Frye, who has watched surfing’s popularity grow with crowds to match, approaches each session with a generous, prayerful attitude. From his shaping bay, appropriately dubbed “the chapel,” he writes biblical words of encouragement on his stringers, the thin strips of wood running down the center of surfboards. On his current board, the stringer reads, “Only With Jesus.”
In 1973, Pasadena College moved to the grounds of the former Theosophical Society. A few students surfed but not many, belying the contributions the school would make to the Cliffs’ legacy. Bob Blakemore (81), a business major, attended Point Loma in order to study and surf but eventually became a Christian. Thinking about Bible classes while surfing “Ab” [one of the breaks] nurtured his faith, transforming the Cliffs into a nexus for his love of surfing, faith, and friendships. Bryan Jennings (91), a former pro, deepened his faith by interacting with different elements of the Cliffs’ legacy. Sensing a call to quit competitive surfing in order to spend more time mentoring younger students on campus, he started Walking On Water in 1995, an evangelistic surf ministry that, according to its website, has “reached millions of people through movies, outreach events, surf camps, and mission trips.”
Travis Carter (06) serves as an informal mentor to the PLNU surf team. Having members over to his house for dinner and prayer, Carter attends contests and recruits industry support, resulting in sponsorships, jobs, and exclusive opportunities like surfing Kelly Slater’s Wave Ranch. Like Blakemore and Jennings, Carter seeks to encourage friendship, respect in the lineup, and a Christian sensibility, factors that deepen the overlapping legacies of indigenous and PLNU surfers.
Related Story: PLNU surf club president Will Allen on surfing and service.
A deep knowledge of the Cliffs’ surf culture has supported the professional success of several university alumni. Flat, thick boards were developed at the Cliffs in the 70s and became popular as they allowed riders to paddle, catch, and trim waves more effectively. Chris Christenson (88) started shaping the Fish — pioneered by local Steve Lis — while a student, and later, under the tutelage of Skip Frye, introduced models that garnered him and the retro design trend a global following. Firefighters Erik Johnson (01) and Scott Jellig (03) see their long experience surfing, diving, and boating the Cliffs as enhancing their ability to respond effectively to emergency situations. Stationed at Department #22 on Catalina Blvd., they’re able to reference trails, caves, coves, ocean conditions, areas of stability and instability, as well as traffic shortcuts when leading rescue operations on or near the Cliffs.
While some alums have remained to live and work on the Point, others have migrated away but kept a Cliffs’ sensibility. Matthew Cater (04) studied graphic communications and after graduation, went to work for industry giants Billabong, Hurley, and Vans. Now serving as the global apparel art director at Quiksilver in Biarritz, France, he’s helped the billion-dollar company transition away from action sports to its historical focus on surfing and the waterman tradition. Advocating for the company’s continued sponsorship of the Quiksilver Big Wave Event in Memory of Eddie Aikau, an iconic lifeguard, Cater’s also overseen the introduction of muted colors and graphics that highlight an oceanic ethos.
The Cliffs are not simply a place to show up and surf, but rather a state of mind that’s historically born of an intimate knowledge of place, people, and events. In my upcoming surf history course, illustrating the Cliffs’ legacy of convergence will be a variety of voices, from Bird Huffman to Natalie Small — founder of a surf therapy project — to Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, who visited PLNU last year to discuss the theology and philosophy of surfing, a topic explored in some of his 50 books, including The Sea Within and I Surf, Therefore I Am. In my course, part of my task and honor will be to convey the specialness of the Cliffs.
See you in class — or in the water!
Story written by Ben Cater, Ph.D. (02). Dr. Cater currently works at PLNU as the associate dean of general education, the director of the humanities honors program, and a professor of history.