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San Diego’s Rich History of Surfing

Shaping the evolution of the sport

From George Freeth to Bob Simmons to Rob Machado, many San Diegans have played an influential role in propelling surfing from a pastime to a sport and a way of life.

San Diego’s Impact on Modern Wave Riding

Even before Duke Kahanamoku came to San Diego in 1916 to give a surfing demonstration, there was George Freeth. Also from Hawaii and an excellent diver, swimmer and surfer, Freeth came to Southern California in the early 1900s and drew large crowds with his surfing demonstrations. At the same time, his use of the surfboard as a means for ocean rescues went a long way toward changing people’s attitudes about being in the ocean. 

Well before he became one of the first legendary big-wave surfers, Woody Brown moved from the East Coast to La Jolla in 1935 and learned to surf. A world champion glider pilot who was instrumental in creating the Torrey Pines Glider Port, Woody used his knowledge of airplane wing dynamics to shape his boards. As part of a group of local surfers known as the “Plank Boys” because of their huge surfboards made of solid redwood, fir, and spruce planks, Woody pioneered new surfboard designs, building hollow boards as well as adding a skeg to make surfboards more stable and maneuverable. 

Board Design Pioneers

In the early 1950s Bob Simmons, who was trained as an aeronautical engineer, started to combine fiberglass with balsawood and foam, paving the way for a revolution in surfboard weight and design. Unfortunately, Simmons died in a surfing accident at Windansea in 1954, which led to the beach’s northern point being named in his honor.

Surfing’s accessibility took a huge leap forward with the creation of the foam surfboard. One of the companies at the forefront of this evolution was Gordon and Smith in Pacific Beach. In 1958, Larry Gordon, a chemistry student with access to materials from his father’s plastics company, and his surfing buddy Floyd Smith developed a process for making surfboards of polyurethane foam in their garage. Soon after, the pair opened Gordon & Smith Surfboards (also known as G&S). Demand for their boards quickly spread beyond San Diego due to the talent and influence of the surfers that rode on their team–Mike Hynson, Skip Frye, Dale Dobson, Butch Van Artsdalen, Barry Kanaiaupuni, and Billy Hamilton–and the shapers they hired–Mike Hynson, Skip Frye, Rusty Preisendorfer and Mike Eaton.

WINDANSEA

Besides advancing surfboard design, San Diego is also famous for its great surfers and their home breaks. Known for its reef break and iconic palm frond shack, Windansea has attracted some of the best surfers in the world, such as Buzzy Bent, Pat Curran, Butch Van Artsdalen, Mike Hynson, and Skip Frye. In 1962 the Windansea Surf Club was formally created and began competing in surfing competitions that were gaining in popularity up and down the state. Early members included Joey Cabell, Ronald Patterson, L.J. Richards, Skip Frye, Mike Hynson and Rusty Miller. After dominating a surf contest in Malibu, the club recruited other world-class and up-and-coming surfers like Miki Dora, Mike Doyle, Phil Edwards, Donald Takayama, David Nuuhiwa, Corky Carroll and Margo Godfrey-Oberg to their roster. 

Windansea went on to become the inspiration for the popular “Beach Party” movies in the 1960s and the basis for Tom Wolf’s book, The Pump House Gang. Today, the Windansea Surf Club continues to compete in surf contests and combines elements of charity and community involvement with its competitive heritage. 

Windansea’s surf shack, originally built in 1946, has been rebuilt by surfers numerous times after storms destroyed it. Designated a Historical Landmark in 1998, it remains a symbol of Windansea’s surfing heritage and its roots in Hawaii.

The Spirit Lives On

San Diego is still producing legendary surf lore with acclaimed surfers such as Rob Machado, Skip Frye, Mike Hynson, Debbie Beacham, Joel Tudor, Rusty Preisendorfer and Taylor Knox calling San Diego home.

To learn more about the history of San Diego surfing visit the California Surf Museum in Oceanside.

SURF INDUSTRY COMPANIES

  • Gordon & Smith was the first major surfboard company based in San Diego. Commonly referred to as G&S, they started with surfboards and later expanded to include skateboards, bodyboards, and surf and skate apparel.
  • After shaping boards for G&S, Canyon Surfboards and Santosha Surfboards, Rusty Preisendorfer founded Rusty Surfboards in 1985. He soon added apparel and in 1989 expanded into skate, snow and wakeboards.

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Feel inspired to give surfing a try for yourself? The surf's always up somewhere in San Diego. Find tips on how to get started surfing and the best breaks for learning to surf in San Diego.

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