If everybody had an ocean across the USA
Then everybody’d be surfin’ like Californi-a. . .
You’d catch ’em surfin’ at Del Mar, Ventura County line
Santa Cruz and Trestles, Australia’s Narrabeen
All over Manhattan, And down Doheny Way . . .
Haggerties and Swamies, Pacific Palisades
San Onofre and Sunset, Redondo Beach LA
All over La Jolla, At Wa’imea Bay. . .
Everybody’s gone surfin’
Surfin’ USA, Beach Boys (musical artists), Chuck Berry (song-writer), 1963
Listen to “Surfin’ USA” sample on Amazon.com
With over 840 miles of coastline (3,427, if you count tidal shoreline with small bays and inlets), it is not surprising that the majority of surf locations mentioned in the Beach Boys’ song, “Surfin’ USA,” are in California. Using both city names and surfer jargon for some of the best secret spots, the Beach Boys obtained some credibility for a group of guys who grew up in Hawthorne and generally didn’t surf. The historical and musical trends that brought world attention to Southern California in the later 1950s and 1960s have been explored in the California history discussion, but what of the geographical trends? How did the physical character of California shape these social and cultural trends?
The history section describes the origins of surfing and its interconnection with song in Hawai’i and ancient Polynesia. From this culture hearth, the tradition spread to the rest of the world. Hawai’i is the world’s most isolated archipelago, and the primary form of transportation through the 1930s was by sea. The steamer voyage from Honolulu to Los Angeles took five days and was expensive. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 drew world attention to Hawai’i and made it the crossroads of the Pacific. The stationing and transportation of troops introduced many of America’s youth to this tropical paradise, helping to export surfing around the world. The advent of commercial airlines from the United States after the war made the islands more easily accessible and led to tourism becoming Hawaii’s top industry. Australia and California, among the more accessible landmasses before air travel, also have the geographical conditions to have been especially fertile areas for the reception of surfing. Although their surf scenes developed independently, the migratory aspects and magnetic connection to Hawai’i are notable.
Extensive beaches, consistent waves, tolerably warm water (high 50s to low 70s Fahrenheit), and sunny weather converge to provide California with the aesthetic beauty, natural resources, and favorable climate necessary to be one of the world’s greatest surfing locations. California’s coast consists largely of wave-cut cliffs, step-like terraces, and rugged points jutting into the Pacific separated by pocket beaches of sand, pebbles, or cobblestones. Recreational use of the beaches is largely managed by the California State Park system responsible for about one-third of the scenic coastline including wetlands, estuaries, beaches, and dune systems. The sport itself involves a human-environment interaction in which harmony with nature can be achieved through swimming and riding ocean waves. Enjoyment of the beach is clearly expressed in the lyrics of surf music, and instrumental sounds emulate the ocean and experience of wave-riding. It is a rare instance of a musical style growing around a sport, a phenomenon that continues to evolve today.
California’s mild, Mediterranean climate near the Pacific Ocean coast, combined with statewide economic largesse in mineral resources, agriculture, and industrial development, attracted settlers from the 1848 Gold Rush (380,000 inhabitants) to the Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s (5,677,000) to those seeking employment during WWII (10,586,000) as America moved West. In the 1950s, Los Angeles became the leader in car ownership with a rapidly expanding freeway system of transportation routes. Highway 1 made the beaches accessible running almost the entire length of the coast. By1962, California had become the most populous state in the Union with more than 17 million people, 60% of whom lived in Southern California. A large portion of this growing demographic was the teenaged baby boomer. With National Weather Service statistics indicating that the mean monthly temperature in the 1960s for the summer months was 68 degrees and with much of the population living within an hour’s drive to the beach, ocean recreation and tourism were popular.
The coastline from Malibu in the north, to San Onofre in the south, constituted the prime surfing territory and was also the zone in which surfer rock music developed. Surf music embodied the physical geography of the region and promoted it by establishing a California sound. It has been suggested that surfer rock lyrics of the 1960s were the largest body of songs about a place since New York City in the 1930s. The California surf scene came into its own in the 1960s, and teens in California and across the country could relate to and identify with the look, style, lingo, music, and dances disseminated through the radio, magazines, television, and movies.
This southern California region also includes the largest man-made and busiest harbor on the US west coast, the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors, as well as one of the nation’s largest oil fields, the East Wilmington Reserve, providing two major challenges to the recreational development of southern California’s oceanfront. A breakwater was built as part of the deepwater port project to protect the harbor, and it also served as part of the military defense of the region, depriving Long Beach of the natural waves and tidal action Kahanamoku relied on for his surfing demonstration there on his way back to Hawaii from the 1912 Olympics. The Surfrider Foundation currently has a “Sink the Breakwater” project studying the possibility of reconfiguring the breakwater to restore some of these beach areas.
The oil-drilling platforms (in Long Beach, environmentally enhanced in the 1960s with brightly colored concrete walls, palm trees, shrubs, waterfalls, and lighting), oil derricks, and grasshoppers are still in evidence today. Surfers were involved in the ecology movement of the 1960s, with activism centered around beach access, surfboard licensing, helmet laws, and no-surfing zones. The disastrous 1969 oil spill, dumping 3,000,000 gallons of heavy crude into Santa Barbara channel, changed attitudes toward energy production and brought environmental and ecological concerns to the forefront.
This didn’t stop a nuclear power plant from being built on the cliffs above San Onofre in the 1970s, recently in the news as concerns about disaster preparedness emerged after the 2011 Japanese tsunami. A recent toll road proposal, which would compromise San Mateo Creek wetlands, which feed into the world famous surf spot called Trestles, received significant opposition. Trestles is often the only California (or even mainland United States) site for annual World Championship Tour men’s surf competitions. In 2006, the historic Bolsa Chica wetlands of Huntington Beach were restored, and development halted. A tidal inlet to the ocean was re-created, providing significant habitat for the more than 200 bird species (many endangered) and other marine life. Thus, although surfing is an individual sport, proudly unorganized, and generally apolitical, some of the above events show a growing change in environmental attitudes and activism on the part of the surf community.
Historic and geographical considerations, patterns of migration, socio-economic conditions, and social group values converged to make California in the 1960s the right place and time for surfing to burst onto the scene of America’s consciousness. Southern California launched surfing into an international craze and it remains an important component of California’s popular culture. In many ways, it was the music that turned attention to the beach.