100 Years of Surfing in Huntington Beach
Huntington Beach has had quite a few memorable moments in the last 100+ years. Learn more about the history of surfing in Surf City USA from 1914 to today.
George Freeth was the first surfer at the now famed Huntington Beach Pier. One hundred years ago, Freeth impressed thousands of onlookers with his “surf riding” demonstrations during the dedication of the new, concrete Huntington Beach pier. Invited by railroad magnate Henry Huntington to participate in the pier celebration, George Freeth was said to “have walked on the waters”. The spectators were awestruck by his ability to literally stand upright and ride a wave all the way to the beach. Image courtesy Surfing Heritage & Culture Center.
The legendary Duke Kahanamoku, known as the father of modern surfing, made his first visit to HB in the 1920’s. Following his Olympic gold medal win at the 1912 Olympics, Duke traveled the world giving swimming and surfing exhibitions. In 1925, he was living in Newport Beach and surfing at the Huntington Beach Pier with city lifeguards, Bud Higgins and Gene Belshe. The Duke is credited with popularizing surfing in Southern California from 1913-1929. He was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in 1994 and remains one of the most important men in surfing history. A spectacular bronze statue of the Duke sits in the center of the Surfers’ Hall of Fame at the corner of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Downtown Huntington Beach.
Delbert “Bud” Higgins and Gene Belshe were two of Huntington Beach’s first lifeguards and became enamored with surfing when they met Duke Kahanamoku in Corona Del Mar. In 1927, they fashioned their own boards out of a redwood plank using a plane and drawknife. The new boards were 10 feet long and weighed 135 pounds. Bud Higgins is credited as the first surfer to shoot the HB pier. Bud and Gene were both considered lifesaving pioneers. During their long public service careers, Gene served as Assistant Police Chief and Bud as Fire Chief. Photo from Images of America: Huntington Beach Lifeguards, by Kai Weisser.
Prior to surf shops, surf music, and surf movies, a group of surfers that shared a common passion for surfing formed the HB Pier Club. These thirty surfers became known as the Boys of ’55. Their names were inscribed in a wood longboard that is currently located at the Surfing Heritage Museum in San Clemente, California. Image courtesy Surfing Walk of Fame.
Gordie Duane, who was a member of the HB Pier Club, opened the first Huntington Beach surfboard shaping shop underneath the pier. His four-room shop became a local hangout for fellow surfers. Over the next 25 years, Gordie shaped thousands of boards and was known for his fine craftsmanship. He was also a member of the famous Hole in the Wall Gang surf team. Image of Gordie Duane courtesy Surfing Heritage & Culture Center.
Jack Hokanson opened Jack’s Surfboards, on the corner of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, across from the Huntington Beach Pier, in 1957. He was inspired to open a conveniently located store that offered a wide range of products for the surfer, including wax, wetsuits, surfboards, clothing, and eventually skateboards. Little did he know at the time that this was the dawn of the surf industry. Photo courtesy Chris Epting, from Images of America: Huntington Beach California.
One of the first surfing championships in the world, the West Coast Surfing Championships evolved into the OP Pro in 1982 and eventually became the US Open of Surfing in 1994. For the first contest in 1959, contestants wore numbered jerseys and helmets. Judging was based on the length of ride and difficulty of maneuvers performed. Jack Haley won the contest by shooting the pier not once, but twice, on the same wave. Jack later opened Captain Jack’s restaurant in Sunset Beach. Linda Benson won the women’s division and continued to dominate women’s competitions for years to come. This image of Jack Haley appears courtesy of the Haley Family Archive.
Jan and Dean topped the Billboard charts with their hit “Surf City USA” in 1963, immortalizing Huntington Beach as the quintessential surf town. That same year, the Golden Bear opened on Pacific Coast Highway in Downtown Huntington Beach as a folk music club. There, Dick Dale, known as the “King of the Surf Guitar”, entertained audiences with his distinctive surf rock. Image courtesy Dean Torrence.
The most influential surf film of all time, The Endless Summer, documented the surfing adventures of recent Huntington Beach High School graduate, Robert August, and his friend, Mike Hynson, as they traveled the world pursuing the perfect wave. For the general public, the movie offered the first glimpse of the sport of surfing, but for the surf industry, it revolutionized the sport and resulted in a surge of popularity in surfing. Image courtesy Surfing Heritage Foundation.
The surge in popularity for surfing in the early 1970’s prompted a huge growth in surf industry manufacturers for surfboards, apparel and accessories. Quicksilver was founded by Bob McKnight and is currently the second largest employer in Huntington Beach.
Named for the drainage hole in the retaining sea wall that they used to access the waves near the Huntington Beach Pier, the Hole in the Wall Gang Surf Team consisted of about 25 experienced surfers who partied hard and surfed even harder. Team members created their own team shirts and jackets and paid for all travel expenses and contest fees out of their own pockets, with no sponsorship support. Bob Pace of the Western Surfing Association called the Hole in the Wall surf team one of the "hottest teams in amateur surfing" in the 1970's. The team won 20 contests in a row and remained unbeaten for four years. In 2011, the team was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame. Image courtesy Surfing Walk of Fame.
Avid surfer, Aaron Pai, became the owner of the then fledgling Huntington Surf and Sport surf shop at the age of 23. Now with three locations in Huntington Beach, the stores carry every top brand in surfing and, along with Jack’s Surfboards, form what’s been called the Times Square of Surfing at the intersection of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Downtown Huntington Beach.
In 1976, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) became the sole governing body for professional surfing, replacing International Surfing Professionals. Ian Cairns was named executive director and moved the headquarters to Huntington Beach. The ASP sanctioned the World Championship Tour, the ASP Qualification Series, the Big Wave World Tour, the ASP World Longboard Championship, and the ASP World Junior Championship. The ASP headquarters was moved to Queensland, Australia in 1999, but the North American regional office is still based in Huntington Beach. In 2015, the ASP changed its name to the World Surf League (WSL) and it still sanctions all of the largest surfing competitions around the globe. Image courtesy World Surf League, showing ASP office in 1987.
Initiated by Nancy Katin, owner of Kanvas by Katin, the Katin Pro-Am Team Challenge became a popular annual event at the HB Pier due to its unique team format and camaraderie-driven competition style. Nancy, along with husband Walter, originally made canvas boat covers, but then branched into durable surf trunks that became the rage of top surfers in the 60’s. These surf trunks eventually became today’s modern boardshorts. The original Katin store still serves surfers today from its shop in Huntington Harbour. This photo shows the winners of the 2008 Katin Pro-Am Team Challenge, held at the Huntington Beach Pier.
The National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) was founded by three teachers and surf coaches in 1978. El Toro High School's Chuck Allen, Edison High School's John Rothrock, and Long Beach State's Tom Gibbons were keenly aware that the sport needed a new direction and focus if it was going to thrive and grow. So they formed a competitive surfing organization that required all participants to adhere to academic standards. The organization flourished quickly, prompting the creators to recruit Australian 1976 World Champion, Peter “PT” Townend, and runner-up, Ian Cairns, to manage the association. Many young surfers gained significant success under these Bronze Aussies’ tutelage. This photo shows the winners of the 2010 NSSA National Championships, held annually in Huntington Beach.
The OP Pro took the reins from the defunct US Surf Championships in 1982 and, with the support of Ocean Pacific, took the competition from a primarily California-based contest to a true global competition. Participation by internationally known pro surfers increased the contest’s popularity. Media and fans alike were enthralled with the ongoing rivalry between pros Tom Curren and Mark Occhhilupo as they battled for the championship over a five year period. Freida Zapa dominated the women’s competition and won six times. In the mid-1980’s, competition director Ian Cairns grew the event into the largest and most well-known American surf competition, which included a skateboard demo, trade show, MTV, and a bikini contest. Image courtesy Association of Surfing Professionals, from 1982 OP Pro.
Based in Huntington Beach, Surfline was founded in 1985 as a call-in surf and weather report service. Owner Sean Collins was a surfer, sailor, and self-taught surfing meteorologist and was considered the premier expert in surf forecasting. Sean’s predictions were so consistent and accurate that they were utilized by lifeguards, the National Weather Service, multiple domestic and international governmental agencies, and nearly every surf company in the world. In 1995, the company went online and, by 2012, Surfline was logging over 2 million users each month. Photo courtesy Family of Sean Collins.
One of the largest surfing events on the planet, the US Open of Surfing serves as one of the qualifying rounds for the World Surf League's Championship Tour. Over 750,000 people attend the nine day event to watch surfing, BMX, and skateboarding. Major event sponsors over the years have included action sports giants Hurley, Nike, and Vans.
Individuals who have made a substantial contribution to the sport and culture of surfing are honored on the Surfing Walk of Fame. Honorees are inducted in a ceremony held in conjunction with the US Open of Surfing each year, where plaques honoring each inductee are embedded in the sidewalk along Main Street in front of Jack’s Surfboards in Downtown Huntington Beach. An induction committee consisting of international surf industry individuals elects an inductee for each of six categories: Surf Culture, Local Hero, Surf Pioneer, Surf Champion, Woman of the Year and Honor Roll. This photo shows Rick "Rockin' Fig" Fignetti during his induction to the Surfing Walk of Fame in 2010.
Each year during the US Open of Surfing, The Surfers' Hall of Fame honors legends of surfing by immortalizing their handprints, footprints and signatures in the sidewalk in front of Huntington Surf & Sport. Its centerpiece, a life-size bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, was created by Edmund Shumpert in 2001.
In 2009, HB locals Brett Simpson and Courtney Conlogue took home the US Open of Surfing’s top prize in a first-ever sweep for the home crowd. Simpson then took home top prize a second time the following year – also a first for a Huntington Beach surfer. Both grew up practicing at the Huntington Beach Pier and proudly call Surf City USA home.
Huntington Beach proudly presented the keys to the city to Kelly Slater in a ceremony emceed by Pete Townend on June 21, 2011, International Surfing Day. Kelly has been crowned World Champion a record eleven times! He was inducted into both the Surfing Walk of Fame and the Surfers’ Hall of Fame in 2002. Kelly won the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach in 1996 and 2011 and is widely considered to be the most successful pro surfer in the history of the sport. Photo courtesy HB Culture Magazine.
Huntington Beach celebrated 100 Years of Surfing in 2014 with several signature events, including the pictured When Men Were Men and Boards Were Made of Wood surf contest and the Greens Room Golf Tournament. The year long celebration commemorated 100 years of surfing at the Huntington Beach Pier.
On International Surfing Day 2015, on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier, 66 former US Open of Surfing winners, Surfing Walk of Fame and Surfers' Hall of Fame inductees, celebrities, and local Huntington Beach heroes rode VHB's custom-built, 42-foot-long surfboard to break the Guinness World Records® for 'Most people riding a surfboard at once' on the world's 'Largest surfboard'!