An Early History of Surfing in Huntington Beach
(Written in the mid-1960s)

By Delbert G. Higgins
Retired Lifeguard Chief and Fire Chief - Huntington Beach

The first people who moved into Huntington Beach or who visited the beach were very poor swimmers, swimming either the dog paddle or a sidestroke, and were afraid to venture beyond 5 feet of water. There were no lifeguards until 1918 so everyone in trouble had to be rescued using a surf dory. Those who swam regularly developed the vitality to body surf by turning when the wave approached and pushing off riding the wave to shore. The first use of boards was about 1912 when they used a piece of 1 by 12 board about 4 feet long and pushed off from 5 foot water. This type of board caused many accidents to the stomach area as it nose dived to the bottom causing injury.

In 1926, a Captain Sheffield from England built a bathhouse and locker room on the rocks in the entrance of the harbor channel in Corona Del Mar. The surf: in the entrance of the channel was excellent for board riding as it was sanded up and the waves broke far out at the bell buoy. There were no surfboards on the coast except the one belonging to George Freeth of Redondo Beach and it was a very makeshift one made of several boards with cross p1eces nailed to bold it together.

Duke Kahanamoku from Kahaliana and two other Hawaiians came over from Hawaii to make a movie and spotted the surf at Corona Del Mar, surfed there, and left their boards at Captain Shefield's. It was there I first saw their boards, talked to the Hawaiians and invited them to surf the Huntington Beach Pier. They visited here on several occasions surfing the west side of the pier. After surfing here they stashed their boards, which were 11 feet long and l8 inches wide. They said if we should make new boards, they should not be longer then 10 feet.

Gene Belshe and I decided to make new boards in August 1927. We went to the San Piedro Lumber Company to inquire about lumber. We found we could buy a solid plank of kiln dried redwood 20 feet long, 24 inches wide, and 3 inches thick for $40. We purchased the plank and cut it in two so we would each have a 10-foot board. We laid out the shape of the boards, laid each out on two 50-gallon drums, and with a block plane and drawknife fashioned the boards. After sanding and smoothing we shellacked them and then put on two coats of varnish. When completed they weighed about 135 pounds each. To carry them they had to be stood on end and then eased onto and carried on your back.

We were both lifeguards during the daytime so many of the local boys learned to ride these two boards. They were in the water so many hours during each day they became water logged and we placed them in a room in the plunge used to dry towels where they dried. They lost some 20 pounds in several days and new coats of varnish were continually added.

These early boards had no skegs and were very slippery on top. They were very difficult to maneuver and due to their length, nosed dived regularly. When they went down they came back up flying in the air and if you were struck with one you were injured. Many of us suffered cuts requiring stitches.

Before long there were numerous boards here and at Corona Del mar made out of solid planks and of smaller pieces glued together. We would go to the lumberyard and sort through a whole pile of redwood timbers to get the lightest one. We also found that in the rural part of the city that the telephone Company had old lines using 4 by 6 inch redwood poles that were weather beaten and light. We traded them for our new planks and made the boards out of the old poles having them planed to thinner planks. Since they were much lighter, it was possible to complete a new board weighing about 100 pounds.

Different shapes of boards were made, one being made that was only 9 feet long and round on the bottom but was very tipsy and difficult to ride. Hacksaw blades were used to cut notches in the top of the board to stop slipping on the highly varnished surface.

By 1930 there were enough boards to hold a contest and the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce sponsored a contest at Corona Del Mar in which there were some 25 entries. Considerable rivalry existed between the local Orange County riders and a group from Santa Monica. The winners cared little for the trophies as the surf was up and they wished to continue surfing when the contest ended. The next surfing contest was at Huntington Beach in 1933 and was sponsored by the Huntington Beach Life Guards. The surf was large and the contest won by Dave Beall of Santa Ana.

It was during this time that the plywood bellyboard came into existence. We allowed swimmers to jump off the pier at the outside breaker line and a ladder was provided at the shoreline to climb back up on the pier. Most swimmers would catch a wave, ride to the beach, and run out for another wave sometimes 25 to 50 times per day. The light bel1y board with a handhold cut in one side for carrying up the ladder was the answer and was very popular. I must stress that surfboards were made of materials available at the time they were made. Some persons even made wood frame works and covered them with metal, soldering the seams to make them waterproof. They sounded like a can bouncing on the pavement when ridden on a wave and were not too successful. Many of the redwood boards were clad with copper on the nose due to damage when hitting a piling.

Myers Buddy, owner of the Pacific Systems Homes in Southgate, who also had a large woodworking mill, manufactured the first commercially made surfboard. He had Tom Blake of the Santa Monica Life Guards design a ten-foot board that he put it into mass production about 1936, selling for $40 each. He also manufactured a fine 14-foot life saving paddleboard with a Balsa core and mahogany top and bottom. This board was a huge success and changed life saving from using the dories to paddle boards, causing most lifeguards to learn surfing.

Use of Balsa wood became very popular during the late 1930's both in solid balsa and with strips of wood inlaid to strengthen the boards. The balsa was very soft and dented easily making the surface rough and causing calluses to appear on the surfer's knees and feet. Most paddling was done on the knees by then.

It was not until the late 1950s that the skeg was tried on the boards to make maneuvering possible. The first skegs were made of brass. They were hand made with three small pieces of brass welded on to put screws in, requiring that the board have a center piece of wood to screw the skeg to. Some of the skegs were sharpened too much and there were accidents and cuts caused by this type fin.

In 1945 Bob Brown, who had invented the Spearfisherman Swim Fin, was manufacturing his fins at a shop on Garfield Avenue in Huntington Beach. The Navy asked him if he would try to make a rubber-wet suite. He made a mold of a man, dipped it in liquid rubber, and then cooked it in steam. This was the first wetsuit. This was heavy but used by a number of surfers so they could surf year around.

In the mid-1950s, the Dow Chemical Company developed Styrofoam for use in making floats in the harbors. They found it floated well but became water soaked quickly. Tests were made using various outside coatings. Fiberglass and resin were tried but the floats were too light and the docks rocked heavily so they changed to a cement, outer coat that was successful. From this experiment several surfers had the idea of using Styrofoam cores covered with fiberglass and resin for boards. The first boards were ten or eleven feet long and the fins were of wood cemented on resin. These boards still used the same shapes of the older balsa boards.

In the past ten years there have been many improvements in construction of the boards, in the use of better fins, better wet suits, use of waxes to make the boards slip proof, car carrying racks, carrying bags and the boards are much shorter and safer to maneuver.

Like any sport, there is always the spirit of competition and so it is with surfing. There are countless contests each year all over the world to see who is the best. Magazines carry the news and pictures of surfing in all parts of the globe.

We've come a long way since Gene Belshe and Bud Higgins first put the two surfboards in the water and Higgins first shot the pier. Surfing was a seasonal sport, little done during the cold winter months. The small light boards, wetsuits, and fins for maneuvering have made surfing the year around sport of millions. We now see dozens of brands of different type boards used to ride all types of waves and enjoyed by small boys and girls as well as older persons. Surfing has truly come of age and is here tic stay. I urge everyone to purchase a board, wetsuit, wax, surf leash, and car carrier and see the coast from the top of a wave.

Bud Higgins

Note: This history was hand written by Bud in the early 1960s. It was found in a shoebox in the attic of his Grandaughter, Gay Treece, by surf historian Bruce Gabrielson in 2001. Gay has the original and there are three copies. One copy is in the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, one copy is in the Bruce "Snake" Gabrielson Surf Museum and Surfing Art Gallery in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, and one copy is owned by Gary "Seahag" Sehagan.

(Written in the early 1960s - courtesy of Gay Treece, Bud's Granddaughter)