Preston "Pete" Peterson
Champion Surfer of the 1930's (1913-1983)
Aloha! This chapter of LEGENDARY SURFERS covers
the contributions of Preston "Pete" Peterson.
Following the era notable for first Duke
Kahanamoku and then Tom Blake,
Preston "Pete" Peterson was the U.S. Mainland's reigning contest champion of
the 1930s, winning the Pacific Coast Championships
-- the major surfing contest of the period -- a number of times. No other
surfer came close to his dominance of the contest. Pete was thee waterman of
the era, competing well into the 1960s!
Photo Credit: Preston "Pete" Peterson &
tandem partner, featured in a 1960's LIFE magazine.
Preston "Pete" Peterson positvely ruled Mainland surfing
during the 1930s. Recognized amongst his fellow surfers as the country's
best surfer, Peterson won the Pacific Coast Surfing
Championships four times out of ten (1932, 1936, 1938 and 1941).
Cliff Tucker, a winner of the championships one year
himself, expressed the feeling of many of his contemporaries when he told
an interviewer that his former schoolmate and surfing bro Peterson, "was
the greatest waterman on the West Coast in those days. As far as I'm concerned,
he was the best and maybe Lorrin Harrison was second best. I was hot one
year and beat 'em both, but I was just lucky."
More than a contest surfer, however, Pete Peterson
was a waterman in the truest sense of the word. The first person to paddle
to Catalina from the Mainland, Peterson also became a Hollywood stunt man
and an innovator of ocean vehicles and lifeguard rescue equipment. Some
of his lifesaving creations include: paddle boards, soft rescue tubes,
all-fiberglass hollow boards; and foam/plywood/balsa sandwich surfboards.
"Pete grew up in the entrance to Santa Monica Canyon
where his parents had the bath house on the beach," wrote Nat Young while
Pete was still alive. "He remembers well the surfing exhibitions by the
Duke. In 1920, at the age of seven, he acquired his first board. It was
12' long with an 11" wide tail, 18" at its widest point, and made of solid
redwood which for some obscure reason had to be shipped from Oregon via
Hawaii. It had no rocker, egg-shaped rails, and the redwood planks were
held together with lag bolts running inwards from the rails."
Peterson was part of the first wave of California haoles
to go Hawaiian, along with Lorrin "Whitey" Harrision and Gene
"Tarzan" Smith. Shortly after arriving on O`ahu, Peterson, "ran out
of money and ended up moving into the same house in Waikiki as 'Whitey'
and they became close friends. Later, Whitey and Pete stowed away back
to the US mainland on the U.S.S. Republic masquerading as members
of a contingent of 1,000 soldiers being shipped back to California."
"Back in the winter of 1932," continued Young, "Pete
and Whitey surfed all over the south shore of O`ahu, on every coral reef
from Diamond Head to the entrance of Honolulu harbour. They rode waves
all day long on both boards and outrigger canoes, enjoying the unfamiliarly
warm Hawaiian water. While surfing at Waikiki one morning, Pete spied an
interesting looking board under another surfer. The statistics were about
the same as his: 10' long by 2' wide, with a wide, square tail, but the
timber was completely different. It was balsa. Back on the beach, Pete
picked up one of these new blond coloured boards and discovered they were
half the weight of his redwood one. Apparently they had been made in Florida,
and the balsa came from South America. They had been given several coats
of varnish to keep the water out, but this tended to crack under pressure,
especially where they were knelt upon. The weight was the quality that
made these boards fantastic: only 30 to 40 pounds. Who made them is a mystery,
as are the surfers who rode them. But they represented such an advance
on the old, heavy redwood boards that surfers began shaping their boards
from the new timber, which soon began to be in great demand and hard to
Many of the surfers of the period tandem surfed -- it
was a great way to meet girls and it was standard fare at most surf meets.
Pete Peterson was a master of tandem surfing -- so much so that he and
his various partners over the years won tandem contests even into the mid
1960s. As anyone who's done it can attest, tandem surfing is no easy thing.
"Trick tandem riding," explained Otto Patterson in Surf-Riding, Its
Thrills and Techniques, "requires the surfer to ride a wave with a
wahine either on his shoulders or in any of a great number of acrobatic
poses, all performed while his board slices across a steep wave." One of
the many surfers he instructed in this art was Walter Hoffman. Hoffman
and his brother Flippy would lead a second wave of California surfers over
on to O`ahu in the late 1940s -- a decade and more after Pete and Whitey
first started coming over.
Pete and Whitey were two of California's early lifeguards.
Peterson had a big, strong physique that served him well in the movies
as a stuntman. A waterman in his free time and professionally, Pete was
a diver of some repute and became involved in deepwater salvage to make
Surf writer C.R. Stecyk wrote about Peterson
on a "training exercise" on November 21, 1939:
"The Palama Kai, a mahogany masterpiece of a
boat, and the flagship of the Santa Monica Guards, motors north along the
coast. The occasion for this journey is what was euphemistically referred
to as a 'training exercise.' On board, Preston 'Pete' Peterson and cohorts
scan the horizon scoping out a massive west swell. Malibu and Dume have
size, but the tides aren't quite right. Pete is anxious to try out his
newly built racing paddleboard, so he convinces his associates to drop
him off at the far end of Anacapa Island. Alone, Pete paddles/rides the
massive open ocean bumps all the way back to Santa Monica Pier, a distance
of over 30 miles. The next day back at the point, Peterson tells the boys,
'Yesterday I figured out how to railroad.' Pete describes gliding on the
crest of open ocean swells at high speeds for extreme distances. They surf
and later motor the Palama Kai up to the teaming lobster beds north of
County Line to capture dinner. Santa Monica Guards trained hard and played
That same year, the Amateur Craftsman's Cyclopedia
of Outdoor Sports featured instructions on building your own surfboard.
"Often times," Stecyk wrote, "people
forget about Pete Peterson's steady output of ocean vehicles and lifeguard
rescue equipment. His racing paddle boards, soft rescue tubes, revolutionary
all-fiberglass boards and foam/plywood/balsa sandwich surfboards were all
Even as late as 1960, at age 47, Preston "Pete" Peterson
was referred to as, "probably the smartest and most capable underwater
and open sea sportsman in the Pacific today."
Unfortunately, the California winter storms of 1983
washed away his pier-top workshop and much of the Peterson archives. One
of the few survivors was "Big Red," a red racing paddleboard that Peterson
built for and with Dave Rochlen in 1947. Rochlen went on to win the Diamond
Head paddleboard race in 1951 with Big Red. "Decades later," wrote Craig
Stecyk, "David's son Pua used the same board in another victorious effort
in the Outrigger Canoe Club sponsored
Surfing lost a great waterman when Preston "Pete" Peterson
left this world the same year his pier-top shop hit the water.
Pete Peterson at a Santa Monica paddleboard race with Thomas Rogers
Blake board. Courtesy of Gary Lynch and
the Tom Blake Collection.
TOM BLAKE: The Journey of A Pioneer Waterman
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