A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By Malcolm Gault-Williams
This Chapter Updated: 13 July 2003
Pete & Whitey
Volume 1, Chapter 15
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Photo Credit: Preston "Pete" Peterson & tandem partner, featured in a 1960's LIFE magazine.
Next to Pete was his good friend Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison.
Whitey was with us a full decade longer than Pete, so more has been written
of Lorrin than of Pete. Nevertheless, Pete was thee waterman of
the era, competing well into the 1960s!
Preston "Pete" Peterson (1913-1983)
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 get."
Most every surfer 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 a living.
Surfing historian 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 harder."
That same year, the Amateur Craftsman's Cyclopedia of Outdoor Sports featured instructions on building your own surfboard.
"Often times," surf historian Craig 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 noteworthy achievements."
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 event."
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.
Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison (1913-1993)
On September 8th 1993, one of the first and best California surfers, Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison died of a heart attack while driving back from the beach with his wife Cecilia near their second home on the Big Island of Hawai`i.
"Lorrin was the stuff life was made of," long-time
friend and fellow surfer Mickey Muñoz offered. "Lorrin was around
here long enough to remember Steelhead salmon spawning up San Juan Creek,
and through all of the pollution in general, Lorrin was always true to
himself. He wore his coconut hat and would get up in the morning with a
big smile on his face and kind of face all of these issues with that smile.
He was always enthusiastic and positive... hey we lost a great light and
Born in Garden Grove, California, in 1913, Whitey became not only a great surfer, but -- like Pete Peterson -- an accomplished waterman in many of the ocean disciplines including sailing, fishing, diving and paddling. His personal history in surfing reflects much of the development of the sport and lifestyle in both California and Hawai`i from the 1920s on into the 1950s.
"Where we lived, west of town," began Whitey in an
interview for The Surfer's Journal just before his death, "there wasn't
much in those days. Everybody lived there because things would grow. Garden
Grove, at the time, was just like a garden. After that, my family moved
to Santa Ana Canyon where my dad built a big house up on a hill which is
still there. Our family had a place in Laguna ever since I was one year
old, right at Sleepy Hollow. My mom and dad would take us down there on
a horse and wagon back when you had to go through Aliso Canyon to get to
Laguna. It took days for us to get there. They'd stop to visit friends
along the way. We had chickens at our home, there at Sleepy Hollow, and
we kept a cow in a field across the wagon road from us. Our house was right
where the Vacation Village is now."
Laguna Beach, early 1920s
"We used to body surf the entire stretch of beach from Sleepy Hollow rocks to Main Beach," Whitey continued. "In the fifth grade, I made a plank, about 4-5' long and 18" wide to ride with. We were body surfing all the time back then. I'd never seen anybody ride standing until about 1920 when my dad took us to Redondo Beach in the car. We parked up on a hill and ate lunch there and I looked down and saw these guys riding surfboards."
Mentioning the influence of the Father of Southern California Surfing George Freeth, Whitey noted of Redondo: "That was where Freeth had started surfing. My dad was thinking of buying a lot there, but we had the place in Laguna, and we were happy with it there."
Whitey made the transition from body surfing to stand-up surfing by 1925. "My brothers Vern and Winfred, and my sister Ethel and I were like a gang at Sleepy Hollow. Every year we'd build a raft and swim it out to the kelp in front of our house. We floated an old wood burning stove out there, sunk it, filled it with rocks and anchored the raft to it with cable. We'd go fishin' out there. I can remember my mom getting so mad at me for getting my sister to swim out there. And I said, 'Well, Jesus, if she can swim to her surfboard she can swim out there.' By then we all had these redwood boards about 4' long that we'd ride. We all grew up riding shore crashers that would just annihilate us on those boards. In school I made a hollow one. It was like a sled with runners curving up in front with 1/4" planks nailed crossways, it was about 18" wide. I covered it with canvas tacked on with copper tacks and painted it. We'd ride it till we wore the canvas off, then we'd put new on."
Tom Blake was a few years shy of inventing the 100% wooden hollow board (1928). "The typical board of that time," wrote Nat Young in his History of Surfing, "...was still a solid redwood from six to nine feet long, flat-bottomed, with the edges just barely turned up on the bottom side. Surfers would buy a redwood plank at the local lumber yard, take it home, chop it into rough shape with an axe, and then whittle it down with a plane and knife. The finished board was invariably flat, heavy, and about 3 1/2 inches thick."
Corona del Mar, 1925-35
"When I was twelve," Whitey recalled, "I started walking
to Corona del Mar from Laguna Beach to go surfing. There was a crew of
stand-up surfers who would ride Corona back then. Carroll Bertolet, Jack
Pyle, Wally Burton, Keller Watson, Bud Higgins. Guys from Huntington Beach
and all over would come to Corona del Mar because it could be just a 3-foot
surf, but it would pile up real high next to that jetty. If a guy couldn't
catch the wave, we'd throw him a rope and pull him on his redwood while
running along the jetty. We'd pull 'em right into the wave. We surfed there
from 1927 till 1935. That's when they dredged the channel out to 60' deep.
They had cables going across the break out to the dredge. We'd be riding
and we'd have to jump the cable or lay down on our back to go under it.
We thought it was great fun to go out there with the construction going
on, surfing in all that. We used to walk there from Laguna because there
was no way to drive at the time. I didn't have a board then, but there
was a bathhouse at Corona del Mar and Duke [Kahanamoku] had made a board
out of white pine and left it there. There were a lot of redwoods there,
too. Later on, I'd leave boards at one of the Thomas brothers' houses up
on the bluff. And there was the Chinese house at China Cove, I sometimes
kept my board there too. It took us a couple of hours to walk the twelve
miles from Laguna Beach to Corona del Mar, but all the way was pretty nice."
It was the era of Prohibition on alcohol. Whitey noted that "There was
nothing from Abalone Hill all that way, except rum runners' leftover crates,
boxes and bottles strewn around the beach."
San Onofre, 1933-39
Whitey was part of the early crew at San Onofre, where Southern California surf culture's roots are most firmly embedded. "I was surfing [at Corona del Mar]... with Willy Grigsby, Bob Sides and Bill Hollingsworth... Sides traveled between San Diego and up here frequently and he said, 'Hey Whitey, there's this neat spot down south where the waves break way out.'"
Sides declared of Corona del Mar, in 1933, that: "They're wrecking this place."
"So," Whitey said of their first trip to San O, "we loaded up a whole bunch of people into touring cars... and we went down there and tried it out. We went clear down to where the atomic plant is now and surfed that spot. Then we came back up the beach and tried it right where the main shack is now. That's where we found it was always steadiest. The surf was always pretty good. In one day we surfed all the different breaks. The entrance to the beach was just across from the old San Onofre Train Station. You'd drive across the tracks and down the dirt road. At that time Santa Margarita Ranch owned the beach there along with another ranch that owned the land north of the point. We weren't the first people to go down there, people had been going fishing down there for years and stayin' all night. The ranchers didn't seem to mind. In fact, the first time we went there, they were making a Hollywood movie. They had built this big palm thatch house right on the beach. We slept in it the first night we stayed there. This was about 1933/34. By 1935, Corona del Mar was over with, and San Onofre was our main spot."
By 1939, the San Onofre crew included the likes of Tulie Clark, Jim Bixier, Don Okey, Dorian Paskowitz, Lloyd Baker, Gard Chapin, Vincent Linhberg, and, of course, Pete Peterson.
The automobile had helped increase surfers' ability to go on surf safaris. At places like Long Beach, Palos Verdes as well as San Onofre, surfers established the Southern California surf culture. Following their trips to the Hawaiian Islands, guys like Whitey and Pete were major influences in helping foster a love of Polynesian culture. Both men were instrumental in helping transplant elements of Polynesia and Hawai`i onto the beaches of North America's Southern California.
"The Hawaiian beach boys taught us to love their music and instruments as well as their waves," explained Whitey. In Hawai`i, it had been "so hot during summer nights that we'd sit out in front of the Waikiki Tavern and make music till we fell asleep."
The scene at San Onofre was influenced in this way and colorful in its own right. As Nat Young put it, "They were an incredibly healthy lot, spending long days down at the beach, engaging in friendly competition, encouraging their girls to surf, and partying long into the night. They successfully combined normal working-class lives with the excitement of being the first group of [California] surfers."
Beginning around 1935, San Onofre became the major
"meeting place for surfers up and down the California coast -- from Tijuana
Sloughs [south San Diego] to Steamers Lane in Santa Cruz," wrote Dorian
Paskowitz, one who was there. "Friday and Saturday nights were always gay
'ole times, with Hawaiian guitar, Tahitian dances and no small amount of
boozing. But come Sunday morning, it was serious surfing for the true beach
Stowaways to Waikiki, 1930s
Whitey Harrison "was one of the first California surfers to come to Hawaii and join the Hawaiians in the big surf," read a description of Whitey, as one of the world's surfing greats, in 1960. "Every year from 1932 on I went to Hawaii," Whitey declared. "In 1932 I was over there for six months. I'd go in the winter."
Whitey started off at the height of The Depression. "My mother was a school teacher and my brothers and sister were going to school. I was eighteen so she said I either had to get a job or go to school. So I went over and signed up for Fullerton Junior College. But every time I'd show up at the beach, Willy Grigsby would be there just back from Hawaii and he'd tell me, 'God, Whitey, you've gotta go over there, you won't believe it. The warmest water, you can stay in all day. It's paradise!' So I told my folks, 'I'll get a job.'"
"I started hitch hiking every day all the way to San Pedro to catch a ship. To get there, we'd hop bumpers on the back of cars with the spare tire and big rear bumper. The cops would be blowin' whistles runnin' after us. There was a guy that went the first time with me called Doakes. He was gonna go to Hawaii if I'd go. He was studying to be a doctor, but he didn't show up again."
Charles Butler was better known amongst surfers as "Doaks." Later on in the decade, he was photographed at Long Beach's Flood Control and mentioned in Doc Ball's California Surfriders, 1946. He was studying to become a medical doctor when he enlisted in the Navy, during World War II. Doaks went down with the Edsal when it was sunk by the Japanese in the early stages of the war in the Pacific.
"Different guys would back out," Whitey went on, "but I kept going up there trying to get a job. There were lines of able-bodied seamen looking for work, so they weren't going to hire any kid out of high school. I went up there for two months, hitch-hiking back and forth and never getting out. I got so tired of it, I finally climbed on the U.S.S. Monterey... Duke was on there, but he didn't know me then. They had a dance, then the boat took off that evening and I just stayed on. I went out and slept in a steamer chair. About three or four in the morning this guy came by and said, 'Hey, where's your room?' I said, 'I couldn't find it, I made a mistake...' So he went off looking for my name and I took off and ran into some other officer. This is late at night the first night out, so they took me to the Captain and logged me in as a stowaway. They caught three more of us. Everyone was either riding freights or stowing away, that was the only way to get anywhere. So they kept us in the brig, but we got to eat the same as the crew. Then about five miles off Diamond Head, they had us climb down a Jacob's ladder to a tug and we laid out there from 4 a.m. to 6:00 that night. Four stowaways and none of us knew each other. I could see the Moana Hotel onshore... it looked like paradise, and I was ready to swim in until we saw some giant sharks. That night, they put us on a freighter, the Manakai, and we ended up in San Francisco."
"All that time my mom was thinking I must have gotten a job cause I didn't show up. Anyway, the next morning we had to appear before a judge. We walked in there chained together and the judge says, 'You guys are from L.A., we don't like your type up here. I give you twenty-four hours to get out of town or we'll really get you,' and they turned us loose.'" Lorrin turned right around and did the stowaway thing once more:
"This guy from Belgium... said the lifeboats were the spot. The lifeboats hung one above the other, out over the side. So I hid out for two-and-a-half days inside one of them. It was coal black in there. I couldn't see anything. When I finally climbed out I was punchy from no food or water... So they hauled me up and stuck me in the isolation ward. All they gave you on that ship was bread and water and I was pretty hungry. They were supposed to have emergency provisions on the lifeboats, but there weren't any there. The night before we got to Honolulu, they found the Belgian and they threatened to transfer us by bosum chair to a ship headed back to San Francisco, but the sea was too rough. So we sailed into the dock at the Aloha Tower in Honolulu with the Royal Hawaiian Band playing and streamers flying off the boat. We were the first people off the boat, in handcuffs, and they turned us over. But the cops were great. I ate six breakfasts, ham and eggs, everything! They made us stay at the station till the boat left. When I walked out I was able to find a job for four dollars a day pressing clothes. I ended up with a room next door to Pua Kealoha and John Oliver, the beach boys, for $7.50 a month. It had one bed and a wash basin. I had heard about Pete Peterson and seen him at San Onofre. He and Don DeGrotti came over after I did and were staying right on the beach for $25 a month. But they were broke and nobody sent them any money, so he and Don moved in with me. It ended up they got the bed most of the time. We hitched around the island together and saw Haleiwa when it was just huge. I stayed for six months, then stowed away home with Pete. I went over and back every year from then on through 1935, and of course, many times after that." Nat Young remarked, "Stowing away became a surfing tradition that continued right into the 'sixties."
Waikiki was the heart of surfing at the time Whitey teamed up with Pete Peterson. They both lived together for a while and became close friends. They were two of a very small group of early haole surfers. "The first hard-core surf guys to hit Waikiki that I knew of consisted of Pete Peterson, Lorrin Harrison and Tom Blake who went there before the war," wrote Walter Hoffman, another early Californian who went to live and surf in Hawai`i in a second wave of surf invaders in the 1940s.
While in Waikiki, Whitey worked as a beach boy. In addition to friends like Pete Peterson, Tom Blake, Wally Froiseth and John Kelly, Whitey also hung with the Father of Surfing, Duke Kahanamoku. Hot Curl surfboards came on the scene in 1937, developed by the likes of John Kelly, Wally Froiseth and Fran Heath. Wally told me he remembers both Whitey and Pete were interested in the new design:
"A lot of guys -- like Whitey Harrison -- when they
came down and saw what our boards could do at Castle -- him and Pete Peterson
cut their tails down -- right there on goddamn Waikiki Beach! They cut
their tails down. Of course, when they went back to the Coast, they took
their boards with 'em."
North Shore "Re-discovered"
Even though Whitey only visited the Islands, he still must be considered part of the group of surfers that expanded surfing's Hawaiian boundaries out beyond Waikiki. The reason lay much deeper than the fact that he joined the Hot Curl surfers in the biggest waves O`ahu's South Shore had to offer. For, Whitey Harrison and another Mainlander -- Gene "Tarzan" Smith -- were the guys that "rediscovered" the North Shore in 1938, coincidentally on Whitey's first honeymoon.
Paumalu -- now known as Sunset -- is a spot noted for excellent surf even as far back as the ancient Hawaiian legends. It is likely that the North Shore of O`ahu has always been ridden at one time or another -- at least since the first Polynesian settlers made their home on the Hawaiian Chain. Unnamed surfers must have been surfing the area, if only on and off, all the way through. We know that guys like Andrew Anderson were living at Mokule`ia and surfing there in the 1920s and '30s. But, in relationship to the surfing movement of the Twentieth Century, it wasn't until Whitey and Tarzan made the call that the North Shore was put on the surfing map.
"This is the way it happened with us," Wally told me. "Whitey Harrison -- he and Gene Smith went out to Haleiwa one day. This was, like, around '37 or '38, whatever it was. They went out to Haleiwa. It was a big day. And they both almost drowned.
"So, Gene Smith was telling us about this. 'Oh, Christ! You ought to see these waves!'
"Me and my gang [the Hot Curl riders], we hear that -- 'Hey, let's go!' So, the next weekend we go out there, you know, but Haleiwa wasn't that good, but Sunset Beach was good, so we just went Sunset.
"At that time, there wasn't a name or anything. We just saw a good surf and went out. It was just when we started to have our Hot Curl boards."
"Who started going out to the North Shore?" I prodded.
"Well, like I say, Whitey Harrison, Gene Smith... Whitey came over to the islands two or three times. He came in the early '30s. We were surfing Castle -- '31, '32, somethin' around there. I mean he was...
"My brother and I, Dougie Forbes... Fran, of course,
Kelly -- there were really only a couple of guys who went North Shore after
Whitey and Gene. It was just too much for the other guys..."
Dana Point, 1930s
"When I was in Hawaii," retold Whitey, "I was paddling canoes all the time... When I came back from Hawai`i with my first wife, we lived in Dana Point. I started fishing commercial, and then I got a motorcycle and rode it all the way to Los Angeles to work at Pacific Redi-cut Systems Homes for a summer." Pacific Redi-cut Homes was the first company to produce commercial surfboards. "Tulie Clark and Carroll 'Laholio' Bertolet worked there too. Quite a few surfers worked there, this was about 1931. We were shipping sixty boards a month to Hawaii... There was this guy there named 'Dutch' that was notching these swastika symbols in some of the boards, and he couldn't speak a word of English. They called these 'swastika boards.' He'd mix glue and we'd glue up the blanks. Then we'd run them through a shaper to get a rough shape then finish them with hard planes and sandpaper. It drove me crazy, but it was work. They sold a balsa redwood plank for about $25.
"They also made and sold paddleboards. They had me racing them against all the other boards up and down the coast. They would cut all the balsa scrap into blocks, glue them together and cut them into a plan shape. Then we'd cover the top and bottom with 1/8" mahogany sheets and then laminate redwood strips along the sides which ended with redwood nose and tail blocks. They worked pretty good, and they were light!"
Whitey began shaping boards at the rate of four boards a day for one hundred dollars a month. The boards were constructed of laminated redwood and balsa which could be milled and joined with a newly developed waterproof glue. These boards used the lightness of balsa down the middle and the strength of redwood around the rails. Varnish protected the outside. "The rail shape was full with a square upper edge and rounded lower edge. The typical board was 10' long, 23" wide, and 22" across the tail block, and was known as the Swastika Model because of the distinctive logo the company used." It was later discovered that Dutch was a Nazi. After 1939, when war broke out in Europe, the swastika insignia was discontinued on Pacific Redi-cut Systems Homes boards.
Most of Whitey's shaping, however, was done in his
own shop. "... in 1936. I'd just come back from Hawai`i and I was shaping
boards for different guys like Joe Quigg and Matt
Kivlin, guys that surfed Malibu and all over. They'd drag a blank down
to Dana Point and have me shape it. I had a garage with balsa shavings
a foot thick all over the floor. Tom Blake and
everybody would come down and sleep there... You know, we had big waves
at Dana Point [before the harbor was built]. I even made a storage rack
down on the beach and kept all the boards down there. There was no way
anybody was gonna take one of those boards by carrying it outta there!
It might float away before anybody was gonna carry it out. Peanuts Larson
would come by the shop and take the leftover balsa and make model planes."
Dana Point & San Juan Capistrano, 1940s
After World War II, board experimentation shifted from Waikiki to Southern California. Material-wise, besides the addition of balsa, the innovation of the skeg and the introduction of new materials like fiberglass helped propel development. As far as shaping was concerned, the scoop nose and use of rocker had long term effects on improving board design.
In 1946, at age 33, Whitey married his second wife, Cecilia Yorba, from one of California's pioneering Spanish families. They raised their family in a historic 200-year-old adobe in San Juan Capistrano.
"When I met Cecilia, she was walking down the beach at Doheny with her cousin, and I came ridin' in on this board right to where she was standing. That had to be about 1945. She said, 'That looks like fun.' I said, 'Yeah, you've gotta try it.' So I spent a week talkin' her into going surfing with me. She said, 'Well, I don't know, they've had such awful drownings in my family, nobody wanted to go near the ocean.' So I said, 'I've worked lifeguard for five years, I'm not gonna let you drown.' A fella named Voss Harrington was surfing with me at the time I was going with her. We were in the abalone business together. Voss, Fritz and Burrhead worked abalone with me all up and down the coast of California... I talked her into coming over and helping trim abalone at the cove. Then I got her to go surfin' with me at Doheny. Voss had this 11' board. I caught a wave with Cecilia and he was on the shoulder and jumped off when he saw us coming tandem. I was standing up, and his board flipped right over, hit on top of her head and shoved her teeth through her lower lip. So that's how we started. Since then she got so she could ride real good."
As late as 1948, most all surfers still knew or knew of each other and surfboards were still pretty much of the redwood & balsa variety. "When I first started surfing," 1950s-60s big wave rider Greg Noll said, "Bob Simmons was just beginning to experiment with other materials. You'd hear a few stories about new, revolutionary Simmons boards, but up to that time there was Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg riding redwoods at Malibu. Doc Ball and the guys at the Palos Verdes Surfboard Club. Velzy, Leroy Grannis, Ted Kerwin, the Edgar brothers at Hermosa and Manhattan. Lorrin Harrison, Burrhead and the guys at San Onofre. A few guys down in La Jolla. The entire surfing population consisted of maybe a couple hundred guys, most of them riding redwood boards, paddleboards and balsa/redwoods."
"It's amazing how long it took to get to the point
where you could stand up on those redwood boards and just ride a little
Dale Velzy who shaped many of
Showing The Way, 1950s and After
Lorrin's barn in San Juan Capistrano -- built around 1890 -- became an important Southern California research and development center for experimentation with various water craft. These included diving gear, paddle boards and outriggers as well as surfboards.
"When I came here [to Capistrano beach] we kept horses in [the barn] for the kids. Later I converted it into a surfboard shop where Fly and I built two hundred and sixty rental boards for Steamboat over in Waikiki. I've probably built twenty canoes here altogether. I built five that were 44'-11'' long, right here in the barn."
Polyurethane foam surfboards had their beginnings here and in the workshop of Dave Sweet and Dave Rochlen.
"The first person to try foam in a surfboard was Bob Simmons in 1950, using polystyrene foam," wrote Greg Noll. "In 1955, Lorrin Harrison in Capistrano Beach became the first to try polyurethane foam, and in [May] 1956 Dave Sweet in Santa Monica made the first sustained effort to develop polyurethane foam boards."
In June 1958, Hobie Alter came out with the first commercially successful polyurethane foam board design. Then, in 1961, Gordon "Grubby" Clark formed Clark Foam, which became the largest foam-blank manufacturer in the world. "Foam didn't change surfboard design all that much," pointed out Greg Noll, "but it did stabilize and streamline the boards. The same type of board could be made over and over again without worrying about different weights of wood, bad grain, etc."
Grubby Clark said Whitey, as an innovator, inspired many surfers, including himself. "After all the places he'd been and waves he'd surfed, he could still get pumped about a 2-foot day at Doheny. That's the most remarkable thing about Whitey -- how he retained his skill and enthusiasm for surfing throughout his long life."
With the exception of orange and avocado ranching,
Whitey's work history was almost all related to the ocean. He was instrumental
in introducing outrigger canoe racing to the Mainland; put in time as a
lifeguard; surfboard builder and innovator and; lobster and abalone harvester
based out of Dana Point Harbor. "Whitey was one of the best divers on the
coast," said noted diver David Tompkins. "He was all over the place, living
up at Cojo for weeks at a time, diving out in the Channel Islands. He showed
us the way."
Eulogy to a Waterman
Mickey Muñoz, from a later generation of surfers, but also fortunate to have known Whitey well eulogized:
"Lorrin was, in my way of looking at it, one of my guiding lights. If I was ever feeling down about stuff, just being around him would be uplifting and I'd just go to myself, 'Jesus, if this guy lived in days that I would envy and is still as positive and as happy as he appears to be, then that's the way I wanna be and things can't be all that bad.'"
Muñoz told some stories of events that occurred toward the end of Whitey's life that were typical of Lorrin's attitude:
"By eminent domain they [the state] condemned or took a right of way through their property to put a road in, basically a bridge going over San Juan Creek connecting two main roads in Capo Beach and Dana Point. When your lifestyle is being split, if you will, by a road or violated by a road, you'd probably be pretty bummed out. Lorrin, on the other hand, came running over to my house with saliva coming out of his mouth, he was so excited that he could hardly talk and he goes, 'Yeah, part of the deal he says is that we got to cut down that big sycamore tree.' He had a huge sycamore tree that was hundreds of years old and he says, 'Yeah, that's gotta go, but I'll tell you what,' he says, 'it's part of the deal that you have to cut it, but that will make a perfect canoe.'" Muñoz laughed at this point. "I mean this is a man in his '80s so excited he could hardly talk, babbling about this tree that he wanted to make a surfing canoe out of, and so, you know, it sort of tells what kind of man he was, turning what could have been a very negative event into a very positive thing. I think Lorrin's life has been kind of a series of those kinds of reactions."
"He had a four or five way bypass [surgeries] done five years ago," said Muñoz, in 1993, "and, typical of Lorrin, he goes out surfing too soon and rips some stitches internally, so the doctor scolded him and put him back in the hospital and they had to cut him open again and re-stitch him. You know a month after the bypass he was out riding in some contest or something. So, he was just like this invincible guy... I always considered Lorrin as being invincible because he had such a wonderful outlook on life and physically he was lean and mean. I don't think the man had ever been out of shape in his life... he went in probably a pretty good way. He had been surfing all morning and his eyes weren't too good so he had stopped driving and Cecilia had been doing most of the driving for the past three or four years, so they were driving home from the beach and Lorrin had a heart attack and went right away, bang, right out and down."
Six or seven years before, Pop Proctor -- a friend of Whitey's -- had died suddenly. Mickey Muñoz drew a parellel between Pop's kickout and Whitey's: "I had the privilege of spending some months with Lorrin and Pop Proctor on the Big Island of Hawaii shortly after Lorrin got his property over there and he had put up kind of a kit home on it and he had taken Pop over there for Pop's second trip to Hawaii at 97 years old. So I got to spend quite a bit of time with both of them. Pop at that time had just lost his driver's license and having lived in a van or truck for the last 45 or 50 years, you know losing his driver's license was like hey, you might as well cut his head off. Pop was totally independent, he could take care of himself, he'd have a couple glasses of wine, talk story. He'd go in the water everyday. Unfortunately when they came back to here [the mainland], they put Pop in a hotel in San Clemente and Pop kind of looked at his life and went jeez this isn't what I want to do, this isn't how I want to live my life, so he just kind of shut himself off and checked out, and because of Pop's tenacity with life up until that time, at least as long as he had his driver's license and was independent, I think Pop would've lived until God knows what, he could've lived until his hundred and tens, who knows."
When Whitey found out about Pop's departure, his response had been, "Great! great! Good way to go, at least they didn't get a chance to put those Goddamn tubes in him."
"That kind of sums up a lot of how I feel about him and how I looked at him as a man," Mickey Muñoz concluded. "You know, he wasn't a great craftsman, but he was never afraid to try anything, build anything, make anything, do anything, you know the man's babbling out of control over a 30-foot boat he's gonna make in his '80s and you know that sycamore log sits, waiting to be seasoned... the man had so much knowledge of life in general, but especially of the water and what worked and why. Maybe not even why, he just knew what worked through trial and error through knowledge accumulated over 80-plus years of dedication." Muñoz ended by saying the sycamore would be seasoned in two or three years and after that, he hoped to be part of a team effort to go ahead with Whitey's plan to build that vision of his "perfect canoe."
On the Saturday after Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison passed away, approximately one hundred friends and family members spread his ashes in the waters off Kawaihae on the Big Island of Hawai`i. There were also ceremonies held at San Onofre marking the passage of one of surfing's greats; a man whose positive contributions we benefit from each day we hit the surf.
"I'm glad I've lived during the right time," Lorrin
said shortly before his sudden and unexpected death. "I've enjoyed every
minute of my surfing life... Of course I hate all the changes. You even
have to pay to get to the beach now, nothing's free anymore. But what can
you do? Stop going?"
Some sources quoted and/or referenced:
Amateur Craftsman's Cyclopedia of Outdoor Sports, C.R. Stecyk,
Surfriders, 1946, Cliff Tucker, Dale Velzy,
Dave Rochlen, Dave Sweet, Doc Ball, Dorian Paskowitz,
Kahanamoku, Fran Heath, Gordon "Grubby" Clark,
Greg Noll, History of Surfing, Hobie Alter, Joe Quigg, Leroy Grannis,
Lorrin "Whitey" Harrision,
Mickey Muñoz, Nat Young, Southern California surf culture,
magazine, The Surfer's
Journal, Tom Blake,
Froiseth, Walter Hoffman.
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