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Every Sandbar Tells a Story

A La Jolla Shores memoir.

Light / Dark

It was August of 1970, and I was 9 years old. My dad was working as a computer programmer for the Control Data Corporation. In my short life, our family had been relocated five times: Phoenix to Dallas to Los Angeles to Goleta, and then, finally, to San Diego.

Dad happened to rent the home of the Bridgman family, which sat on a mesa behind La Jolla Shores on Starlight Drive. The house was built into a canyon slope, and had two levels. We lived in the upper level. Though most of the Bridgman family had hastily moved to Atlanta due to a sudden change in the father’s employment, the eldest two sons, Dan and Paul Bridgman, continued to live in the lower level next to the garage. 

Dan and Paul were part of a low-key progressive surf scene at the Shores and Black’s. Known as the Starlight House, their home was a focal point and gathering place for local and visiting surfers and shapers in the years following the shortboard revolution. The Bridgman brothers built boards in the downstairs garage, and had a little brand they called Atlantis. Thus, through random coincidence, my brother Peter and I happened to land right in the middle of it all.

Right away we met two kids from down the street, Colin and Barry Brown, who were close to our age and introduced us to the local beaches. Colin was already board surfing, and rode a red 6-foot Bridgman-built Atlantis. With guidance from Colin, we spent the summer of 1971 bodysurfing and bellyboarding with swim fins—learning how to swim out into the lineup, catch breaking waves, and ride them to the beach.

In August, I acquired Colin’s Atlantis bellyboard, a twin-fin with a blue acid swirl. Peter and I shared it. On the bellyboard we learned how to angle across the open face and recognize the difference between a closeout and a makeable shoulder, and we began to seek waves with growing appreciation and discernment.

In September of 1971, we moved out of the Starlight House and into La Jolla Shores Heights, a housing development near UC San Diego. The Shores was a 20-minute walk through the neighborhood and down the hill. Back then, much of the hillside was still open chaparral, and on the way down we had a view of the surf from the Cove to Scripps Pier.

Usually, we’d head straight to the Shores proper, bounded by an old Spanish-tiled house on the north, the lifeguard tower in the middle, and the exclusive La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club to the south. If it looked small we’d head north towards Scripps, which picked up more swell, passing the White House, Green Wall, and Lots (oceanfront vacant lots that have been long since replaced by very expensive real estate). On rare days when the swell was big enough, we’d walk down to our favorite spot, The Marine Room, tucked into the southernmost corner of the beach.

Peter and I learned to board surf after school and on weekends in the fall of 1971. The first cold fronts brought rain down from the Gulf of Alaska, and an emerald carpet of wild grass sprouted in the chaparral along the trail. The ocean also changed with the seasons, revealing more beauty and mystery. We tapped into our yard-work money to buy long john and beavertail wetsuits.  

One day, I stood up on a whitewater that backed off over a deep spot, which sent me angling across an open face. The board accelerated without effort. I felt energy flow from the wave through my board to my toes and up to my brain. I was hooked for life. 

Mom got us a subscription to Surfer for Christmas in 1971, and she renewed it every year until 1976. Its arrival in our mailbox every other month was an event rivaled only by the occasional touring surf movie. Turning the pages from cover to cover, we were spellbound. 

One issue had an interview with Phil Edwards. He doesn’t mention the Shores, but makes a timeless statement that gets to the heart of what I was experiencing at the time. 

“The most thrilling time of my life,” he says, “was the first time I ever caught a wave and rode it all the way in. It was downhill from then on.” 

For my brother and myself and thousands of others, that first ride all the way in—that perfect thrill—happened at La Jolla Shores.

Situated in the middle of La Jolla Bay, the Shores is traditional Kumeyaay territory, who referred to the region as Mat Kulaaxuuy, or “land of holes,” probably in reference to the numerous sea caves in the area. On the map, the bay stretches from Torrey Pines to La Jolla Cove, dangling like a fishhook in the depths of the Southern California Bight. To the north are the high cliffs of Black’s, to the south Mount Soledad looms tall before tapering down to cliffs that run seaward to La Jolla Cove. To the east are a series of high mesas bisected with small canyons. Situated between the heights on three sides and the ocean to the west is a triangular bench of land about a mile square. Here, a grid of residential streets was developed that eventually grew to become the wealthy neighborhood known as La Jolla Shores.

Skip Frye easing through summer windswell, 1960s. Photograph by Brad Barrett.

Houses were first built in the 1920s, starting with the White House, a romantic red-tiled Spanish beauty that has since been razed for a McMansion. The Shores neighborhood began to fill in after the arrival of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club in the early 1930s, followed in the 1940s by the infamous Rancho del Charro. J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, and Richard Nixon were all guests of the Rancho del Charro, which was nestled in a canyon behind the Shores. Noir master Raymond Chandler moved to La Jolla in 1946, and Rancho del Charro appears in his final novel, Playback, as the fictionalized Rancho Descansado, where protagonist Phillip Marlowe gets caught up in mischief involving guns, fistfights, whiskey bottles, and blackmail. Roger Revelle, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography director who led the effort to establish UC San Diego in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had to fight against anti-semitic real estate practices that restricted property ownership in La Jolla Shores to only people with “pure European ancestry.” Meanwhile, from high above on Mount Soledad, Dr. Seuss looked down upon that discrimination and anti-semitism at the Shores, satirizing it in “The Sneetches.”

The Shores and its mile-long crescent of sand are part of a complex oceanic and geologic zone. Three north-south trending earthquake faults enter the ocean at the southern end of La Jolla Shores: the Rose Canyon, Mount Soledad, and Country Club. Just offshore is the La Jolla Submarine Canyon and its near-shore tributary, the Scripps Canyon.

The meeting of deep submarine canyons and diverse coastal topography creates a variety of surf conditions in a relatively small area. Dozens of miles of north-south littoral sand flow comes down the coast and spills into the canyons. The canyons have the power to refract and bend groundswell to an almost unbelievable degree. They also bring clear ocean water close to shore, but hidden forces are always at play in La Jolla Bay. Underwater landslides and upwelling in the canyons can murk up and chill the water in a matter of hours.

The La Jolla Cove headland blocks most summertime south swell energy from hitting the Shores, while the submarine canyons refract groundswells away toward La Jolla’s reefs and Black’s. The Shores is open to the northwest, so it picks up summer windswell generated by afternoon breezes off the Channel Islands. Windswell’s shallow energy floats right over the canyons without being refracted, and afternoon whitecaps off Santa Barbara arrive at the Shores the following morning as groomed little peaks. In summer, warm surface water piles up inside La Jolla Bay, a plus for early surfers in the days before wetsuits.

George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku both spent time in San Diego while popularizing surfing in California in the early 1900s, inspiring locals to build their own boards and take up surfing themselves. In the 1920s, surfer Henry “Hank” Algert, a friend of Duke’s, started a freeboarding business at the Shores, towing customers on hydroplane boards behind his motorboat. Prior to Woody Brown pioneering Windansea in 1937, surfing was limited to the margins of the La Jolla peninsula: the rollers of Tourmaline near the south end, and the Shores, including the small lefts that rolled into La Jolla Cove, at the north end.

As surfing progressed at Windansea during the 1940s and 50s, the Shores became known as a sheltered spot with generally smaller waves. There were Windansea guys and Shores guys, separate crews. As a rule, Windansea got respect while the Shores got belittled. Windansea guys were entitled to full Shores privileges, while Shores guys had to earn a spot at Windansea. With the formation of the mighty Windansea Surf Club in the early 1960s, the Shores, naturally, was selected as the venue for a kids’ contest. The club’s legendary Menehune Championships was for surfers 12 and under. Eleven-year-old Margo Godfrey was crowned Grand Champion for the inaugural event in 1965, beating everyone, including the older boys. She came back in 1966 and won again.

The kids’ contest helped establish the Shores as a sort of neutral crossroads and nursery for surfers who grew up and moved on to the powerful and storied La Jolla reefs or the frontier juice of Black’s. Though it was often the butt of jokes when it came to wave size and crowds, when conditions were right all sorts of surfers, including the best of the county, gathered at the Shores. 

“My best memories of the Shores are from the mid 60s, Hynson’s Red Fin era,” says Skip Frye. “There were a few years when we got it so good. No closeouts, just peelers. The Shores has a special energy with the clear water and the beautiful surroundings. Diffenderfer surfed it a lot too, and Peter Parkin.”

Gary Keating with partial quiver, 1975: “My best friend lived next to Butch Van Artsdalen,” said the late Keating. “He had so many boards you couldn’t count ’em all. To a surfer, you might say he was a millionaire. I was convinced that having a bunch of boards was the way to be the best.” Photograph by Jeff Divine.
Keating, refusing to break trim despite hazards in his lane, 1972. Photograph by Jeff Divine.

Surfer magazine photographer Ron Stoner often came down to La Jolla during this time and shot the Shores, including kids at the Menehune contest and other surfers associated with the Windansea Surf Club. Two of the hottest young Shores surfers of the era were Bill Andrews and Dickie Moon. Stoner immortalized them in Surfer in a series of iconic photos at Black’s, taken from high above on the cliff. Black’s lost its secret-spot status when a later Stoner shot of Andrews riding a crystal-clear wall landed on the magazine’s cover. Moon ended up in a photo collage on the inside cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request.

The era of longboard classicism as exemplified by the Windansea Surf Club began to fade after Nat Young won the 1966 world contest at Ocean Beach. In 1967, Frye and other Windansea Surf Club members journeyed to the heart of the shortboard revolution in Australia. They arrived in Sydney for a team competition as the most formidable force of the longboard era. They returned to California as shortboard converts after being thrashed in the event by the Australians and their new style of vee-bottom surfing.

As a small-wave venue, the Shores quickly became one of Southern California’s hotbeds of early shortboard surfing. A new group of young surfers soon emerged at the spot, including Neal Norris, Randy Pidd, Tom Ortner, Henry Hester, Gary Keating, Tim Lynch, Jon Foster, Jeff Divine, Reed Mayne, and Dan and Paul Bridgman. The garage scene bloomed under their watch, as vee-bottoms, eggs, and mini-guns took over the lineup. One notable exception from this generation was Kurt Ledterman, who remained loyal to his Carl Ekstrom longboard.

All the large surfboard brands were blindsided by the shortboard revolution, and retail shops suddenly had massive amounts of dead longboard inventory. At first, the only way to get on a new short machine was to chop down a longboard and reshape it, or make your own blank. In La Jolla, supplies for at-home boardmakers, including blanks, soon became readily available at Mitch’s Surf Shop, just a mile into town from the Shores. Local garage designs, from fishes to eggs to downrailers, were built, surfed, tested, and refined by the younger generation out front.

Contrasted with this explosion of youthful exuberance and creativity was the old-school—some would say cutthroat—business tactics and marketing methods of Gordon & Smith. Once a garage design had traction in the underground it would be picked up and commercially mainstreamed by G&S, and the Shores became a major testing ground for G&S prototypes. Mayne, Lynch, Bolton Colburn, Frye, and Keating were A-list G&S team riders during those years. They often appeared in G&S ads surfing the Shores, from Lynch’s classically styled roundhouse cutbacks to Frye’s cheater-five trims. Those ads, which appeared in Surfer, also showed off the updates and new G&S models. Looking at the bi-monthly campaigns in the magazine from 1970 through 1975, one can trace the trajectory of Shores surfers and design genres, some faddish and some legit. 

Though they were on the opposite ends of the spectrum, local surfers often had a foot in each world, benefitting from both the traditional branded commercialism of G&S and the freeform garage individualism supplied by Mitch’s. Both businesses boomed at the time, G&S especially. When the dust of the transition to shortboards settled, it was the largest surfboard manufacturer in the world.

By the time Peter and I entered the lineup in October 1971, the interplay between garage design and commercialism at the Shores was in full swing. Our brotherly quiver reflected this, as we swapped between his shop-bought, stock G&S twin-fin and my garage-built Atlantis. Even commercial surfboard brands like G&S couldn’t escape the genuinely soulful aesthetic of the surfers, shapers, and photographers of the day. Style, flow, and respect for nature defined the era, especially at the Shores.

As that first autumn of ours deepened, the crowds of summer surfers and tourists disappeared. The parking lot was mostly empty. Then winter came. It revealed the social workings of the hardcore, year-round surfing subculture. There was a loose hierarchy on land and in the lineup. Distinct cliques staked out territory in the parking lot while claiming a corresponding section of the boardwalk and seawall. 

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, each group reflected levels of socioeconomic status. Privileged La Jollan surfers from upper-middle-class families, for instance, hung out on the north end of the parking lot by the brick bathhouse. Surfers from the middle-class communities of Clairemont and University City, including the excellent Jeff Hodges and Tony Staples, hung out down by the lifeguard tower. Out in the surf, though, everybody mixed. Over time we made friends outside our cliques.

Though dominated by La Jollans, the northwest corner of the parking lot was where the best surfers from around the whole county would mingle when the Shores was good. The corner was next to a paved serpentine walkway that wound past the south-facing brick wall of the bathhouse. The wall was surrounded by a manicured lawn, and on cold winter days it was a good place to warm up after surfing. Sitting against it, shivering in the sun, we’d watch the antics of the older crew from a safe distance. 

The Shores was also the focal point for the G&S surf-skate team, and it was through skating that we bonded with older surfers like Keating and Hester, both of whom surfed and skated for G&S. They drove us to skate contests and to spots like the Reservoir in Escondido and the fresh black asphalt hills of La Costa. For Keating and Hester, the radically improved performance of urethane wheels added fuel to the fire when it came to surfboard design, about which both were already very open-minded and enthusiastic. The early 70s breakthrough in skate performance inspired them to chase the same feelings of speed and traction in their surfboards. They were heavily into fishes and experimental boards, and they shared with us design history, their insights and context, and even their own equipment. 

After our family moved to La Jolla Shores Heights, the Starlight House evolved into a communal surf home managed by Paul Bridgman, who was fully engaged in his studies at UC San Diego, and was a full-on counterculture surf center right in the middle of a very conservative La Jolla neighborhood. The three-car garage had been completely turned into a surfboard-manufacturing site. The Bridgmans, Foster, Rusty Preisendorfer, and others made boards there. Preisendorfer was one of the first young surfer-college students to rent a room in the house after we left. He branded the boards he built there Starlight Surfboards. Jim Turner shaped boards in the garage for Jeff Crawford, who visited La Jolla several times before winning the 1974 Pipeline Masters. Hynson also shaped boards at the house, with his downrail concepts becoming a major influence on everyone who shaped in the area in the early 70s.

Christmas of 1972 saw groomed sandbars and precisely angled groundswell bring rare perfection to the Shores. These waves were nothing like the tight-interval peaks or long-interval closeouts we were familiar with. They were hollow righthanders that jumped out of the submarine canyon and reeled beautifully into a distinct channel. The sets were focused down by the White House, starting off well overhead and peeling until they were knee-high. Keating and Lynch were in their prime, and we watched in awe from the shoulder and beach as they carved the beautifully tapering walls. 

*

By 1976, Peter and I had outgrown the Shores as our go-to spot. We began to surf mostly at Black’s, while making forays to  La Jolla’s reefs. In 1977, my dad was laid off and couldn’t find a new job. He suffered from extreme depression and was institutionalized for months. Mom went to work as a secretary. But the center couldn’t hold, and in the end it all fell apart. Mom divorced him and eventually remarried. The house in La Jolla Shores Heights was sold. Peter and I moved into an old home on Draper Street, near the reefs, with some other surfers. We were still in high school, and took restaurant jobs to pay our rent.

The surfing childhood we experienced at the Shores was a privilege born of our parents’ sacrifice. Dad fought in the Korean War, put himself through college, and landed a job that allowed us a fleeting foothold in one of the wealthiest areas in the country. Peter and I managed to remain in La Jolla through the 1980s by working in restaurants, painting houses, and doing construction while living in rented rooms and apartments. My sisters and parents left La Jolla for good in 1978, all going their separate ways.

Boardwalk antics. No surf and a thin layer of sand on the concrete were all that was needed. Kyle Bakken hits the corner, while sitting left to right are Glenn Chase, Pat Ahern, and Mark Procopio. Photograph by Jeff Divine.
The hangout spot in the northwest corner of the lot, 1971. Pictured from left to right: Pat Ahern, unidentified, shaper-surfer George Taylor, and Keith Richards. Note the undeveloped hillsides in the background. Photograph by Jon Foster.

The major players of the 1970s seemed to also head down their own paths. A handful of Shores surfers of that era embarked on careers in the media. Foster, Divine, and Ledterman all got their start working for Waves, a local surf newsprint inspired by Australia’s legendary Tracks. Divine and Foster shot surf photos and worked on layout. Ledterman was in sales, driving up and down the coast selling ad space to surf shops. Divine became a staff photographer at Surfer in 1972. In 1974, Ledterman also joined the Surfer staff as associate editor. By 1975, he was doing double-duty at SkateBoarder magazine, all the while maintaining his role as chief philosopher, historian, and poet of the Shores parking lot. He eventually took on his role as “Mellow Cat,” appearing in character in the Hal Jepsen-produced cult skate film Skateboard Madness

Behind his seemingly well-adjusted and stable exterior, Keating was suffering from untreated mental illness. He took his own life in the spring of 1977, at the age of 26. As teenagers, we didn’t know how to process it. We coped with escapism and denial. We had youth and health on our side but, deep down, we knew that even youth hadn’t saved Keating, our mentor and friend.

From the 1980s to the present day a number of crews, cliques, and surf movements have added to the Shores story. The 80s were defined by the hardcore rockabilly shredding of Tommy Brewer, Jack and Ted Cassidy, Mickey Miner, David Eggers, and dozens of other denizens of the UC-La Jolla-Clairemont triangle. Even Jeff Spicoli was a Shores surfer from Clairemont. Throughout this time, Preisendorfer rose to international prominence as a shaper.

A deep low-pressure system stalled off Central California typically brings perfect tubes to the Shores from dawn until dusk. Author Richard Kenvin on a memorable day in February of Longtime Shores local Dave Frankel set up in front of the Beach & Tennis Club, a mile down the sand, to capture this image. Photograph by Dave Frankel.

The 90s saw the Starlight House demolished. There was also some incredibly good surf at the Shores, especially in 1995 and 1998, though all the cameras of that decade were focused on the Cove. The 1990s longboard renaissance, however, hit the Shores full force. As it was during the heyday of the Windansea Surf Club, the Shores was graced by fine displays of logging, with Joel Tudor doing exquisite justice to Archie’s left and Erik Sommer channeling Hynson on the bathhouse rights. The Shores still remains a mecca for latter-day loggers.

The 2000s saw the popularity of the Shores increase exponentially, fueled by an effective and prolific network of forecasters and cameras trained on the Shores. Despite the intense crowds, and coming full circle, youth from the Kumeyaay tribe have recently been making the two-hour drive from their lands in the mountains to surf and reconnect with the ocean lifestyle their ancestors practiced here for thousands of years.

Ledterman’s 1973 description of that long-gone era, when I first experienced the Shores, would make seem like an empty lineup compared to today, but in many ways still rings true of the place: 

“The Shores, of late, is teaching wisdom rather than pleasure. Due to some rather hedonistic years in the late 60s, when everyone thought they owned the place, it has slowed to a populated standstill. However, in reward for the patient and faithful, some express tubes have come down recently. These miraculous creatures then proceeded to build up nine points off the northern speaker pole and peel off most rhythmically, exciting both locals and strangers alike, to the stoking joys of the past. (You’ll recall the past as 6- to 8-foot slight offshore spindrifters everyday, including holidays and leap years.) ‘Yes,’ DeeDee speaks, ‘those winter waves were second best only to pure sunshine and they do grant decaying La Jolla a little of her lost energy—for she is still beautiful, even in her declining years!’ But, alas, there were no lefts…”