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Every Sandbar Tells a Story

Taking stock of La Jolla Shores' nuanced politics and position as hotbed of surfing progression.

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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, La Jolla 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.”

Blanks at Mitch’s in 1968, an honest board builder’s shop still thriving today.
Photograph by Paul Bridgman.

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.

Tim Lynch, downshifting on 1972 state-of-the-art-equipment. Photograph by Jeff Divine.

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.

Pick up the new issue of TSJ for the full read:
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