This week the Beach & Bay Press looks into the surf culture from the breaks at Sunset Cliffs to the ripcurls at Windansea. Learn more about the local legends, and old surfers who still ride the waves everyday in the story below.
ON THE OUTSIDE
In the 1940s, Jim “Mouse” Robb surfed on solid red wood boards, varnished and carved like a boat at Sunset Cliffs and around Ocean Beach. He formalized about seven of his 13-year-old friends into a club he called the Sunset Cliff Surfers. In the ’60s, Bobby “Challenger” Thomas mobilized his middle school pals into a club to hold the first official Pacific Beach surf contest sanctioned by the Pacific Beach Town Council. A decade later, Bobby Challenger built a legendary business designing and manufacturing surf boards that started in Pacific Beach, and whose boards now sell to collectors for thousands of dollars. In the ’70s localism – wherein youngsters claimed their beaches – grabbed Tom Wolfe’s imagination when he wrote about the Windansea surf gang in his book The Pump House Gang. In the ’90s, Glen Palcubar sat at an awards ceremony for the Surfrider Foundation hosted at the Birch Aquarium and realized Pacific Beach needed to band its surfers together to protect their interests: clean water and beach access. In the summer of 2009, the Windansea Surf Club will bus in more than one hundred children to give homeless families and youth with disabilities their day at the beach.
Surf culture has changed in San Diego with the advent of technology: the boards are lighter and easier to manage and the sport has become accessible to everyone. Surf clubs have evolved from young social groups to active non-profits that play a proactive role in the community and whose members travel along the coast to compete against other surf clubs.
When surfboards were made of wood It was 1944, when Jim “Mouse” Robb formed his seven friends into the Sunset Cliff Surfers.
“It was just a bunch of us who surfed together,” said Mouse. At that time, Mouse “had to knock on doors” to get people to go surfing with him. Mouse rode an 11-foot board made of red wood that was varnished and flat and that weighed 70 pounds. In those days, surfers paddled on their knees and drug a foot in the water to turn left or right.
“We knew a guy who would go up to LA to get the boards,” Mouse said. “He sold them for $25. They floated quite well.”
Mouse grew up in Mission Beach and Ocean Beach. As a young boy, Mouse hung around the lifeguard stations where he earned the nickname for his small stature. In the early 1950s, Mouse served in the Korean War as a crewman in the Air Force. After his service, Mouse spent a few years as a lifeguard before he went on to work for AT&T.
Mouse, 76, now lives in Point Loma where he surfs everyday at Sunset Cliffs for its variety of breaks.
“Every wave is a thrill no matter how big or small it is,” Mouse said. “It just gets in your blood. All you have to do is buy a board and wetsuit and the ocean is free.”
Shaping the future In October 2008, the Tourmaline Tailgaters Surfing Association erected a monument at Tourmaline Canyon Surfing Park to honor the local surfing legends that came out of the area. Tourmaline Tailgaters member and surfer Greg Miller first envisioned the idea for the monument as a way to immortalize surfers – famous and not so famous – that frequent Tourmaline Surf Park. His idea was sparked one day after walking past the bench dedicated to surfer Skeeter Malcolm at Tourmaline Surf Park. Miller’s wife, Cheri, Tom Davis, John Pruitt, Glen Paculba and Jeff Grant also worked to make the project a reality. At the top of the monument are familiar surfing names, legends that graduated from Mission Beach High School in the late 1950s: Skip Frye, Larry Gordon, Mike Hynson, Floyd Smith and Bobby “Challenger” Thomas.
“It’s a monument, not a memorial,” joked Challenger. “We’re not dead yet. We’ve yet to finish our legendary work. We’ve yet to lay our sticks down.”
Challenger made his official mark on the surf culture at the age of 14 when the Kanakas Surf Club rejected Challenger because he was too young to join the group. So Challenger and four of his friends started the PB Surf Club. It was 1956. The young surfers made sweatshirts and the Pacific Beach Town Council sponsored their first surf contest at the Aqua Fair.
Challenger soon began shaping wooden boards that he described as “long, heavy and unmanageable.” He switched to working with foam boards in 1958, and began shaping 125 boards each week out of a warehouse his dad had built in Pacific Beach.
“It was all about how fast you can paddle to catch the biggest wave,” Challenger said. “When you get a large massive motion in the water, you want to join that force. The new material of foam made [surfing] something that everybody could enjoy…I was part of that innovation.”
Artists and collectors now buy his boards. A quick, bright yellow board inscribed in black with the word “Challenger” hangs over stools at Taco Surf on Mission Boulevard. A collector in Australia purchased one of his boards for $3,300 that he originally shaped to sell for $120. Manufacturers in China have offered to buy his design, but he is only interested in passing on the business to his grandchildren.
Challenger had originally planned on becoming a police officer, and never imagined that his passion for surfing would build him a career.
Challenger doesn’t believe that much has changed within the surf culture since the ’60s. He said surfing was introduced to Southern California through Navy ties with Hawaii that popularized all things Polynesian.
“We were getting it first hand, right out of the chute,” Challenger said. “We embraced it and will continue to embrace it because it is our future.”
Now in his late 60s himself, Challenger lives in Carlsbad but still returns to Tourmaline to surf on occasion. He recently took his grandchildren to Pacific Beach Point where his grandchildren marveled at the dangerous rocks.
“I know,” Challenger told them. “A lot of my blood is on those rocks.
Bridging the Gap Born-and-raised Point Loma surfer Nathan Cintas said he knows all the “young shredders” and all the “old, local boys” who surf at Sunset Cliffs.
“For some reason there is a gap,” Cintas said, “and it is always me who is asked by a grom, “Hey Nate, do you know that guy?” referring to an old local. Then I get the question, “Hey Nate, do you know that kid?”, referring to one of the up-and-coming little shredders.”
Cintas’ son, Nate, Jr., is a case in point of a rising surf star. His father calls him “one of the most creative surfers around.” Headed for the national championships, Nate, Jr. suffered a set back when another surfer’s fin cut his Achilles tendon.
But Nate, Sr. isn’t just a surfer socialite. He has also built a career out of his passion and knowledge in the sport. Cintas runs the Point Loma Boardroom, a surf shop at the Liberty Station Marketplace.
“I started my shop because I am totally over the corporate surf shops where little robots run around selling everything but surf hardware,” Nate Sr. wrote in an email from Bali where he is designing a line of woman’s jewelry. “Granted the apparel pays the rent, but I just got sick of walking into shops where you don’t meet the owner, and he or she probably doesn’t surf.”
Glen Paculba had also wanted to fill a void when he opened Glen Star Surfing on Mission Boulevard 30 years ago. A surfer from Hawaii trained in interior design, Paculba said he based his surf shop on a simple principle: looking the customer in the eye. Paculba said he visited surf shops from Mexico to Los Angeles and found the same welcome.
“When I went into a surf shop whether I was well-dressed or dressed like them, they would look at me, qualify me and then look away,” Paculba said. “I told my wife that when people walked into our shop, we would look them in the eye, say goodbye when they leave and say thank you. That was unique in the surf industry at the time, and it worked. We built our business on loyalty, friendship and product mix.”
In 1993, Paculba gathered together a group of friends at Hennessey’s Tavern on Mission Boulevard to reinvigorate the PB Surf Club. The club aimed to champion clean water and beach access, create camaraderie among surfers and contribute to the community. Within a year, PB Surf Club had rebounded to 240 members. For the past 11 years, the club has organized a longboard surf contest that raises money for charity. This past year, proceeds from the longboard challenge were donated to Izzy Paskowitz’s Surfers Healing event, a surf day for children with autism. PB Surf Club also purchased the emergency call box at Tourmaline Surf Park, and has spent five years raising more than $100,000 to build the memorial to local surfers at Tourmaline.
“Since the opening of the park in May 1963, Tourmaline’s local surfers have shared their time, skills and wisdom with all who have been interested in receiving them,” reads a portion of the memorial plaque.
In the past 15 years, Sunset Cliffs Surfing Association has raised more than $100,00 for spinal cord research through its annual Surf Classic event held in September.
“It gives you a greater purpose than just belonging to the club and not doing anything but breathing the air,” said Billy “Butter” Joyce, a member of the Sunset Cliffs Surfing Association.
Windansea Surf Club President Tim Graham, who grew up on Prospect Street in La Jolla, said Windansea’s driving force is the “menehune,” which is a Hawaiian word for leprechaun and references a young surfer. Windansea Surf Club hosts two annual events that give children with disabilities and children of homeless families a day at the beach. Windansea is currently seeking volunteers for their Aug. 29 “Day At the Beach.”
As far as Windansea’s reputation for localism, Graham said surfers should understand their skill level and not attempt to surf large waves until they’re ready – and not just ready to brag about it.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Graham said. “It’s about how you present yourself.”
Surfing is a lifestyle, explained Challenger, as he sat on the bed of his truck in the Tourmaline parking lot.
“We have our country clubs – it’s the beach, and the parking lot is our village.”
OB Historical Society will discuss legendary surfers, Aug. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Masonic Hall, 1711 Sunset Cliffs Blvd.