Using interviews and oral histories combined with images and artifacts — including several vintage surfboards — from La Jolla’s earliest wave-riding pioneers, the Historical Society hopes to educate visitors about the roots of a pastime that has helped shape local culture throughout the decades.
It was 1941 when one of La Jolla’s earliest surf legends, Jack “Woody” Ekstrom, 82, first lugged an 11-foot, 75-pound balsa redwood board out to sea. In a protected cove at Windansea near the home of his friend and fellow surfer, Bill Isenhower, Ekstrom would use Bill’s hollow surfboard to “try and get my balance,” he said, near a spot that the teen boys called Big Rock just south of Palomar Avenue.
Ekstrom, who bought his first board in 1944 for $7.50, still bears battle scars from the days before lighter-weight foam boards emerged in the 1950s.
“My right shoulder is still a little droopy,” he said. “We’d just heave those boards right up on our shoulders and take them out. I did that every day.”
After a brief surf hiatus to San Onofre, Ekstrom returned to La Jolla in 1944 to find that most of his surfing buddies had been deployed to fight in World War II.
“I had to surf alone on those big waves,” Ekstrom remembered. “But I was better by then, so I could handle the biggest waves of Windansea.”
When the war ended in 1945 and most men were able to return home, Ekstrom said, the whole crew reunited for a beach luau in 1946.
“There were about 800 of us there,” he said. “Guys came from all up and down the coast and it was just word of mouth. All us surfers knew each other and we’d tell who needed to know.”
That close-knit culture, Ekstrom said, has probably changed more than anything else since the earliest days of surfing. “It used to be that you’d see a surfboard on a car and know whose it was,” he said. “Now there are just so many people. There were more waves to go around back then, and it’s just a better situation when surfers know each other.”
In sum, Ekstrom said, “We had quality, and they have quantity.”
“We experienced a lot with those big heavy boards that these young guys will never experience,” he said. “But at the same time, they’re doing things on these new boards that we couldn’t even imagine when we first started surfing.”
Different technology also meant that surfers had to be dedicated.
“We surfed all year round, no wet suits, no leashes,” Ekstrom said. “It was pretty cold.”
In addition to standard U.S. Navy- issue swim shorts, Ekstrom said, some surfers would don wool sweaters in an attempt to fight the chill. When the first wetsuit, made of “some type of rubber product,” became available in the 1950s, Ekstrom said he still avoided it at all costs.
“It’s like having a big rubber band around your body,” he said. “They’re better now, but I’d rather be free in the water.”
Ekstrom’s younger brother, Carl, began shaping boards in the 1950s and Ekstrom has ridden his models exclusively ever since.
However, Ekstrom said he hasn’t surfed much in the last five years.
“I don’t quite have the same agility,” he said.
But he still has his old boards, many of which are on display at the historical society’s exhibit.
In addition, Ekstrom said, he still has his old friends.
“The ones who are still alive, anyway,” he chuckled. “We all went to La Jolla High School together and we were all in each other’s weddings. Back then it wasn’t about who was better, we were just all out there doing it and having fun.”
Michael Mishler, curator and archivist at the historical society, said the exhibit has thus far been “a lot of fun,” and added that its opening day was attended by several of the early surfers or their widows. Some of the guests included Ekstrom, John Blankenship’s wife, Joan, and “Black Mac” McClendon, and Dr. Kenneth Haygood, who first approached the society with the idea for the exhibit.
“This exhibit is great because it really shows the roots of La Jolla surf culture when it was just a group of guys trying to figure out how to have fun in the water, and before it was a part of the worldwide surf story,” Mishler said.
The exhibit is free to the public and will run through June 20 on Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 4 p.m. Call (858) 459-5335 or visit lajollahistory.org for more information.