Who was the first to ride the surf at San Onofre? No one can say for certain. The late, great George “Peanuts” Larson of Laguna would have claimed the title for himself; but others contend that it was Orange, California’s Matt Brown and Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison who first stumbled onto ‘Nofre’s forgiving waves while heading south from Corona Del mar in search of surf.
Sometime during the mid-’30s, rumors began buzzing of a “fish camp,” with incredible surf, located on a beach in an obscure; desolate place called San Onofre.
As surfing’s popularity had increased at spots like Long Beach flood control, Corona Del Mar and Palos Verdes’ Bluff Cove, so had the idea of searching for new breaks. In those days, riding 11-14 foot planks and paddleboards at a dumping beachbreak like Hermosa was a challenging feat. So when word got back to the surfers at Corona Del Mar and Palos Verdes, about a gently sloping, long-peeling wave with size and consistency, they were immediately intrigued. Depending where you lived in SoCal, the drive averaged one to three hours, down the two-lane coast highway to get to ‘Nofre. It was an inland cruise by way of San Juan Capistrano through the citrus groves from which Orange County got its name– there was no highway along the Laguna coast at the time.
Surf Waves, Radio Waves, Shock Waves
It was a beautiful, clear morning at San Onofre on December 7th, 1941. The sun was hot, the crowds were thin, and the surf was running about five feet. Bud “Augie” Anderson had been down in the area for a few days. Saturday night he and other surfers had gone to the movies at the old Miramar Theater, a few miles north in sleepy San Clemente.
The San Onofre Surfing Club was loosely formed in 1951. Membership included a key to the swinging iron gate that was established for entry control. That system was short-lived, though, as copies of the keys made their way up and down the coast within months. In early ’52, the Club tightened up its program by hiring paid gate guards, who checked the official Club windshield decal (the logo of which was fashioned by artist Don Smith, a machinist for Disney) and membership ID card against the Club’s roster list. The SOSC was officially off and running with its exclusive beach and soon-to-be, well-entrenched “big family” lifestyle. This era was the beginning of a tradition that had its roots firmly planted by the early-'50s, but in many respects would continue to represent the overall style of life at San‘O for decades to come.
At the annual beach meeting on August 27, 1961, it was proposed and so voted that the bylaws, as prepared by Andre Jahan, be changed to provide for a “mail vote” election of a Board of Directors. In turn, the elected Board would then elect the Club officers. In April of 1962, the newly elected Board of Directors elected Al Dowden to again serve as President of the Club. Of the many accomplishments of Al Dowden in the improvement in Club management and efficiency, it should be noted that he was the instrumental force in establishing the position of a hired professional Club Manager. By this time the Club had expanded to 800 paid members. It was evident to President Dowden that the part time management of SOSC’s affairs was no longer effective. In addition to the guards for the gate, the Club now employed John Huckins and E.J. Oshier as beach maintenance men, and a young but efficient corresponding secretary named Pat Hazard to handle Club commitments and activity.
Like every crisis facing a community, strong leaders are always essential to the solution. With the looming likelihood of a State Parks take over, the Club was facing the potential loss of all it had created. Great leadership was needed for its very survival.
Some leaders are born, some become great through their efforts, and some have greatness thrust upon them. In the case of the San Onofre Surfing Club, it was lucky enough to get all three. In the spring of 1970, Sam Conroy relieved Jerry Gaffney as Club manager and pursued his duties with unprecedented vitality. An excellent skier and surfer, Sam assisted Club President Doug Craig and the Board of Directors. An ex-Marine officer and popular San Clemente High School teacher, he effectively handled the liaison work with both military and State personnel, in addition to the regular duty with Club members. Probably Sam’s most noteworthy quality has been his ability to take any small insignificant incident out of his past and turn it into the damnedest story you ever heard. But even Sam could not stop the inevitable march of national politics and military bureaucracy.
The decade of the Eighties was marked by efforts to preserve the physical elements of the beach and begin to commemorate the traditions of the past. While challenges continued the SOSC met them with continued vigilance.
From 1971 to 1982, the State did very little to improve conditions at the surf beach. They built a different entrance with a toll gate, began charging $2 per day, slipped in an occasional life guard tower and placed logs all along the road to separate the road and parking area from the beach. The most notable change was to restrict maximum occupancy to 350 vehicles at any given time.
The Nineties was an era of growth, celebration and revival. While the previous decade had kept the flame alive, this one was marked by a new found energy that produced a resurgent pride and productivity.
The explosion of long boards brought a renewed set of members, while the economic affluence of the era created a welcome sense of comfort and collective optimism. The Hawaiian Surf Club of San Onofre was founded in January of 1990 by a group of transplanted Hawaiian surfers that wanted to share the Hawaiian culture and the Aloha spirit in surfing.
Huell Howser, the National Public Broadcasting host of the critically acclaimed “California's Gold” series about notable people and places in the Golden State, produced an episode on San Onofre. It aired in 2000, and was well received by the general television audience. Unfortunately (or maybe not so) the camera crew arrived on one of the flattest days of the year. Although the show producers did capture some great interviews with many of the Clubs leading lights, Hoole was pretty clue-less when it came to wave knowledge. And while the film crew did shoot a few of the musicians playing the Bamboo Room, they didn’t hang around to shoot the Wednesday evening sessions, when the real magic of the music emerges. But that’s showbiz, and San Onofre really isn’t about that at all.