Veteran surfers still making waves 60 years later at 'Old Man's Beach'

September 08, 1991|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN ONOFRE STATE BEACH, Calif. -- Long ago -- before the Beach Boys and Gidget, before fiberglass and surfwear, before "dudes" and even "daddy-o's" -- a handful of men carried the first long boards into the gentle swells of the Pacific Ocean here to ride the waves.

The times were simpler then, and so was surfing, freshly imported from Hawaii and yet to be popularized, professionalized and accessorized. In the 1930s, it was just the ocean, a wooden board and a man -- somebody like Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison or Leroy "Granny" Grannis.

Both began surfing when Herbert Hoover was president. Neither has stopped.

"Did you get any waves?" Mr. Grannis, 74, asked the other day, sitting under a palm-frond shack as Mr. Harrison came up the beach, his board under his arm and water dripping from his wet suit and white hair.

"Oh, a couple," Mr. Harrison, 78, answered. "The last one was a good one. I got a good left slide all the way down."

They are a little less daring than they used to be, and some of their stamina is gone, but, 60 years after surfing made the scene in this country, some of California's original surfers are still at it.

This is where the graying wave-riders hang -- Old Man's Beach, a stretch of sand 60 miles south of Los Angeles, surrounded by a Marine base and sandwiched between a seaside nuclear plant and Richard Nixon's former oceanfront estate.

Here, a gentle surf, near-constant sunshine and a rich surfing tradition combine to draw them -- middle-age businessmen taking a break from work, retirees with the freedom of beach bums and the original legends, surfers whose parking places, though not reserved, are sacrosanct.

They don't look for monster waves anymore -- most stopped that when they turned 60 -- but joy, they say, can be found in smaller waves. And though their spirits are as free as ever, they do worry a little more about each other.

"He can't hardly see," Mr. Grannis said, fretting as Mr. Harrison paddled alone into the Pacific on a white surfboard with "Infinity" written on it. "I should have gone out there with him."

Back on shore, Mr. Harrision shows the scars from his quintuple heart bypass operation in 1984. "I've got wires in my chest. Here, you can feel them."

He was back in the water within months, he says.


"A big surf came up."

You don't have to look far to find the other living idols.

There's Terry "Tubesteak" Tracy, 56, who made his name -- and gave Gidget hers -- at Malibu.

In 1956 and 1957, he lived in a shack at Malibu, where he met the young girl he dubbed Gidget (a combination of "girl" and "midget" ). Young Kathy Kohner's father went on to write the book on which the movie "Gidget" was based.

Mr. Tracy's surfing days are over, but he's still a regular at Old Man's, where he sits in jeans that look like they've been run through a paper shredder, taking in beer and dispensing philosophy.

There's Thomas "Opai" Wert, 67, pulling up in a shiny red Renault convertible, his surfboard sticking out the back seat and his long gray hair flying behind him in a ponytail. Before he parks, he asks a young woman in a bikini if she'd like a ride.

Down the beach is Earl Alldredge, 74, knocking back brews with his 44-year-old son Paul (it's not unusual to find three generations of surfers at Old Man's) and friend Bob Dietschy.

All -- except Mr. Tracy, who remains a bit of a rebel -- are members of the San Onofre Surf Club, a once-elite organization that is the largest of its type in the country.

The surf club was started after private ranchers sold this beachfront land to the U.S. Marine Corps, which turned it into Camp Pendleton. The Marines eventually agreed to allow a few surfers to use their beach, but they required them to submit a list of names. Once an applicant moved to the top of a waiting list, which could take six years, he would have to prove his mettle, demonstrating his surfing abilities to the Marines.

The demand for a slot at San Onofre was indicative of surfing's growing popularity. In the 1930s, there were a few hundred surfers up and down the coast of California. Today, there are 1.5 million avid surfers in the United States, and 5 million more who surf occasionally, said Steve Pezman, publisher of Surfer Magazine.

The boom began after World War II, when aircraft technology and the advent of fiberglass resulted in lighter, easier-to-handle boards. It reached fad proportions in the 1960s after the movie "Gidget" and the surfing documentary "Endless Summer," and climbed steadily in the 1970s, shaping California's culture and spawning a subculture all its own.

In the 1970s, the San Onofre Surf Club gave then-President Nixon an honorary membership. But before he left office, Mr. Nixon turned the beach over to the state of California. To some surf club members, that legacy is more troubling than Watergate: The beach became public.

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