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Steamer Lane: The Saga of Surfing in Santa Cruz

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My life is the ocean...the ocean is my life. – Robert “Wally” Waldemar memorial plaque

I’ve always been in awe of surfers. I am an avid ocean frolicker, body surfer and paddle boarder, but I have never been able to muster the courage to get on a surf board. But I do love to watch surfers, with their steely concentration and easy grace, as they wait for waves in quiet repose.

memorials steamer lane
Photo: Hadley Meares

So when I arrived at Santa Cruz’s iconic Steamer Lane Beach on a foggy morning, I expected to see dozens of weather beaten, wetsuit clad surfers in the water. Surprisingly, the cold crashing waves were empty, but surfer spirits were all around. They were in the playful carved faces and symbols etched into the rocky outcrops on the beach. They were represented by a statue of a young surfer and by plaques dedicated to historic surfers of days gone by. Most touchingly, they were memorialized colorfully on wooden planks and flower strewn benches, happy remembrances of men and women who spent their lives hanging ten in the turbulent Pacific Ocean.

The tale is almost biblical. According to most scholars, surfing was introduced to North America on July 19, 1885, when three young Hawaiian princes appeared on the busy beach at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz. There was the eldest, 17-year-old David Kawānanakoa, handsome and strong. Next was the athletically gifted Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana'ole, known as “Prince Cupid,” who would become a congressman and beloved Hawaiian official. Bringing up the rear was 14-year-old Edward Keli'iahonui, sickly and frail, who would die only a few years later.

The boys were studying at the strict Episcopalian Saint Matthews College, a military school in nearby San Mateo. But it was summer break, and they were spending an idyllic vacation in Santa Cruz, under the care of Antoinette Swan, a former employee of the Hawaiian royal family.  

three princes of hawaii at san_mateo
From left to right: Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana'ole, David Kawānanakoa, and Edward Keli'iahonui | Public Domain

That afternoon, all eyes were on the three teenage royals. Riding long, heavy planks -- weighing around 100 pounds -- of San Lorenzo redwood that had been cut at the nearby Grover Lumber Mill, they presented "interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands." They had learned the royal sport of surfing as children in Hawaii, even though Christian missionaries had been attempting to stamp out the sport, which dated to around 1,000 A.D. Soon the princes were back in school, but the memories of their “surfboard swimming” were not forgotten.

In 1896, the Santa Cruz Surf reported, “the boys who go in swimming at Seabright Beach use surfboards to ride the breakers, like the Hawaiians.” A small surfing community developed in Santa Cruz, which was closely entwined with their Hawaiian counterparts. In 1915, Santa Cruz surfer Dorothy Becker was one of the first Americans to surf in Hawaii, when she rode the waves at Waikiki.

Surfing, however, did not really take off in Santa Cruz until the 1930s. Many attribute the boon in interest with the arrival of the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, who presented an unforgettable surfing demonstration at Santa Cruz in 1938. A group of local, adventurous youth soon formed the Santa Cruz Surfing Club, and began to venture into the waves at Cowell’s Beach. According to historian Thomas Hickenbottom, the water that these self-taught surfers encountered was no laughing matter: "Unlike Southern California with its mild climate, sandy points and warm water, surfing in Santa Cruz is an entirely different undertaking. Freezing offshore winds, numbing water, strong ocean currents, and a precipitous coastline all add up to an endeavor of deep concentration and dedication."

arch steamer lane
Photo: Hadley Meares

Not surpassingly, Harry Mayo, a member of SCSC, remembered that "back then we had the waves to ourselves." The group was making up the rules as they went along. Mayo rode a plywood board that he made in shop class, while fellow SCSC member Burt Landess rode his grandmother’s old pinewood ironing board, which was decorated with pictures of penguins standing on blocks of ice. According to Mayo:  

A group of us started surfing in 1936, and started a formal surf club in 1938. We started by keeping our boards in a barn behind Buster Steward's house about one block up Bay Avenue from West Cliff Drive. In 1938, the Junior Chamber of Commerce helped us to build a board-house. We kept our boards right down there on the beach…. The closest thing to a wetsuit is what Buster Steward and another guy Bill Grace used to wear. They were old sweaters with the arms cut off. I didn't like to wear them. They got them at the Salvation Army and Goodwill and cut the sleeves off and wore them like a vest… In our day, we surfed Cowell’s, the River mouth, and Pleasure Point. We didn't surf too much at Steamer Lane because if you lost your board it would go into the rocks. There were some guys surfing out there but it wasn't like it is now. There were no leashes; the size and weight of the boards we used would have torn your leg off.

After World War II, surfing’s popularity increased greatly. Surfing clubs sprang up all over Santa Cruz, with different groups claiming different stretches of beach.  Materials made and perfected during the war, like fiberglass, revolutionized board production, making boards much more lightweight and pliable. Legendary Santa Cruz resident Jack O’Neill is often credited with the invention of the wetsuit, which made surfing in cold water much safer. These innovations meant that the art of surfing was able to flourish, as Santa Cruz surfers were able to stay in the water longer, perform more tricks, and ride bigger waves on their lighter boards. Locals even began to tackle the treacherous breaks at Steamer Lane, which was fittingly named by a local surfer named Claude “Duke” Horan. Harry Mayo remembered:

He's the guy that named Steamer Lane. We were on the beach one day with a big winter storm and had a fire going up against the cliff to try and keep warm. The waves were really big and he looked outside and said, "My God, look outside, they're breaking clean out in the steamer lanes". He's referring to the shipping lanes outside. You'll hear other stories, but I'm sorry, that's how it happened.
surf statue
Surfing Monument | Photo: Hadley Meares

By the early 1960s, the laid back, communal, youth-oriented Santa Cruz surfing lifestyle had become a country-wide trend. This was the era of "Gidget," the Beach Boys, and B-movies featuring teen stars like Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon surfing, singing, and falling in love. The beaches, once the domain of local clubs, became overrun with tourists, many from Southern California. Locals were so annoyed with the attention, one frustrated surfer scrawled “Valley go home!” on the side of a sea rock.

As the 70s dawned, Santa Cruz surfers reacted to their new world wide popularity by turning inward, searching for spirituality on the waves, and leading to what many people call the “soul surfer” era. In 1986, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum on Lighthouse Pointe at Steamer Lane opened. Touchingly, it is dedicated to “all youths whose lives, through fate or misadventure, are terminated before realizing their true potential."

Over the last three decades, Santa Cruz has continued to be one of the most famous surf spots in the world. In 2012, Santa Cruz was formally recognized as a World Surfing Reserve, joining only three other beaches in the world. At the dedication, Pat O’Neill, scion of the O’Neill dynasty and inventor of the surfboard leash, explained:

The Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve implicitly underscores the importance of our waves and coastline. It provides additional worldwide recognition to what we have long known and cherished - that Santa Cruz is a unique special place worth protecting for our families and future generations.

When I visited Steamer Lane, I was shocked by how many of my fellow tourists slowly packed the beaches, and joined me at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum to see relics like the ironing board Burt Landess rode many tides ago. In the crowds you could spot the true surfers, with their bleached out hair, prematurely lined faces and calm attitudes, intently reading the history of their fellow travelers. When I stepped back into the sunlight after my visit to the museum, I was happy to see one lone surfer in the waves, calmly waiting for the one that would take him flying through the salty sea.   

steamer lane
Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz, California | Source: Richard Masoner/Flickr/Creative Commons

Top Image: Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz, California | Source: Richard Masoner/Flickr/Creative Commons

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