A Page from History: Surfing championships brought the world to Ocean Beach in ’66
Many say the direction of surfing and the way it was done changed dramatically following the World Championships.
In September 1966, “The Sound of Music” was still playing at the Loma Theater. The American Football League’s San Diego Chargers (remember them?) were off to a promising 3-0 start. “Bonanza” remained the most popular show on television, and some of us reluctantly entered the seventh grade.
That month, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the call-up of over 49,000 conscripted young men for military service. The last week of the month saw the California gubernatorial campaigns of both incumbent Pat Brown and challenger Ronald Reagan come to San Diego.
The No. 1 tune in town at the time was the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” with “Eleanor Rigby” on the flip side.
And for an encore, the third annual World Surfing Championships came to sleepy Ocean Beach.
C’mon man, was it really that sleepy? Maybe not. After all, a new junior high school had opened a few years earlier (D.C. Collier Junior High), a new supermarket had gone in on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard (the Mayfair Market) and earlier that summer, the fabulous San Diego Municipal Fishing Pier (Ocean Beach Pier) had opened to much fanfare and revelry.
In fact, the location of the pier had helped lure the World Surfing Championship finals to Ocean Beach. That and our “diversified foamy breakers” and “the versatility” of our “offshore waters,” according to the San Diego Union.
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Speaking to the media at the Mission Bay Aquatics Center in June, U.S. Surfing Association Chairman Brennan McClelland said “the championship site committee studied hundreds of miles of California coastline before deciding that San Diego city beaches offered the best surfing conditions.”
City Aquatics Director Don Vynne proclaimed: “This contest will bring international attention and recognition to San Diego as the surfing capital of the world!”
Expecting a crowd in excess of 10,000, Vynne mentioned the installation of bleachers along the beach and suggested that the new fishing pier would be able to accommodate an additional 4,000 spectators.
I think we all realize that a town does not become “the surfing capital of the world” by accident or overnight. In fact, 1966 marked a half-century of OB’s association with the sport. In Beach Town, Ruth Varney Held recalled: “On one thrilling day in 1916, we saw our first surfer. Duke Kahanamoku, from Hawaii, gave a notable exhibition on a wide wooden board, standing up and riding the waves into shore. No one here had ever stood up on surfboards until this time; the boys just lay on them and rode ‘em in.”
Kahanamoku, considered to be the father of modern surfing — and a five-time Olympic swimming medalist — also visited Ocean Beach for a similar surfing demonstration in 1924. During his long career, Kahanamoku traveled the world as an ambassador for surfing, swimming, Hawaii and the spirit of aloha.
The ’66 World Championships at Ocean Beach had a special guest as honorary chairman and unofficial big kahuna ... that’s right, the Duke himself. If there was one thing the San Diego surfing community needed in the mid-1960s, it was a nui dose of aloha.
The early ‘60s were the time of the San Diego surf wars, when tensions between homeowners and surfers had bubbled to a boil. The longtime coastal pursuit of public beach access found its trail blocked by simple private-property rights of homeowners in several beach neighborhoods. Surfers had been backed up to the edge of the cliff by accusations of rowdyism, drunken debauchery, indecent exposure and peeing in the bushes.
Surely these types of transgressions wouldn’t be the work of most well-meaning and law-abiding surfers, would they? Most likely they were the unfortunate antics of a few misguided individuals, such as beach bums or, if you’ll pardon the expression, elcajoners. If the general surfing population were to escape or mitigate censure for the reckless foolishness of a few hodads, some serious ding repair in the gloss coat of its public image was in immediate order.
Anti-surfing laws and ordinances had been proposed. Surfing would be relegated to just a few city beaches. Surfers and their boards would be licensed, and they or their parents would be required to carry liability insurance. Those were dark days indeed, but the surfing community rallied. Surfing clubs were organized to promote responsible behavior and for surfers to police their own. The Sunset Cliffs Surfing Club, the Ocean Beach Surfing Club and the Mallihines girls surfing club were three of them.
The well-capitalized and high-profile Windansea Surf Club, which counted among its membership luminaries such as Phil Edwards and Joyce Hoffman, some of the finest practitioners in the sport, became a political force to be reckoned with.
The first assemblage of the San Diego Inter-Club Surfing Council was in 1961, and in April of that year surfers in coats and ties marched downtown for their rights to beach access and for the freedom to pursue a healthy outdoor activity sans licensure or regulation. As unique as it was, the march failed to garner much media attention.
In retrospect, five years may seem like nothing more than an instant. In real time, five years can be a good portion of someone’s childhood. By 1966 the media’s grasp of the burgeoning surfing movement remained slippery at best, but coverage had become mostly positive, and at least they were trying. In the San Diego Union, a surfer was described as “gliding through foaming brine,” and in 40-point type the paper asked the question: “Can Goofy Foot Hang Five?” The answer: Of course. Just ask David Nuuhiwa.
The coverage intensified in the days leading to the world contest. Defending champ Filipe Pomar’s wave-riding technique was described as “moving very fast down a rushing mountain of water before it could collapse on him.” Hard to fault that approach. “But the style of the Californians in their home waters is to hot-dog into position for shooting the curl. This requires trimming and nose-riding the board for a thrilling trip between the breaking crest and the main body of waves averaging 5 feet high.” Wow!
The defending champ failed to show up. The contest had been billed as Californians vs. the rest of the world, or the West Coast team vs. the upstart East Coast team, but it wasn’t as if nobody saw the Aussies coming. Midget Farrelly had won the first world championship two years earlier in his home waters of Sydney. Nat Young had finished runner-up to Pomar in Peru in 1965.
An American man had yet to be crowned world champ. Prognosticators liked the chances of brilliant Hawaiian teenager — by way of the O.C. — Nuuhiwa, riding for the West Coast team. On the women’s side, Hoffman, of Capistrano Beach, was the surfer to beat. Riding for the West Coast team, Hoffman was already a two-time world champion at age 19.
Rick Wilson, volunteer docent and board curator at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, told me that “the ’66 contest in Ocean Beach was really more of a real world contest than the previous two had been.”
Teams representing more than 10 countries participated at Ocean Beach. Such had not been the case in Peru or Australia. I asked Wilson if any of the surfers were real professionals in the ‘60s. He told me that “a couple of guys,” Donald Takayama and Corky Carroll, “have claimed to be the first professional surfer, but you couldn’t really make any money just riding boards in the ‘60s.”
“They were big on trophies in the ’60s,” he said with a chuckle. “Or you might win a portable radio!”
Several well-known surfers worked in the industry. Takayama, Skip Frye, Joey Hamasaki and others made a living as board builders, shapers and glassers. “Even if you had a sponsor,” Wilson said, “you got a board and maybe a T-shirt and five bucks for a hamburger.”
The ’66 world contest in Ocean Beach represented a sea change in the prize department. A 1967 Camaro was on the line. California Surf Museum historian and co-founder Jane Schmauss said the ’66 contest was “very well-organized and very well-run. There was lots of media attention.”
Schmauss credits “Miss Billy” Riley, contest co-chair (with Bob Gilham) for the overwhelming success of the contest. Riley, the manager of the Half Moon Inn at the time and later the first female director of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, “told the surfers to be on the top of their game, and they were.”
The contestants met with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was in San Diego stumping for Gov. Brown. They also attended a special benefit preview screening of Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer” at the California Theater.
“Miss Billy arranged for all the prizes and hotel accommodations,” Schmauss said. “She was tough as nails and smooth as silk.”
Preliminary heats took place during the week (Surfing Week in San Diego, as proclaimed by Mayor Frank Curren) at La Jolla Shores and south Mission Beach, with the finals at Ocean Beach on Saturday and Sunday.
Nuuhiwa was the men’s leader after the first preliminary round at La Jolla Shores, which included a spectacular eight-second nose ride. He failed to catch his full complement of five waves in the second preliminary heat and did not advance to the finals. The much-anticipated head-to-head matchup between the smooth classic nose-riding style of Nuuhiwa and the more aggressive attacking style of Young never materialized.
Riding his “secret weapon,” “Magic Sam,” Young built a commanding lead in cumulative points and cruised to an easy victory at OB. Jock Sutherland of Hawaii and Carroll of Dana Point finished second and third in the men’s bracket.
Hoffman continued her dominance in the women’s bracket, handily besting West Coast teammate Hamasaki of Santa Ana and surprise third-place finisher, 14-year-old Mimi Munroe of Florida, surfing for the East Coast team.
Many folks like to say the direction of surfing and the way folks surfed changed dramatically following the ’66 World Championships at Ocean Beach. Wilson is one of them. “In some ways, Nat winning that contest was the beginning of the shortboard revolution,” he told me. “Even though Magic Sam was 9 feet 4 inches.”
That is certainly nothing anybody these days would call a shortboard, and Magic Sam was only four inches shorter than Nuuhiwa’s Takayama-shaped Bing nose rider, but it was substantially thinner and lighter than most boards of the era. The two boards are among the most famous in history, and both may be seen at the California Surf Museum. While the Bing Takayama-Nuuhiwa nose rider is still in production, Magic Sam is a reproduction.
The nonprofit museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at 312 Pier View Way, Oceanside (surfmuseum.org).
“We’ve been here almost 35 years,” Schmauss said, “and when we started we didn’t know if we’d be here tomorrow.”
The ’66 world surfing contest in Ocean Beach was a smashing success. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and Sports Illustrated magazine covered the event. And while it may not have catapulted OB to “surf capital of the world” status, the contest certainly helped put San Diego on the map as a desirable tourist destination.
The World Surfing Championships returned to Ocean Beach in 1972, but that is another, much different story.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society. OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article. Membership in OBHS, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $25 annually. Visit obhistory.org.