girl on surfboard

Surf's Up

Richard Schmidt calls it “surfology.” That’s his name for the ancient Polynesian sport of harnessing the energy of a wave and experiencing the exhilaration of sliding down its rushing face.

Schmidt, 57, has been doing just that out his front door in Santa Cruz, California, for nearly half a century. These days, he spends Februarys chasing waves in Costa Rica. When he returns home in March, it is with confidence that turbulent seasonal weather off the Pacific Ocean has rearranged inshore sandbars, creating the late winter and early spring surfing that he loves.

“The sandbars are set up pretty well because of the winter storms,” he says. “Waves break all day. When we have low tide in the middle of the day, we enjoy good water for three hours on either side.”

The waves Schmidt calls home are special. There are two dozen major surf breaks along the Santa Cruz coast, including famous reef and beach breaks such as Pleasure Point and Steamer Lane. Breaks are rated from expert to beginner, and surfers of all ages and experience levels can nearly always find attractive conditions somewhere.

Surrounding seawaters are rich. Santa Cruz is a Marine Protected Area within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The beaches here are home to colonies of sea otters, sea lions, seals, and sea birds, all of which naturally attract great white sharks. Look out toward the horizon at the right time of year and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see pods of migrating gray whales.

girl surfing

According to California surfing legend, three teenage Hawaiian princes took a break from their studies at a private school in San Mateo in 1885 and headed for Rivermouth Break, where they climbed aboard slabs of locally milled redwood and became North America’s first surfers. The sport caught on, and by 1936 the Santa Cruz Surfing Club had formed.

To celebrate this exceptional culture and tradition, in 2011 an international organization called Save the Waves Coalition formally named the Santa Cruz region a World Surfing Reserve.

From Santa Cruz south to San Diego, some 450 miles, the spectacular California coast offers the finest surfing in North America. It’s also the most accessible.

Looking down from Torrey Pines State Park to Black’s Beach near La Jolla, you see what many seasoned surfers believe are the best waves hitting the mainland U.S. (You also see the state’s most renowned nude beach, but that’s another story.) The coastline’s pounding breaks and ferocious currents are not for beginners. Nearby, however, rocky outcrops create more hospitable breaks called Old Man’s, at historic Tourmaline Surfing Park, where a plaque commemorates pioneering surfers and their encampments.

Want to join the fun but don’t know how to surf? Since 1978, Schmidt has been sharing his knowledge of and passion for the sport at Richard Schmidt Surf School in Capitola, near Santa Cruz, California. He has taught enthusiasts from all over the world.

Farther south, 39-year-old Souf Tihhi operates the San Diego Surf School, which he founded in 2000. Originally from a beach town in Morocco, Tihhi is a world-class surfing instructor. He is fond of reminding people that you can’t stop the waves that life inevitably blasts you with, but you can learn to surf.    

Surfin’ Safari

In the 1959 film Gidget, Sandra Dee, playing 17-year-old Francie, talks her parents into buying her a used $25 surfboard so she can chase an older beach-bum surfer named the Big Kahuna, played by Cliff Robertson. She wants to make a boy portrayed by James Darren jealous. The movie introduced West Coast surfing and the carefree if contrived swimsuit culture to American kids everywhere. They went wild.

A beach party scene filmed at Leo Carrillo State Park, off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, features the milquetoast Four Freshmen crooning off to the side. The music hadn’t yet caught up with repressed teenage passion, but it soon would.

Two years later, a garage band named the Pendletones recorded two demo tunes called “Surfin’” and “Surfin’ Safari” at a small studio in southern California. The record promoter saw an opportunity to cash in on the exploding youth market: fast cars, hot girls, and the surfing craze. The label on the 45-rpm vinyl disk by the Pendletones listed the group as the Beach Boys. Until they saw the record, they didn’t know they had been given a new name.

Funny thing was, only one of them—drummer Dennis Wilson—actually surfed.