Protecting The Access. Preserving Our Surfing Heritage.
Our club is a diverse group of people with shared goals: To preserve and maintain the iconic San Onofre Surfing Beach surf culture and its easy-access, family-friendly environment. From beach lovers to beginning surfers to the world’s best nose riders, we work together with the California Department of Parks and Recreation to foster responsible use and operations and help ensure this historic beach and its surf breaks remain in their natural state for generations to come.
History of San Onofre
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.
The chaparral-covered valleys and canyons surrounding San Onofre’s beach were owned by the Santa Margarita Ranch, which dates back to the Mexican Land Grant era of the 1830s. During the 1930s, the Haven Ranch leased the farm property across the railroad tracks from the beach. The Santa Margarita Ranch also leased out the small piece of sea level, beachfront property at San Onofre to a not-so-friendly (read: gun-toting) chap who first started the “San Onofre Beach Fishing Camp.”
The camp was quite popular with anglers, who reportedly used to pull in massive catches of sizable corbina, sea bass and halibut. The knee-deep tide pools produced an abundant seabed of clams as well. By ’37, a local San Clemente resident, Frank Ulrich, took over the lease for the camp and promptly added a Texaco gas station and café’ on the east side of the coastal highway. A handful of consistent waveriders were allowed to frequent the beach - as long as they coughed up their “two-bits” (25 cents), of course. And, for 50 cents, one could stay for the whole weekend.
Pulling into Ulrich’s camp, you’d turn off the highway at the train depot and cross the tracks by way of a rutted dirt road. On the other side of them was a small shack with a meager selection of food and camping supplies. Ulrich would take your money and hand you a parking pass. “It was a pleasure to beat him out of 25 cents when you could,” laughs 80-year-old Art Beard. More often than not, they slipped in for free, eluding a distracted Ulrich, who was usually preoccupied by his gas station or café’. From there, the road dropped down to the beach, past the dirt lot with a few shabby, wooden cabins Ulrich had built to rent out to the weekend fishermen. Early on, the surf casters there despised the growing number of waveriders and wanted them barred from the camp, claiming they were nuisances and were scaring the fish away. They also pointed out to Ulrich that the rocks along the sea floor there were terribly dangerous and made for unsafe swimming conditions. But the camp’s proprietor paid no attention - times were slow and he needed any sort of business he could drum up. The surfers, of course, weren’t going anywhere. They already knew that those very rocks made for one of the longest, smoothest rides in Southern California. Over the next few years, the number of surfers increased while the presence of fishermen slowly dwindled.
“There used to be these pilings there, right about where the entrance to The Point is today. You couldn’t drive all the way to Old Man’s,” remembers then lifeguard Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who (along with “Storm Surf” Taylor and Lloyd Baker) was among the first San Diego surfers to head up to San Onofre. “That was in about ’36, but I think by ’37 or so, Lorrin Harrison and some of the fellas had cut [the wooden posts] down so many times that Ulrich finally gave up on denying surfers vehicle access to the beach down by Kukae Canyon.”
Kukae Canyon, that well-known arroyo (which no longer exists since the Edison nuclear power plant filled it in for a parking lot) was located just a 100 feet or so north of where the shack at Old Man’s is today. Named after the Hawaiian work for “shit,” Kukae Canyon was where everybody took care of “business” until outhouses were installed some 15 years later. The small canyon, which was the mouth of a dried-up creekbed, was what helped spit out some of the cobblestone rocks that formed the mellow, sloped rock bottom.
“I was glad when they cut down the pilings at ‘Nofre. Before that, it was a heck of a walk with those old, 90-pound redwood planks,” says 84-year-old Leroy Grannis, who used to come down with guys like “Hoppy” Schwartz from the Palos Verdes Surfing Club. “We’d camp out there for days at a time and just sleep on the beach. During the week you would get it all to yourself; but on the weekend, all sorts of characters showed up. Pete Peterson used to come down, what a paddler he was.”
“In ’37 and ’38, you had guys coming from all over to surf ‘Nofre – it was paradise,” says Oshier. “Someone always had a guitar or ukulele, and after we surfed our brains out, someone would pass the bottle and we’d play Hawaiian music on into the night. We’d wake the next day and do it all over again. There was never really any friction. Nobody cared if you shoulder-hopped; there was never any question of whose wave it was. We just all went…I tell ya, we had an out and out ball down there – it was the best time of our lives.”
“We were all just surfers,” explains 84-year-old Paul “Willard” Luton. “We barely ate anything all day and stayed out in the water for hours. We’d come in and someone always had a fire going – either a tire or some bits of dried shrubs. I also remember a lot of us wearing trench coats we got from Goodwill for 50 cents. It would be pretty cold there in the morning in those days.”
By 1939, the “Nofre lifestyle was well established, and so were the group of guys that were considered regulars. Some of them included: Eddie “The Mayor” McBride, Don Smith, Barney Wilkes, George Brignell, Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison, George “Peanuts” Larson, Dexter Woods, E.J. Oshier, “Laho Lio,” Paul “Willard Luton, John Waters and more.
In the late ‘30s, few would argue that there was no better place on the planet to live the surfing lifestyle. But the approaching storm clouds of world war would temporarily tear these wave riders from their idyllic paradise for years to come.
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.
“Larry Roth came paddling out” Augie remembers, “and shouted, ‘Hey, the Japs just bombed Pearl harbor!’ We didn’t believe him, so we went in and turned on our car radios – which is when we heard President Roosevelt declare war against Japan.”
“I joined the Navy in June of ’42, Augie continued, “Another San ‘O regular, Stanford King and I were stationed at Los Alamitos Navel Air Station. I surfed the whole summer of 1942 with my buddies at San Onofre. That winter I shipped out. I stayed in the Navy through World War II and the Korean Conflict.
“I didn’t surf much during those years.”
Neither did many others. In early 1943, the Santa Margarita Ranch property fell victim to eminent Domain by the U.S. Department of Interior, and was subsequently leased to the Marine corps becoming a training base named Camp Pendleton. Ulrich lost his camp, but he was able to hang onto his petrol station and café across the street. At the same time, the new USMC commanding officers lowered the boom on San Onofre and shut down all public access to its beach. Some years later, the old camping area and train station was turned into the Enlisted Men’s recreational area.
San Onofre was nearly empty during the War years; surfers, like everyone else, went into military service in the far corners of the Pacific or European Theaters. Civilians weren’t legally permitted to surf on what had become a strategic military base, but local guys who weren’t enlisted still found ways to sneak in. Frequently they could get past the Military Police, but eventually daily beach sweeps would force their removal. With gas rationing and surfboard materials in scarce supply, the short, sweet surfing life of San Onofre almost ceased to be.
In the post-War 1940’s, surfing began to come to life again at San Onofre. The Beach was still closed, but Camp Pendleton’s various commanding Officers allowed a sort of loose arrangement, essentially turning a blind eye to the surfers, most of who were WWII vets. That same quirky bunch of characters from the late Thirties began returning to ‘Nofre, this time, though, with a new social flavoring. Most of them had gotten married and the Baby Boom years were on. Notable among the service men returning to civilian life (and their first love of surfing) was Dr. A.H. “Barney” Wilkes. After his discharge from the Army, Barney opened his dental practice in San Clemente and spent every available moment on the beach and waves at San Onofre. As a successful and respected businessman, and one of San ’Os most frequent beach-goers, it was only natural that he would become a spokesman for the surfing group when communicating with the Marine corps.
The Marine Corps was not enforcing any “off-limits” restriction at the beach, and the various changing commands at Camp Pendleton usually considered it to be good public relations to permit public usage of the beach area for which they had only occasional use. The kids that grew up during the war and the men returning from the service wanted the very most from their available recreational time. And surfing was “big” with this particular segment of sportsman. As the surfing population increased, so did the interest and concern of the Marine corps. Each new succeeding General who took command at Camp Pendleton became more and more concerned about “all those civilians” having unregulated admittance to military property.
Civilian access to the beach had always been tenuous at best. Understandably, most of the surfers had a desire to formalize the arrangements with the military. Likewise, the Commanding General had an equally strong desire to achieve some order and control among the fringe element of unruly surfers whose behavior was beginning to become untenable: Vandalism and disregard for sanitation was such a serious problem it was difficult for the C.O. to ignore. To say the least, he wasn’t happy with what was taking place on his turf at San Onofre Beach.
Continuos brush fires and other incidents at San Onofre had gotten ugly, and Wilkes got wind that if Pendleton’s Commanding General did not see conditions improve immediately, he was going to lock the whole beach down indefinitely. To avoid this, Wilkes, along with Andre “Frenchy” Jahan, took action with a scheme to establish a surf club to regulate the flow of traffic, as well as take responsibility for keeping the place clean. It was a win-win situation: The General would be relieved of the thorn in his side and enjoy better PR for his base. And Barney, would save the beach for all of the longtime ‘Nofre regulars.
In 1950, Andre “Frenchy” Jahan, an old-time surfer of foresight, enlisted the aid of friends on the staff at Camp Pendleton in pursuing this goal. The resulting correspondence between Barney and the Commanding General produced a letter of permit granting the San Onofre Surfing Club access to the beach.
At this time the San Onofre surfing Club was not a formally organized Club. Barney would accept token dues at the beach, and keep your name on an “official” list of Club members. Organizational attempts had been made in the past few years but without a pressing need, nothing had come of it. Barney would simply convey the general concerns in his communications with the Marine Corps.
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.
“It was a kid’s Nirvana,” says 53 –year-old Don Craig. “Every Friday, after school, we’d load our converted panel van with all the weekend’s supplies, except the boards, because we were too little to get them on the roof. We’d wait for Dad to get home then head down to San ‘O from the south Bay. We’d camp at the San Clemente State Park and be out of there before sunrise to get a prime parking spot. If we weren’t in the water, we were up hiking and exploring the finger canyons behind the bluffs. We’d come back and Mom would have lunch ready. I couldn’t imagine a more ideal way to grow up.”
“The simplest way to describe San Onofre is ‘a way of life,’” says pre-WWII surfer, and longtime ‘Nofre observer, Art Beard. “We were all just raising our families, and it was a cheap, easy and fun way to do it.”
While some Club members affectionately refer to the ‘50s as the “golden years for raising families, there was still a handful of kids that caused some trouble, like a teen-aged Miklos Dora, who went by the surname “Chapin” at the time. His stepfather (a hell of a surfer) Gard Chapin, used to bring Miki and the family down for weekends at ‘Nofre.
“We called him ‘Meatball,’” remembers Paul Luton. “And if we didn’t call him that, it was ‘Kamikaze Kid,’ because he would just go out and run everybody over. He was just the little meatball out there, knocking people off their boards. Rumor had it he was one of the kids who burned down one of the grass shacks in the ‘50s.”
There were also a handful of notable women who surfed ‘Nofre, starting with Mary Ann Hawkins back in the ‘30s. When the ‘50s and ‘60s rolled around, Benny Merrill’s daughter, Linda Merrill put in a lot of water time there, as well as Paul and M.J. Luton’s daughter, Pauline Luton, who became Mike Doyle’s tandem partner for a while in the mid-‘60s. And, of course, you can’t forget 70-something Eve Fletcher, who has been consistently surfing San Onofre longer than just about any female surfer around today.
In late 1951 the Marine Corps tightened their requirements. They insisted on a gate for controlled access to the beach, with membership cards for personal identification, windshield decals, and responsible representation for the surfing Club. The first formal meeting of the San Onofre Surfing Club was called to order by Dr. Barney Wilkes on the beach on April 24, 1952. This meeting established the following: adoption of Club by-laws as prepared by Andre Jahan, dues budget and banking procedures, membership cards, decals, beach access control, beach maintenance and rules of conduct and access as agreed upon with the Marine corps. The Club was now formally organized.
Things went relatively smoothly until 1955. At this time the Club President, Al Dowden was notified that the Club was no longer to control access to the beach. All marine personnel were to be allowed access, and all other civilians were to be allowed access by simply going to the San Mateo M.P. station and getting a day pass. In early 1956 it was added that the trestle area would be open under the same conditions, and that the Marines would provide trash removal service for the area.
Things went to hell in a hurry! Surfers with no past, present or future concern set fire to the brush in the San Mateo creek estuary and nearly burned down the railroad trestle. They threw burning wood at the commuter trains and piled debris on the tracks, causing a passenger train to grind to an emergency stop. They tore down parking and other regulatory signs and used them as firewood. There were incidents wherein the M.P.’s were so provoked that they fired rifles and pistols at the trestle surfers.
The disease spread to some of the less responsible members of the regular surfing community at San Onofre. The big grass shack was torched into a raging inferno that would rival a college homecoming fire. A cave on the cliffs was filled with old tires and gasoline and turned into an 8 foot diameter blow-torch so intense in jetting flame that the Marines couldn’t get the fire truck anywhere close. The 4th of July fireworks display, in violation of Camp Pendleton rules was wild enough to almost cause the Base Fire Marshall to lapse into a state of coma. Some surfers set up camp overnight on the beach in defiance of patrolling M.P.’s. The Marine Corps demanded that the Club maintain order or all civilians would be restricted from the beach. The Club however was able to disclaim any responsibility in the matter since the Marines had allowed free and uncontrolled usage of the area to the public and Marine Corps personnel.
All these conditions had inevitably resulted in serious damage to the Club’s structure. The paid memberships of 490 members in 1955 had dropped off to 288 memberships in 1957 due to the open beach policy. In late 1957 the Club was notified in writing that the new commanding General of Camp Pendleton would consider a request from the Club to re-establish controlled access to the surfing beach. Subsequent correspondence resulted in issuance of a lease, with additional and eventual renewal of the lease without modification for the next five years.
From 1958, with the support of the Commanding General and a license to control access, the dignity of the Club was regained. With the Club by-laws and the Camp Pendleton Base rules being faithfully observed, the appearance of the beach and the conduct of the surfers improved.
At this point the Club was running smoothly, and it had a well-established relationship with CampPendleton. The one-dollar-a-year lease from the Marine Corps further solidified the arrangement with the Club. Operating with nearly a $25,000 yearly budget, the Club kept the military happy by hiring full-time maintenance men, E.J. Oshier and John Huckins, to clean the beach and maintain the heads. San Onofre was without a doubt the cleanest, most organized beach in Southern California.
“I was getting three bucks an hour working for E.J., almost double what minimum wage was back then,” says 45-year-old Bobby Lombard, current President of the SOSC and former teenage beach sweeper. “E.J.’s limit was a match stick. If he found anything bigger than that he was gonna get on you about it.”
In 1958 all 288 active members renewed. The 68 inactive past members also renewed, and 150 new members brought the total to 506 memberships. As in earlier years, there had been talk of limiting the Club membership. The Marine corps had been pressing for this limitation. It was voted and passed at the annual Club meeting in 1958 that the membership would be limited, and a waiting list would be established. New memberships would be accepted only as old members dropped out, and with Marine corps concurrence, and as facilities were expanded.
From 1959 through 1961 the Club functioned with Barney Wilkes again as President. In the past, officers had been elected at the annual meetings on the beach. It was the general feeling that this procedure had become impractical and non-representative.
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.
In 1963 the newly elected Club President. Gene Hornbeck, hired Lex Stout as our first manager. Lex was active and effective in his job, but subsequently suffered a stroke and passed away after his first year. Jerry Gaffney, who remained as manager until 1970, replaced him as interim manager.
The mid-‘60s saw the beginnings of troubled years ahead for the Club, starting with the coming of the nuclear reactor at the south end of the beach. “It was an unknown entity then,” remembers John Waters. “Some people thought the warm water would be good, you wouldn’t have to wear wetsuits, you know? Others feared it would suck all the fish away.”
Although most Club members didn’t know what to make of it, one of the more outspoken and controversial members, Tom “Opai” Wert led many of the anti-nuke demonstrations against the plant. Some were supportive of his efforts, either because they feared the results of the Nuclear power or because they thought the plant would bring more crowds. But others felt it brought unnecessary media attention to San Onofre Beach, and contravened Club tradition – the “no publicity” policy that dates back to before the Club’s official inauguration.
An article, “The ski Bums: Revisited,” in the 1950 August issue of LIFE had blown the lid off the informal attitude Pendleton had about the surfers. It added to the already existing military embarrassment about the area, not to mention attracting those who weren’t already in the know about surfing at San Onofre. Since then, and even to this day, a number of Club members refuse to talk with any media about “Nofre.
In March 1965 Andre Jahan was elected President. Andre one of the earliest pioneers of the Club was an avid surfer and committed member. He was a popular and respected president, but his term was to be cut short. In September of 1966, he passed away doing what he loved most: surfing in front of his CyprusShores home.
Andre was replaced by Jack McManus who was vice-president at the time. In February of 1968, the sad news came that our founding father, Barney Wilkes, had died in Mexico. Barney had served six terms as President in our Club’s first ten years of formal organization and had served as consultant and adviser for many more years. Jack McManus passed away in July, 1969.
In the spring of 1969, exceptionally severe winter rains caused unprecedented damage to the road, parking areas, and the beach. Serious repair work was required, and the SOSC stepped up to the plate with financial investment to solve the problem. With the support of the Marine Corps, Club member Art Beard, a lifelong surfer and civil engineer, directed heavy equipment to clear sand and dirt, making the beach accessible again. Without the Club’s resources, that disaster could have marked the end of the San Onofre Surfing Club, as we know it today.
In April 1969, the Board of Directors elected the long time surfer and diplomat, Doug Craig, to lead the Club through the troubled years ahead. The controversial nuclear power plant had been built on our immediate south and had, for a time, threatened the public usage of the beach. President Nixon had established the Western White House just up the beach to the north. The obscure little fishing and surfing camp of the 1920’s now had unwanted national prominence. Everybody, surfer and non-surfer alike, had heard the name San Onofre. Headline-hungry politicians proclaimed they had uncovered an outrageous condition, whereby a select group of privileged individuals had isolated and gained control of a magnificent public beach area for their own private and exclusive use. To further complicate matters, the federal government was in the process of turning over certain portions of the old Rancho Santa Margarita, on a 50-year lease, to the State of California for development of a new state beach and park. This lease included all of the beach area traditionally leased and maintained by the San Onofre Surfing Club. It would be the culminating crisis of the Club’s history, putting it to the ultimate test.
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.
By 1971, a tentative lease had been prepared whereby the U.S. Navy would lease certain parcels of CampPendleton land to the State of California to be used as a State Park and Beach. This included the entire San Onofre surf beach. It was generally believed that President Nixon wanted a California State Park and Beach to be named after him.
On Saturday, August 31, 11:00 AM, Lease NF®13233 was signed into effect at the Western White House. President Nixon was present and all smiles at the signing. However, at no mention in the lease of the actual name of the park or beach. The lease took effect at midnight, August 31, 1971, for a period of 50 years, for a total consideration of $1 to be paid to the U.S. Government.
It was the end of an era for many Club members. Without the valuable benefit of restricted beach access, membership renewals dropped from 1,000 memberships at $50 annually, with 2,000 names on the waiting list, to less than 300 renewals at $5 that following year. There seemed little reason to pay dues if you could just stroll in for only $1 a day. Talk of disbanding the Club was even proposed, but President Doug Craig insisted it stay together, remain strong, and do what it could to work with the State to preserve the beach for future generations.
The State Parks Division announced immediate plans to pave and curb the entire dirt road and lot that had been untouched for almost 35 years. There was even talk of the state just shutting the lower beach lot altogether, making everyone park on the bluff above and walk down a flight of stairs. Fortunately, that never happened.
At the spring meeting in 1973 the question was raised as to whether or not the Club should disband. The question was overwhelmingly rejected by all present. Since the Club no longer had to carry the annual expenses of gate guards and maintenance crews, the annual membership dues were reduced by unanimous voice vote, and the paid services of corresponding secretary Pat Hazard and Club manager Sam Conroy were placed in an “as needed” status.
Foreseeing the previously unthinkable possibility that this venerable surfing Club could cease to be, Club President Doug Craig, the officers and Board of Directors (in concurrence with the general membership) authorized the funds to have a yearbook published. All Club members were encouraged to contribute photos and other memorabilia. Babs Fitzgerald spent the entire winter with layouts all over every piece of furniture in her home. Val Hying spent months of research, correspondence, and interviews with old timers such Ted Sizemore, Pete Peterson, Loren Harrison, Pop Proctor, Duke Kahanamoku and Dutch Miller. Published in 1974, the yearbook was mailed to all 1,000 members of record. Club members who had the foresight to hang on to their copies saw them become treasured collector’s item.
The Club was facing the biggest challenge in its history and members knew it. The loss of the Club’s lease forced it to reinvent itself and hope it would be strong enough to survive. “But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” says Doug Craig, “You have to accept life’s changes.”
The Seventies was the decade where the radical cultural concepts of the Sixties shifted into the mainstream. Change was everywhere, and the SOSC made the biggest change in it life – from a club of privileged power to a community of protective pride.
The social life at the beach had its share of changes in the Seventies as well: Volleyball became a major activity in the lives of many of our surfers, with an annual tournament resulting in participation that would compare to our annual surfing contest. The marbles contest, the Bocci Ball contest, the table-folding contest, all were received with overwhelmingly appeal. The 1973 Club Olympic Games, with competition in horseshoes, darts, chug-a-lug, tug-o-war, etc. brought out the best of participation and competitive spirit in hundreds of Club members, young and old alike. The pie throwing contest, to raise a donation for the church in San Clemente, resulted in over $200.00 in contributions. The annual Costume Promenade produced an astonishing array of prize-winning costumes.
As the beach opened up to a more public place, the need for more formalized experiences, including surf schools, citizen advisory boards, and events.
In the mid 70’s, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz opened his Surf School at ‘Nofre and began to teach visiting surfers from all around the globe about the physical, spiritual and scientific value of surfing and its surrounding lifestyle. Still a fixture at the beach, the entire family has at one time or another been involved with the School which has now introduced the wonders of wave riding to hundreds of surf stoked kids.
By 1978, California was experincing the sixth year of a drought that produced water shortages, incomparable vintages of wine and a record number of sunny days at the beach. It would also be a year of great south swells, remembered by some as one of the best.
Around 1979, the Beach Citizens Advisory Committee was formed, for the purpose of providing advice and assistance to the State Parks System regarding the policies and requirements of the beach and its users. A 12 member panel (with 6 from the Club and 6 from the State)
It included former San Clemente mayor Donna Wilkerson, Benny Merrill, Sam Conroy, Les Williams, Tom Turner, Lynn Hicks, Art Beard, and Ruth Yielding. Later the group would expand to include Steve Pezman, and Jack Stowe from the Parks Department, as well as many other guest committee members who gave perspective and expertise to the board.
It was (as Charles Dickens said) the best of times and the worst of times.
The fabric of the Surfing Club had been stretched to the breaking point, battered by national politics, burned by President Nixon, torn by desertion, and frayed by the winds of change. But thanks to the remarkable solidarity of the membership, the dedication of Club President Doug Craig, and the leadership of the Board, it had held together.
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.
In 1982, the State built five restroom buildings on the bluff side of the road with an outdoor, cold-water shower at each. By 1983, the run-off water from those showers was literally destroying the road with ever deepening trenches. SOSC President Bob Fitzgerald had pleaded and reasoned for several months with State Parks District Superintendent to let SOSC correct the problem. The answer was always the same: “It has to wait for approval from Sacramento.” Finally, Bob took the bull by the horns and work parties were formed and the water lines were piped under the road and new showers were constructed on the beach side of the road. As a result, bamboo flourished with the water run-off, and the road was once again saved by your SOSC.
Thirty years after SOSC’s inception, the Club officially designated June 30th as Founders Day, in 1982. Designing a special invitation from an old photo of San Onofre, the Club commemorated the date with one of its most memorable parties, bringing members from far and wide across various decades. It was a poignant celebration, where many of the old timers would get together for the last time.
Some years are remembered for the memorable events, some for the great weather, some for the epic surf. At San Onofre, the south swells are the most impressive, when the south facing beach and cobblestone shelf create a picture of point perfection. For San Onofre the summer of 1984 was one of those. Big, deep-fetch Southern Hemi’s from New Zealand, combined with back–to-back Mexican Chabascos, created weeks of solid overhead swell. As word traveled up and down the coast, surfers traveled from both north and south of San ‘O to sample the long reeling waves. And there was so much surf nobody seemed to even notice the extra crowds.
Although everyone had always celebrated it, in 1985 a group of people at San ‘O began to formally celebrate Memorial Day with a formal flag raising ceremony, complete with Kate Smith belting “God Bless America”, and Mike Gleason on the bugle. The festivities include some very innovative imbibing, courtesy of the Green family.
And even though no one can remember the precise year, the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Dip (a dawn patrol go out with no wetsuits) is a tradition that is firmly entrenched from the mid-eighties.
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.
“The surf Club was founded in honor of one of Hawaii’s legendary surfers, Mr. Raymond Leialoha Patterson, one of the Patterson Brothers,” says Club President Paul Strauch.
The 1989 Desert Storm Parade was started as a lark by Don Craig and his large, extended gang at the north end of the beach. Responding to complaints by Viet Nam era vets that there was never a parade to honor military men from the era, Don announced that there would be a full military revue complete with General Shwartzkoff. Then with the help of the Point Crew, they threw together a 1971 Cadallac convertible, some vintage jeeps and other military vehicles and dressed up in combat uniforms of every branch of the service. With Doug’s brother Rod played General Shwartzkoff and Joe Weaver’s dad handled the role of General Colin Powell, they started down the beach at the announced hour.
The parade was a sensation. By the time they reached the south end of the beach, a crowd of several thousand had lined the roadside, creating one of the most well attended and successful spontaneous events in the history of the Club.
The Point crew, a sub-tribe of individuals who generally surf their point break exclusively, have always considered their area as a somewhat independent territory. It was not surprising that after a number of spots along the State Beach have become identified by their architectural structures (Pink Pole, the Shacks at old Man’s and Dog Patch, the Volleyball Courts, the Showers at Four Doors) that the Point would want a statement of their own. In 1995, the Point crew created their own unique sculpture sign denoting “The Point”, using recessed concrete and glazed blue tile.
In 1997 Steve Gibby produced the documentary surf video Surfer’s Mecca – San Onofre in collaboration with LongBoard Magazine. A fairly comprehensive documentary, it caught a good deal of the flavor and feeling of the Club as well as some unique water footage rare for San Onofre. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film was the hot footage of so many well known surfers – from Hawaiian legend Rabbit Kekai, and former World Champ Joyce Hoffman to top pros of the time Steven Slater and Jeff Kramer, to longboard maestro Joel Tudor and his mentor, David Nuuhiwa.
Colin McPhillips, a long time Club member, began training for the World Longboard Championships, which he eventually won. He would be the fourth Champ to have used San Onofre for his training grounds, joining Joyce Hoffman, Corky Carroll and Rolf Arness, three of the most dominant and impressive surfers of their respective eras. Colin has followed suit, capturing the 1998 World Longboard title and then winning again in 2000 and 2001 for two titles in a row.
2000 and beyond
The SOSC membership roster again topped 1,000 in the year 2002. The Club remains solid, with strong leadership in the board of directors, both young and old. Excellent relations prevail between the Club representatives and the top officials at the District Office of the State Parks and Beaches.
“The Club butted heads [with California State Parks] at first, but over the years we have been able to work together and stop proposed projects like paving the lot,” says current SOSC President Bobby Lombard. “That’s why the beach is still relatively like it was 50 years ago, except that now there is running water. A lot of our own money is spent to preserve it. We have guys with tractors that grade the road at no expense to the state. We buy ‘em car counters, and we suggested the turnabout to use to deal with the heavy overflow of traffic trying to get in.
San Onofre was never about who you were or what you did; it had always been, and would always be, equal ground for anybody, whether you were a ditch digger, an astrophysicist or a movie star. It was all about being there, living a carefree surfing lifestyle that began with a handful of colorable bachelors hanging out along a narrow strip of sand below the crumbling, yellow sandstone bluffs just south of the San Mateo Creek opening.
“For me, the cross section of people we had in those days was amazing,” says 80-year-old Doug Craig. “From Otis Chandler, the publisher of the LA Times, to Don Cram, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, to James Arness, world-famous actor, to bricklayers, to carpenters to teachers - we had every walk of life at our beach.”
“Whether you were a north-ender, middle-ender or south-ender, we lived our lives there as a group, as a family, really,” recalls John Waters. “And when we went home we went back to our private lives. You might have been a democrat or republican or somebody famous. It didn’t matter; we didn’t treat anyone different than the next down there.
Over the past five decades, some things have inevitably changed. Crowds have increased, loved ones have passed on, and many of today’s beach-goers are not the diehard, tight-knit clan that once ruled its shore.
Most certainly, more changes are in store. It would be naïve to expect otherwise. In the case of our Surfing Club and the San Onofre Beach, some changes may not necessarily denote progress. But whatever the future brings, the members of San Onofre Surfing Club will always take pride in the lives they have lived and the families they have raised in this uniquely wholesome environment. The outstanding safety record of our beach and the deep social camaraderie of our Club members will live indefinitely in the collective memory of all who have experienced this remarkable way of life.
Because of this rare place called San Onofre, this tiny island of beach life in a sea of global chaos, our children past and present, are the finest group of boys and girls and young men and women in the world. And let no one say otherwise.
Despite all odds, the “Nofre experience is still intact, and the SOSC members have been successful in preserving the traditions their folks and grand-folks established almost 70 years ago. Through half a century of constant challenge, the people and families that call San Onofre home never let their lifestyle be diminished. Today, the culture continues with the next generation of surfers who create and continue their own family traditions, and their own San Onofre way of life into the foreseeable future.