The Magic Wave

Malibu, 1954. Photo: Dick Metz
Bev Morgan, Malibu, 1951. Photo: Joe Quigg
Malibu. Photo: Bill Parr
Malibu pioneer Sam Reid, Santa Monica, 1925
Malibu surf check, 1950

Why did Southern California give birth to a national surfing craze? One simple, attractive, ahistorical, quasi-magical explanation is that modern surfing conjured itself into existence from the perfect air that hung over the perfect beach next to the perfect waves at Malibu. Surfing actually made Malibu, but never mind. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, it often seemed to be the other way around.

Malibu wasn’t so much a surfing location as it was a small, intimate, well-designed surfing theater. At Waikiki, and to a lesser degree at San Onofre—both still popular surfing locations, but fading in importance—waves were scattered across a diffuse tract of reef, and the adjacent beach, apart from being a staging area, had nothing to do with the surf. At Malibu, the waves were focused and defined, and all but married to the beach, each one rolling in as if it had traveled halfway across the Pacific for the express purpose of gliding into this quarter-mile bit of shoreline. No surf break has ever presented itself so well. Pacific Coast Highway hugs the coast roughly twenty feet above sea level, so that northbound surfers delivered to the base of the point have a squared-up and slightly elevated view of the incoming waves. The Santa Monica Mountains slope down to the highway, and in the mornings, as offshore winds move through the canyons and across the beach, the lineup smells like sage. Malibu Pier frames the setting to the southeast, and the break is connected to Malibu Lagoon, a few hundred yards to the north, by a long sandy cove.

The point itself was formed by an ancient geologic burp that sent thousands of cobblestones spilling out of Malibu Creek into the ocean, where they formed a long, evenly-curved alluvial fan. Sand transported from north to south by the prevailing littoral current then blanketed and further stabilized the point. Because the water depth just offshore is relatively deep, and because there are few major underwater landmass obstructions between Malibu and the wave-producing storms to the southwest, waves here generally approach in smooth, even bands. A six-footer will start breaking north of the lagoon, run for awhile, section off, run again, section again, then move into a zone just down from the creek mouth, where the point bends almost due east. An impressive if somewhat temperamental wave so far, here it wraps itself into the cove (better known as First Point) and becomes the faultless Malibu wave of legend—the curl unspooling for two hundred yards along a crest line so precise and well-tapered that it looks surveyed.

The Chumash Indians living on the rivermouth named their village Humaliwo, or “loud surf,” but the Malibu surf isn’t especially large, for reasons having to do in part with the break’s position on the coast. California picks up surf all year, but individual spots are generally oriented in such a way as to either favor incoming swells ranging from north to west (the result of North Pacific winter storms) or from south to southwest (mostly originating in the South Pacific, or from tropical gales off Baja California). Winter surf breaks are best from November to March, when the biggest swells can hit twenty feet or more. Malibu and the rest of the summer breaks are best from May to September, when the surf is roughly half as big as it is during winter. Two-to-four-foot waves are common at Malibu, six-to-eight-foot surf arrives just a handful of days each year, and twelve-foot surf is almost unheard of. Size, though, has never been the point at Malibu. Shape and form and elegance—these were the qualities that made it surfing’s first truly revered break. Waikiki was filled with excellent waves, and Hawaii in general was still considered the surfer’s paradise. But Malibu was the place surfers had in mind in the 1950s when they began talking about “the perfect wave.”

Malibu (the Spanish pronunciation and spelling of Humaliwo) was also the first forbidden wave since Hawaiian chiefs of antiquity had called down a kapu to clear the surfing rabble from their favorite breaks. When Malibu pioneers Tom Blake and Sam Reid drove out of Santa Monica in 1927, boards wedged into the rumble seat of Blake’s roadster, they were stopped near Los Flores Canyon by a locked wooden fence across the road. Paddling the last two miles up the coast to Malibu was no big deal, and Reid later claimed that the experience of riding his first Malibu wave made him feel “noble in spirit!” But neither of them rushed back. Too many waves simply peeled off ahead of them; steering their long heavy boards into the necessary tight angle  was just about impossible. Pacific Coast Highway opened Malibu to the public in 1929, and Depression-era surfers visited now and then, but the break was still thought of as a bit too hot. John “Doc” Ball and his Palos Verdes Surf Club gang drove up, but not often. “Waves here are fast and crack down like dynamite,” Ball wrote in his book California Surfriders, which featured thirty-two photos of San Onofre and just two of Malibu.

A surf break becomes famous when it can advance the cause faster than any other break. Malibu wasn’t the right spot for the twenties or thirties, but it was made to order for the postwar progressives who first wanted to ride on a higher, faster line, and then wanted to swoop up and down across that line. Simmons, Quigg, Kivlin—the hot California shapers all made their boards with Malibu in mind. The Aggie board and the Di-Di board and the rest of the “girl boards” were launched at First Point. Les Williams did his first banked turn here. Simmons claimed that on a particularly long-walled overhead Malibu wall he hit a kind of terminal velocity when his machine lifted up and for a moment or two skimmed above the water surface, then touched down and sent him into a pinwheeling wipeout. “Malibu was the test track,” recalled boardmaker Dale Velzy. “I’d paddle out and see a guy on one of my boards just buried in the curl, and first of all it was just a beautiful sight, but also I could watch and see how the board was working. ‘Look at that rail, it’s really biting in,’ that kind of thing.” Famous surf breaks are often a challenge to ride well, but from the 1940s on that was never the case at Malibu. “Everybody looked good surfing there,” Velzy said. “It was always a very kind wave.”

Just like at Waikiki and San Onofre, Malibu changed the sport on the land as well as in the water. This sandy hook of beachfront would in fact be surf culture’s last and greatest site-specific incubator. Loose-fitting clothes, bouncy slang, pride in the sport’s detachment from other sports (and the insolence that comes with that pride), a default wariness toward other surfers, flashing public nudity and other forms of mild social rebellion—a good part of the surfer stylebook was drafted at Malibu, beginning in 1945.

In ways, Malibu was like San Onofre, but with much better surf. It was just far enough removed from Southern California’s suburban reach to make being there an unsupervised, semiprivate, easily accessed adventure. There were no lifeguards. There was no local police force; Malibu was decades away from incorporating as a city. There were no commuters to drive by and see a gang of plainly fit young men and women gathered together daily in the coastal version of hanging out on a street corner. This distance—ten miles up the coast from Santa Monica, then the northwestern edge of LA’s beachfront suburbs—helped forestall by nearly a decade the general public’s disapproving view of surfing and surfers. It also helped that the break at Malibu was in the sphere of leisure that surrounded Malibu Colony, the famous Hollywood bedroom community just to the north. The whole point of Malibu was to put the Santa Monica Mountains between yourself and the rest of Los Angeles and to relax in style on the beach.

After the war, there was a new readiness among wave-riders to live an unadulterated version of the surfing life. This was something new. Prewar surfers, to one degree or another, had hedged their bets. Pete Peterson no doubt would have described himself in the thirties as a lifeguard who surfed. Tom Blake was forever trying to align wave-riding with paddling and lifeguard rescue work. Surfing by itself didn’t seem to be enough. Or maybe it was, but prewar surfers weren’t comfortable admitting it to themselves and the world at large. At Malibu after the war, this reluctance to fully embrace the sport as a reason for living in and of itself vanished, particularly for those American surfers who’d enlisted and served in the military. “We’d spent four or five years in the war,” Malibu surfer Dave Rochlen explained, “and it had all been bad. When the war ended—boom—we were back [on the beach]. It was devotion. Like, ‘I’m never going to leave.’ We gave ourselves over to it entirely.”

Extracurricular surf-related activities were trimmed back. The associations with paddleboarding and lifeguarding remained but were less important. In a complete turnaround from the 1930s, surfers no longer showed any interest in organizing the sport through clubs or competitions. Wave-riding, along with endless association with fellow surfers, could stand up—flourish, in fact—without support structures or formal organizations of any kind. At this point, surfing had been part of Southern California’s recreational landscape for forty years. It had its own history, and was beginning to take on the heft of permanence, which likely helped the Malibu surfers make a bigger commitment to the sport. Then again, the stakes had been raised. Lounging on the beach was a harder act to justify during the postwar prosperity boom than it had been during the Depression. In 1937, it was possible to ride waves for hours a day because there wasn’t much else to do. In 1947, serious water time was paid for with reduced paychecks and a much-shortened list of job choices. For a lot of surfers, this was a fair trade. They waited tables, worked as lifeguards, fished, or played out their GI Bill stipend—anything to stay on the beach.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, surfer rebellion—if it could even be called that—was quiet and friendly. For Quigg and Rochlen and another two dozen postwar Malibu regulars and hangers-on, the surfing experience was often pursued as if it were an extended vacation with friends and family: lots of beer and wine, parties and get-togethers, some horseplay and the occasional brawl. It had a pre-rock-and-roll cadence—just what you’d expect from a small fifties community in which the teenagers were led by a core of older surfers who’d been overseas, served in the war, and in some cases even gotten married. They built hot new boards. They put surfing closer to the center of existence than any group before them. And for their efforts they were all but erased over the following decade by a Golden Horde of suburban teenage newcomers who would spread out across the beach and the lineup at Malibu by the thousands.

No surf break, then or now, has ever presented itself as well as Malibu. Each wave rolled forth as if it had traveled halfway across the Pacific for the express purpose of gliding into this quarter-mile bit of shoreline.