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San Onofre: the Nearest Faraway Place

San Onofre, 1938
Peanuts Larson, San Onofre, 1939
Photo: Don James
Surf contest. Photo: Doc Ball
Pete Peterson

San Onofre was the sweet and easy low-simmering crucible of American surfing in the 1930s and early 1940s. Tiny pod-like surfing communities took root in California from San Diego’s Mission Beach all the way up to Pacifica in the San Francisco Bay Area; Virginia already had three decades of surf history; and Florida had enough riders by the end of the Depression that Daytona Beach was able to host an annual contest. But San Onofre, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, was where ...

There were no outside influences at San Onofre. No lifeguards. No tourists or reporters. No club rules. For the first time in its modern era, the sport had a space in which it could develop on its own. Over the course of three or four hundred Depression-era weekends at San Onofre, surfing socialized itself.