Before Now – Who was Ocean Beach’s first surfer?

surfers at Kelly's Cove area of Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Gary Silberstein and James Bonaldi surfing in front of Seal Rocks at Ocean Beach, early 1960s. Photo: Bud Lavagnino via Western Neighborhoods Project

The Kelly’s Cove Reunion approaches on Saturday, an annual gathering of surfers and other salt-water lovers who have enjoyed the Aloha spirit on the northernmost stretch of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach over the past 30, 40, even 50 years.

According to longtime Kelly’s Cove denizens, board surfing started on Ocean Beach after World War II, even if Old Man Kelly himself wasn’t strictly a surfer.

But could surfing at Kelly’s have started earlier?

Surfing originated in Polynesia (although a prehistoric version of surfing may have been practiced in Peru). In the later 1700s, some of the first Europeans to visit Tahiti and the Hawaiian Islands reported to the wider world the grace and dexterity of native “surf riders,” but the sport — and lifestyle — took more than a century to spread beyond its island origins.

It’s probably impossible to determine when the first surfer took on the cold waves of Ocean Beach. Many Hawaiian men were hired on to European-owned merchant vessels that worked the fur and tallow trades along the Pacific Coast in the early 19th century. Some ships were manned entirely by natives of the Sandwich Islands (as the Europeans were calling Hawaii then). Richard Henry Dana, writing in the 1830s, noted that Hawaiian sailors were “complete water-dogs, therefore very good in boating. It is for this reason there are so many of them on the coast of California; they being very good hands in the surf.”

Lone surfer at Ocean Beach with snow on hills of Marin Headlands.

The waters of Ocean Beach are cold, even when there's no snow on the hills of the Marin Headlands, as there is in this photo from the 1970s. Photo courtesy Dennis O'Rorke.

I like to indulge in a wild fantasy that one of these young men, his ship anchored in the sleepy bay beside the ragged village of Yerba Buena (San Francisco’s original name), persuades some of his shipmates to take a long walk across the sand dunes to visit the ocean waves. Grabbing a piece of driftwood at the beach, he wades out in the frigid Pacific to carve up a wave or two before hypothermia sets in.

A highly unlikely scenario, I know, but a fun one to imagine.

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku. Photo: Library of Congress

Far more probable a candidate for first Ocean Beach surfer is Duke Kahanamoku. Born in 1890, Kahanamoku began breaking swimming records in Honolulu in 1911, and won Olympic gold medals in 1912 and 1920. While he gained worldwide recognition for his swimming prowess, Duke (his real first name, not a royal title) was also a great surfer and acted as the first ambassador of surfing to the world. Touring for swim meets and speed trials in different cities across the world, Kahanamoku often demonstrated his skill with a longboard.

Along with members of his Hai Nalu swim club, Kahanamoku broke swimming records at Sutro Baths meets in 1913 and 1914, and appeared at San Francisco events regularly into the 1920s. Although I haven’t found any proof yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Big Kahuna or one of his comrades gave the waves of Kelly’s Cove a try during one of these visits.

Interest in San Francisco surfing history continues to grow, and perhaps evidence of Ocean Beach surfing before the 1940s will be found. In the meantime, enjoy this video trailer for “Great Highway,” a documentary about Bay Area surfing:

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Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”

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3 Comments

  1. Living here in the Philippines but having grown up in the Outer Richmond (36th ave) in the 60′s and 70′s,
    I can really appreciate this tribute to all the Surfers of Ocean Beach. Having watched surfers as a kid for years, I only paddled around once on a board while cutting class that extra foggy day !
    Great job and thanks for showing this. Brings back so many fun memories.
    Eric Rausch

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