Inside the Campaign to Make Surfing California's Official Sport
It's kind of amazing that it isn't already.
Photo via the U.S. National Archive
Jack London was mesmerized the first time he saw surfers riding the waves of the ocean. It was 1907, and he’d docked at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu during a sailing trip from San Francisco when he spotted them: “One after another they come, a mile long, with smoking crests, the white battalions of the infinite army of the sea,” he wrote in a magazine essay published later that year.
Word of the “royal sport for the natural kings of the earth,” as London called it, spread quickly to Southern California, where the railroad tycoon and real estate developer Henry Huntington saw an opportunity. He invited the Hawaiian surfer George Freeth, whom London had described as “a young god bronzed with a sunburn,” to help bring in crowds at his recently acquired Redondo Beach pier, just south of LAX.
Billed as the "Man Who Can Walk on Water,” Freeth gave surfing demonstrations that brought in thousands of onlookers who traveled to the pier on the Pacific Electric Railway, which, conveniently, Huntington also owned. At least, that’s the way the Redondo Beach Historical Society remembers this story, a version of which is engraved on a memorial statue they’ve erected in Freeth’s likeness on the pier. Ask city officials 30 miles south in Huntington Beach, however, and they’ll tell you a different story. The Orange County city, which was also developed by Huntington, held a centennial event in 2014 honoring the 100-year anniversary of the year they claim Freeth launched the surfing craze at their pier—not Redondo’s. (The International Surfing Museum, based in Huntington Beach, unsurprisingly backs this telling of history.)
By that time, Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku would’ve already won a gold medal as an Olympic swimmer; he settled in Southern California not long after. Today, both men are considered the fathers of modern surfing and among the first to popularize the Polynesian-born sport on the mainland. This is a point of contention for people who live in Santa Cruz, on California’s Central Coast. The way they see it, American surfing actually began in their city in 1885, when three teenage princes from Hawaii surfed the San Lorenzo River on redwood planks while attending a school nearby. (The issue is so contentious that the cities of Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach went to court over the rights to use the name “Surf City, USA” after Huntington Beach successfully trademarked it.) While the origins of American surfing remain as murky as ocean water in a rip current, no one would dispute the sport’s influence in California, which birthed the Beach Boys and The Endless Summer, and, perhaps regrettably, Baywatch and board shorts.
Assembly member Al Muratsuchi, a surfer who represents California’s 66th District, which encompasses Redondo Beach and most of the South Bay, wants everyone to recognize the state’s surfing history—whether or not its own cities can agree on it.
Last Wednesday, the Democrat introduced a bill that would make surfing California’s official sport. Muratsuchi, a former army brat, grew up surfing in typhoons in Japan’s Okinawa Island—but “I don’t want to claim to be a Kelly Slater or a Laird Hamilton,” he says—before moving to California to attend UC Berkeley for undergrad and UCLA for law school. He says the bill, which he coauthored with LA-area assembly member Ian Calderon, is more than just a symbolic gesture toward his favorite pastime. Rather, he sees it as part of his broader legislative agenda to protect California’s beaches and oppose President Donald Trump’s proposed expansion of offshore drilling. We asked him why he wrote the bill, what he hopes it will do, and how surfers can lead the fight to protect the planet.
What would this designation do? Is there anything that comes along with it that would encourage surfing or legitimize the sport in some way?
Al Muratsuchi: Well, I think surfing’s come a long way from its slacker image. Nowadays even legislators are surfers. I like to go out as much as I can when I’m not doing the people’s work. I think it’s not only a recognition of the rich history and culture, but also there’s a huge retail industry that got started from the surfing lifestyle that inspires people from all around the world to come to California. It’s not only recognizing the history and the culture but also recognizing the retail, the tourism, and the recreation industries—the multibillion dollar coastal economy that rests upon the image of surfing in California.
[Another big part of it is] how surfing is all about being, you know, in sync and in harmony with our beaches and our ocean. I’m tying this with my efforts for years to fight to protect our beaches and our coastline. The Trump administration just announced that he wants to reopen offshore oil drilling off the coast of California. I introduce the bill also on the more serious side to fight back against Trump on this proposal to restart offshore oil drilling.
What is the relationship between surfing and protecting the environment? Do you think that surfers are more likely to be environmentalists?
Yeah. In fact, the Surfrider Foundation is a great example. They’re a nonprofit organization of surfers committed to protecting the beaches, the ocean, and the coastline. My assembly district goes from Manhattan Beach down through Palos Verdes, and one of the cities in my district, Hermosa Beach, had a huge fight against oil drilling in Hermosa Beach, and the Surfrider Foundation was a big part of that campaign to oppose oil drilling. We don’t want oil drilling threatening our beautiful beaches and ocean.
What’s the best beach for surfing?
In the South Bay we have El Porto, we have some great breaks off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, but we have issues with some of the localism in Palos Verdes, as you might have heard. But California, everywhere from Mavericks up north [in Half Moon Bay] down through my neck of the woods, the LA South Bay down to Orange County, down to San Diego, we have some of the world’s best surfing here.
I noticed that Hawaii already made surfing an official sport for their state. Does that mean that California is second best?
Any surfer will give their proper respect to Hawaii. Surfing was invented by the Hawaiians. I’ve heard all kinds of surfer stories, but it’s my understanding that the first Hawaiian that introduced surfing to California came here either in Hermosa Beach or Redondo Beach. I’ve had Dennis Jarvis, the owner of Spyder Surfboards in Hermosa Beach, tell me that it first started in Hermosa Beach and then Bill Brand, the mayor of Redondo Beach and another surfer, was telling me that the first Hawaiian to introduce surfing to California came to Redondo Beach. I don’t know who’s telling the truth.
I was surprised that California didn’t already have an official sport. Do you know whether legislators have made attempts to propose state sports in the past, and if so, has there been any pushback? Do you expect that there will be any pushback on this?
I’m not aware of anyone making any previous attempts, but I think anyone who’s ever seen any marketing campaign promoting California and our tourism and recreation industries, again, the most iconic sport has always been surfing. Whether you’re living on the coast or living inland, I think everyone recognizes that when they think of California they think of surfing. I expect some pretty interesting debate over this bill. I have yet to see what kind of response I’m going to get from some of my colleagues that don’t live in coastal communities. I don’t want to write off our inland communities. As you may know, there’s the city of Lemoore out in Central Valley where Kelly Slater created [a pool with] these man-made wavesman-made waves that allow people living inland to also go surfing. That’s another example of innovative surfers in California that can help promote the sport throughout the state.
Do you think that the world would be a better place if everyone surfed?
Yeah. I think that the world would be a lot more peaceful place if everyone went surfing and got in touch with our beautiful beaches and our ocean. Maybe if President Trump came surfing in California he’d think twice about offshore oil drilling off our coast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.