“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
Prologue (Part 2 of 4)
Crown of the Sea
My “San Onofre experience” and growing up in Corona del Mar plays a big part fitting this work/life balance puzzle together. This time period is a very unique chapter in Southern California surfing history. My Father, Jack Mulkey, is my Editor in Chief to hold me accountable for accuracy.
Corona del Mar (CdM), which is Spanish for “Crown of the Sea”, was pretty much the quintessential beach community, with a small town atmosphere (population in 1964 of ~8,000), plenty of beautiful sandy beaches and rocky coves to explore, and balmy weather that was comfortable all year round. It was a very tightly knit crowd, most of who stayed together from kindergarten through graduation from Corona del Mar High School (GO Sea Kings!). Several of them I am still in close contact with today.
The more memorable times were pretty much spent at the beach, surfing (body or board), and just hanging out with friends. I remember just lying in the warm sand to heat you back up after a long stint in the water, and then going back in to the water once you got too hot. Repeat. Until it was time to go home.
Mostly we hung between the two main beaches in town, Big Corona and Little Corona. They were two very different beaches. Sometimes we’d talk one of our mom’s into dropping us off with our surfboards off at a local surf spot a little further up or down the coast. This was regardless of the surf conditions, as we had no way of knowing ahead of time what it was like. One time Matt Cox had his mom drop us off at Huntington Beach cliffs on a day when there was not much surf. Apparently, she forgot to come get us!? Of course without cell phones or money, we were really stuck. We were beginning to plot a robbery on a convenience store nearby to stave off starvation when she finally showed up at the end of the day. We never let Matt hear the end of that one.
The history of CdM and surfing is quite interesting. Corona del Mar was actually one of the premier surfing spots on the west coast in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and even was host to the Pacific Coast Surfboard Championships during that time. However, in 1936 a large extension to the jetty at the entrance of Newport Harbor was built, and surfing popularity pretty much died due to the change in surf conditions on the CdM side of the harbor. These jetties are huge, and clearly were a tremendous undertaking to build, requiring railroad tracks on top to transport the large granite rocks which were used.
A remarkable story about the building of the jetties was recently documented in a 2014 PBS documentary called “The Wedge: Dynasty, Tragedy, Legacy”. In 1926, a 15-year old polio victim (George Rogers Jr.) drowned in the Newport Harbor as the boat he was in capsized in heavy surf. As a result of his polio, the heavy weight of his iron leg braces sank his body to the bottom of the harbor and was never found. His father, George Rogers Sr., consequently sold his business and focused his remaining years of life seeking the funding to alter Newport Harbor to prevent such an accident from happening again. In spite of the scarcity of money during the depression, he raised over $2 million in federal and local funds to build the jetty extension in 1936. However, a month following the re-dedication of the improved Newport Harbor entrance, George Rogers Sr. suffered a heart attack while on his boat as he entered the harbor entrance and died at approximately the same location his son had died, ten years earlier.
Although the surf on the CdM side was blocked by the large rocks, the jetties did lead to the creation of the now famous “Wedge”, on the western side on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. Waves at the Wedge can top well over 20 feet when conditions are right. I remember a few times dodging the Harbor Patrol as we swam across the harbor from CdM to watch the body surfers at the Wedge when it was real big. Swimming was not allowed in the harbor due to the boat traffic. But to see people body surf a 20-foot wave in a near shore break was something worth risking getting caught.
But on the Corona del Mar side, the jetty extension pretty much destroyed the excellent surfing waves for which CdM had been so well known for in the 1920’s and 30’s. Once the jetties were completed in 1936, most of the serious surfing crowd began venturing further south to San Onofre and beyond toward San Diego in search of consistently good waves to ride.
For our CdM surf crowd, the main surfing at Corona del Mar State Beach (Big Corona) was at the west end right next to the jetties when a south/southwest swell would hit. There was also a very short tubular left, which seemed to magically appear during the BIG south swells at low tide that some days seemed to break just like the Pipeline in Hawaii. Out of nowhere. Hard to believe.
Further down the beach was called Banzai – ironically, which had no shape for surfing at all – but lots of open sand to hang out when the tourists from inland were crowding the beach near the jetty. We’d often go out to body surf on a big day after the “blackball” came out (meaning, no surfing). You would catch a wave and take the drop like diving off a cliff, and then pretty much get bombed when the entire length of Banzai seemed to break all at once.
It wasn’t too often that we brought a Kodak Brownie camera down to the beach to take pictures back then, and those we did take were of pretty poor quality. But below is a shot of Scott Sutton taken by his dad circa 1966 from the jetty while he was riding one of those classic jetty rights. Scott is manhandling a 9’3” Hobie “Phil Edwards Model” which had three 2×4 sized redwood stringers in it. And that’s John Park off to the side paddling his Surfboards Hawaii board. Looks like he was trying to shoulder-hop Scott and lost out. Scott later became a publisher and illustrator of children’s books, including the wildly popular “Family of Ree” series of books.
Our small community of surfers lived for those big south swells generated by hurricanes off Baja California, when the CdM jetty would be breaking “off the end” on large sets. We didn’t have web cams, cell phones or the Internet back then to check surf conditions; it was all pretty much word of mouth. The first one to see good surf got on the phone or their Schwinn Sting-Ray bike and let out the word if things were looking promising. Word got around quickly when the “Foamers” (as we called them) would start breaking off the end of the jetty.
This shot was taken circa 1990’s of that very scene (by Woody Woodworth). It provides a picture of the power and force of those big south swells as they would hit the jetty and create such exciting conditions for the adventurous who were willing to paddle out to the end of the jetty and wait for a big set.
When the Foamers were hitting, we would grab our Duck Feet fins with red-white-and-blue Converse Hodgeman rafts for the long paddle out to the end of the jetty to wait for a set big enough to break off the end. It was a small community who knew the routine of waiting out there for the right set to come, carefully watching the bell buoy (top center of picture above) for how far it would drop to indicate how large of a set of waves was on its way.
And if the bell buoy dipped to the crown, it was a guaranteed BIG set. We would immediately call out to lay claim to the wave of our choice in the set:
“1st END!; 2nd END!; 3rd END!…”
And once you caught one, the experience to follow was unforgettable. It was a very long, extremely bumpy and exhilarating ride to make it all the way to the shore break inside on a raft – definitely an “E-ticket” ride, to put it in Disneyland terminology of that day. I remember some of those rides like they happened yesterday. To this day, those rides on that Hodgeman raft off the end of the jetty rival anything I have done on a surfboard for pure fun. Not to mention the always present danger of getting sucked into the rocks by the tremendous force of the wave you were riding.
Below is a shot of Woody Woodworth and me flying high on a CdM jetty Foamer circa 1971. I’m the wimp wearing the long john wetsuit, which was mostly about preventing the rash on your chest, which got pretty nasty from the canvas raft.
Woody (far left) later became a professional surf photographer (Creation Captured).
As fun as those rides were, there was a serious danger of side slipping on those rafts right into the giant barnacle covered rocks on the jetty. As a result, Woody and John Park pioneered a technique of fiber glassing fins onto these rafts to help hold you into the wave. This was a chapter in CdM surfing history that dramatically changed the scene at Big Corona when the Foamers were hitting, as one could suddenly hold a line across the wave without the danger of side slipping into the jetty rocks. A new era had been born!
In one incident, another CdM local, Mark Magiera, became an instant rock star (pun intended) when he was sucked into the rocks on a wipeout while riding a surfboard off the jetty in the inside channel (where the boats were!) — and he actually survived to tell about it. Mark set the record at Hoag Memorial Hospital for visitors during his stay after that. He had been sucked into the jetty and lived to tell about it, something right up with being awarded the armed forces Purple Heart. We were all incredibly envious of his bravery and survival. I imagine our parents were all aghast at the sudden fame Mark achieved for such an act.
I could go on quite a bit about those glory days in CdM, but I need to keep this writing to my purpose. Below is one final shot of our CdM Community Youth Center “All Star” baseball team circa 1964 that seems appropriate. The “Total” score sets the tone for just how serious we were about our baseball back then.
There is a lot to say about several players in that picture, some of whom I’ve already mentioned. But for the sake of brevity, I’ll hold it to John “Go-Go” Bandel, top left (standing). Go-Go was a very talented athlete in all sports (including rock throwing), and just plain had a way about him that you could not help but like. I always wanted to be on Go-Go’s team. Amazingly, he was one of “17” children, raised in a good Catholic CdM family, in one of the original CdM homes built in the 1940s. Needless to say, everyone in CdM seemed to know a Bandel at that time. I only went inside that house once or twice, and I remember wondering how the heck it all worked, as it did not seem possible that 17 children were all living there at the same time. It was not that big of a house!
A funny story snuck out at a recent wedding which a couple of the Bandel’s attended. Apparently during those early days in CdM, one of the Bandel kids was caught in a backyard picking fruit off a tree of another family in the neighborhood. As the story went, when they got caught, they had a piece of paper which turned out to be a map, which neatly mapped out many of the fruit trees in CdM. I believe we confirmed at the wedding that night that each Bandel kid had an assigned area in CdM to be picked on a specific day of the week.
Mr. Bandel was one smart man!
This book is a slice of surfing history that you have to see to believe. I ran across it on the shelf at Powell’s book store in Portland, Oregon before it had been published on Amazon. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the photographs from the 1930’s and 1940’s are an artistic delight of surfing at that time. At the end of the book is a “notes” section with amazingly detailed descriptions of each photograph and who was in them. Don James and some friends had salvaged these photographs from old scrapbooks and decided to publish a book of them. As it turned out, the book arrived just a few days before Christmas 1996, and Don passed on two days later on Christmas Eve after signing 500 copies of the first edition.