“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 I recall 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 to get us!? Of course, without cell phones or money, we were really stuck. We were beginning to plot a robbery on a nearby convenience store to stave off starvation when she suddenly showed up at the end of the day. We never let Matt hear the end of that one.
Corona del Mar has an interesting history with surfing as one of the premier surfing spots on the west coast in the late 1920s and early 1930s and even hosted the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships during that period. 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 (south side). These jetties are huge barriers to block the entrance to Newport Harbor and clearly were a tremendous undertaking to build, requiring railroad tracks to transport the giant granite rocks into position.
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 partially blocked by the large jetty, the jetties did lead to the creation of the now famous “Wedge” on the north side of the harbor in Newport Beach. Waves at the Wedge can top over 20 feet when conditions are right. I remember a few times growing up when we dodged the Harbor Patrol as we swam across the harbor from CdM to watch the body surfers at the Wedge when it so big that we could see the waves from the CdM side of the harbor. Swimming in the harbor was strictly prohibited, but to see people body surf a 20-foot wave just a few feet off the shore was worth risking getting caught.
On the CdM side, the jetty extension pretty much destroyed the excellent surfing waves for which CdM had been so well known for. Once the jetties were completed in 1936, most of the serious surfing crowd began venturing further south to San Onofre and beyond in search of consistently good waves to ride.
For our local surf community, Corona del Mar State Beach (Big Corona) still had plenty of good waves when a south/southwest swell would come in. There was also a very short tubular left, which seemed to magically appear during the BIG south swells at low tide that we reckoned to our own homegrown Pipeline in Hawaii. It came out of nowhere and was hard to believe when it happened.
Further south 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 and snack bars. We’d often go out to body surf on a big day after the “blackball” flag came out (meaning, no surfing). You would catch a wave and take the drop like you were 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. 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 looking 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. No webcams, 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 that the surf was up! And if “foamers” (as we called them) were breaking off the end of the jetty, it was an all-out assault on Big Corona, regardless of what you had planned for the day.
This shot was taken in the early 1990s 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.
When the call came out for “foamers”, I would grab my Duck Feet fins with Converse Hodgman raft and literally sprint to Big Corona to get in on the fun. There was a small community of us who had learned the routine of the long paddle out and carefully watching the bell buoy (top center of the 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. My adrenaline immediately skyrocketed as we would all jockey for position as we called out to lay claim to the wave of our choice in the set:
And once you caught one, the experience to follow was unforgettable. It was an amazingly long, extremely bumpy and exhilarating ride to navigate your raft all the way to the shore break inside – an E-ticket ride, to put it in Disneyland terminology of that day. I remember some of those rides vividly just like they happened yesterday. Riding that Hodgman raft off the end of the jetty all the way in rival anything I have done on a surfboard since for pure fun and adventure. Adding to the effect was the always present danger of getting sucked into giant barnacle covered rocks on the jetty by the tremendous force of the wave you were riding if you wiped out or side-slipped on the raft.
Of course, I’m the wimp wearing the long john wetsuit, but I argue that was mostly about preventing the rash on your chest, which got pretty nasty from the canvas raft. Woody later became a professional surf photographer (Creation Captured).
Another member of this tight community, 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 inside the channel (where the boats were!) — and he actually survived to tell about it. Mark apparently set a record at Hoag Memorial Hospital for visitors during his stay. He had been sucked into the jetty and lived to tell about it, something right up there 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.
As a result of this ever-present danger, Woody Woodworth and John Park pioneered a technique of fiberglassing two fins onto the Hodgman raft bottom to help hold you into the wave. This dramatically changed the scene at Big Corona when the foamers were hitting, enabling you to hold a line across the wave without side slipping into the jetty rocks. A new era had been born!
When the surf wasn’t up, we did have a few organized activities we attended to. Below is a rare picture of our CdM Community Youth Center “All Star” baseball team circa 1964. The “Total” score sets the tone for just how serious we were about our baseball back then (the negative for this pic got flipped over).
There is a LOT to say about almost everyone in that picture, some of whom I’ve already mentioned. But I’ll hold it to one, 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. When we were picking sides, 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 (and small!) 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!?
A funny story snuck out at a recent wedding reception 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 reception that night that each Bandel kid had an assigned fruit tree 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.