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The History of Surfin' in Santa Cruz
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The History of Surfin' in Santa Cruz

More than 130 years later, the history of surfing in Santa Cruz is still being written, with prominent figures making headlines every day.

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5 min read

October 12, 2021

It’s hard to imagine Santa Cruz sans surf. But there was a time when the sport didn’t exist in the area, until one day, three Hawaiian princes arrived in Santa Cruz and shaped its cultural identity to what we now know. More than 130 years later, the history of surfing in Santa Cruz is still being written, with prominent figures and beaches making headlines every day. 

Surfing has held a mystical allure in Santa Cruz for well more than a century. But there was a time when the practice didn’t exist there.

Santa Cruz Surfing: A Brief History

The origin of surfing dates back to the 12th century when cave paintings of people balancing on planks in water were found in Polynesia. Soon, Polynesians brought the sport with them to Hawaii, where it was considered a religious ritual. Fast forward eight centuries, three Hawaiian princes—David Kawānanakoa, Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana'ole, and Edward Keli'iahonui—arrived in California in 1885. 

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On a hot summer day in July, the young royals decided to go to a beach and use their redwood boards to ride the waves. Bystanders were in awe as they navigated the waters ever-so-gracefully. This was quickly reported in a local newspaper, making them the first documented surfers in the U.S. The princes stayed in California for a few more years before returning to Hawaii. They never cut their ties with the locals, who had now formed a small surfing community trying to ride the waves themselves. 

In 1915, Dorothy Becker left Santa Cruz to become one of the first Californians to surf in Hawaii. That same year, the teenager became the first woman to perform a headstand on a board. Thanks to her unmatched talent, Becker became one of California’s most famous female athletes making headlines everywhere. 

Three Hawaiian princes introduced surfing to Santa Cruz? Now, 130 years later, their historic redwood surfboards have returned home.

The Popularization of Surfing in Santa Cruz

It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the sport really took off in Santa Cruz when a group of locals formed the Santa Cruz Surfing Club. The surfers started venturing into the harsh waves of Cowell’s Beach, one of the best surf spots in the Golden State. Back in the day, they had the area all to themselves since surfing wasn’t as popular. The surfers would ride plywood and ironing boards on the regular due to lack of surfboards. But things changed after World War II; the sport’s popularity rose in the area, and different groups started claiming certain parts of the beach.

As surfing became a common pastime, the boards became more functional. Redwood planks were soon forgotten, and instead, surfers began using more pliable and lightweight boards. Soon after, the invention of wetsuits made surfing in the cold waters more bearable, all thanks to Santa Cruz resident Jack O’Neill. Now, surfers were able to stay in the water for longer periods of time, ride larger waves, and perform new tricks on lighter boards. 

The 1960s saw the rise in the sport’s popularity nationwide, with Santa Cruz being the epicenter of attention. And it didn’t take long for the soul surf movement to rise in popularity either—locals began searching for their spirituality on the waves. In 1986, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum on Lighthouse Pointe at Steamer Lane was established, where visitors were able to learn about the history of surfing culture. And 26 years later, in 2012, Santa Cruz County became formally recognized as a World Surfing Reserve, joining Malibu, in holding the honor.

Autumn Hays first started surfing when she was six, but she didn't try shortboarding until she was in 7th grade. Photo courtesy of Autumn Hays.

Famous Figures in the Santa Cruz Surfing Scene 

Autumn Hays

Autumn Hays made history as the first female surfer to be awarded equal prize money as her male counterpart. During the 2018 Worlds Surf League Qualifying Series in Iquique, Chile, Hays came in first and won $10,000—not a cent less than her fellow male first-place winner. Today, she ranks at number 12 in the Women’s Qualifying Series and has so much to offer to the Santa Cruz and world surfing communities. You can find Hays surfing swells at Steamer Lane, one of the best surf spots in Santa Cruz.

Jay Moriarty

One of the most famous names in the surfing community, Jay Moriarty is recognized as one of the best surfers in the world despite his short-lived life. Moriarty became a household name in 1996 when his wipeout at Mavericks was caught on camera and made the cover of Surfer Magazine at the age of 16. The successful surfer won many sportsmanship and competitive awards throughout his career. Unfortunately, Moriarty’s life was cut short at the age of 22 during an unfortunate freediving accident in 2001. The 2012 biographical drama Chasing Mavericks is inspired by the true story of one of our favorite Santa Cruz surfers.

Esabella Bonner is a strong advocate for the Black community in Santa Cruz County. Photo courtesy of Esabella Bonner.

Esabella Bonner

Esabella Bonner is a Santa Cruz native bringing diversity into the California surf scene. After years of watching her fellow surfers of color being excluded, Bonner founded the Black Surfers Club Santa Cruz. She took a huge step in bettering the surf culture in Santa Cruz; POC became more enthusiastic about bringing their talent to the beach. Thanks to Bonner, more new talents will be emerging from Santa Cruz and representing BIPOC.

Top Santa Cruz Beaches to Surf Like a Pro

It was at Steamer Lane that the modern surfing wetsuit and the leash were mainly developed by Jack O'Neill.

Steamer Lane

Now that we’ve established that Santa Cruz is one of the best surf towns in the U.S., it’s time to highlight the Central Coast’s top surf spots, starting with Steamer Lane. The epic 10-foot offshore peaks that unload at its shores are one of the reasons why this spot is super famous. But keep in mind, Steamer Lane is not for the faint-hearted; the waves could get overwhelming to tackle. But if you’re up for the challenge, riding the waves here is one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz

Cowell Beach

Located west of the Santa Cruz Wharf, Cowell Beach is known for its easy-to-catch gentle waves. This is the right spot for beginners to learn how to ride the waves. Not only is Cowell Beach a top Santa Cruz surf spot, but it’s also a great place to relax and unwind by the water. Visit this Santa Cruz beach to practice your skills before tackling bigger waves. 

Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz is a sheltered reef break that has fairly consistent surf. Winter is the best time of year for surfing here.

Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach is included on every beach day itinerary in Santa Cruz for good reason. Offers amazing surfing conditions and breathtaking views, this beach is everyone’s top choice. You’ll find pros and rookies just south of the beautiful rock arches enjoying the waves—you should totally join! 

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