They were a group of waterwomen drawn to the secluded sands and sea at San Onofre, surfing by day and partying by night as the sun dipped into the horizon.
The escapades of the San Onofre Surfing Wahines were documented in a 50-page scrapbook that collected dust for decades, a relic recently uncovered and published – at least part of – for the first time. Their tales were added to a second edition of “San Onofre: Memories of a Legendary Surfing Beach,” a now 1,550-page beast of a book that shares the history of California’s rich surf culture.
It could be called one of the most significant finds in women’s surfing history, documenting not only a less widely known group among the pioneers to surf the iconic beach, currently considered State Parks land on a soon-to-expire lease from the military, but also what’s believed to be the first known women’s surf club.
The San Onofre Surfing Wahines started in 1938 during the early years of mainland surfing.
“This one document itself puts a whole new light and perspective on the significance and prominence of women surfers. The intriguing and puzzling aspect of it is none of the dozens of pioneer surfers I interviewed, some who surfed in the ’30s, none of them ever mentioned this group,” said author and San Onofre Surf Club member David Matuszak. “It just completely got by under the radar in the first seven years of the research I did. I kind of stumbled on it by accident. It’s ground breaking for the women’s surfing history.”
The first, limited edition of his book sold out in 2018. So with the women’s surf club scrapbook now in hand and other significant historical facts that since came to light, Matuszak recently re-issued a second edition with about 50 more pages added.
Matuszak first thought his small project to document the history of San Onofre surfing would take a few months and he’s publish a 100-page book. It took him seven years of research – the book features 200 surfers’ stories along with thousands of photos – and another year following tips about the missing pieces to his puzzle.
Matuszak already knew about the surfers who first discovered the beach during a trip back from Baja in 1933, seeing the waves from the highway and days later packing two cars with surfers to scout out what was then a fish camp.
But what he didn’t know, was that among those in the car was one woman, Mary Ann Hawkins. Her experiences at San Onofre are now documented in the second issue of his book after Matuszak was given a never-published interview done with her in the ’90s.
Matuszak was tipped off to the Surfing Wahines scrapbook by a docent at a surf museum and tracked it down, he said.
Wahine translates to women in Hawaiian, though it’s been adapted in slang over the years to mean female surfer.
Google “first women’s surf club” and you’ll get a hit from 1961 in the South Bay, Matuszak said. There was no mention anywhere, until now, of the San Onofre club from the late ’30s, he said.
Newspaper clippings and dated journal entries in the unearthed scrapbook detail not just the club’s formation, but the women’s dance parties and wild escapes at the secluded beach.
“It’s loaded with photographs and eye-witness accounts of the earliest days of surfing culture in California. It’s a phenomenal document,” Matuszak said. “We don’t know who wrote it, there’s no record of where it came from.”
In photos, the women wore T-shirts proudly showing their club’s name and, according to the scrapbook, they built the first beach hut down on the sand.
“I have pictures of it. They are up in the rafters, hammering away and building the first shack,” he said.
Matuszak believes many of the images in the scrapbook were taken by LeRoy Granis, dubbed by the New York Times as “the godfather of surf photography,” who was among the early-day surfers down at San Onofre. The scrapbook makes reference several times to “Granny,” his nickname.
After two and a half years of journal entries and images, the scrapbook abruptly ends, with no indication of why.
After World War II, the vibe at San Onofre changed from party scene to a family friendly beach, the same surfing subculture that exists today and the reason it’s one of the most coveted beaches in the country, with surfers waiting for hours in a car line just to enter the beach.
The culture for women surfers changed, too. Gidget in the ’50s became the first mainstream adaptation of a girl surfer, forming what society perceived a female surfer to be like: cute and dainty among their stronger male counterparts and not the water athletes the earlier women surfers were.
That’s part of why it was important to tell the complete story of San Onofre’s influence, Matuszak said.
“It is hand’s down the most unique surfing culture the world has ever known since old Hawaii,” he said. “There’s no other place in the world that has that family, aloha spirit of surfing.
“We’ve lost that in the surfing world, pretty much. There’s pockets of it here and there,” he said. “But San Onfore was the Shangri-La of surfing for decades. It’s up to surfers like us to keep that tradition alive. Without question, that’s the most significant thing to share with surfers today.”
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