First Session: How Malibu Changed Surfing Forever

Matt Rode

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Updated 39d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka, Hossegor, Jaws, Byron Bay, Huntington Beach, Germany, Tofino and Chicama. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

Few waves hold more historical and cultural significance for the surfing community than Malibu. The centre of California surfing during the sport’s formative years in the state, the right-hand point break at Surfrider Beach was the first widely acclaimed “perfect” wave and the one that all others of the time were measured against. The gentle, symmetrically peeling walls of First Point were perfectly suited to the early redwood boards used between the 1920s and 1940s and maintained their dominance into the hotdogging era of the 1950s.

Today, the various points at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach are as relevant as ever, particularly since the renaissance of traditional logging and the advent of the “ride everything” movement in the early 2000s. Located at the heart of the Hollywood hype machine, Malibu has become an institution in the Southern California surf community, but with the break’s notoriety comes the pitfalls of popularity. Today, Malibu is widely considered to be one of the most crowded surf spots in the world, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, for decades, the wave broke virtually unmolested, peeling perfectly for a small handful of beach boys and girls with unique styles and colourful nicknames.

Forecast: Malibu First Point

Pulled back, the classic shot over-looking an American institution.

Pulled back, the classic shot over-looking an American institution.

© 2021 - Miah Klein.

It is widely believed that Sam Reid and Tom Blake were the first people to surf the waves at Surfrider Beach in 1926. At the time, “Rancho Malibu” was the private domain of the Rindge family, who had developed the ranch in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a personal nature reserve. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a small enclave of Rindge family and friends and Hollywood moguls enjoyed the stretch of coast that is now known as Malibu, practically alone.

The Rindge family built Spanish-style stone walls along the shore, so when early visiting surfers such as Reid and Blake wanted to enjoy the waves, they often had to sneak past armed guards and crawl through a hole in the wall. But the effort was worth it. The relatively warm water, consistently good weather, practically empty beach, and flawless waves made this the ideal place to live the surf lifestyle, and Malibu quickly became ground zero for the burgeoning California surf culture.

Tom Blake, right, changed the face of modern surfing.

Tom Blake, right, changed the face of modern surfing.

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Malibu remained relatively uncrowded. Although it was the undisputed “best spot” in Southern California, the surf community was still quite small and the difficult access kept many people away. The scene was dominated by legends like Miki Dora, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, Johnny Fain, Billy Al “Moondoggie” Bengston, and early surf documentarian Le Roy Grannis.

Everything changed in 1956 when a 15-year-old girl named Kathy Kohner Zuckerman wandered down to Surfrider Beach and discovered what had until that point been something of a waterlogged boys’ club. Drawn in by the casual, attractive beach lifestyle, she began hanging out at Malibu and getting onto the crew’s boards for a few rides. One day, Kathy traded Tubesteak a sandwich for a quick session on his board, and as he handed off the board to her and grabbed his snack, he quipped, “Thanks, Gidget,” which was slang for “girl” and “midget.” The nickname stuck, and Gidget quickly became a fixture in the Malibu scene.

Kathy in 1956.

Kathy in 1956.

© 2021 - Ernst Lenart.

Unbeknownst to the crew lazily enjoying the empty paradise of Malibu, Gidget would soon bring huge changes to the area. A few years later, her father, screenwriter Frederick Kohner, wrote the novel Gidget based on his daughter’s diary entries from her time at the beach.

The book was a massive success, quickly selling two million copies, and in 1959 it was adapted into a film of the same name starting Sandra Dee. Virtually overnight, the quiet, unassuming beach hangout at Malibu was put on the pop culture map, and throngs of kids started flocking there to get a glimpse of the real Gidget and her famous boyfriend Moondoggie.

The fallout from the Gidget phenomenon (which led to dozens of follow-up books and the entire Hollywood surf film genre) has been studied extensively, and it is widely acknowledged that the character based on Kathy Kohner did more to bring surfing to the masses than anything since Duke Kahanamoku’s world tour.

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Malibu quickly became the hub of the surf world, and largely dominated the culture until the advent of barrel riding changed our definition of perfection and moved the focus to the North Shore of Oahu. In the meantime, the crowd in the lineup grew exponentially until it was overflowing with kooks, crazies, surf schoolers and salty locals.

In 2010, Surfrider Beach was the first wave to be designated a World Surfing Reserve, but by then the damage had been done. The recent resurgence of interest in traditional longboarding had only furthered the spot’s popularity, and today it sees hundreds of surfers clamoring for waves on everything from logs and displacement hulls to SUPs and shortboards.

While our definition of perfection has continued to evolve over the past 70 years, for many people in Southern California, Malibu First Point is still the perfect wave—if you can see past the human speed bumps, that is. Getting a wave to yourself at Malibu is virtually impossible, yet the wave’s popularity continues to grow, fed in equal part by its unparalleled symmetry and location at the heart of Hollywood pop scene.