The first waves of Venice surfing.
Venice has always had the Pacific Ocean at its doorstep, and with the ocean comes the surf. And with the surf come the surfers. To the grand number of VBWL’s (Venice breakwater locals) vying for the best waves on all of Venice’s beaches, and today’s preponderance of surfers, there had to be a beginning to all this madness.
Three names stand out, first, in the history of surfing, and second, in connection with surfing in Venice. George Freeth, Tom Blake, and Dale Velzy.
George Freeth, born in Honolulu in 1883, was half royal Hawaiian and half Irish. As a child in Hawaii, he had seen an old Polynesian painting that showed his mothers’ regal ancestors standing and riding long planks, or olo boards, and became determined to revive and master the lost sport of ancient Polynesian surfing.
By 1907, Freeth's water skills were already legendary amongst his fellow Hawaiians and visitors to the island. Visiting writer Jack London was so impressed with Freeth’s surfing abilities that in the process of describing what Freeth could do on “a piece of wood,” he introduced the rest of the world to the sport of surfing.
Henry Huntington, California entrepreneur and real estate developer of Huntington Beach fame, first met Freeth on the beach of Waikiki, where the vacationing Huntington had witnessed several men “walking on water,” or surfing. Huntington induced George to come back to Southern California that year to help promote Huntington’s latest real estate venture, Redondo Beach. Huntington hoped to lure real estate buyers to his properties by heavily advertising Freeth's surfing ability aboard the Pacific Electric, which he also owned, and on appointed weekend days, Freeth would take to the surf and demonstrate his “ability to walk on water.”
George was imported in time for the summer season of 1907. All along the coast, from Santa Monica to Laguna, town criers were vying for the attention of the summer crowd, summoning up dazzling visions of pleasure piers and amusement palaces, glittering towers and winking lights. There was the promise of real freedom by the sea, an escape from the urban prison of the times. How simple to grab a Red Car for the beach, soak in the curative ozone and see a show.
At 2pm, and again at 4pm, the young Hawaiian “walked on the waters” without the aid of mirrors or smoke machines, without the aid of electricity. George would mount his big 8-foot long, solid wood 200 pound surf board far out in the surf. He would wait for a suitable wave, catch it, and to the amazement of all, ride onto the beach while standing upright. He’d then pick up his huge plank and amble off with but the smallest hand gesture. An announcer also noted he was single and had blue eyes and brown wavy hair. Women of all ages watched him closely, admiring the manly chest, the wasp waist, and all the curves and bulges outlined by his tight woolen swimsuit. They said his suit had to be forced on him because he’d arrived from the islands with much too brief an outfit, a sort of thin native loin cloth affair.
By that autumn, the crowds began to dwindle. But there was still plenty of good work for George. In nearby Venice, Freeth set up the first volunteer life-saving crew based on the Venice pier, while still surfing every day. In the local papers on October 1, 1908, Freeth claimed “to be the champion surfboard rider in the world.” And amazing the crowds with his daring-do on the water. By wintertime he and his boys had saved 50 people from drowning. And George was always the first to dive in, and always he came home with his victim safe and sound.
George was only 36 years old when he died in 1919. The great influenza epidemic which swept the nation that year ended the promising career of one of Southern California's most beloved heroes. From 1907 to 1915, George promulgated a surfing revolution that would eventually become a stable phenomenon on the California Coast. Freeth’s real legacy was the introduction, by glamorous example, of surfing into Southern California, and from thence to the world. Today, a bust of him can be found at the foot of the Redondo Beach pier, memorializing him for his astounding feats as the first surfer in the U.S.
Tom Blake was another larger-than-life surf pioneer, a seminal force in the history of the sport, who almost single-handedly transformed surfing into a 20th century lifestyle. In many ways, he was the first modern surfer.
In 1926, he too discovered several ancient Hawaiian olo boards sequestered in a storage room at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum. He found they were difficult to maneuver, and they didn't float particularly well. But he carefully replicated them, then drilled hundreds of holes in the wood to accelerate the drying process in humid Hawaii. He then sheathed the hull in marine plywood veneer and refined the shape, thus creating the first “hollow” surfboard. At 15 feet long, 19 inches wide and 4 inches thick, it weighed less than 100 pounds -- an ultralight board for its time.
In 1928, Blake brought his new boards to the mainland, where some 10,000 beachgoers witnessed the first Pacific Coast Surfing Championships at Corona del Mar. Blake's long, narrow boards were regarded as silly and jokingly dubbed “cigars.”
Blake patented his “Hawaiian Hollow Surfboard” in 1930, and soon almost all racing paddleboards were hollow. The hollow boards worked well in the surf, too. Floating high, they were easier to maneuver than the heavier slabs, and they made excellent vehicles for the popular sport of tandem surfing.
Blake's lighter hollow board (aka “cigar boxes” and eventually “kook boxes”) immediately made surfing accessible to greater numbers of people. Manufactured by the Thomas N. Rogers Company of Venice, this was the first “production” surfboard in the world. Typically, Venice was in the forefront of surfing history.
During the ‘30s and ‘40s, surfers generally chose between two types of boards -- a 10-foot redwood plank or a longer, narrower Blake-style cigar box.
To give his surfing paddleboard more directional stability, Blake created (and patented) a small, keel-like fin, although the importance of this invention wasn't really appreciated until the late ‘40s when surfers began to use them. Blake also invented the sailing surfboard, a concept that presaged the windsurfer.
Seeded by Blake’s ideas, other surfers began experimenting with their equipment, and a design renaissance was soon underway. Blake was delighted. He saw surfing as one of the most beneficial of human endeavors. Besides being a freethinking innovator and champion waterman, Blake was a visionary surfer, himself a prototype for an emerging lifestyle.
However, it was the popularization of the whole surfing scene, which he himself had hugely contributed to, that ultimately drove him off the beaches. Back in his home state of Wisconsin, Blake passed away at the age of 92.
In the early ‘50s, Dale Velzy, a Hermosa Beach surfer, began making the only commercially available balsa boards anywhere in California. At first he began with a couple of sawhorses under the Manhattan Beach pier. After a short time though the city came down on him for the mess of balsa shavings blowing with the wind all over the beach. So he moved the prototype shop to a building in Venice Beach under an oil derrick, in the summer of 1953. The first surf shop in Venice! But under an oil derrick?
The Venice shop, at 4821 Pacific Avenue, now on the Marina peninsula at Quarterdeck, proved to be a great success. With all the knowledge he had gained from the experiments on fin shapes, tail shapes, bottom shapes and outlines, Velzy was inundated with orders to the point where he couldn't keep up with them and still ride waves. So he offered a keen surfer named Hap Jacobs the chance to learn to shape and become a partner in his thriving business. There, they built custom boards under the Velzy-Jacobs label, the first guy to put his name on a surfboard.
In 1959, Velzy had three shops -- in Venice, San Clemente and San Diego -- cranking out boards and billing himself as "The World's Largest Manufacturer" of surfboards. They were knocking out approximately 160 custom boards a week, which sold for between $75 and $80. But the Velzy-Jacobs partnership abruptly ended that year, and soon the operation was closed down and padlocked shut for non-payment of taxes.
David Earl "Dewey" Weber was the shop manager for Velzy at the well-established Venice location. In the summer of 1960, he borrowed $1500 from his dad to re-open the 2-room surf shop on the sand in Venice, which was actually the old Velzy shop. Dewey took the foam blank forms and tools that were still there and started anew under his own name. At 22 years old, he was making surfboards on one room, selling them in the other, and surfing every day.
By the summer of 1962, he moved his factory and shop to 4116 Lincoln Boulevard, due to the increase in demand. And by the mid-60s, he had become the largest surfboard manufacturer in the states. Another move in January 1964 was necessitated by still more demand for his boards. Surfers still remember the “A” frame building at 4144 Lincoln Boulevard, which served Weber well into the 70s.
But having played too hard for too long, he tragically died in January of 1993 of alcoholism, being unable to control the power and beauty he once possessed.
Today, the local shops – the Board Gallery on Abbot Kinney, Zuma Jay’s and Horizons West on Main Street in Ocean Park – continue the strong surfing heritage of Venice. And ask any surfer where the best local surf is, he’ll probably not tell you, keeping it a secret so that he can go out, hopefully alone, to catch the ride of his life.