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Arts & Culture
The first surfers to brave San Francisco’s Ocean Beach
In his backyard in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood, Arne Jin An Wong coats a pink and white striped, eight-foot-long surfboard. This board is one of dozens in Wong’s quiver. They are all over his backyard: resting on fences next to tomato vines and suspended from the rafters of his garage. A few faded and yellowed boards are heaped in a pile that he is donating to children in the Philippines.
Wong began surfing Ocean Beach when he was a teenager back in the 1960s, at a break near the Cliff House and Seal Rock. Locals call it Kelly’s Cove.
Some tell me the beach is named after Old Man Kelly – a hermit who used to swim back and forth to Seal Rock every day in the 1940s. Others say the name came from an old billboard for the Kelly Tire Company, which hung on a cliff on the eastern side of the Great Highway.
Wong says the break was originally bordered on the south by a pier that was part of Playland-at-the-Beach, an old amusement park that ran along the shore.
“On big days we used to climb up on the pier and just jump off the end instead of having to paddle out. That was, like, a fun way to get in the water,” he says.
He can also still remember the feeling of standing up on his first “real” wave.
“It was huge,” he says, “and I would have never done it alone. It was our peer groups pushing each other, and we all kind of push ourselves out and go way beyond our capacity and ride waves we would never ride, pushing each other to do it. It was like riding on glass. All of a sudden you're riding this glass wall that's so smooth that it's like riding on glass. It was amazing.”
Wong says that during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the edge of San Francisco felt different – wilder.
“Where people came down to the beach in droves, played drums and hung out on the wall,” he says. “You would start by going down to the beach and building a fire.”
There were no such things as wetsuits back then, he says. Just wool sweaters, brandy, and tire fires.
“You basically couldn’t stay out more than 45 minutes to an hour and when you came in you were just frozen, and a fire was the saving grace,” he says. “No matter how cold it was, no matter how bad it was, fires brought the community together. It was sort of like this Grand Central Station for all surfers.”
As time passed, Ocean Beach changed. In 1972, Playland-at-the-Beach closed. Tire fires on the beach became illegal. Arne Jin An Wong left San Francisco for about 35 years. Eventually, he moved back to Ocean Beach and started surfing again, but something was missing.
“I went down to the beach,” says Wong, “and nobody was there, and I couldn’t figure out where anybody was. So I went down to the local surf shop and I posted a little picture of us at the beach.”
This was back in 2003. He picked a time and a date, and asked anyone who recognized that photo to meet at the Cove for a reunion.
“On that day about 75 people showed up, but nobody recognized anybody because it had been so long. People lost their hair, they got fat, they aged, we had to put name tags on just to even recognize each other,” Wong says.
Now, the get-together has become a tradition. Every September, when the big fall and winter swells pick up, hundreds of surfers flock to Kelly’s Cove and celebrate a culture they helped create. In recent years the reunion has grown outside of Wong’s group, to include even earlier generations of Ocean Beach surfers, like 87-year-old Al Peace, who began surfing Kelly’s Cove in the early 1940s. His first board weighed 111 pounds, and he says he still takes it out from time to time.
“I have a board that I donated to the San Clemente Surf Museum, and all I’d have to do is go down there, and I could easily get it out of the museum for a day and surf,” he says. “I might do that this summer.”
Today the surfboards are shorter and lighter, wetsuits are warmer, and the culture has changed. The lineup at Kelly’s cove gets crowded on good days, but new laws have limited fires to five pits on Ocean Beach. That’s where the old-timers light a fire in honor of surfers who have passed away. Men and women of all ages read names written on paper, then toss them into the flames.
When the ceremony is over, the laughing and talking begins again. Some guys who haven’t surfed in years pull their wetsuits on again and grab their old longboards from the sea wall. Arne Jin An Wong begins to clean up, but takes a moment to tell me the gathering is about more than just a water sport.
“It’s also remembering a time where there was a sense of freedom, promise, hope that we were pioneers of some radical surfing culture,” he says.
Northern California surfing is now world famous. Surfers from all over the world seek out waves from Bolinas to Santa Cruz. But the culture wouldn’t have been able to survive if it wasn’t for the daring few who first made the cold and foggy outerlands of San Francisco their home.