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1930s: Pete Peterson 1

Francis Preston “Pete” Peterson was the U.S. Mainland’s contest champion of the 1930s, winning the Pacific Coast Surfing Championships (PCSC) – the major U.S. surfing contest of the period – four times out of ten; in 1932, 1936, 1938 and 1941.[1]  Other early winners of the PCSC trophy included Keller Watson (1929), Gardner Lippincott (1934), Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison (1939) and Cliff Tucker (1940).[2]

No other surfer came close to his dominance of Southern California waves throughout all of the 1930s and it was not until three decades later that a single surfer racked up as many major contest wins within a similar span of time.  Yet, Peterson’s greatness as a surfer was not based so much on his skill as a surfer or contest champion, it was because he was THEE quintessential waterman.

Cliff Tucker, one of the winners of the PCSC, expressed the feeling of many of his contemporaries when he told an interviewer that his former schoolmate and surfing friend Peterson, “was the greatest waterman on the West Coast in those days.  As far as I’m concerned, he was the best and maybe Lorrin Harrison was second best.  I was hot one year and beat ‘em both, but I was just lucky.”[3]

Pete Peterson was far more than just a competitive superstar.  As Craig Lockwood wrote in his excellent article on Pete in The Surfer’s Journal, published in 2005, “Peterson defined what would become the paradigm of the West Coast’s classic waterman.  Peterson’s life and livelihood were the sea.  There was no ocean skill he didn’t possess.  He swam competitively, surfed, bodysurfed, rowed, sailed, lifeguarded, tandem surfed, paddleboarded, dove hardhat, SCUBA, and free, water skied, did movie stunt work, served as a boat master and marine coordinator for numerous films, designed and shaped surfboards, rescue and racing paddleboards, helped test and later manufactured his friend and co-lifeguard Lieutenant Wally Burton’s pioneering flexible lifeguard rescue tube, designed and built the West Coast’s finest surf dories (molds of which are still in use today), fished commercially, ran a marine salvage business as a licensed skipper and contractor, and designed for this business one of the most sophisticated salvage craft on the West Coast.”[4]

“He was muscular and lean, but didn’t look like anything special,” a contemporary noted, “But when he got in the water he was the best.”[5]

Francis Preston Peterson was born in April, 1913, in the South Texas coastal community of Rockport, not far from the major city in the area, Corpus Christi.  His family operated the La Playa Hotel and Pete’s access to salt water was immediate.  His family values were reflected in family letters to Pete: “… You are what you do, what you say, and how you behave.”  “… You are either upright and righteous, or you are not.  There is no middle ground.”  “… One either is, or is not a good person.  And the choice is yours.”[6]

Not long after Pete’s birth, two Gulf of Mexico hurricanes blew into South Texas causing great loss of life and property.  The first one was in 1915 and the second and stronger one was in 1919.  Consequently, the Petersons felt they stood a better chance at prosperity on the Southern California coast rather than the Texas Gulf Coast.  Even so, the Texas Coastal Bend hurricane of 1919 was not the last storm to throw Pete’s life upside down and, for a while, the Petersons managed hotels in both states.[7]

Within a year, Pete’s family was relocated in Santa Monica, California.  They bought the Crystal Beach Bathhouse, off Strand Avenue, near the Santa Monica pier.  It was a time when public bathhouses were popular and the Petersons prospered.  By 1922, just a few years after “The Father of California Surfing” George Freeth’s passing, Pete was surfing on a board built by the bathhouse carpenter,[8] under the tutelage of early Southern California surfer Bill Herwig.  Herwig, in turn, was influenced by Duke Kahanamoku and other visiting Hawaiians.  “Among the customers at the bathhouse was a group of Hawaiians, some of the first to come to this country,” Pete recalled many years later.  He “became intrigued with the Hawaiian’s surfboards and their watermanship, and at 9 years old became one of the first dozen surfers on the Pacific Coast.”[9]

According to champion Australian surfer Nat Young, who talked with Pete before his passing, his first real surfboard “was 12’ long with an 11” wide tail, 18” at its widest point, and made of solid redwood which for some obscure reason had to be shipped from Oregon via Hawaii.”  It lacked rocker, the rails were egg-shaped, and the redwood planks it was made from were held together with lag bolts running inward from the rails.[10]  It’s unclear if this was the board shaped by the bathhouse carpenter or the board after it.

Santa Monica was a focal point of beach activity during the 1920s and 1930s, mostly due to its geographical location next to growing Los Angeles.  The city included eight miles of beach out of a total of 85 miles of beach belonging to Los Angeles County.  Nine-tenths of the county’s 1.8 million people in 1928 dwelt within thirty miles of the ocean.  Santa Monica pier was touted as the “world’s largest municipal fishing pier” adjacent to an esplanade park, three different beach clubs and several hotels, not to mention the Crystal Beach Bathhouse.  To the south, there was the Ocean Park amusement piers “lined with rides, arcades, stands selling hot dogs and hamburgers, souvenir shops, and restaurants.  A little harbor offers refuge for commercial craft and yachts, and access by water taxi to the gambling ships just outside the three-mile limit.”  

Not advertised or publicly promoted, converted passenger ships offshore offered gaming, alcohol and “fleshy delights” to the more daring during the period of Prohibition, when alcohol sales were against the law within the confines of the continental United States.[11]

It’s hard to imagine there was mass transit available throughout Los Angeles County before the era of freeways, but there was.  And, in certain ways “the electric car” was superior to what we have today.  Daily, over 200 inter-urban Red Car electric trains ran, linking Santa Monica with Newport Beach to the south and Riverside and San Bernardino to the east.  Additionally, the bus line could take you from downtown Los Angeles to the coast in under an hour.[12] 

During the summer of 1928, at age 15, Pete briefly got a job as a City of Santa Monica lifeguard, having lied about his age.  His friend Wally Burton did the same.  They were both busted and had to sit-out most of the summer until they could qualify.  Pete ended up dropping out of high school at age 16, in 1929, and for approximately the next quarter century served in the lifeguard services for the City of Santa Monica.  He would end up serving full time, interrupted only by military service during World War II, as a Lifeguard Lieutenant until 1955.[13]

It was Captain George Watkins who developed the City of Santa Monica lifeguard service into one of the first – possibly the first – truly modern lifeguard departments.  Under “Cap Watkins,” technology was used to its maximum potential, given the times.  There was telephone communication between towers, the lifeguard station, and a central dispatcher who could route emergency calls to police and fire departments.  Cap Watkins was also the first to adopt Tom Blake’s hollow board as a rescue board, in the spirit for which Blake initially developed it.  The department had advanced resuscitation equipment, specialized rescue/patrol vehicles and high speed power boats; later refinements and advanced models of which were later popularized in the 1990s by the hit television series Baywatch.[14]

Cap Watkins also made premeditated efforts to link Hollywood work to his guards at the beach.  He was successful not only by helping to get bit parts and stunt work for guys like Pete, Wally Burton and Chauncy Granstrom, but also received favorable press coverage of what they were doing at Santa Monica’s beaches.[15]

[1] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[2] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[3] Lueras, 1984, p. 109.  Cliff Tucker quoted.
[4] Lockwood, Craig.  “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 14, Number 6, December-January 2005-2006, p. 48.  Craig Lockwood quote.
[5] Warshaw, Matt.  The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 458.  Quoted person unknown to author, but probably known to Matt.
[6] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 48.  Peterson family letters quoted.
[7] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 50.
[8] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 49.  See image of Pete, age 8, with bathhouse board on same page.  According to Warshaw, in Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 459, the Petersons built the bathhouse and Pete was 8 when he began surfing.
[9] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 49.  Recollection of Willie Grigsby and Duke Kahanamoku.  Pete quoted.
[10] Young, 1983, p. 56.
[11] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 50 and 51.
[12] Lockwood, 2005-2006, pp. 50-51.  Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce brochure from 1928 quoted.
[13] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 54.
[14] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 54.
[15] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 54.

TOM BLAKE: The Journey of A Pioneer Waterman


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