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1930s: Pete Peterson 5

Open Water


In 1948, Pete married a second time, but this second marriage – like the first – was not long in duration.[1]  By the early 1950s, stories about Pete Peterson had shifted from surfing, shaping, lifeguarding and water safety to boating and tales of the open water.

On a day off, Monday, July 7, 1952, Pete took his 28-foot sports fisher Mike out to Santa Barbara Island for some White Sea bass fishing.  Mike was a fast, deep V-bottom hull that Pete had set-up for charter – diving and fishing, mostly, as surfing the Channel Islands would not become popular until nearly two decades later.  Along with him on the trip were his nephew, Santa Monica lifeguard Mark Peterson, Jr., 21; Ed Campbell, 32; Eddie Booth, and Ernie Henderson, both 17.[2]

The trip was fine until they headed back in very early morning, around 3:00 a.m., Tuesday morning.  That was when they ran into a fog bank about fourteen miles offshore.  Craig Lockwood wrote about what happened next, when the boat hit something:

“At the wheel, Pete feels the impact and reflexively cuts the engines.  Water’s surging up through the cabin floorboards.

“‘I had to look in the bilge,’ he explained some years later to Peter Dixon, “and there was our bait tank sitting atop the hatch.’”  The bait tank had been set aft against the transom.

“To get at the hatch requires moving the 500-pound bait tank.  ‘It’s funny what you can do when your life depends on it.  Anyway, my partner and I grabbed that tank and had it over the side in seconds.’

“Peering below into the bilge with a flashlight, Pete sees the water gushing in through a three-foot crack just to the left of the keel.

“To paraphrase Pete, what a quick-thinking man can do in a life-threatening emergency may defy reason.  Most people wouldn’t think of knocking a hole in the bottom of a sinking boat to let the water out.

“Peterson does.

“Realizing instantly that stanching the flow into Mike’s hull was impossible, he grabs a hatchet, dropping to his knees in Mike’s stern.

“‘Well, this was a pretty fast boat so I knocked a hole about six inches in the transom.’

“He sprints back to the throttles, jamming them forward.  With the tach redlining, Mike sluggishly lurches forward.

“(I) took off for Santa Monica, right through the fog, by gosh.  I had to go fast so the water would run out.  Else we’d have foundered in about three minutes.’

“Realizing he has to get the bow up higher, Pete yells at the crew to get aft.  With their weight transferred, Mike’s bow lifts and the powerful 200-horsepower engine responds…”[3]

“They were 12 or 14 miles offshore in the dark,” told Pete’s daughter Lisa.  “Dad knew that if Mike went down they probably didn’t have a chance, so my dad took a good look at the sky and his compass and headed right toward Santa Monica.”[4]

“Ed Campbell, a former airman, had survived an 18-day ordeal of being adrift in a life raft during the war.  His level of apprehension begins rising.

“‘Pete didn’t have a working radio aboard Mike, and honestly, I was listening to every rev that engine made, hoping it was going to make it.’

“‘Just past dawn they sight the outline of Santa Monica Pier,’ Lisa recounts.  ‘But nobody was up and moving around.  So Dad zoomed in with a big sweeping pass and beeped Mike’s horn.’

“No response.  Pete makes another inches-close pass. Seventeen-year-old Edward Booth jumps onto the lower deck’s landing and rushes up to find the hoist operator while Pete circles.  Roused, the operator runs onto the pier and lowers the hoist’s sling deeply into the water.

“Peterson aims straight at them, darts in, cuts the engine, threads the needle, and Mike sinks placidly into the waiting slings.

“‘Then,’ as the Los Angeles Examiner’s account breathlessly relates, ‘triumphantly – cruiser, crew, and all were hoisted onto the pier.’”[5]

It was a month to remember for Pete Peterson.

Tragedy struck only three weeks later, on Sunday afternoon, July 27, 1952, when Pete’s friend Wesley Wiggins was returning home from a charter in his 33-foot Spare Time.[6]

Even though Wiggins was a safety conscious skipper and a skilled seaman – always double-checking and logging course changes – accidents can happen to anyone.  After seeing to it that his thirteen passengers were comfortable, were enjoying themselves, and had various fishing grounds and kelp beds to draw plenty of catch-able fish from, Wiggins experienced a dramatic turn of events on the trip back home that afternoon.

With Santa Monica’s skyline in view, two of his passengers were cooking on the galley’s two-burner butane stove when suddenly the cabin exploded, killing the deckhand and one passenger instantly.  Everyone else was blown overboard.  Worse yet, the bait and fish they had had on board quickly attracted sharks.  Deciding the best thing he could do was get help, Wiggins told everyone that he was going to swim in to get help.  He was never seen again.  Throughout the remainder of the daylight hours, the floundered passengers saw several boats, but were not able to get their attention.  Thus the stage was set for a horror-filled night.[7]

“Lieutenant Peterson is on duty that night,” wrote Craig Lockwood.  “He knows Wiggins, knows Spare Time, and knows that when boats don’t show up it’s usually engine trouble.  Procedure was to wait three hours and then inform the Coast Guard, which he does at 23:02 hrs.  And a C.G. radio Urgent Bulletin is posted at 0055 hrs.

Los Angeles County lifeguard boats have joined the search, but the radio call comes in that a light fog is hampering their efforts…

“His watch over, Pete waits for dawn and heads out on his own with his son, John, in Mike.

“‘I owed Wes that favor, since Wes had towed me back from Port Hueneme several weeks before.’”[8]

“At 14 miles out,” Craig Lockwood continued, “Pete spots wreckage.  ‘Little chunks of wood… the (back) of a skipper’s chair.  As soon as I saw that, I knew the boat had blown up.  I turned and ran upwind and updrift until I found more wreckage… spread over a wide area with tooth marks on it, but no people.  On the other hand, there were plenty of sharks.  Big blues.  Active, and more than I’d ever seen out there.’

“Taking a fix on his portable RDF, he notes where the triangulated beams cross, and heads back.  Alerting all the available local boat operators, he gives them the course, alerts the sheriff’s five plane Aero Squadron, grabs a pal, Ray Heath, and heads out again…

“Spotting the wreckage, Pete runs five-minute grids, and at 0930, spots the first survivors.

“‘I almost missed them, but Ray spotted them.’  With the two survivors aboard, he heads east and finds a third clinging to a long, flat board.  ‘He really gave me hell for not getting there quicker.’

“Hoping to find more survivors he presses on.  “I picked up a lot of empty life jackets with teeth marks of sharks all over them, but I didn’t find any more people.  The jackets were still tied, and we could tell by looking at them that their owners had been eaten right out of them.  Wesley Wiggins had looped his belt through part of his.  That’s all we found of him; his belt and the jacket.’”[9]

Later, parts of bodies with lifejackets were also found.  Pete’s friend Peter Dixon summed-up Pete’s role in the rescue of those who remained: “One man who knew what he was doing accomplished more than the combined air and water hunt of dozens of aircraft and hundreds of boats.  That’s the kind of canny and quiet determination typical of Pete.”[10]



Over the years, Pete got interested in photography.  In a direct line from Tom Blake to Doc Ball, Pete produced several prototype camera housings for his own use and experimentation.  His most notable experiment was “an underwater housing that George Downing mounted on his board and on his back like a butt pack,” wrote Craig Lockwood, based on what Pete’s son John told him.  “Shot at Makaha in the mid-1950s, these may be the first-ever shots of a board taking off underwater.”[11]

In the mid-1950s, some friends of Pete’s – “Two farmers from Oxnard” is how Frank Lyons and Jack Ecoff described themselves – hired Pete to film an in-air travelogue of Baja California using a Cessna single-engine airplane.[12]  Baja California by Air covered “Twenty-five hundred miles, at 15 miles a gallon – no flat tires,” according to its narrator.  “In following the beaches, bearing east and south, we usually fly low so we don’t miss anything… There’s always a beautiful landing strip.”[13]

In 1955, Pete resigned from the Santa Monica Lifeguard Service and married a third time; this time to Alice, who had worked in Esther Williams films.  Their daughter Lisa was born in 1958 and this third marriage of Pete’s was the charm and a lasting one.[14]

Even as late as 1960, at age 47, Preston “Pete” Peterson was referred to as, “probably the smartest and most capable underwater and open sea sportsman in the Pacific today.”[15]  A waterman in his free time and professionally, Pete was a diver of high repute and, after his lifeguard days were over, shifted into deepwater salvage in order to make a living.[16]  “If you ever needed a job done,” one contemporary said, “you called Pete.  Once Pete set his mind to something he did it, no matter how tough it was.”[17]

Dick Jappe, a lifelong friend of Pete’s, noted that his friend “cast a long shadow, but left little ego-wake.”[18]  “Pete’s modesty was one of his most obvious traits.  He never tooted his own horn.  Never made any claims.  He did everything well but never bragged about anything.”[19]

All along, he kept up his craftsmanship.

Pete continued to manufacture lifesaving equipment, paddleboards, surf dories, work in the motion picture industry, run his marine salvage business with his son John, and even maintain his championship in tandem surfing through most all of the decade.  “Often times,” Craig Stecyk wrote, “people forget about Pete Peterson’s steady output of ocean vehicles and lifeguard rescue equipment.  His racing paddle boards, soft rescue tubes, revolutionary all-fiberglass boards and foam/plywood/balsa sandwich surfboards were all noteworthy achievements.”[20]  Included in this list was his innovative salvage boat Nordica, 51-feet long and powered by twin Caterpillar diesel engines.[21]

Pete’s daughter Lisa especially remembers the early-morning coffee stops at the old Porthole Café on Santa Monica Pier.  “People greeted him warmly, respectfully, and Pete was always polite in return.  He was an ongoing source of information.”[22]

Family was important to Pete, but as a father he was strict.  “He liked to be in control of his environment,” recalled Lisa, mentioning how Pete would make sure the kids did not bring sand into the car after being at the beach and also about his punctuality.  “Time, tide, and Pete wait for no one.”[23]




Tandem Champ


Many of the early California surfers tandem surfed at one time or another.  After all, it was a great way to meet and get to know girls, and it was also included as an event at most surf contests.  Pete grew to be a master of tandem surfing – so much so that he and his various partners over the years won tandem contests well into the mid 1960s.

“Peterson didn’t surf competitively in the ‘50s,” documented Matt Warshaw in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, “then returned with spectacular results in the early and mid-’60s as a tandem rider.  With various partners (including Patti Carey, Sharon Barker, and Barrie Algaw), he won the 1960 and 1962 West Coast Championships, the 1964 and 1966 United States Surfing Championships, the 1966 Makaha International, and the 1966 World Championships.”[24]

Pete had helped foster tandem surfing on the U.S. Mainland, along with Whitey Harrison and other coast haoles of the 1930s who were first exposed to it at Waikiki.  The first record we have of tandem surfing leaving Hawaiian waters was when Duke Kahanamoku gave swimming and surfing demonstrations near Sydney, Australia, 1914-15.  During one of his most noted surfing demonstrations, he tandem surfed with Australian Isobel Latham at Freshwater Beach.[25]  It would take nearly two decades later for tandem surfing to appear off the coast of the U.S. Mainland.

Tandem surfing is not easy.  “Trick tandem riding,” explained Otto Patterson in Surf-Riding, Its Thrills and Techniques, “requires the surfer to ride a wave with a wahine either on his shoulders or in any of a great number of acrobatic poses, all performed while his board slices across a steep wave.”[26]

“The act requires a particular combination of partners in order to be successful,” underscored Jason Borte in 2001.  “… the man clearly is the captain of the tandem ship, plotting and navigating the course while hoisting his trophy mate skyward.  He must be a competent surfer of considerable strength, while his dainty companion generally tips the scales in double digits.  In most cases, a competitive duo includes a girl with either a dancing or an acrobatic background familiar with flaunting her body.”[27]

Pete also showed other surfers how to tandem.[28]

“He had Popeye forearms,” Les Williams recalled of Pete, after first meeting him in 1946 when Les was still a teenager.  “They were bigger than most men’s biceps.  That’s how he could lift those girls at that age.  He was winning tandem events in his late fifties, at Makaha.  In ten-foot surf!”[29]

Life magazine ran two photos of Pete and Barrie Algaw winning the 1966 World’s tandem event.  “Every gremmie on the beach knows that surfing is a sport mainly for teenagers, but this in no way inhibited Peterson, the nearly bald 53-year-old businessman from Santa Monica who specialized in tandem surfing.”  Life went on to note that Pete, at 6’2” and 200 pounds was “bigger than most competitors” and that over the past few years he had outlasted “more partners than [dancing legend] Fred Astaire.”[30]

By the time Pete finished competing in water sports, he had racked up a stunning record of wins, most notably in paddling.  “Paddleboard racing was then closely allied to both lifeguarding and surfing,” noted surf writer Matt Warshaw. “… the waterman ethic was, and largely remains, a combination of the three – and Peterson was a masterful paddler.  He was described in Los Angeles-area newspaper articles as a ‘paddleboard and aquatic star,’ and ‘the bronzed paddle star of Santa Monica,’ and from the early ‘30s until the late ‘40s he consistently set and reset paddling marks in all categories, from 100-yard sprints to 26-mile open-ocean marathons.  In a 1939 meet he was victorious in the 100 (his 30.7-second time beat a nine-year mark set by Sam Kahanamoku, Duke’s brother), the 880, the one-mile, and the relay.  Arlene [his first wife] won the women’s 100- and 440-yard sprints.”[31]

California’s best surfers competed in the Pacific Coast Surfing Championships eight times between 1928 and 1941, until World War II.[32]  The annual event was dominated for 4-out-of-9 years by Pete.  He reigned as California’s officially recognized top surfer during 1932, 1936, 1938 and 1941, but throughout the entire decade most everyone considered him the best surfer, contest winner or not.[33]

A likely not-complete listing of Pete’s competitive wins looks like this:


1932 – Pacific Coast Surfing Championship[34]
1933 – 100 yard sprint paddleboard record at 28.8 seconds; held for years.[35]
1933 – Coast Dory Championship.[36]
1934 – Hermosa Beach One Mile Paddleboard Championship.[37]
1934 – Coast Dory Championship.[38]
1935 – Santa Monica Lifeguard Swim.[39]
1936 – Pacific Coast Surfing Championship[40]
1936 – Santa Monica Lifeguard Swim.[41]
1938 – Pacific Coast Surfing Championship[42]
1939 – Hermosa Beach One-Mile Paddleboard Championship.[43]
1941 – Pacific Coast Surfing Championship[44]
1960 – West Coast Championships (tandem with Patti Carey)
1962 – West Coast Championships (tandem with Patti Carey)
1964 – United States Surfing Championships (tandem with Sharon Barker)
1966 – United States Surfing Championships (tandem with Barrie Algaw)
1966 – Makaha International (tandem with Barrie Algaw)
1966 – World Championships (tandem with Barrie Algaw)[45]


One of Pete’s most respected records was one that was informal and not part of any organized program.  He beat both Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabb during in and out buoy swims in front of the Santa Monica Lifeguard Headquarters.  Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic gold medal swimmer and was known to millions of moviegoers as Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional character.  Buster Crabb was also an Olympic gold medal swimmer and played both the cinematic characters of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.[46]

Pete was inducted into the International Surfing magazine Hall of Fame in 1966.[47]

Once, Surfer’s Journal founder Steve Pezman asked LeRoy Grannis about a rumor that 1930s-era surfer Tulie Clark may have beaten Pete in a race at one time.  LeRoy’s response, while not completely accurate, reflected the attitude most all 1930s surfers felt about Pete:  “I don’t remember anyone ever beating Pete.”[48]

Pete was on O‘ahu when the big storm of 1983 hit The Islands in March that year.  Whether he had a premonition or a feeling the storm could do as much damage or more once it hit the West Coast – we’ll never know.  We do know that he left Hawai‘i after only a few days after arrival.  Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, “just hours later the storm meets him,” his son John recalled, “and devastates the pier, and his shop.”[49]  Four hundred feet of the pier was torn out by the storm.[50]

Pete’s shop on the Santa Monica Pier had been there in one form or another for over a half century, with priceless photographs, records, documents, specialized tools and a career’s worth of other material goods.  Several of Pete’s famous tandem, surf and racing paddleboards had been there on the pier, too, stored in the lifeguard station at pier’s end.  Most all were lost.[51]

Tommy Zahn was there to help Pete assess the damage.[52]

One of the few survivors was “Big Red,” a red racing paddleboard that Peterson built for and with Dave Rochlen in 1947.  Rochlen had gone on to win the Diamond Head paddleboard race in 1951 with Big Red.  “Decades later,” wrote Craig Stecyk, “David’s son Pua used the same board in another victorious effort in the Outrigger Canoe Club sponsored event.”[53]

The loss of his shop must have been devastating to Pete, but by all accounts from friends and family, he chose to just carry on.  “Let things slip,” Craig Lockwood remembered Pete once saying, “and sometimes they’ll take you along with them.”[54]

After a busy Sunday two months after the storm, Pete docked the Nordica in its berth at Marina del Rey.  After a shower, while wrapped in his towel, he laid down on a berth in the ship’s cabin.  It was there that he passed on, May 4, 1983.[55]



[1] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 66.
[2] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 62.
[3] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, pp. 62-63.  Recollections to Peter Dixon from Pete date unknown.
[4] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 63.  Lisa Peterson recalling the stories told by her father.
[5] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 63.  Ed Campbell and Lisa Peterson recall.
[6] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 63.
[7] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 63.
[8] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 63.  Pete quoted.
[9] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, pp. 63-64.  Pete quoted.
[10] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 64.  Peter Dixon quoted.
[11] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 66.  John Peterson’s recollection.
[12] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 66.  Quoted dialogue from the film.
[13] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 66.  Narration from the film quoted.
[14] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 66.
[15] Patterson, 1960, p. 110.
[16] Young, 1983, p. 56.  Peterson was stunt co-ordinator for Jaws and Jaws II in the 1970s.
[17] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 45.  Versal Fuller quoted.
[18] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 46.  Quoting Lockwood.
[19] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 46.  Dick Jappe quoted.
[20] Stecyk, Craig.  Note attached to Pete Peterson’s hollow sandwich surfboard, circa 1949-50. On display at the “Cowabunga!” exhibit, Santa Monica Heritage Museum, February 1994, courtesy of Reynolds Yater.  The board is made out of fiberglassed mahogany; plywood deck, with balsa solid rails over hollow wood frame; bottom with shallow fin which appears to have been added later; 10’ 9” X 23”.
[21] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 45.
[22] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 66.  Lisa Peterson quoted.
[23] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 66.  Lisa Peterson quoted.
[24] Warshaw, Matt.  The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 459.
[25] See Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  Volumes 1 and 2 of LEGENDARY SURFERS, 2005 and 2007.
[26] Patterson, Otto B.  Surf-Riding, Its Thrills and Techniques, ©1960, C.E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont and Japan, p. 110.
[27] Borte, Jason.  “Tandem,” 2001.
[28] Patterson, 1960, p. 110.
[29] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.  Les Williams quoted.
[30] Warshaw, Matt.  The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 459.  Life magazine quotes.
[31] Warshaw, Matt.  The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 459.
[32] Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 91.
[33] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[34] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[35] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.
[36] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.
[37] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.
[38] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.
[39] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.
[40] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[41] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.
[42] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[43] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.
[44] Ball, 1946, 1979, 1995, p. 103.
[45] Warshaw, Matt.  The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 459 & 629.  All tandem records noted.
[46] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 55.
[47] Warshaw, Matt.  The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 459.
[48] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 57.
[49] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 68.  John Peterson quoted.
[50] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 68.
[51] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 68.
[52] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 68.
[53] Stecyk, C.R.  The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 2, Number 3, Fall 1993, p. 32.
[54] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 45.  Quoting Pete.
[55] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 46.

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