If you’ve ever envisioned surfing The Lane alone during a pumping swell (I can see innumerable disgruntled eyes rolling), Thomas Hickenbottom’s new photo book might make your wetsuited soul whimper for a time very few can honestly claim they remember.
There was, after all, a beginning—before Santa Cruz was a well-known black hole sucking in swarms of adventurers of all ages hoping to mine their own nuggets at its many illustrious breaks. “Surfing in Santa Cruz,” with 124 photos spanning 128 pages, documents that genesis when locals were literally first testing the waters. From Lloyd Ragon’s initial exploration of the previously unknown offerings of Steamer Lane on an unlaminated redwood plank, through the sport’s ensuing growth, commercialization, contests, and the birth of the shortboard, the book chronicles Santa Cruz from the 1930s through the 1960s.
It was an auspicious era, like the pioneering of the Old West transposed onto the Pacific, and our bay and its unexploited waves served as the latest Gold Rush of a new kind of opportunity. Locals were following suit five decades after three Hawaiian princes in the late 1880s are presumed to have imported to town the seeds which sprouted into a cultural revolution; a revolution that in recent years culminated into all that “Surf City” banter. We’re talking way back, back when the Santa Cruz cliffs and the elements on both sides of them laid vacant.
“Before the ’60s, surfing was almost a bohemian lifestyle,” Hickenbottom begins, “but the Beach Boys gave it a look with the madras shirts and blond hair, and Hollywood movies glorified and stereotyped it. That led, in my view, to the downfall of the pure essence of the sport. The book ends when all of that was starting to take off. So, what you get to see in the book is just that bitchin’ essence.”
The 61-year-old, who began surfing in the ’50s during the balsa period, became a regular character in later competitions as a Team O’Neill rider (one of numerous sponsorships he obtained), and is now a member of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society, has amassed a hearty assemblage of photos for “Surfing in Santa Cruz,” which is part of an Images of America book series. The visual narrative is broken down into six sections: Early Days, South County, Pleasure Point, Rivermouth, Cowell’s Beach, and Steamer Lane. The pictorial timeline ends just as the proliferation of the shortboard enters into play.
Hickenbottom, who brims with childlike excitement as we chat at Mitchell’s Cove on a summer afternoon about his year-long project,
says it is the first historical account about Santa Cruz of its kind. He will be speaking about the hot-off-the-press collection at the Museum of Art and History and Bookshop Santa Cruz on Saturday, August 15, and Tuesday, August 18, respectively.
“In the ’60s, many surfers didn’t even drive past Cowell’s or The Lane,” he imparts, “so many of the Westside spots that are now very popular weren’t even surfed. Isn’t that interesting!” Hickenbottom beams with a genuine wonder at the distant factoids “Surfing in Santa Cruz” brings to light, and in the book he addresses those prominent surfers who pioneered the spots many now consider everyday stops.
Scouring the country for the eldest network of surfers, he has woven together submissions from original Santa Cruz Surfing Club members’ personal photo collections. “Surfing in Santa Cruz” serves as a sort of time capsule constructed, he says, with the help of “people who were instrumental in the evolution of surfing in Santa Cruz and the consciousness of its surfing community.”
Just like the book itself, this week’s book signing at the Museum of Art and History is expected to lure 60 years of Santa Cruz surfing dignitaries. Hickenbottom couldn’t be happier.
“It’s going to be amazing to get all those people in one place after all these years,” he states, his eyebrows excitedly lifted into an arch above his broad smile. “Making this book has made me realize just how cool all the people are that made the Santa Cruz surfing culture what it is; just really soulful, wonderful people.”