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SURF COUNTY, USA : O.C. Riding Crest of a 50-Year Wave

July 27, 1990|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ronald Blake Drummond, now 83, paddled out at Doheny in the 1930s, he was one of the first to surf the break in southern Orange County. His 100-pound redwood board was shaped in a garage. His swim trunks were homemade.

No one else was there. Surfers were so scarce in those days, they would stop to talk if they spotted each other's cars on coastal roads. It didn't matter whether they knew each other, but chances were they did.

In the half-century that followed, hundreds of thousands of surfers have followed Drummond into the breakers along the county's 42 miles of coast. Redwood has given way to lightweight polyurethane foam, canvas trunks to phosphorescent fabrics and neoprene wet suits. Mellow has been replaced by aggro-- surfer parlance for an aggressive attitude.

The water is getting crowded.

Surfing, with its roots firmly planted here, is no longer the pursuit of a few eccentrics and rugged individualists. It has become a mainstream sport with enormous popularity and a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry behind it.

And in fact, Orange County has grown up with surfing. Today, it might aptly be nicknamed Surf County, U.S.A.--the nexus of a thriving surf-wear industry, headquarters of the two biggest surf magazines, one of the most prestigious stops on the premier professional surfing tour, home to several top surfers, the place where surfboard foam used worldwide comes from, and home base to surf fashion labels such as Ocean Pacific, Quiksilver, Maui and Sons and Gotcha.

Through the years, the nation has been amused by California's sunbaked culture--with surfing embodying the fascination with brawn, blondes and beach fun. But these days, even to the landlocked masses, surfing is no longer a celluloid fad featuring Gidget and Moondoggie.

"We are an increasingly understood segment of society," said Steve Pezman, 49, publisher of Surfer Magazine in San Juan Capistrano. "In the '50s, when you said you were a surfer, people said, 'What's that?' In Mexico, when people saw you with a surfboard, they thought you were somehow connected with fishing. Now, when you say you surf, people just say, 'Oh.' It was more fun being misunderstood."

Nationally, at least 1 million to 1.5 million people are avid surfers. An estimated 300,000 people in Orange County now surf, and going "off the lip" or getting "barreled" cuts across generational lines from Seal Beach on the north to San Onofre State Beach on the south. In the 1940s, there were fewer than 400 surfers in Southern California.

For pro and amateur alike, the allure of the sport remains the same--the rush of adrenaline that courses through the veins when a surfer taps a wave's power. The sensation is similar to getting good wood on a baseball, hitting a crisp tee shot or swishing one through the basket from 25 feet out.

"There is a primal feeling to it," explained Jonathan Paskowitz, a local long-board champion. "It is wave height times your weight times wave speed plus an unknown X-factor that allows you to project yourself across the wave using the fin in the bottom of your board. You can virtually will yourself to any place on a wave, go anywhere you want across that viscous surface. There is nothing that touches it. . . . Surfing is a savvy thing to get involved with."

Fueled by its own success, the sport, by all accounts, has grown up, shaping fashion, environmental politics and lifestyles in the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan, Latin America and even the Middle East.

But surfing has gained particular legitimacy in Orange County.

Thirty years ago, a handful of surfing entrepreneurs built the foundation for the industry by applying a little greed and business acumen to wave riding.

Today, the county's surf-related companies--from beachwear and surfboards to surfer trading cards and a board game called "Surf Trip"--have grown rich on the fat of the sand. They earn the lion's share of at least $1 billion a year in revenue, based on wholesale prices.

Major surfing associations have headquarters in Orange County, and the main office for the Surfrider Foundation, a rapidly growing environmental group, is in Huntington Beach.

Although still predominantly a young man's sport, it has become common for surfers to share the lineup with 10-year-old grommets, as well as with up-and-coming pro riders, middle-aged professionals and salty dogs-- the elderly.

Unlike their predecessors, the modern surfer is more aggressive and increasingly image-conscious. Many have become what publisher Pezman calls "corporate kids," pretenders who act like pros and plaster their surfboards with manufacturer's logos as if they were sponsored.

Yet, there are many others in the water, and it is possible on any Sunday to see the evolution of surfing in the crashing waves off Orange County, especially if the waves are good.

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