She’d gone to work for the airline in 1965 at 21. “I wanted to travel. I wanted to surf all these big wide places and be a beachcomber and have the time off.” And despite the occasional lucrative movie work, surfing offered no way to make a living in the mid-1960s.
A handful of girls continued to find the sport, though, subordinating everything to it. Cardiff resident Jeannette Prince was 14 when a boyfriend took her out to try to catch a wave. She lived in Garden Grove, a dozen miles from the ocean, but after that first exposure to surfing in 1968, she would beg rides to 17th Street in Huntington Beach, where resting surfers often set their boards up against the seawall. “I would go from person to person and ask if I could borrow their board till I could get my own.” Many obliged the blue-eyed blond nymph. “And sometimes I would forget how long I would be out on the water, and they’d be on the beach going, ‘Hey! Give me back my board!’ ”
For Christmas, another boyfriend presented Prince with the first board of her own: a used 8'6"-long creation of a legendary board shaper named Bing Copeland. The boyfriend “bought it in someone’s garage for $15. It was in incredible condition. There was nothing wrong with it.” Nowadays it would command more than $2000, Prince sighs. (She lost track of it years ago.)
But she still has a powerful memory of how she felt learning to ride it. “Back then there were no leashes. You’d go out and try to catch a wave, and you’d fall.” Then you would retrieve your board and go back out and “you’d keep this up until finally you learned how to hold on to it and not lose it so much. But you would get in good shape from all the swimming and paddling.”
Surfing provided more than an athletic challenge. Prince felt entranced “by the way the water feels and the excitement of the waves and paddling over them.… It’s the smells. The saltwater. It’s the feel of the water. I think a lot of times surfers who don’t get in the water after a few days get a little edgy, not only because of missing the exercise but because of that feeling — getting wet. It’s like that cup of coffee in the morning. It starts the day.”
While in high school, Prince depended on friends and family to transport her to the beach. But after graduation, that dependence vanished. She got a car and a night job working for Radio Shack in Garden Grove. “I was running an office. I’d work from four in the afternoon till one in the morning. And I would wake up at 5:00 a.m. Out of excitement. Bing! I’d go down there and be out in the water, and the sun was coming up. But it was a sheet of glass, and it was uncrowded. It was a magical time. That would get me out of bed every day.”
She’d surf for five or six hours. “Then I would go home about one o’clock in the afternoon and sleep for a few hours and go to work again. Every day. That shows you how exciting it feels. You just fall in love with it. You hunger for it, and it’s exciting when you do catch those waves. And you never feel satisfied with just one wave. You get one that’s really good, and you go back out and say, ‘Okay! I want another one!’ Because maybe the one you got was too short.” They’re all too short. “You’re trying always to get another one to fill that hunger.”
Debbie Melville Beacham felt the wave hunger before she ever got on a board. Born in 1953, the daughter of a career Navy officer, Beacham says, “We traveled around a lot.” She learned to swim when the family lived in Monterey. “My dad was real big on swimming.” She remembers seeing surfers then. “I could remotely imagine being one. But I was a ten-year-old little girl, and it was difficult then to break out of those stereotypes — that only guys surfed.” Two years later, in the fall of 1965, when the Gidget television series starring Sally Field premiered, “It showed girls surfing,” Beacham recalls in a tone of wonder. It reinforced her sense that girls could do this. So when the family settled in San Diego in 1966, Beacham begged for her own surfboard. Her parents found one at a garage sale, and although they lived in La Jolla, “My dad took me down to Coronado, because we were in the Navy. We went down to the Coronado naval base. There’s where I first surfed. We didn’t know where to go, so for the very first try, we went there.”
Beacham shies from assessing how good she was in the beginning. “I just know there was nothing stopping me after I started. It was instant passion.” Something in her had recognized: This is me. I’m going to do this. “And that was the end of it. That was all I did.”
After she got “good enough to know what I was doing,” she acquired a Corky Carroll Mini Model, considered by some to be the first production shortboard in America. At about 8'6" in length, it was more than a yard taller than Beacham’s 5'2" frame, and she marvels at the memory of lugging it on her head, down to the beach from her family’s home near the top of Mt. Soledad. “It was actually easiest to walk to Law Street in Pacific Beach. It would take me a half hour at least! I can remember being maybe 14 or 15 and thinking, ‘This is ridiculous! It’s so far to walk home with this surfboard on my head.’ No little girl would do that these days.”
She says she surfed Pacific Beach and La Jolla Shores for a long time, before venturing off the coast at Windansea. The beach breaks are the best places for beginners to practice, she explains. “That crowd that surfed at Windansea was intense” — renowned for telling unskilled newcomers to get lost, according to Beacham. “You had to sort of earn their respect.” When she finally began showing up at Windansea and being accepted there, “It was a big, big deal,” her mother recalls.