By the mid-1920s, Wright, who was something of a showman as well as an entrepreneur, was putting on surfing demonstrations at special events. The California Surf Museum has one photograph of Wright surfing on New Year's Eve of 1925 next to the Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach; on his shoulders he bears a young woman wielding a torch.
But by the late 1920s, Wright wasn't using his board for much besides the occasional exhibition. Emil Sigler says he found it near the Mission Beach lifeguard station when he went there the day after his arrival in San Diego in 1928. "It was two pieces of thick pine, bolted together. And it had an iron tip," recalls Sigler, now 96 and still living in his Normal Heights home of many years. He asked whom the board belonged to and then tracked down Wright, who told him he could use it as much as he wanted. "Just put it back where you found it. Lean it against the seawall," Sigler says Wright instructed him.
Born in San Francisco, Sigler had wanted to become a fisherman, and since school didn't interest him, he often ditched classes to hang out at the Fleischacker Pool. Some of the pool's lifeguards were Hawaiian, and Sigler says one day during an outing to the beach they gave him a couple of rides on their boards. That triggered his interest in surfing. Like the Hawaiians' boards, Wright's 125-pound behemoth "was so heavy, it was steady, real steady," Sigler recalls. "It was a lot more steady than the other boards later on." It was so massive, in fact, that a rider couldn't make it turn in the water, and the varnish was so worn "you had to be careful you didn't get any splinters," Sigler says. Still, he enjoyed riding the combers off Queenstown Court in Mission Beach.
Sigler says Wright warned him away from surfing at Ocean Beach, claiming that the outflow from Mission Bay, which at that time streamed under a bridge rather than through the present channel, could be tricky. "You could get knocked out or something, and the tide'll take you out," he says Wright told him. One day while jogging on the beach, Sigler noticed another spot that looked promising. At the north end of Pacific Beach, just south of Pacific Beach Point, the waves seemed particularly well formed. The board was too heavy for Sigler to carry that distance, so he hauled it aboard a ten-foot wooden dory and rowed north from Mission Beach. He unloaded Wright's board at the beach that's now known as Tourmaline and caught some impressive rides. He never saw anyone else surf there for years; he thinks he was the first.
Kook Boxes, Square-Tails, and Redwoods
Sigler will tell you he was the first serious local surfer, but Lloyd Baker dismisses that claim with a snort. Sigler "surfed a little bit," Baker acknowledges, "but he was not very agile. Not that he wasn't strong and not that he couldn't have become a better surfer, but he and Don Pritchard and Dempsey Holder [two other early surfers] were never, ever stylists. They went out and tried, but when they got up it was like you never thought they were going to last for more than 20 feet before they fell off or something."
Baker says he and his pal Dorian Paskowitz and a handful of other teenagers from Point Loma and La Jolla were the first true San Diego surfers, so obsessed with riding the waves, they developed confidence and elegance though their boards were primitive. At 85, Baker's a big man who moves with an easy grace. He and his wife live in a house tucked into the hillside above the Morena Boulevard Costco, overlooking a communal tennis court. He used to be a tennis addict too, but the cement surface wreaked havoc with his knees, so 20 years ago he switched from tennis to golf. He plays that almost every day. He gave up surfing about 1975, when tennis and skiing had become all-consuming.
Born in San Diego, Baker and his family moved around California in his early childhood, but in 1934, when Lloyd was 13, they settled into a house at Portsmouth Court in Mission Beach. Dorian Paskowitz lived a couple of blocks away. In the years that followed, "We went to school every day together," Baker says. "We swam in the morning before school. We ran together. We dated together. We did everything together."
School was Point Loma High, which they reached by riding the streetcar that ran south on Mission Boulevard and over the bridge to Ocean Beach. (That bridge was later torn down when the Mission Bay jetty was created.) "On the other side of the bridge, we'd get off and take a bus up to school." In their sophomore year they built paddleboards in the high school woodshop. Paddleboards had been invented in the late 1920s by a Wisconsin native named Tom Blake who had found his way to Hawaii and become fascinated by the ancient Hawaiian boards in Honolulu's Bishop Museum. In an attempt to devise something that would work like the old planks (as surfboards were called) but be lighter, he had come up with a design that was essentially a surfboard-shaped hollow box. Dubbed a cigar box or a kook box, paddleboards became popular with lifeguards for rescue work, but they could also be used to ride waves. Baker and Paskowitz copied this design and learned to stand up on the boards in the surf that sometimes formed at the entrance to Mission Bay. "Those boards probably lasted a year, year and a half," Baker estimates.
Besides being unwieldy, the boards "were a pain in the ass, because as soon as they got just a little warped or they got in the sunshine or whatever, why, they started leaking," Baker says. When a fellow named Pete Peterson moved from Hawaii to San Diego, where he got a job at the Mission Beach Plunge, he brought with him a couple of square-tailed solid-wood Hawaiian boards, and the boys studied these with interest. About the same time, they learned about boards that promised to work better than paddleboards or Hawaiian planks.