“All you need is a good attitude and a strong core. You gotta be okay with wiping out and looking foolish.”
A woman named Crystal, here with her husband and three daughters, tells me that the only way to get the stoke is to put in the time. The 37-year-old personal trainer and nutritionist has just come in from the water. She puts her board down and peels off her wetsuit to reveal a camouflage halter-top bikini and washboard abs. Yes, she says, the core muscles are important, but they’re not everything. Once you get up, there’s a hell of a lot more to figure out. She caught her first wave this past weekend — after four years of practicing.
Her husband has been surfing all his life. It’s his dream come true that she and all three of their daughters now surf.
“It’s like a bond with our family,” 12-year-old Skylar says. “It’s in our blood.”
Back in the parking lot, I meet 18-year-old Natalie Figueroa, who is waxing a board leaned against the back of her petite white pickup truck. Figueroa wears a rash guard, tiny bikini bottoms, and large, round, blingy earrings. She surfs four times a week, waits tables, and goes to school at Mesa College, studying radiology. Her plan is to “make a lot of money” as an X-ray technician, then move to Hawaii and “go pro.”
This lofty goal, she says, has driven her friends away.
“My friends aren’t great surfers. When I’m not working, they want me to call them, but I’d rather be in the water.”
Fifty years later, still feeding the beast
The uninitiated might assume that the need to surf goes away as a person gets older, maybe settles down and has kids. But San Diego is home to many for whom the drive never dies.
Standing in line at a Solana Beach Starbucks, Linda Benson could easily pass as a grandmotherly type. At five-foot-two, her petite frame, short white hair, and slightly arthritic fingers suggest frailty, vulnerability — a laughable idea to those who know her. In the San Diego surf community, the 68-year-old is known as “a legend,” as per Eric “Bird” Huffman; “an outlaw”; and, in Bass’s words, “a pioneer.”
In 1959, Benson was the youngest ever to enter the Makaha International contest. She was also its first female winner. The previous September, two months before her Makaha triumph, she won the first ever U.S. Open of Surfing Championship. She won again in 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, and 1968.
Benson’s success as a surfer coincided with the spread of the sport’s popularity. In 1957, Frederick Kohner’s novel Gidget was published, and in 1959, Gidget the movie came out. For the first film, a small guy was Gidget’s stunt double. The following year, Benson “just happened to be back in Hawaii for the Makaha contest” during the filming of Gidget Goes Hawaiian. The Windansea Surf Club president suggested her for Gidget’s stunt double, and she happily accepted the job. Later, Benson was a stunt double in a series of Beach Party films.
She laughs over her tea as she lists the “silly titles” of movies in which she played Annette Funicello’s double: Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, Pajama Party, and Bikini Beach.
Professional surfing didn’t exist in Benson’s younger days the way it does now, with sponsorships and huge cash prizes (the men’s first-place prize at the US Open in Orange County last month was $100,000), but Benson’s surf-luck continued when she became a flight attendant for United Airlines. After a couple of years on the job, she landed a Los Angeles–Honolulu route. Two nights a week, she stayed at a Waikiki hotel a block from the beach, where she kept a surfboard for years. Later, when United took over PanAm’s Pacific routes, Benson flew often to Sydney and Hong Kong, and although the turnaround time was quick, and she was too exhausted to do much surfing abroad, she worked only four days, three times per month. That left her with a good two-and-a-half weeks of surf-time.
In 2003, Benson retired after 38 years with United. That same year, she began the SurfHer surf school. It was an obvious next step for someone for whom surfing had always been a central part of life. Benson kept the school going for five years, but she shut it down in the end because it required more time and energy than she wanted to give.
“I never got to surf. I was missing being able to surf.”
At 64, after more than a half-century of surfing, Benson still faced the dilemma that plagues any nonprofessional surfer obsessed with pursuing those waves: How can I make ends meet and still surf whenever I want?
She had no idea she’d already found the answer.
“Around 2003, I’d started having sciatic problems. The doctor told me to stop carrying the surfboard on my hip. I didn’t want to ruin my back, so I went to Dixieline Lumber, right over there.”
She gestures behind her, toward a Solana Beach lumber-and-hardware store less than a half-mile away on Lomas Santa Fe Drive. There, Benson purchased an aluminum pipe holder with a flange and some PVC tubing, which she cut and pounded until she’d created a gizmo to help carry her board. On a small square napkin, she draws a picture of the original, “rustic” tool.
“I wanted something inconspicuous, an extension of the hand.”
Eventually, a friend introduced her to a designer for Callaway Golf. Benson and the designer worked together for about a year. They found a plastics manufacturer. The final product they called the Rail Grabber.
“I wasn’t going to be a shaper,” Benson says of the what-to-do-dilemma. Something surf-oriented was a given, but she figured “everything’s been thought of.” Then she realized that she had “this funny little thing that gives people an easier way to enjoy the journey to the beach.”
So far, Benson is pleased with the Rail Grabber’s growth and sales. This week, she’s surfed every day, as she usually does, at Swami’s in Encinitas. From mid-December through January, she avoids the cold water by getting out on a stand-up paddleboard.