Paddling out to revive an old sport
June 6, 2012
Before short boards, Gidget and the 1960’s surfing explosion, paddleboards were shredding the waves at the Santa Monica Pier.
Over the past ten years, paddleboard racing has seen a major revival. That revival continues Saturday at the Santa Monica Pier Paddleboard Race & Ocean Festival, a benefit for marine conservation group Heal the Bay.
“The race takes place in such a historic location—it ties together the modern rebirth of the sport with its roots,” said event spokesman Andrew Rice.
Paddleboard racing was invented in Santa Monica in the late 1920s by swimming champion Tom Blake. Blake designed a lighter version of the existing plank surfboard, enabling riders to maneuver more easily in the water. People typically laid or kneeled on the boards and used their hands and feet for propulsion. By the 1930s, organized races were held regularly in the Santa Monica Bay. After the sport’s popularity peaked in the 1940s, it was replaced by a new generation of surfing.
“What killed it as a sport was when modern surfboard design came around,” Rice said. “With Gidget and the surfing culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s, that just blew it out of the water.”
After decades of obscurity, paddleboard racing is back in a stand-up version where contestants propel their boards with long paddles, said Rice.
The Santa Monica Pier Paddleboard Race isn’t the largest of its kind, but it’s steeped in history. To underscore that history, the festival transforms half of the pier’s parking lot into a temporary surf history museum with antique boards, artifacts, historic photos and classic beach cars.
Surf legends like Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman (the real-life inspiration for “Gidget”) and Jeff Ho (of Dogtown fame) have been drawn to the event. This year, Esther Lorenz Maire, winner of the national paddleboard race in 1947, will be on hand to talk about the sport and its history.
The day’s paddleboard races come in 5.5-mile, 1.5-mile and relay versions. New this year, there will also be a “Run-Swim-Run” and a 1-mile ocean swim for non-paddleboarders. Registration, online or in person the day of the event, ranges in cost from $10 to $55. There will be plenty of other entertainment at the festival as well, including Hawaiian-style guitar playing, hula dance troupe performances and live tunes from ska/reggae band The FuDogs. Registration begins at 7:30 a.m., Saturday, June 9. See the website for a schedule of races and activities.
The event, now in its third year, has already experienced major growth. Both the number of races and the size of the pop-up surfing museum have doubled this year to accommodate the hundreds of racers and thousands of attendees expected.
“It is turning into something that will really be a great source of community and financial support for Heal the Bay’s educational center,” Rice said.