Early Surfing

That first ride sealed my fate forever and I spent a good portion of my life riding waves

By Warren Miller

When the economic crash happened in 1929, the unemployment rate in America skyrocketed to over 25 percent. Almost daily, someone knocked on the back door and said, “I will do anything for a sandwich of any kind, please because I haven’t eaten in two days.”

My father was one of those 25 percent out of work and the family wound up living in Topanga Canyon in a five-dollar-a-month tarpaper shack, which luckily for me was located within walking distance of the beach.

My good luck continued because a family migrated to live in Topanga Canyon from Hawaii. They made a living fishing and, during the lobster season, they caught them in homemade wooden traps that they made during the winter from scraps of lumber that would float up on the beach.

One day, while I was swimming I watched him catch a wave body surfing and ride almost to the dry sand. It took me 20 or 30 tries before I was able to catch one wave and ride it at least 25 feet toward shore.

That first ride sealed my fate forever and I spent a good portion of my life riding waves.

I built rafts from driftwood and pretended to be on a battleship torpedoing German warships. Sometimes I was a pirate and captured ships with trunks full of gold and diamond jewelry.

In those days there were several villages between Santa Monica and Malibu with names such as Castle La Mar, Las Tunes and Las Flores.

For the finish line of the 1936 Olympic, 75-mile bicycle race from Santa Barbara, at Castle La Mar they built a pedestrian bridge across the Pacific Coast Highway.

One morning, I woke up in a world of white with two or three inches of snow. This was the first time I had ever seen snow and as I walked along the lagoon and then the creek to the ocean, my footprints alternatively in the snow and then I’d walk in the warm water to keep them from freezing.

The oceanfront was owned by the State of California and leased by the Los Angeles Athletic Club for 99 years. They in turn leased it to people to build waterfront homes. In the middle of this waterfront village was the Topanga Yacht Club. The Club consisted of several buoys offshore where members could tie up their sailboats and race each other on weekends.

In 1934, they widened the Pacific Coast Highway and deposited a lot of the dirt between the lagoon and the ocean and raised the highway up about in 75 vertical feet. As a result, all of the cottages in the canyon lost their views of the ocean and the use of the lagoon, which changed the village forever.

Surfboards did not appear in Southern California until about 1933 or so and it took a long time for surfers to recognize Topanga was as good as Malibu to surf when the swell came from just the right direction.

Today, tens of thousands of people pass both ways on the Pacific Coast Highway with no knowledge whatsoever about how wonderful the lifestyle was back then when there were only about 1 million people in the Los Angeles basin – now there’s about 14 million.

The second summer we lived in Topanga I learned how to launch a rowboat through the surf and with the help of my Hawaiian friend, learned to fish. He used what is called a set-line probably 200 or 300 feet long with a hook every 10 or 15 feet. I would row while he fed the line out and later retrieved it with whatever fish we had caught that day.

In 1937, in junior high school, I built my first surfboard and since Topanga Canyon I have never had a bad day in or around the ocean.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.