Tourmaline Surf Park – A History Lesson on the founding of America’s First Surf Park

Tourmaline surf park

Early in 2018, a new surf film was debuted called “A Line in the Sand” that told the story of how my favorite local home surf break here in San Diego, Tourmaline, came to be.  Tourmaline beach has a unique place in surf history, as it was the first beach in the USA to be reserved for surfing only!  I call Tourmo (the shortened nickname for the surf spot) the original blackball beater!

Tourmaline Surf Park surf spot t-shirt

It’s surfing only policy is the complete opposite of many of the beaches here in SoCal when the dreaded blackball flag is raised during the day in the summer, that signifies that surfboards are not allowed in the water. The Catch Surf surfboard brand originally came out with their “beater board” as a way for surfers to “beat” this blackball flag (because it doesn’t have fins and can skirt the rule), but the best way to beat this silly rule is by having no blackball at all, and instead the reverse, making it surfing only!

After I watched the movie, ‘A Line in the Sand”, I got more intrigued about the story behind this historical Tourmaline surfing beach here in San Diego and found this article

I summarized that entire article below (as this blog is a bit lengthy but the original article is a mini book – ha!). It’s funny how history repeats itself, as I think we are seeing the same kind of drama being played out now, with the electric Bird scooters (more on that below too).

Bird Scooter Riders vs. Rowdy Surfers
Bird Scooter Riders vs. Rowdy Surfers! Yep, the same hooplah going on today about the Bird scooter riders is really similar to the drama back in the 60s over surfers!

The main reason Tourmaline became a surfing only beach (back in the 1960’s) was because the home owners in the PB Point area were trying to get rid of the surfers who would frequent their neighborhood to surf there, as Tourmaline Canyon was not developed like it is today and Tourmo was much different back then, less sand and much more rock. Around this time, many other surf disputes were happening in Southern California and even around the world in places like Australia, but the case here in San Diego around PB Point (the Sun Gold Point subdivision at the time) gained the most traction. There was a PB Council meeting with 25 people in attendance and 5 possible regulations were proposed:

1) Assign a senior lifeguard to work with surfers and set up clubs to self-regulate (best idea I see here)

2) Re-locate surfboarding areas away from residential (so silly)

3) Modify the present ordinances to further restrict the number of surfing areas, a step which the San Diego city and park recreation director preferred not to implement (good thought to not prefer implementing – props to him!)

4) Require a license for (ha – too funny)

5) Set hourly limits (ha – again, this is kind of where the blackball flags come into play today)

In the days following this meeting, only options 1 & 2 still stood on the table, however even those regulations received an outcry of critique from surfers, and rightfully so.  Some of the reactions from the surfers are summarized below:

  • “Surfing and vandalism have nothing in common. Surfing is a clean, healthful, challenging sport. The vandalism is the product of certain members of our society.”
  • “The time has come to defend the people who surf. Their freedom to ride the ocean waves is being endangered by proposed punitive legislation designed to make surfing semi-extinct.’
  • “The complaints of householders about vandalism and rowdyism should naturally be given proper attention; however, this element has nothing to do with surfing or any other sport. It is a case of delinquent human behavior and should be dealt with accordingly.”

On the opposite side, those against the surfers were predicting that, “eventually, it will be a necessity to consider a surfboard a deadly weapon just as an automobile” and that surfers and their parents should have liability insurance.

The end result of proposed regulation centered around the more logical choice of encouraging young surfers to become members of local surf clubs that promote self-policing to control “rowdyism”.

As I was reading through these comments, I couldn’t help but think of how similar these arguments are to a modern day drama we are having with the Bird scooters flying around PB.  Many homeowners here now complain of these Birds being dangerous and parked inappropriately, but again, it’s not the Birds that are dangerous, it’s the humans riding them. Yes, helmets are encouraged on Birds for safety, but do we need police chasing helmetless riders down the street – being everyone’s personal baby-sitter?

Surfing is a dangerous sport too, should we have police patrolling the lineup, ensuring that nobody drops in on each other and ticketing those who do?  I think not!  I think we as a surfing community, have done a great job at self-regulating in the lineup.  Now that Bird effectively bribed the governor (by funding a bill) to not make helmets required on Bird riders over 18 years of age, the cops won’t be chasing us down the street anymore for not always having a helmet on hand when we want to pick up a Bird.

Back to the main Tourmaline surf history topic, despite the PB Town Council resolution, the city of San Diego made a proposal to relocate some surfing and swimming areas in Pacific Beach and open up new ones. This would have switched surfing away from residential areas (however the PB Point neighborhood was not specified which is why they objected to it) and into commercial ones with hotels.

The hotels owners had concerns with their guests having to walk 300 ft. to a swimming area but then the residential people argued that the surfing should be in the commercial area so it could have more parking spaces and be more easily policed. La Jollans came to city council to seek a surfing ban (uh – NEVER) on beaches below the residential area. Wow, it seems like no one wanted to welcome the surfers back then.

Because of all this drama, a 2 person committee was developed to investigate the disputes between surfers and ocean side property owners.  The result was that they foresaw a time where increased private land ownership would continue to block access and it was said that unless we do some orderly planning now, we’re going to have more and more problems in the future.

So what was the solution to this rowdy surfer problem, a ban – heck no – banning things is an easy band-aid solution but does not solve the problem, like many things we are trying to ban these days.  The solution that was explored centered around the city purchasing the land in Tourmline Canyon and restricting surfing to certain beaches in between Ocean Beach & La Jolla.  This yet, was a ban though, so not really a true solution, as surfers rallied against this proposal, while freshly groomed wearing ties, in a march rally downtown San Diego, holding up signs saying “surfers have rights too”. When the measure went for a vote, there were 875 signatures for those who opposed it and a surf photographer made the following statement

“when a drunk is driving down the street, you don’t close the street to all drivers. You arrest the drunk. Why pick on all surfers for the actions of a few”

Again, I digress to the modern Bird scooter debate, but this still holds true today. We don’t need to ban the Birds or create so many laws around them, however if someone is being wreckless, they should be dealt with individually, don’t blame all Bird riders for the actions of a careless few.

Back again to the Tourmo story – the ordinance was delayed 2 additional times and the city council started focusing on building the surf park at Tourmo Canyon.  However, that was still met with skepticism back then from surfers as the waves at Tourmo were “unsurfable”. The final ordinance that was passed didn’t ban surfing on any beach (great decision) however gave city officials the power to do so if surfers were rowdy and being a nuisance to those in the area.

After it’s passing, San Diego still continued with their plans to develop Tourmaline Canyon into the surf park it is today and bring an apartment building into the area, which of course was met with opposition from area home owners who wanted the entire canyon turned into a park. People also felt like the city was paying too much for the property and that the current owner would just use those funds to further his agenda in setting up a sewer pump which was necessary for his proposed apartment complex.  The group that opposed this plan also thought that the parking area was too large and called the park plan “playa del blacktop”.

There was also a proposal at the time for a hospital to be added there, however as it stands now, the apartment idea was the one that was approved. Surfers thought that the council plans to spend on Tourmaline Canyon would be wasted money because it wouldn’t be used by surfers – as there was no wave there, an important point that seemed to escape local politicians.

Now taking a step forward into the present day and age, I can’t help but be selfish and glad that “playa del blacktop” was approved.  To me, besides the completely fun and surfable waves now at Tourmaline, the reason I do like it so much is the easy, close and convenient parking and the fact that they do have toilets/showers on site.  Now there are certain areas/times you don’t want modernized conveniences and the charm of surfing is finding the un-inhabited remote surf spots, but for your local home break that is close by, these modern conveniences are really appreciated – at least from a surfer like me!

Back to the surfing history lesson! After things were finalized with Tourmaline Canyon, surfers were still trying to clean up their image and began forming surf clubs to legitimize surfing in San Diego. The surfers would go door to door taking surveys asking people how to improve their image. The Windansea Surf Club quickly became the marquee surf club in San Diego. The city then took the infamous “Hot Curl” statue down that was located in front of the classic Windansea beach surf shack which portrayed a prototypical, 6 ft. (was 400 actual pounds of steel) mop-headed, trunk-wearing, beer drinking surfer dude which was later found and destroyed by vandals.

Windansea Surf Spot T-Shirt
T-shirt available on – click to learn more!
Hot Curl statue at Windansea surf spot
A replica of the Hot Curl statue that used to stand at Windansea and reflected a stereotypical “rowdy” surfer dude!

It took awhile to finalize Tourmo Surf Park as vandalism played a cause there too – with 4 occasions when barricades were removed from the parking area and youths raced cars on the fresh asphalt, tearing holes in its surface.  It was originally planned to take 8 months to develop the park but ended up taking much longer and wasn’t finished until 1965.

And it’s official – at 10am in the morning, on May 25th, 1965, the formal dedication of America’s First Surf Park took place on the same day as the Western Regional Surfing Championships.  Over 350 surfers showed up for that event, at the end of Emerald Street, north of Crystal Pier and south of Tourmaline Canyon. The contest could not run at the new Tourmaline Surfing Park because, at that time, there was no wave there during the summer months (I’m glad this is not the case now!) Even during the winter back then, the wave surfed was not Tourmaline proper, but PB Point.   Barry Adams, Point Surf Southern Surf Club and San Diego Interclub Surf Council member and representative, paddled up to Tourmaline from the contest site. Waiting for him at the dedication site were the mayor of San Diego and president of Pacific Beach Town Council and many others. Adams accepted the newly dedicated canyon for surfers and the city council proclaimed the last week in May to be surfing week in San Diego, which was proclaimed again during the World Championships in 1966. The next day, the finals of the Western Regional Surfing Championships were held in improved conditions, with an estimated 15,000 in media attendance, 5,000 spectators for the event and 120 finalists.

Although surfers came together and helped legitimize surfing and the press started portraying surfers as respectable athletes, of course the PB Point homeowners were still going to be grumpy.  Even though Tourmo had a nice big parking lot, the surfers still did not use it because the “waves were not there” and continued to frequent the neighborhood above PB Point.

Years later, San Diego dredged up sand from the San Diego river and the rocks in the cove at Tourmaline began to fill up. In addition, El Nino paid SD a visit in the 1980’s with several storms which made the sand take a more permanent hold and helped form the wave that we know of today at Tourmaline Surf Park.  To me, to this day, during the winter months especially the waves still seem to be the best over by PB Point, but you can paddle out there from the Tourmo lot – it just takes quite a bit of time, as it is a journey, but then you can still have your sandy spot by the beach to come back to at Tourmo after your done!

Nowadays, surfers are the caretakers of Tourmaline and the Tourmaline Tailgaters Surfing Association has worked with the City of San Diego and the California Coastal Commission to make additional improvements to the park.

As you can see, I think one key learning from this bit of San Diego surf history, is that creating all kinds of ordinances and rules that ban things is one way you can handle complex issues.

Simple solutions like banning things or making police baby sit us for easy ticket revenue for the city, don’t really solve anything, but people do like simplicity, as it’s easier to grasp.

However, if you put faith in people and enable them to police themselves and they can see the benefits of self-policing, that is the best method for inciting positive change. I’ve always thought history was a bit boring, but this specific instance really showed me how we should use history more often as a way of looking at how we can deal with modern issues by reflecting to the past and solutions that worked back then!

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Surf History, Surf Spots, Surfers

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