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  • The California Surf Museum
  • Scott A.G.M. Crawford

On November 8, 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa established a world record for the biggest wave ever ridden at an elevation of eighty feet (twenty-four meters) off the coast of Nazare, Portugal. No extraordinary seascapes toss up such gargantuan water challenges on the Southern Californian shoreline, but the California Surf Museum serves as a reminder that the sport of surfing is an important, indeed integral, aspect of the California lifestyle.

Founded in Encinitas, California, in 1986, the museum moved to Pacific Beach and was permanently established in Oceanside in 1991. The annual visitor tally is 20,000, with over 600,000 visitors registered since 1986.

The museum curates and hosts both travelling and museum-specific exhibits. At the time of the reviewer's visit, the major exhibition space featured "China Beach—Surfing during the Vietnam War and the Healing Power of Wave-Riding." China Beach (My Khe) was a rest and recreation base for military personnel during the Vietnam War (1965–73), a wave-strewn coastal sanctuary that provided a short but badly needed "respite from combat." Exploring the impact of the war's effects on the surfers who served there, the exhibit has ten subcategories—"The Homefront: How the War Affected the Surf Culture and Vice Versa"; "The Waves of Vietnam: A Piece of Home in a Combat Zone"; "Surfboards: Shapers, Surf [End Page 396] Shops and Stoke"; "Surf, Support and Family"; "Nurses: Heroic Angels in Hell"; "Hollywood's Heroes: The Cinema's Portrayal of Surfing during Wartime"; "Aussies—Surfing Soldiers from Down Under"; "and Aftermath: Coming Home to a Changed World."

Again and again, the exhibit succeeds because of oral memories both robust and heartfelt. There is no absence of sentimentality. The museum visitor is engaged—embraced—by warrior voices like Jerry Anderson: "I can't get Vietnam out of my head. I think about it every day and night. It won't go away. Surfing, now, is the safe zone—so good for the body, mind and spirit."

The California Surf Museum with its home in a major American tourist town uses the Bethany Hamilton saga as a "hook" to draw in vacationers. Hamilton, born in Hawaii (1990), dreamed of becoming a celebrated surfer. However, her life changed dramatically on October 13, 2003, when she was attacked by a fifteen-foot tiger shark. Her arm below the shoulder was amputated. However, "passionate about the ocean and surfing," she returned to competition in January 2004. The 2010 film Soul Surfer, based on Hamilton's autobiography of the same name and featuring Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid, tells of her accident and inspirational renaissance as a wave rider. The museum has a stand-up glass enclosure with Hamilton's foam and fiber-glass surfboard, minus the shark bite. To the right of the damaged surfboard, a video shows highlight film of Hamilton competing at World Surf League events.

The far right of the single-story museum houses a touring exhibit, titled "Salute to Pipeline," sponsored by the Billabong Swimming Apparel Company. This tribute to the Banzai Pipeline, a surfing holy grail off the shores of Oahu, Hawaii, explains that "Pipeline rears up 50 feet from shore and showcases waves of up to five stories high that march shoreward before exploding upon a barely submerged coral reef." The exhibit is staged between walls with glorious color pictures of huge crowds watching events in various Pipeline competitions. Unlike the Louvre and its celebrated Mona Lisa, there is no security hassle or "hands off' warning, so the visitor can touch and stroke to appreciate the streamlined athletic elegance of a selection of Pipeline surfboards tailored to the idiosyncratic demands of stellar surfers. Many Pipeline champions are spotlighted, with pride of place going to Kelly Slater, an eleven-time World Champion, both the youngest (at twenty-one) and the oldest (at forty-one) to win surfing's premier event.

The museum also features a series of smaller exhibits, including a detailed map of the best beach locations for surfing (in the general Oceanside area). There is also a display regarding various types of surf wax and how they came to be developed. It...


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