The day Doheny State Beach felt like Waikiki

August 31, 2019 | Surfing
Steve Brown: forever stoked | Photo: Brown Archive

Steve Brown is a surfer like everyone else. The only difference is that he doesn't let a stage IV lung cancer keep him out of the water. This is his latest adventure.

In early November, when the water temp in Southern California drops ten degrees from its summer ease of 70-72°F (21-22°C), and with a little extra protection on the extremities, you can dip your toe into cold water surfing.

On a day when the magic at San Onofre is not working, my friend Alek has suggested we try Doheny State Beach, just a few miles up the road, in Dana Point.

The knee-to-waist high wave breaks gently over a rocky bottom, giving it a reef break feel - the perfect place to work on longboard skills.

But on an early Thursday evening at the end of July, it's shoulder-to-overhead high at Killer Dana.

Killer Dana: one of the most iconic surf breaks in Southern California | Photo: Brown Archive

The History of Killer Dana

Dana Point, named after Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815-1882), author of "Two Years Before The Mast," is at the center of the Southern California surf history and culture.

In the mid-1960s, it was a big swell right-hand point break, home to local watermen, center for surfboard innovation, and the birthplace of surf activism.

When the baby boomers were coming of age, it was a little seaside village where the local livelihood and recreation was the ocean.

Before 1966, the headland and cove formed to a right-hand point break that could hold a 12-15-foot south swell.

Like current SoCal hot spots Rincon and Malibu, it is a freak of nature.

The beach points south, not what you expect on the west coast of America, allowing it to take advantage of deep water swells that built to a wedge over the hard rocky bottom.  

But that was before construction began on the 276-acre Dana Point Marina, home to 2,500 boat slips, 30 shops, and 17 restaurants.

Dana Point was home to legends Lorrin Carrell "Whitey" Harrison, Bruce Brown, Billy Hamilton, Corky Carroll, Phil Edwards, and Hobart "Hobie" Alter.

Some of the history is captured in an open-air monument across the street from Doheny State Park.

It's a life-size bronze statue of "Hobie" Alter, inventor of the modern foam surfboard, on his revolutionary catamaran, and another one featuring Phil Edwards.

While developers and civil engineers have changed coastlines over the past 60 years, destroying and creating new breaks, the death of Killer Dana, was the single act most responsible for the California Coastal Act of 1976.

It was also in the forefront of the successful challenge to put the freeway through San Onofre State Park, which would have destroyed the legendary Trestles break.

Hobie Alter: the inventor of the modern foam surfboard | Photo: Brown Archive

Honolulu in Orange County

Walking along one of the marina jetties, I have a line of sight of an uninterrupted chest-to-head high swell.

It looks like the same mellow wedge running from Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, in front of Waikiki, all the way to Diamond Head.

Jock Southerland was right on when in 1965, he declared it to be "Ala Moana."

The beach at Doheny State Park is also a drop in for Waikiki at Queens and Publics. It backs up to a grassy and palm tree picnic area with tables and barbeques that make it a perfect family spot.

It is named for Edward Doheny, who donated the land on May 31, 1931, for the first State Beach in California. The place was named after him on July 1, 1963.

It is believed he was the inspiration for the oil baron in the movie "There Will Be Blood."

Phil Edwards: the legendary surfer's statue in Dana Point | Photo: Brown Archive

Killer Doheny

At Doheny State Park, I meet Todd from Girl in the Curl surf school.

It has been a habit, and a fun practice, to "use" local surf instructors if I don't have a friend to go out with.

Not getting as many days at the beach as I would like, a guide gives me instant access and knowledge of a break to maximize my limited time in the water.

It also is an instant introduction to the local customs and regulars.

Mary Hartmann started "Girl in the Curl" with surf lessons for women in 1987, and also owns a surf shop going by the same name and specializing in women's items.

But it is her retro Hawaiian-style theme that compliments the Waikiki vibe at Doheny.

Todd and I paddle out after he does the most thorough Q&A I have ever had. He has a right to be cautious.

He is looking at a skinny old man with one arm who is very enthusiastic. Is it kook time, water rescue with CPR, or might this be fun?

Third wave, I am up. It quickly closes out - a quick turn to the beach, I drop into my island style crouch as I hear the foam bomb that will blast me.

Then, a little laid-back stance for friends on the beach, the kick-out, and back I go.

After a long left, the first wave on the paddle out pushes me back a little. Up an over the next wave, then pushed back again.

The following wave turns me 180 degrees. Two feet of foam is rushing toward the beach.

It's a belly ride you see at World Surf League (WSL) events, but I can't get my board to turn, and I find myself over only 12 inches of rocks.

It's not coral, but it's definitely not a place to bail out.

Until l almost hit the beach. Actually, it's easy to see just how much water can still move into what once was Killer Dana.

Todd Leetch: surf instructor at Girl in the Curl surf school | Photo: Brown Archive

Double Trouble

Stoked for another chest-to-shoulder-high day, finishing my dry land old man warm on the grass that fronts the beach, I see what few other people recognize as a special, another one-arm surfer.

John Crane is a left. I am a right; we are a pair. He is from the area, was born with one arm, and is surfing since he was seven years old.

We talk pop-ups, exchange Bethany Hamilton quips and technique.

He uses a webbed glove for extra paddle power, an idea I will try. Being crowded, he heads way outside.

Nothing better to start the morning with a dry hair paddle out on day three of the best surf of the year at Doheny.

Today I am with Alek. We met almost three years ago at Old Man's, in San Onofre.

He is a longboarder. We bonded over a mutual appreciation of one of the best longboarders in the world, Kai Sallas.

My goal at Doheny was to use the typical one-to-two, gentle, slow wave to work on nose riding.

But, it's chest-high, blue-green water all the way to the jetty. The only limit is how far you want to paddle back out.

I decide to ride long. It is a high price to pay today as I get stuck inside again for 10 minutes.

Probably a wrong choice for a one-arm paddler, but so be it. If I only had brought my glove...

Steve Brown: surrounded by his surfer friends | Photo: Brown Archive

Rinse Off

Cleaning up and packing up, there is still a full day of great surf at Doheny.

The families start to show up at the beach, as well as an endless stream of foam top boards owned by decent surfers, who are just so polite they know it is plain safer to just surf soft boards on a crowded day.

It is another excellent day in SoCal - the US Open in Huntington Beach, big surf in Orange County.

But it is tough to beat being at a small state park with a lot of surf history.

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