Local athletes make their way to the water during the start of the five mile paddleboard long course during the first annual Santa Monica Pier Paddleboard race on Saturday morning. A portion of the events proceeds will be donated to Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM PIER — Longtime Santa Monica residents hearken back to the days when their quiet little beach town was just that — a bohemian paradise perched on the doorstep of the Pacific Ocean where locals could ride the waves and revel in the natural beauty that surrounded them.

The Santa Monica Pier, in partnership with the Honolua Surf Co., will evoke that peaceful time with its all-day Paddleboard Race and Ocean Festival, an event scheduled for June 11 featuring live music, paddleboard and dory races and a display depicting the history of water sports at the pier.

The “museum for a day” will be set up in the south parking lot, and will include dories and paddleboards built by expert craftsman and noted Santa Monica surfer Pete Peterson, as well as items used by lifeguards throughout the decades and displays on the history of the pier and skateboarding.

Proceeds of the festival will benefit Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit that promotes ecological practices to protect the health of the ocean.

For those left scratching their heads at the concept of “paddleboarding,” a primer.

According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, paddleboarding is a sea sport invented by surfers but used almost exclusively outside of the surf zone. People literally get on the boards and paddle from point A to point B, either in a kneeling or prone position.

The first paddleboard on record was invented by surfer Tom Blake in the 1920s as part of his strategy to compete in the Pacific Coast Surf Riding championships. It weighed 110 pounds, and was modeled after the Hawaiian olo surfboard, the type used by royalty in ancient Hawaiian culture.

Blake took his new invention to the 26-mile race between Catalina and the Manhattan Beach shore. His win, with a time of five hours and 53 minutes, launched paddleboards into the spotlight.

Paddleboards tend to measure 15 to 20 feet in length and 20 inches wide. As new materials like fiberglass and balsa wood came into the picture, the average weight dropped precipitously to between 25 and 35 pounds.

Others, including Peterson, jumped on the paddleboard bandwagon.

Peterson created a chambered mahogany paddleboard in 1939 that, as the New York Times reported, was comprised of over 1,500 screws. His other boards and inventions were slightly more accessible to the average boarder, and will be on display in the museum.

Santa Monica became the de facto home of water and beach sports in general, but paddleboarding in particular. The pier hosted two paddleboarding clubs, the Santa Monica Paddleboard Club and the all-female Manoa Paddleboard Club, and held regular competitions.

The width, length and relative stability of the paddleboard endeared them not only to athletes, but to lifeguards, who used them and dories, also built by Peterson, for surf rescues.

In the early days, before Santa Monica had cemented itself as the go-to beach city, companies hired lifeguards to provide extra security to attract families to the area, both for the weekend and to settle down.

It was, in part, how Blake and Peterson got their start. Both served as lifeguards in the Santa Monica Bay during the first half of the century, and their experiences led them to invent new tools to keep safe both swimmers and the lifeguards that tried to help them.

Paddleboards and dories were used before the creation of the “Baywatch boat” to pick hapless swimmers out of the water, said Nick Steers, a lifeguard of 40 years and docent at the Annenberg Beach House.

In those days, swimsuits were made out of wool, and got heavy in the water, Steers said. Inexperienced swimmers new to the ocean and its currents could find themselves in a jam, and it was up to lifeguards like Blake and Peterson to get them out.

A dory is similar to the paddleboard in that it’s a hollow vessel, but otherwise it’s a great deal bigger (between 400 and 500 pounds of wood coated in fiberglass) and usually seats two.

“I was a dory guy, when I was in shape and lifeguarding,” Steers said. “I started in 1966 with a wood type dory, which was difficult because it was much heavier than the fiberglass ones.”

Both “dory guys” and paddleboarders can celebrate their sport of choice at next Saturday’s event, which celebrates not only the history of the sports, but also the practice.

Dory aficionados can compete in either a 1-mile sprint or three-lap race, while paddleboarders will get a chance to prove themselves in the 2-mile fun paddle or the “long course,” a 5-and-a-half mile course that takes participants around the pier.

Registration is required for both events, and can be found at www.pierpaddle.com.

The event is a good time for people who enjoy the water and want to keep it safe for future generations.

Santa Monica had a reputation for gnarly water around its pier, which received failing grades from Heal the Bay in its Beach Report Card for years.

This year, the water quality improved leaps and bounds, getting an “A” grade.

Heal the Bay President and CEO Mark Gold credited the shift to a resident-approved tax, Measure V, which has funded repairs to storm drain, netting to prevent pigeons from roosting under the pier and a fix for an aging sewer pipe.

The reputation for bad water has scared off a lot of people, Steers said, and events like this that highlight improvements and the work of Heal the Bay are needed to bring people back.

“People should be aware they can have fun at the beach,” Steers said.


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