Paddleboard: The event includes a variety of activities over two days. Visit smdp.com/pod for an Inside The Daily Press podcast with more information. Courtesy photo

Brynn Shaffer / SMDP Intern

After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the Santa Monica Pier is hosting the return of Pier 360, kicking off summer with a bang. The festival, which will take place June 25-26, will feature sports competitions, live music, a beer garden and more, with hopes that entertainment reaches all ages.

“It’s the most special thing we do here,” said Jim Harris, executive director of Santa Monica Pier Corporation.

Pier 360 was founded in 2010, one year after the centennial celebration of the Pier’s establishment in 1909 when directors were thinking of creative ways to expand upon their already existing events. This brainstorming resulted in Pier 360, which serves as an ode to the Pier’s past.

Santa Monica Pier rose to popularity amid the Great Depression of the 1930s when Angelenos united at the beach to escape the troubles of the time. It was there where paddle board racing was first invented, and where the first two-person beach volleyball games were played.

This year, Pier 360 is hosting a “Museum of Beach Life,” which features an open exhibit into the pier’s history, highlighting just that. 

The first section of the museum tells the story of beach volleyball, organized by Sinjin Smith, the “King of the Beach.” Smith is a three-time champion beach volleyball player who is largely responsible for beach volleyball becoming an Olympic sport in 1996. 

The second portion of the museum tells the story of the board, illustrated by antiques from the evolution of the paddleboard into the surfboard into the skateboard. 

Paddleboard racing first began in Santa Monica in the early 1930s when the lifeguards were the first public lifeguard force to use paddle boards as rescue equipment, and during their off-time, they started racing for fun. People observed that, and nearby beach clubs adopted the sport, as California beach figures like Dottie Hawkins popularized paddleboard racing into the sport we know it as today.

As the exhibit shifts into highlighting surf culture, which really grew alongside paddleboarding off the Pier’s waters, the museum celebrates many of the leading surfers from the Santa Monica and Venice area. 

And the most contemporary “board” of all – the skateboard – is the last in the museum’s lineup. Skateboarding rose to fame in Santa Monica with the Zephyr Competition Team, which you may recognize from “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” which was a group of surfers turned skateboarders, including Tony Alva and Jay Adams, formed in the mid-1970s. 

Additionally, Santa Monica is home to the original Muscle Beach, considered the birthplace of the fitness movement, and home to many “beach life big names,” including prototypical beach-boy lifeguards Pete Peterson and Tommy Zahn, who temporarily dated Marilyn Monroe. 

The Pier has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on shaping SoCal beach culture and Pier 360 celebrates this. “Everything about it is interesting and everything about it has roots in Santa Monica,” said Harris. “We could put on these races and claim it’s just a competition, but it’s not. It’s a competition that’s honoring the pier’s history and this area’s history with each culture.”

While Pier 360 began as a paddleboard race only, it has since blossomed into an interactive summer festival, bringing people together from all walks of life. 

“It’s the ultimate summer kickoff,” said Julieta Giner, the brand manager for the Santa Monica Pier. “It’s not necessarily just for tourists. It’s for locals; it’s for everyone coming around.”

This year, Pier 360 is hosting a multitude of athletic competitions, including several paddleboard races, ocean swims, volleyball tournaments, a lifeguard tournament, as well as separate youth activities, all of which are visible online via their digital schedule. While entry into the festival is free, those wishing to participate in athletic events need to pay a small fee and can register directly from their website, or sign-up on the deck, day-of.

And for those who wish to stay dry, have no fear, as the deck will be hosting entertainment all day long, featuring live music, as well as a Ninja Nation obstacle course, a skate ramp and roller skating rink.

The biggest addition to Pier 360 is their new partnership with the Association of Professional Paddleboarders (APP), which gives the Santa Monica Pier global recognition. 

“It really puts the Santa Monica Pier on the map worldwide because that’s a worldwide tour,” said Harris.

Pier 360 is just one stop on APP’s world tour, so athletes will be coming from all over the map to compete, including Denmark, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Israel and Japan. To add to the excitement, three-time Olympic gold medalist Misty May and her father, Butch May will both be inducted into the beach volleyball Hall of Fame this year and are expected to be present.

As celebrations return to in-person events since the onset of COVID-19, “we expect this to be a banner year for this event,” said Harris. “And we’re very excited to be offering it again.”