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Surf's up at UCI exhibit

Among the photos and magazines is Captain Cook's journal from the 1700s describing Hawaiians riding surfboards.

February 24, 2011|By Joanna Clay, joanna.clay@latimes.com
  • A portion of an image taken from an illustration from Capt. James Cook's "A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean" shows what is believed to be the first of a surfer.
A portion of an image taken from an illustration from Capt.… (Don Leach, Daily…)

Editor's note: This adds information about how to donate items to the surf collection.

Surfing culture may be synonymous with "The O.C.," but there was a time when the water sport was new here.

On Wednesday, UC Irvine's Langson Library opened a display of surfing-related items, including photographs, travel journals and magazines. Some of the items date to the 18th century but most have local roots.

One item is an archival photograph taken in Corona del Mar of the first surf contest staged on the U.S. mainland: the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships in 1928.

Steve MacLeod, the curator and public services coordinator in Special Collections & Archives at UCI, reflected on surfing's evolution since the late 1920s.

"Most people just made [their surfboards] right on the beach because they couldn't carry them anywhere," MacLeod said. "CdM was one of the really significant places where people surfed."

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MacLeod explained that the construction of jetties negatively altered the beaches. Only one beach benefitted from the jetties, and got great acclaim for it: The Wedge.

Another photo on display, taken in 1954, shows one of the first surf shops in Orange County and the roots of a successful surfing company: Hobie in Dana Point.

Besides chronicling the early days of surfing in Orange County, the collection also boasts an artifact dating to the 1700s, which serves as a historical point of reference for the sport.

Captain James Cook, the 18th century British sea explorer, published a number of journals about his travels to exotic locales and his encounters with indigenous peoples. UCI carries a first edition copy of his last journal, which details the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii.

It was during that expedition to what would become known as Hawaii's Big Island in February 1779 that Cook was killed during a fight with natives.

His journal details Hawaiians riding on the first surfboards and provides an illustration that shows the earliest Western-recorded manifestation of surfing.

"It describes it as an activity that was unique, that he hadn't seen before," MacLeod said. "It's a fairly interesting account of what surfers do. It talks about what the boards look like and efforts to get through the surf."

The library's collection of surfing artifacts has drawn interest from a German scholar whose doctorate is tied to surfing.

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