Last summer, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, quietly slipped a resolution
across the Senate desk to officially proclaim Santa Cruz, California, as
“Surf City USA.” It was a simple resolution, he thought.
But eight months, three legislative resolutions, three angry cities, two
competing museums and one pending trademark later, it is clear that however
laid back the state’s surfer culture is, the legislative wrangling for
surfing bragging rights is anything but.
The Simitian measure came only months after the city of Huntington Beach had
submitted an application to trademark the term Surf City USA, reviving a
gnarly, years-old rivalry between the two seaside surfing towns.
After the Simitian bill went public, an Orange County Register editorial
fired back that Santa Cruz would be “better named Latter-Day Hippie Capital
of the USA” than Surf City USA.
“My constituents in Santa Cruz county are a little perplexed and bemused
that one part of the state thinks it has an exclusive claim to fame on this
issue,” said Simitian, who views his nonbinding resolution as a way to put
the federal trademark office “on notice” that other California townships
have a claim to the surf-city moniker.
And in a Zen-like surfer moment, Simitian says, “Surf City is a state of
mind, not a place, and I don’t think you can trademark a state of mind.”
Santa Cruz dates its surfing history back to 1885, when three Hawaiian
princes surfed on locally produced redwood boards at the mouth of the San
Lorenzo River. That would make Santa Cruz the site of the first surfing in
California, as Simitian’s bill proudly points out.
But so far Huntington Beach surf aficionados, who claim surfing started in
California in 1910 in Huntington Beach, have scuttled the Simitian measure,
preventing it from ever coming to a floor vote.
Morrow paddles out
The latest wave in the surf-turf war came this January when Sen. Bill
Morrow, R-Oceanside, decided to memorialize a surfing museum in his northern
San Diego district. Morrow authored a resolution, SCR 69, to designate the
California Surf Museum as the “official museum of surfing history, art,
culture, heritage, and memorabilia for the State of California.”
But the Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach folks, each with museums of their
own, would have none of it.
Simitian immediately approached Morrow, who at the time was in the middle of
a congressional campaign, with a proposed amendment to recognize that the
state’s surfing history “is reflected by the many surfing museums” in the
state. Morrow agreed to the amendment in early March.
But Assemblyman Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, was unsatisfied.
Last month, in the middle of a bare-knuckled Senate campaign he won by a
razor-thin 236 votes, Harman found the time to author ACR 131. The bill–a
direct affront against Morrow’s measure–would recognize the Huntington Beach
International Surfing Museum as “the official museum of surfing for the
On why there is some much controversy over surfing, Morrow says, “I don’t
know if it is so much about surfing as it is about Huntington Beach. What’s
in the water down there?”
“The last thing I expected was this fight,” he added.
Both measures are now moving through the Legislature, with the first to
complete the process becoming the nonbinding law of the land.
Size does matter
The language of the resolutions themselves boasts the credentials of the
museums and their surrounding surf communities.
The Simitian measure touts the Santa Cruz’s “11-world class surf breaks,”
but Harman counters that Huntington Beach “embodies the ultimate surfing
culture” with its “8.5 miles of wide, sandy beaches.”
Huntington Beach claims the “most heavily surfed beach on the West Coast”
and has “the largest surfing event in the world” every year. But Santa Cruz
is home to Jack O’Neill, who “invented the wet suit,” and now has a local
surfing contest held there in his name.
“Surfers are by nature very territorial and very proud,” said Jane Schmauss,
acting director and co-founder of the California Surf Museum in Oceanside.
Morrow’s Oceanside measure, which was written at the request of Schmauss,
focuses more on the museum itself, and its 20,000 annual visitors, than on
the city of Oceanside.
“The California Surf Museum has photographs, surfboards, and blueprints of
classic surfboard shapes, and has in its permanent collection the earliest
documented surfboard in California,” reads the measure.
“We are not saying we are better than any of the other surf museum,” says
Schmauss. “We are saying our name is the California Surf Museum and we would
be honored with the title.”
Harman tries to shoot the curl
But Harman’s Huntington Beach measure–introduced two months after
Morrow’s–has a head start toward gaining official state recognition. While
neither Simitian’s nor Morrow’s measures have received a vote, Harman has
guided ACR 131 through one Assembly committee, onto the consent calendar,
and right past the Assembly floor–all on unanimous votes. The bill now sits
in the Senate Rules Committee, awaiting a committee assignment.
In the meantime, Harman has asked Morrow not to move his measure because
Huntington Beach is currently not represented in the Senate, after John
Campbell left last fall to take a seat in Congress. Harman recently won the
primary for that seat and is expected to win election to the Senate in June.
“Senator Morrow has agreed to hold his bill temporarily in the Senate,” said
Harman. “Huntington Beach does not have a senator representing that area.”
But while Morrow waits, Harman continues to push his bill through the
process. There has even been talk of a bipartisan Santa Cruz-Huntington
“We got an informal approach on would you be willing to join forces with the
folks from the Huntington Beach in opposing the Oceanside museum,” said Sen.
Simitian. “I said absolutely not.”
Simitian says the legislative surfing contest is, in large part, “just a
harmless bit of fun,” especially considering all the measures are nonbinding
resolutions. But, he adds, all the hoopla over a sport and culture known for
being laid-back is rather odd.
“The commercialization and commodification of Surf City seems to be wholly
inconsistent with the culture of the surfing world,” said Simitian.