Malibu: A Woman's Wave

Zahn and Darrylin, surfing’s first “It” couple, doing a bit of board prep along PCH. Photo courtesy of EOS.

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: Sam George often looks at innovations or eras of historical importance in the world of surfing and beyond that changed the pursuit forever. In this edition, Sam examines women’s influence on the Malibu surf scene. 

Idling in traffic just east of the intersection of the Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road, gateway to a collection of swank retail outlets, restaurants and Tesla charging stations that, to the thousands tourists who flock to this otherwise nondescript shopping center every summer, constitutes the Malibu Experience, I was witness to a much more authentic, yet seldom celebrated aspect of the Malibu mystique: three young ladies excitedly unloading their longboards from atop a vintage Volkswagon van parked in one of the precious empty spots along PCH, adjacent to the paid parking lot.

Something in the lively trio’s demeanor, the way their springuits were rolled down to their waists and how they un-self-consciously applied sunscreen to their noses and wax to the decks of their 9’6”’s, struck me as the perfect metaphor for the cultural change I’ve seen since first parking in almost this very same spot back in 1977, when few females could be found anywhere but on their beach towels here.  Then again, change might not be the right word. Let’s go with renaissance.

Malibu’s enduring reputation, after all, is not limited to those uniformly peeling curls, but for the logjam that ensues when literally hundreds of surfers jostle and jockey for the potential opportunity, illusory in almost every case, to ride one of Malibu’s perfect waves alone. On anything even resembling a south swell the surfers taking off at the top of First Point face a veritable biomass on boards obscuring what would otherwise be a smooth run all the way to the pier. And that’s being generous. Most surfers would refer to the modern Malibu lineup as more of a rat pack, a testosterone-fueled mosh pit where only the strongest (read: selfish) survive. Yet on any given day you’ll see a handful of hardy female surfers mixing it up in the scrum, back-paddling and banging rails with the best of them, always outnumbered, and, despite the obvious gender disparity, never out of place. Because from its earliest days, Malibu has always been a women’s wave. 

It was the summer of 1947, and young Tommy Zahn, a talented Santa Monica surfer/lifeguard, began dating Darrylin Zanuck, the teenaged daughter of 20th Century Fox movie mogul Darryl Zanuck. Perfectly fine with spending sunny days along the bucolic Malibu shore, 17-year-old Darrylin obviously wasn’t content with simply watching the boys from a beach towel and pressed her new beau for surf lessons. Zahn turned to surf buddy Joe Quigg, already an innovative surfboard designer, requesting a scaled-down version of the balsawood board he was currently riding, small and light enough for Darrylin to carry on her own – and load into the back of her convertible without any help, thank you. Quigg responded by scouring local lumberyards for the lightest balsawood he could find, eventually shaping a 10’2” balsa/redwood squaretail that was several inches shorter, and, at approximately 35 pounds, considerably lighter than any other board on the beach.  Darrylin was delighted and soon became, according to Quigg, “the first girl to buy a surfboard, stick it in the back of her car, and drive up and down the coast learning how to surf.” *

Which was great, except for one problem. This occurred when Zahn, having borrowed Darrilyn’s lighter, more maneuverable and easier-to-ride  “girl’s board,” was reluctant to give it back. The story goes that when the pair broke up a year later Darrilyn had to break into Zahn’s garage to get her board back.  

Malibu: A Women's Wave

Darrylin and another famous Malibu surfer. Illustration by Lizzy

The board might’ve been out of the garage but the genie would never be put back in the bottle. By the autumn of 1950, Quigg was carving even lighter weight versions of Darrylin’s board for a whole new crew of beach girls, including Santa Monica’s Aggie Bane, Robin Grigg, Vicki Flaxman, Dianne Griffith and Claire Cassidy. Freed from the more typically heavy, cumbersome “guy’s boards” these pioneering ladies progressed so rapidly in the surf that their abilities soon eclipsed most of the men. Eventually more and more of the guys began ordering similar designs, taking advantage, albeit sheepishly, of the increased maneuverability afforded by the new style of surfboard that would eventually be known as the “Malibu Chip.” 

When some of the period’s best male surfers began riding those beautiful Malibu walls on those beautiful girl’s boards a major performance paradigm shift occurred, one that could be pointed to as the birth of modern surfing. But that’s a different story, often told. What has largely been forgotten is that fact that for a few glorious summers a handful of intrepid female surfers, armed with modern equipment and even more modern attitudes, ruled Malibu. 

Now, as traffic began to move along PCH, I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of these three modern-day Darrylin’s hefting their boards and heading down to the gate through the famed/faux “Malibu Wall.” Their confident step and easy anticipation of the session to come spoke of a promising cultural shift that, drawing on a history that most surfers have forgotten, has resulted in an appropriately integrated First Point lineup. Proving what has always been: that despite years of misguided male domination, Malibu is again a women’s wave.

 * From The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw.


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