Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
Talk about radical. Jane Schmauss loves surfing, surfers and the ocean, but you’ll never see her out on a board: she doesn’t surf.
Nobody in the surfing world seems to mind. Her passions have turned this former schoolteacher and restaurant owner from La Mesa into one of the world’s top chroniclers of surfing history.
She’s a historian at Oceanside’s California Surf Museum and has been along for the museum’s wild ride through 25 years of multiple locations and near-death experiences. She co-authored the book “Surfing in San Diego,” teaches the museum’s tour guides and is compiling interviews with local surfing icons.
I visited the surf museum and asked the no-nonsense Schmauss about her love for surfing, the history of the sport and its impact on all of us.
You’re a non-surfer. Did you ever surf?
I’ve never surfed. It’s something that you should probably try when you’re younger. I surf in my heart, and I weep at surf movies knowing I’ll never be in that green room. That’s got to be one of the most magical, mystical experiences on the planet short of being in outer space looking down at the big blue marble.
The green room?
Join thousands of San Diegans who get the day’s news in their inboxes every morning. Get the Morning Report now.
What does every surfer live for? Being in that curl, being totally encapsulated in the wave, and all you see is out through it, like through the sights of a gun. You see a little bit of land or a little bit of ocean. You’re totally surrounded, and it makes this noise like nothing else.
Guys come out of this and they weep. Guys will have this happen to them once in their life, and they’ll carry it forever. And there are others who live for it.
You can’t just go out and have it happen. The wave has to hold its shape, and not all waves are the same and not all rides are the same. This is why these guys are so amazing about how they remember it, down to the nth degree.
You hear my voice? I’m a surfer.
How did you develop this passion?
My son is one of the best surfers in the area. (He’s Jon Schmauss, a manager at Jake’s Del Mar restaurant.) I learned that passion, joy and commitment from him.
When you meet these guys and they’re in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and you see how passionate they are about their lives, and many of them haven’t surfed in years or just got out of the water. They all have that intensity and passion that you admire so much you want to be around it.
Did you marry a surfer?
I couldn’t date a surfer in college at San Diego State. That was a no-no. They were no-accounts, they cut school, they were never going to go anywhere. They were surfers, and that was the vibe back then: you didn’t want to send your daughter to college to marry a beach bum.
Has that changed?
There’s guys in their 60s and 70s who are exactly like Jeff Spicoli. But it’s a huge tribe.
What were surfers like in the early days of the 1920s and 1930s?
The beach culture was starting to build here in the 1920s and 1930s, and the guys were hard-core physical specimens.
We look at giant wooden surfboards that are as long as 13 feet.
The guys who surfed on these made their own boards. They had no wetsuits, no leashes, and they carried those things to the water, and they had a blast surfing in 55-degree water. Imagine how fit these guys were.
You had to really love what you did.
On the one hand, there’s a stereotype of surfers as being mellow and airheaded. But they can also be aggressively territorial. What’s that about?
You’re out in the water with a weapon. If you’re a kook — a disrespected or wannabe surfer — and you fall off your board, you endanger any number of guys. You’ve got a loose board tumbling in the water, and they didn’t want these people around them.
There’s always the grouchy guys who don’t want anyone out there: this is my break right here, nobody else’s. Territoriality is when you have a desirable spot like Malibu, Windansea or Swami’s and it gets crowded. Each of those places has had pretty serious incidents of territoriality and still do. It just depends on who’s out.
And then when the short board revolution came in, there would be trouble. They didn’t want any old guys on long boards. The short boards could cut and move, and the long board guys were cruising and having a good time. They take up more room and ride the wave differently than you do.
The surfing museum was born in the 1980s at George’s, your coffee shop in Encinitas that you ran until 1996. What was your reaction when a patron brought up the idea of holding a meeting about creating a museum?
I asked how many surf museums are there, and he said none. I said you’ve got to be kidding me. Such a sport and lifestyle and there’s no museum? The teacher in me really ramped up, and I really liked the idea.
How did your coffee shop become popular among surfers?
It became a surfer hangout just by accident. We started hanging surfboards from the ceiling, and I’d offer people a free breakfast if they brought a picture of themselves surfing. And pretty soon the wall was covered with all these photos of some of today’s top young adult surfers. I have photos of them when they were 11 and 12.
We just loved the beach people and we just happened to be so well situated there. Surfers like good quantity food, well prepared and at a very reasonable price. That’s what we gave them.
Do surfers eat a lot?
Go out surfing for a couple hours and come in and tell me about your appetite. We had this meal called an Encinitas Earthquake that was a mound of potatoes and gravy and eggs on top of it. It weighed five pounds and they ate it. People just loved our food.
Does the museum give surfing some respectability?
I certainly hope so. The goal is to inform people how amazing a lifestyle surfing is. It’s not like a baseball or football commitment or even a golf commitment. A sport is a sport is a sport: it’s all great and fabulous. But surfing has music and clothing attached to it, and language.
People come in here from Kansas and Alabama and they’re wearing Roxy clothes and Billabong, and they’re wearing Hurley shirts. And then they say “Awesome, dude” and “Dude, come over and look at this.”
You realize how surfing has left such an impression on other people’s imaginations and how deeply embedded it is in our culture. I’m talking internationally. People from Europe come in constantly, from Japan, from Brazil.
We’re surrounded by it, and we don’t even notice. The world comes into the museum and how they feel about surfing is all reflected in their attitude. They come to Southern California and what do they think of? Surfing.
Hopefully they come away and learn something.
Why is this your passion?
Maybe I envy the surfing lifestyle. As a teacher, it’s about collecting information, archiving and documenting it. Knowing that the history is so young that I can still talk directly to some of the people who made this history — I find that very heady and exhilarating.
Interview conducted and edited by Randy Dotinga. Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.