Harrison, Lorrin "Whitey"


Hot-rodding California surfer in the 1930s and '40s, and pioneering geriatric surfer in the '80s and '90s. Harrison was born (1913) in Garden Grove, south of Los Angeles, and as a child traveled to and from the family summer house in Laguna Beach by horse and wagon. He began surfing in 1925 at age 12, and eight years later was among the first to ride San Onofre; in 1933 he won the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships.

Harrison labored as a surfboard builder, lifeguard, dry cleaner, and night watchman, but the majority of his work life—for roughly 30 years, beginning in 1946—was spent as a lobster and abalone diver.

In 1932, Harrison stowed away on a cruise ship bound for Waikiki, but was caught and sent back to the mainland without having set foot on Hawaiian soil. Less than 24 hours after his return to California he again stowed away, and was again caught, but this time allowed to remain in Hawaii; during a return visit in the late '30s, he was among the first to surf the North Shore of Oahu. Harrison steeped himself in Waikiki beach culture, and decades later, when presented to a nationwide TV audience in 1990 as a lively senior citizen surfer—in a Nike ad campaign, a Life magazine feature, and as a guest on Late Night with David Letterman—he was usually outfitted with a brightly colored aloha shirt, a coconut palm-frond hat, and a ukulele.

In 1946, Harrison met and married Cecelia Yorba, a descendant from an old California Spanish land grant family, and they lived in her 18th-century adobe house in San Juan Capistrano, one mile inland from Dana Point in south Orange County. They had four children together; Harrison had two from a previous marriage. He died of a heart attack in 1993 while driving home with his wife after a morning swim.  

The Whitey Harrison Classic, a 20-mile outrigger canoe race from Dana Point to Laguna and back, was founded in 1971. An exhibition honoring Harrison was held at the Surfing Heritage Foundation, in San Clemente, in 1997. A similar exhibition was held at Dana Point's Ocean Institute in 2011.