Peterson, Pete

Gruff and durable surfer/paddler/ lifeguard from Santa Monica, California; four-time winner of the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships (1932, 1936, 1938, and 1941), and tandem division winner in the 1966 World Surfing Championships. "He was muscular and lean, but didn't look like anything special," one of Peterson's contemporaries said. "But when he got in the water he was the best."

Peterson was born (1911) in Rockport, Texas, and moved with his family to Santa Monica in the early '20s, where his parents built and ran the Crystal Beach Bathhouse. He began surfing at age eight, and started lifeguarding at the bathhouse pool three years later. In 1932 he was included among the first group of Santa Monica lifeguards, and his reputation over the next 15 years was built on his rescue work as much as his surfing and paddleboard accomplishments. Peterson invented a galvanized rescue flotation device, resembling a small buoy, which evolved into the modern rubber rescue tube, and he was twice the winner of the Pacific Coast Lifeguard Championships. Peterson is sometimes mentioned as the inventor of the surfboard fin, in the early '30s.

Paddleboard racing was then closely allied to both lifeguarding and surfing—the waterman ethic was, and largely remains, a combination of the three—and Peterson was a masterful paddler. He was described in Los Angeles–area newspaper articles as a "paddleboard and aquatic star," and "the bronzed paddle star of Santa Monica," and from the early '30s until the late '40s he consistently set and reset paddling marks in all categories, from 100-yard sprints to 26-mile open-ocean marathons. In a 1939 meet he was victorious in the 100 (his 30.7-second time beat a nine-year mark set by Sam Kahanamoku, Duke's brother), the 880, the one-mile, and the relay. Arlene, his wife, won the women's 100- and 440-yard sprints.

The quiet and reserved Peterson was also a first-rate craftsman. He designed and built a popular line of surfboards and paddleboards for Pacific System Homes in the late '30s, working mainly with balsa and redwood, and also made and sold boards out of his own house for $35 (or $45 with a five-coat spar varnish finish). As surf photographer Don James later noted, Peterson was particular, almost neurotic, about the condition of his own boards. "He was a neat freak," James remembered, "who never used any wax on the surface of his board for traction because he felt it violated the pristine look he so admired." Peterson dominated the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships, early modern surfing's biggest event, winning four times between 1928 and 1941—nobody else won more than once.

Peterson didn't surf competitively in the '50s, then returned with spectacular results in the early and mid-'60s as a tandem rider. With various partners (including Patti Carey, Sharon Barker, and Barrie Algaw), he won the 1960 and 1962 West Coast Championships, the 1964 and 1966 United States Surfing Championships, the 1966 Makaha International, and the 1966 World Championships. Life magazine ran two photos of Peterson and Algaw winning the Worlds. "Every gremmie on the beach knows that surfing is a sport mainly for teenagers," Life noted. "But this in no way inhibited [Pete] Peterson, the nearly bald 53-year-old businessman from Santa Monica who specialized in tandem surfing." Life went on to say that the 6'2", 200-pound Peterson was "bigger than most competitors," and that over the past few years he'd outlasted "more partners than Fred Astaire."

Peterson occasionally worked as a Hollywood stuntman, but for 25 years, beginning in 1958, his primary occupation was the marine salvage business he owned and operated from the Santa Monica Pier. Much of Peterson's shop, along with many of his personal effects, were lost as the end of the pier collapsed during the El Niño storms of 1982 and 1983; on May 10, 1983, the 73-year-old Peterson died of a heart attack on his boat in nearby Marina del Rey.

Peterson was inducted into the International Surfing Magazine Hall of Fame in 1966. He was married three times, and had two children.