Encinitas Hometown Hero – Surf Legend, Linda Benson – Encinitas Magazine June/July 2016 – By Kyle Thomas (Encinitas Magazine)
2016 – Linda Benson at Pipes Ramp Encinitas. Photo Kyle Thomas.
The life of the surfer girl who grew up on Dewitt Street in Encinitas, Linda Benson, has been remarkable.
To be able to say that you have been ‘the first’ at anything historical or groundbreaking in life, happens to just a few people every generation. In 1959 at age 15, Linda was not only the first women to win the first national surfing contest held in the US at the West Coast Championships in Huntington Beach, but is also credited to be the first women to ride the legendary big waves of Waimea Bay. That same year she became the youngest contestant ever, to enter the International Surfing Contest at Makaha, which she won.
1960 – West Coast Championships in Huntington Beach
Linda continued competing for 10 years winning the women’s 1960 and 1961 West Coast Championships and the women’s 1964 and 1968 US Surfing Championships, setting the record, which still stands today, for the most first place wins by a women at the Championships held In Huntington Beach.
Winning over twenty first-place surfing titles from 1959 to 1969, Linda was discovered by Hollywood and acted as Annette Funicello’s surfing double in the “Beach Party” films, and as Deborah Walley’s surfing double in Gidget Goes Hawaiian. She appeared in Bud Browne and John Severson films, and she was in the first Surfer Magazine in 1960. She was also the first woman to grace the cover of a surfing magazine, Surf Guide 1963.
1969 West Coast Championships in Huntington Beach
Hawaii 1959 – Photo by John Elwell
Linda earned the respect and admiration of her fellow California pro surfing male counterparts. Corky Carroll called Linda the “Godmother of female surfing,” and stated “Linda was the ‘hot-dogger’ of the women.” Fellow Encinitas surfing legend Mike Doyle praised her surfing prowess by declaring, “She had incredible wave judgment and just ripped the waves apart.” Well-known Encinitas surfer and surfboard shaper Steve Clark—when asked who inspired him to start surfing—credits “Rusty Miller, L.J. Richards, and Linda Benson.”
1960 Linda at Makaha photo by Tom Keck
1962 – Photo by Leroy Grannis
Recently I met with Linda Benson over tea, in Solana Beach, to hear her story, about her life and memories of growing up in Encinitas.
“Encinitas…” says Linda pausing thoughtfully “It just doesn’t get any better. And of course, it’s still wonderful. Back then I remember… it was really a paradise.”
“I don’t think anyone ever locked their doors. Downtown Encinitas was Pop Allen, he always gave gum and candy to all the kids. Everybody knew everybody. There was the Miller Brothers Feed Store. Danforth’s had a market on the other side. Charlie Miller used to let me work a couple hours to get enough money to go to the matinee, by bagging chicken feed.”
Encinitas was isolated
“I remember after I started surfing and winning some contests, for interviews they’d ask, ‘Where are you from?’ I’d say, ‘Encinitas’. They’d say, ‘Oh ya, Ensenada, I know where that is.’ “No one knew where it was… thank goodness.“
“They know now.”
“It was such a paradise and such a gift to be able to grow up and experience Encinitas when there were just not very many people.” Linda reminisces
1960 Makaha – Photo by Bud Brown
“My brother Chuck Benson, one day he and a few friends (he had just gotten a new surfboard) and they were in the backyard. I was just hanging around with them there. They were all probably about six years older than I was. I followed them down to the beach and it was the first time I remembered really watching surfers. I watched it and I fell in love with it right there. I just knew I had to do it.”
1962 – Photo-Leroy-Granis
“So every chance I got I would just go to the beach and stay on the beach, and be in like knee deep water and wait for them to lose their boards. I wouldn’t paddle them back out, I just held it for them. I remember I just loved touching it. I loved holding the board. Finally, one of them said,” ‘Do you want to try? Do you want to try and catch a wave?’
“Of course, I did, and that was it. I remember visually in my memory bank. I can remember riding that wave. And of course, it was a huge board. Back then they were huge, and of course, I was able to do it because I was little. Whoever it was that got me, he just pointed me and I road it. From then on I was a pest.”
“Finally, when I was eleven, there was a water soaked board for sale for $20.00 and he (dad) let me get it. Kind of a water soaked balsa board.”
1959 – Hawaii Photo John Elwell
“I had a really close friend her name was Nicky, who later married John Price of Surfboards Hawaii. We both surfed and John Elwell was one of the lifeguards down there (Moonlight Beach). He really took a lot of us under his wing — Rusty Miller, Nicky and myself. He took us to the Del Mar Plunge, made sure we could swim and really mentored us in those early years.”
“Our parents drove us on the weekends to Swami’s. We walked to the beach in the summertime. We could be down there as long as the lifeguards were there. So grateful to have parents that let us do that. They trusted me. When wintertime came then everyone went to Swami’s. “So the weekends, my parents and Nicky’s parents took turns driving us to Swami’s and that’s where we were all weekend. Then they came and picked us up.”
Sounds like you were there every weekend!
“If we could. That’s what we wanted to do. And it didn’t matter what kind of weather. We surfed December, January, cold, no wetsuit, no leash, and fog. I remember when there were some pretty cold days. I wouldn’t do it now on a bet.”
Fiji 2004 – Photo by Robin Hoyland
Did San Dieguito High School have a Surfing PE program?
“No, no surfing PE!” Linda laughs. “In fact, there were days when Swami’s had light Santa Ana offshore winds and our Principle, Mr. Putnam — he knew! You had to stay down at the beach and wait him out because he was at the top of the stairs waiting to give you a slip!
“I’ve always said I was lucky to be born when I was because I’ve gotten to do some incredible things, you know just incredible. I’m so grateful for it.”
“I really am grateful”, says Linda fighting back her tears. “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve got way more than my share, so it’s pretty special. You know, it’s just something I loved.”
“There’s going to be a time… I just turned 72, and I can still surf, thank God. I always hope that I can pop up. So I’ll keep doing that for as log as I can, and I’ll work at whatever I can do to keep my strength up. And when I can’t pop up anymore, I do stand up paddles for strength training, so I can always do that.”
And finally, what’s your philosophy on life?
“Keep on paddling”, says Linda with a twinkle in her eye.
Linda was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame, Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame and the Hermosa Beach Surfers Walk of Fame. On her Donald Takayama boards, she actively surfs today as well as participates in fundraisers and exhibitions.
Linda Benson with Kyle Thomas at the 2016 San Diego Surfing Film Festiaval
Look for the Linda Benson Story in the June/July Issue of Encinitas Magazine
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