The Champ: Linda Benson

[Linda Benson surfing Malibu]

Born in 1944 in Encinitas, California, goofyfooter Linda Benson was a commanding influence in the competitive surfing scene of the late 1950s and ‘60s. Shy and timid on land, her 5’2” frame shows off a flamboyant confidence once in the water. As a little girl, Benson would find stray surfboards on the shore and happily hold them in the shallow water for the older surfers to swim in and fetch. By age 11 Benson got her own beat up balsa wood board for $20, and by age 15 she was traveling to Hawaii for the first time, making a name for herself as the first woman to surf Waimea Bay. That same year, 1959, Benson was the youngest contestant ever to enter and win the International Surfing Championship at Makaha.

Benson set a record number of wins at the U.S. Championships at Huntington Beach, winning the title in 1959, ‘60, ‘61, ‘64, and ‘68. In 1963 she was the first woman to make the cover of a surfing magazine. She hustled as a stunt double in the popular beach party films of time, such as Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Muscle Beach Party and spent 35 years as a flight attendant, flying regularly to Hawaii and getting her fix of waves. Now in her seventies, Benson still surfs, traveling south to Mexico to catch the warmer swells.

Chatting with a leading figure like Benson is beyond a privilege -- she remains an integral part of the surfing community, covering decades of surf history in her repertoire. Her athletic prowess and physical stamina set the bar high for any attempting to follow; her influence crucial to the development of surfing (for both genders).

Chelsea Burcz: What was surfing’s role in your local culture when you were growing up?

Linda Benson: It was mainly older guys who were lifeguards who surfed, and it was just right before the explosion that happened in the late 1950s. I had nothing but support, they were all brotherly towards me. Not very many people surfed and not very many people knew about it. I think it was 1955 when I started and I was 11 years old. I think we left our boards at the beach, I didn’t have the means to take it back and forth to the beach so we just left them there. The Gidget books had come out in 1957 and then things started happening. The movie about Gidget came out in 1959, and ‘59 was when the first big surf contest came here on the west coast. That was the beginning of the boom.

[Linda Benson is the first female to make the cover of a surfing magazine, Surf Guide, 1963]

CB: Who were these older guys you surfing with?

LB: One guy was a lifeguard, John Elwell, and there was my friend, Nicki Price, that I was surfing with and there was another guy our age, Rusty Miller. John Elwell was a real mentor for us. He took us down to the local swimming pool and made sure we could swim. He is responsible for me going to Hawaii in 1959 for the Makaha contest. That changed my life. He just happened to be going to school over there and he wrote my parents. It was such a different time, you didn’t just pick up the phone and call, you wrote a letter. He wrote that there was the International Surfing Contest in Makaha and that 'Linda should really come over here for it.' We didn’t have money to send me over to Hawaii. I got a free board from Velzy, he used to surf at our local break, Swamis. At that time, in 1959, surfboard manufacturers were just starting to send guys to Hawaii to ride the big waves and to be in the surfing movies. Bruce Brown and John Severson and those guys were making films and showing them in high school auditoriums and stuff like that. Some of these surfboard shapers would send a couple of guys over there so they could be in the movies. But they never sent a little girl -- I was 15. So I went to him and said that I would really like to go to this contest. He was kind of a known cowboy type, and he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll get you over there if you can get yourself back.’ So that’s what happened. He gave me the money to get over there and my parents scraped it together to get me back. John Elwell arranged for me to stay with this couple and their baby on the North Shore. 

[1959, Makaha. Photo by Bud Browne. ] 

[Photo by Robin Hoyland, 2014]

CB: An adventure at 15...

LB: I was just stumbling all over myself. The only thing I knew about Hawaii was the travel agency photos that you would see with the canoes on the big wave, I had no idea what to expect and it was just the most amazing time.

CB: Who was competing against you in that contest?

LB: In that contest it was mainly the Hawaiians and they were pretty good because in Hawaii the women had been surfing. Marge Calhoun and Robin Grigg, the sister of big wave rider Ricky Grigg, were in that contest, too. There were a couple of California women that were good, Marge Calhoun was riding some big waves at Makaha. There were a couple Hawaiians, Anona Napolean was a younger favorite surfer and she was good. It was just an amazing event. They had these big spotlights and they would put them on at night out on the water. We were night surfing and it was as dangerous as could be because the spotlights would follow the guys who were surfing on a wave but in the meantime you’re out there in the water in the dark. It was kind of scary. I remember seeing Donald Takayama and his whole entourage on the beach during this night surfing thing. I didn’t meet him right then but it was the same year that I met him.

1959 was a special year because John Severson published the first Surfer magazine with all of his photos from late 1959 to late 1960 from being in Hawaii, so I got to be in that. I was very lucky to be able to do that. 

CB: Were the other girls the same age as you? 

LB: They were a little bit older. 

CB: Before that contest in Makaha, before 1959, were you doing contests in California? 

LB: The very first one, which was like a month or two before the Makaha contest, it was the beginning of the U.S. Championships in Huntington Beach. I think the first couple of years it was called the West Coast Surfing Championships, but that was the beginning of the United States Surfing Championships. Then it went on through a number of years and eventually the event grew into the OP Pro. Now it’s the U.S. Open, it’s just evolved from that very first year in 1959. It was like Woodstock, I mean everybody came from Northern California all the way down. Everyone wanted to do well but it was more about just being together and cheering our friends on. We all knew each other so it didn’t really matter. So it was more or less just an event.

[Photo by John Elwell. 1959 Makaha Beach.]

CB: Who else was competing with you in that event in California?

LB: For a long time we didn’t have any photos of that contest but someone just gave me this photo and Marge Calhoun competed in that contest, she must’ve gotten third. I got first. There were some other ones but I don’t know right now, I would have to look in the program. By 1959 every little town up and down the California coast had a few women and they were good. Certainly not the number of boys and men, but there was a good showing of women. 

It was one big group. I get asked a lot, “how was it for you being a woman surfing?” -- I mean when I started, there wasn’t very many guys, and there wasn’t very many young guys. We all kind of started at the same time. Not all women had it as good as I had it. I don’t think the Australians did, I think those girls had a rougher time.

I was just asked to join a noseriding contest at Malibu in 2017. It’s called the Malibu Noseriding Invitational and for the very first time, the women are going to compete against the men. I thought that was interesting they asked me to be on advisory board. Which says a lot about the women because today they are so good.

[First 'West Coast' contest, later called US Championships, Huntington Beach, 1959. L to R front row: Mike Doyle 1st Pier paddle, Linda Benson Women's 1st, Gudrun Wilcke Women's 2nd, Marge Calhoun Women's 3rd. Louis Tarter Boy's 1st. Back row: Jack Haley Men's 1st. Next unknown. Joey Cabell & Clair Smith 1st open mixed tandem. Photo by Wilckie.]

[1959 Makaha International Championships, Linda and a friend. Photo by John Elwell.]

CB: Was there anyone you were watching in the water for style? Or were you just experimenting?

LB: In 1959, I think that’s when the first foam boards came out. They were so much lighter, and the hotdogging just started to happen. People started walking the nose and we didn’t know how -- I remember just walking off the end of the nose. We did all kinds of spinners and we were just doing different stuff. Now they are doing it in the air, trying to do anything new. We were just enjoying the freedom of the lighter board.

CB: Tell me about the day you paddled out at Waimea. 

LB: I remember driving over to check it out. It was closed out everywhere else and so we pulled up to Waimea Bay and we all got out and we were all standing on the cliff watching. It was the first time I’d seen anything that big. The guys were talking about whether they were going to go out and I was just talking with them, some were going and some weren’t. There was the smallest guy there from La Jolla, about my size actually, and he had a 10ft gun. I’d never ridden it, and I’d never ridden a gun. He let me borrow it and it was just like going out on any other day, only it was Waimea Bay! I remember the shore break but I got past that -- and then of course the further out you get the sets come. I’m paddling out and a set comes and Fred Van Dyke is on this wave and he wipes out. He pops up and his board is broken in half, that was my very first introduction to the line up. Then John Severson took off on a wave and he wiped out. He came up and looked at me and said, 'You’re crazy!' -- and he meant it, he wasn’t kidding me. He went right in and got his camera. I was scared, I remember the wave and I remember that I couldn’t see. I knew I was dropping but I couldn’t see how far because the back spray was spraying in my eyes. I made it, and I made sure I made it. I wasn’t looking to be in the tube.

So I think I got a couple of waves and they were calling it 18ft, it felt like it was bigger than that but that’s what they were calling it. I remember when I got out of the water stumbling over my feet. But that was it, ‘first girl’ or anything like that ever crossed my mind. It was just as it was, I was just with my friends.

CB: Were you athletic outside of surfing?

LB: No, I was very shy and very introverted. I felt like I was always in left field -- and then surfing happened to me. I don’t know what my life would’ve been like, it would’ve been nothing like what I’ve been given. I was just a little girl doing something she loved and for the first time in my life I really felt like I was part of something. But we were set because we didn’t have leashes, we swam.

As I grow older, I have to work hard or I know I won’t be able to do this. I don’t care how fit you are, it’s harder to stand up the older you get, but I love it so I’m not going to abandon ship.

Words by: Chelsea Burcz

More about Linda Benson here


[Mexico. Photo by Robin Hoyland, 2014.]

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