Ron “Canoe” Drummond (1907-1996)
In his late 20s by the mid-1930s, Ron Drummond was born in
Los Angeles, raised in Hollywood and, as a kid, summer vacationed at Hermosa Beach. During summers, in the1920s, Ron learned to bodysurf and then board surf. He was particularly into canoes and bought his first one around 1921, at the age of 14. On a dare from his brother, he dragged his canoe out into the surf only to have the canoe broken in two by a good sized wave. Undaunted, a tall (6-foot, 6-inches) Ron “Canoe” Drummond would go on to become known up and down the Southern California coastline, eventually canoe surfing waves as large as 15 feet.
Ron was the quintessential “canoe surfer.”
“Well, I’ve been interested in canoeing ever since I was fourteen years old,” Ron told surf historian Gary Lynch in an interview eight years before his passing at the age of 89. “I remember my brother, Tommy. He’s older; year and a half older than I am. He says, ‘Aw, you’re dumb to try to go out in the ocean in a canoe.’ First time I brought a canoe down... we used to spend our summers at
Hermosa Beach, and I brought the canoe down there. The next morning we went down to go out in the ocean in it, and the waves about six feet high, thick and curling. And I says, ‘I don’t want to take it out through that.’ And he says, ‘Oh, you chicken!’ So, I couldn’t take that, so we went out... Sure enough, one broke and right into the canoe. Broke the gunnels in several places, burst the hind end all out, and it took me about two weeks to repair it. That’s when he says, ‘Aw, you’re dumb anyway to try to take a canoe out in the ocean.’ That made me determined that I was going to learn to enjoy canoeing on the ocean. So, I think I’m the only one in the world, probably, that enjoys a Canadian-type canoe surfing and doing various stunts out in the ocean. It’s meant a lot in my life, canoeing. I’ve really enjoyed it. I remember, I said to Tom Blake, ‘I think I’ll quit canoeing and take up my surfboard again. I need to practice on surfing.’ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘forget the surfboard. That’s really something, something different. You keep that [surfing with a Canadian-style canoe] up.’ So, on his advice I kept canoe surfing. It is a great sport.”
The tall, lanky Drummond became a track star while attending UCLA in the mid-1920s, specializing in discus and the shot put. Throughout his life he continued to swim, canoe, and bodysurf on into his mid-80s.
“I knew [Pete] Peterson when I was a kid in high school,” Ron recalled of that era’s most noted Southern Californian surfer. “His father owned the bathhouse at Crystal Pier in
Santa Monica; , I guess it was… I remember one time when I was in high school, I was down there body surfing. I was out catching the biggest ones, I guess they were about six feet high, something like that. All of a sudden I looked way out at sea and I saw this huge big swell coming. My Gosh! What is this?! I figured it was going to break on me, so I started swimming out so I could get out before it’d break. I was swimming out as fast as I could, and I was just in exactly the right place to catch it. So I said, ‘Well, here goes nothing!’ And I rode this one. It was an earthquake wave, and I rode it and I skidded right up on the beach amongst all the beach umbrellas and blankets and picnic paraphernalia and all that sort of thing, right up to the concrete wall at the edge of the dry, sandy beach… That was about ten o’clock in the morning… About three o’clock that afternoon another one like that came in. I was on shore then, but two waves that day came in. They were the results of earthquakes that day, I think down in Ocean Park Chile. I thought that was rather interesting.”
“Then, the first – second – date I had with Doris [Ron’s future wife], it was right after the
earthquake, about 1930. I had to go down to Long Beach , where I had been guarding for awhile, to get a surfboard I’d left down there. So, we drove down there. We drove all around and looked at all the buildings. The front of the big office buildings right down in the street, just piles of rubble and that sort of thing, from this earthquake. Then we went to the Long Beach Plunge for a swim and then we went from the Plunge out to the beach, and I looked out there. I saw waves coming in that were – crest of the waves were even with the deck of the pier! I don’t know, that’s about probably 30-35 feet high, I suppose. I’m not sure. But anyway, you know, a fellow’s got to show off in front of his girl, so I went out there, waited for one of the biggest ones, and came in on it. Went right straight down and then the long chute down this way, and then all this white water. Finally got out ahead of it so I could breathe, and I rode it and skidded up on the beach and nonchalantly walked up and sat down beside Terminal Island Doris. About a dozen people came over to talk to me, wondered who I was, never seen me before. I had a beard then.”
“The first time I was on a surfboard, it was when I was a lifeguard,” at the
Los Angelesbeaches, Drummond recalled. “Let’s see, I guess it was before that. I met the lifeguards down there, I guess, before I was a lifeguard. And one of them had a surfboard, was rather thick… and was belled right up at the end, like that… And I tried it, and you’d come down on a breaking wave, it would hit and come right up. It wouldn’t pearl. In other words, that was the first surfboard I ever rode, one like that.”
“I’ve always wanted to be an adventurer, you know,” Ron continued. “My father was an explorer… he’d been all over interior China, the Philippine Islands and all the out-of-the-way islands, and had skirmishes with headhunters, and all that sort of thing. Headhunters killed a lot of his men. [One time, they lost a guy] …and a fellow – native carrier that he had in his expedition – wanted to give him a Christian burial. So, Dad let them go in. They sneaked into the enemy camp – these headhunters’ camp [at night] – and they had their heads on poles and they were dancing around a big fire; real jubilant that they’d got these heads. So, the bodies were off in the dark… my father’s carriers got the bodies and my father took a picture of them carrying these bodies later the next day, stretched up, you know, like they put a deer on a pole: one end on one fellow’s shoulder and one on the other… they were holding their noses... hot climate... [the dead bodies] were putrid.”
“But anyway, all I was going to say is, I wanted to be an adventurer, too. So, that’s why [when] I was studying mechanical engineering at UCLA… I just figured, well, [mechanical engineering] really doesn’t interest me... So, I heard that Eastern Canadian Mining Company was sending canoe expeditions out to unexplored areas to get the geology of it, so if they ever found anything that was favorable for the deposition of minerals, why, they’d send probably 40-50 prospectors in there. So, I saw the manager of this company when he came out to
Los Angeles. I heard he came out every year on business. He’s a nice fellow. He sort of patted me on the back. He said, ‘Well, son, we only hire graduate mining engineers and geologists.’ So, that let me down. Anyway, the next time he came out I went to see him again. He said, ‘You’re really interested, aren’t you? You’re really enthusiastic.’ So I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what you do. You spend a year studying the subjects that I tell you to, and then we’ll give you a try on one of our expeditions.’ So, I studied mineralogy and geology and pre-Cambrian shield and blowpipe analysis and all that sort of thing that’d make me of some use to them, and then I got on with them.
“The result was, my career partner, Jack Barrington, had been the first white man on five rivers of northern
Canada, and mapped them. We named them and our names [along with the names of the rivers]… are on the Canadian government maps now… I named one in Northern Manitoba, BarringtonLake, ... I found a needle hammered out of native copper, up inland from the northwest corner of the Hudson Bay, so I named it the Barrington River . That’s in big letters now on the Canadian maps, the Copper Needle River . I felt real proud of that.” Copper Needle River
In 1931, Ron was the first one to publish a primer on bodysurfing, entitled The Art of Wave Riding. At 26 pages and a print run of 500 copies, the small book is one of the first books ever published about surfing. “One feels sorry for those who have not learned to enjoy surf swimming,” Ron wrote in his intro. “To spend a day in the sand developing a ‘beautiful tan’ is pleasant; but the real pleasure of a trip to the beach is derived from playing in the breakers.” Elsewhere in the book, Drummond defined “glide waves” and “sand busters” and step-by-step bodysurfing instructions. Understandably, this booklet has become a prize amongst collectors.
“I started to tell you why I’m deaf,” Ron kept on track with Gary Lynch. “I got hit by lightning and it knocked me about 15 feet flat on my back, and I’ve never been able to hear good since. It was such a loud noise, you know, when you hear thunder way off how loud it is, but when it’s right next to you, why, it ruined the nerves in my ear, so I’ve never been able to hear well since.”
“When was this?” asked
“Oh, this was during the war, World War II, down in
Port of Spain, Trinidad.” Like others of his generation, Ron was drawn into World War II, although he was already into his 30’s, age-wise, at war’s start. “I was unloading pillboxes and tanks and things like that from a ship, and the boom came up over that ship. It had a sealed deck, and then slings came down. I was just reaching for a sling to hook up a pillbox, and my hand was about six inches, I guess, from the sling. If I’d had it six inches farther – if I’d had a hold of that sling – it would have killed me, because it burned that sling almost completely through, three-quarter inch sling. Where it was up against the edge of the bit. I was lucky there... That’d be one of my close calls, I guess.”
Drummond’s “close calls” did not keep him from seeking bigger and bigger surf to paddle his canoe into. During and after the war, he joined a select group of Southern California’s best watermen to ride
California’s then-known biggest waves at the Tijuana Sloughs.
“Back in the early ‘40s I surfed the Sloughs when it was huge,” Lorrin ‘Whitey’
Harrison told Serge Dedina in 1994. “It was all you could do to get out. Really big. We were way the hell out. Canoe Drummond came down.”
“We paddled out and the surf was probably about 20 feet high or so,” Ron remembered. “I looked out about a mile where some tremendously big waves were breaking. I asked if anybody wanted to go out there with me, but nobody did. So, I went in my canoe and paddled out there. I set my sights in the
U.S. and in Mexico, and figured out where I wanted to be. One of the biggest sets came through and I caught a wave that was bigger than most. I rode down it when it closed over me. I was caught in the tunnel. Well I rode near 100 feet in the tunnel and just barely made it out. If that wave would have collapsed on me, it would have killed me.”
Ron went into a little more detail with Gary Lynch, probably talking about the same wave: “Did I ever tell you about the big wave I caught in a canoe down in the Tijuana Slough? … Boy, that was a whopper. That was about forty feet high, I guess. I was right inside the curl. Boy, I thought I was never going to make it… That was [another] one of my close calls… I guess.
“Dempsey [Holder] was the chief lifeguard down there…” On the day when Tommy Zahn and Peter Cole came out, after Dempsey had called them to get down to Imperial Beach pronto, Tommy and Peter paddled out, were amazed at the size of the waves and further amazed to find Drummond already out there… “out there where the big waves were breaking, ‘cause Dempsey talked to me later and he said I’m the only one that had ever ridden those big waves. They were about 20 feet high in near shore. That’s where he was, I guess.
“Well, a 20-footer is a good wave, but they’re about twice that big outside. None of the fellows would go out there with me. They’re scared of them. They can see they are just booming over thick like that… you could run a freight train through the curl.”
Canoe Drummond is generally recognized with having ridden his canoe in surf as big as 15-feet. He and his Canadian style canoe were featured in a 1967 issue of Surfer magazine. He also appeared in two surf movies: Big Wednesday (the Severson flick, 1961) and Pacific Vibrations (1970). He continued to swim, canoe and bodysurf into his mid-80s. In 1990, he appeared in a Nike ad featuring senior surfers that ran nationally within the
U.S. He passed on in 1996, at age 89.