Santa Cruz Surf Club Retrospective

Santa Cruz Surf Club Founding Member Bob “Ritt” Rittenhouse reflects on almost a century of Santa Cruz livin’.

By Neal Kearney
December 6, 2023
Ritt and his friends hanging out along a beach rail

For those of us fortunate enough to be Santa Cruz natives, change is a constant companion. The old homes receive makeovers, cliffs erode into the sea, roads grow more congested and the familiar faces of longtime locals come and go. We’ve all been there, lamenting, ‘This isn’t the real Santa Cruz,’ as we look out at crowded surf lineups, or reluctantly pay seven dollars for an oak milk latte. But change isn’t always a bad thing. 

Imagine calling this place home for almost a century. Meet Bob Rittenhouse, the sprightly 98-year-old and the last surviving founding member of the Santa Cruz Surf Club. We sat down with “Ritt,” as he’s affectionately known, on a warm September morning at his picturesque home overlooking Black’s Beach. Like any surfer, he can get a little grumpy about the crowds but hasn’t let it spoil his colorful character and quick wit. Here’s what he had to say about Santa Cruz in a quieter time. 

Family History

SCVM: Can you tell us about your family’s history in Santa Cruz?

RITT: I was born in Merced, but we moved here when I was three. Our family faced financial hardships during the Great Depression of 1929. One of my uncles urged my dad to move to Santa Cruz, where he had a place for us to stay. So, with five brothers and two sisters, we all found our way here for a while. It was Emmett Rittenhouse who pulled us in. There was no money to spare, and my father did odd jobs to make ends meet. Rent was not a concern for a while.

Bob Rittenhouse sits on a couch in his home
Photo Credit: Ryan “Chachi” Craig

Wipeout: A Love Story

SCVM: Let’s shift to the surfing component. Can you share your introduction to the Pacific Ocean?

RITT: My first wipeout happened in front of Main Beach. There was a big stage built for summertime events, like the Miss California contest. The first time I went there, a fellow named Don Matthews asked if I wanted to go to the beach, and I eagerly agreed. I asked my mother, and she inquired if he could swim. He said yes so she said, ‘Alright, but be very careful!’ We lived on Pacheco Avenue near Morrissey Blvd, which was the end of Santa Cruz back then. Pacheco was paved with cement while everything else was asphalt. As I ventured into the water, I panicked when I saw the big waves. I swam out to avoid being caught by the waves and managed to escape the first two. But the third one was massive, and I had to scramble. Eventually, I decided to head back to shore, but at first, I couldn’t make it. So, I made a swim for it and, of course, made it, but that memory remains etched in my mind.

Club Rules

SCVM: What’s memorable about being a founding member of the Club?

RITT: The Santa Cruz Surf Club had bylaws, which are now preserved at UCSC, along with other memorabilia collected by Mayo. The bylaws included a strict no-drinking, no-smoking, and no-swearing policy, and before the war, it held up. If you wanted to be a member, you couldn’t have any of those vices. However, the war changed everything. As young men went off to war, some never returned, and it was a challenging time to raise a family. It’s quite different from how the country has evolved.

Friendship with Harry Mayo

SCVM: Can you tell us about your friendship with Harry Mayo?

RITT: Harry Mayo was a senior when I was in high school. We were very close members of the Surf Club, which was more like a family. Harry would often call me, saying, ‘The surf’s up!’ Sometimes, we couldn’t find anyone else to join us, and there’d be no surfers in sight. If you look at the surf scene today, there’s hardly any breathing room.

War Times

SCVM: Did you serve in the war?

RITT: I did not serve in the war. Perhaps it’s because I was somewhat scared in the ocean due to my limited vision. Now I’m blind in one eye. Do you want to hear a story about where Harry worked during the war? This is turning into a Harry Mayo interview (laughs). Well, he joined the Coast Guard, and they assigned him to the Santa Cruz wharf. He was supposed to watch the boats as they came in and out. On his day on duty, he had to be at the wharf by sunrise when the fishing boats were active. He had to count each boat, and during the day, he had little to do, so he’d often lie on Cowell’s Beach while technically working. It was a cushy duty.

Beach Bums

SCVM: Did the local community show respect to surfers like Harry and yourself during that time?

RITT: Well, let me stop you for a moment. Even before the war, we were seen as beach rats. My dad used to tell me, ‘If you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas.’ Right from the Bible. So, even back then, people held that belief. If you didn’t have a job or contribute to the family, you were considered a bit of a bum. Kids would find work at the Boardwalk or pick up bottles on the beach, earning a nickel for each one, which was substantial money at the time.

Ritt stands on a rock along the shore while holding a friend on his back
Surfboards resting along a fence and shed

Cold Bums

SCVM: Did people consider you and your fellow surfers a bit crazy for riding those waves without wetsuits?

RITT: I think we considered ourselves a bit nuts (laughs). In the early days, we’d wear flannel shirts and wool to keep warm. One guy had a girlfriend who would later become his wife, and she had a car. When he came out of the water, he’d change and throw his wet wool clothes in the back of the car. His wife eventually told him to clean the car before they went on a date because it reeked of wool and saltwater.

Everybody’s Gone Surfin’

SCVM: With the 1960s, surfing entered the mainstream with the Beach Boys harmonizing and Gidget riding the silver screen. Did you notice that seismic shift?

RITT: Amid this transformation, two significant factors emerged. Firstly, World War II had come to an end, and secondly, there was a remarkable evolution in surfboard design. Take a look at those boards out there, did you? Those massive boards weighed in at a hefty 80 to 85 pounds. My very first board was crafted at Santa Cruz High School. As a surfer yourself, you know that, in those days, it took a solid 10 powerful strokes just to catch a wave and start the ride. But as I transitioned to work and surfed less, the boards underwent a remarkable transformation. They became agile, allowing surfers to pivot and maneuver with just a couple of strokes, effortlessly gliding like this (gestures with quick hand movements). Those bulky behemoths couldn’t quite pull off that kind of feat.

Ritt and a friend play with kelp on a Santa Cruz beach

Bonfires and Beach Stories

SCVM: One fateful day, while riding a colossal wave between the Wharf, disaster struck. My oversized board suddenly “pearled,” and the details remain hazy. It was akin to trying to grasp a bar of soap underwater and then letting it go, and it shoots back up—imagine that! Well, that massive board, along with the volume of water it carried, nosedived and, upon reemergence from the depths, came crashing down squarely on my noggin. The next thing I remember, I was sitting on the porch (gestures towards the porch). The guys later recounted, ‘Yeah, we warned you about hitting your head on the board down there, but you insisted you were OK, so you came in.’ Truth be told, I never really regained full consciousness (laughs).

SCVM: You were likely quite dazed and confused at the time, I suppose!

RITT: Indeed, it felt a bit like a boxer knocked out but still trying to put up a fight. Now, back to the bonfires and other beach stories. One day, as we lounged on the beach, most of these folks (points to a black and white group photo of the club members). At the bottom left corner were Evie, my wife, and me.

SCVM: Well, those are some fine-looking folks, I must say!

RITT: (Nods proudly) Oh, yeah! This is in the middle of the day. On a good day, we’d come in and lie on the sand, you know, pull the warm sand close to your body to keep it nice and warm.

SCVM: Sand puppies!

RITT: Yeah, so we kind of huddled around, tellin’ stories. The gals are there, too, just passing time. One day, we started talking about Cowell’s Beach. “I wonder what they’re going to do with this beach?” We knew that it was (Henry) Cowell’s beach. He was the one who owned it. So, I said, ‘We gotta go buy it!’ This is when the war started, so we all said, ‘Let’s buy it!’ So, these kids, we decided to elect someone to see (Henry) Cowell. I raised my hand and said, ‘Evie and I will go up and see him.’ They didn’t even have to give me gas money because gas was only a nickel or 10 cents a gallon then (laughs). Evie and I picked a date and went up there; we didn’t even call for an appointment. It shows you how smart kids are. So, we went up and parked near his office on Market Street, and there it was, “Henry Cowell Lime and Sand.” The door was open, so we went in, up the stairs, back to the second floor—just walked straight in. We just walked around and saw a lot of empty desks set up for 50 guests, at least all in a row, but nobody was there. Suddenly, a voice said, ‘Can we help you?’ We turned around and looked towards Market Street and said, ‘Yes, we’re looking for Henry Cowell.’ The voice said, ‘That’s me, come on back.’

RITT: So, we go back. How old would I’ve been? Let’s see, I was about 20 years old. Then he asked, how’s this family, and how’s that family? We were discussing his old friends. He was almost 100 at that time. So, there was a picture of him on the wall. I have the same one now. He would get behind the fire wagons, and they would pull. They’d have races with them, and he was the second from the last on the Santa Cruz team, so he was all proud of that. Finally, he says, ‘What can I do for you?’ So, I said, ‘Well, I’m part of the Santa Cruz Surf Club, and we hoped you would sell the beach. We’d like to buy it.’ If you took every club member and shook them like this (shakes fists) so the money would come out, I don’t think we’d get 10 bucks. Now, here we were, trying to buy a beach (laughs). So, he was very friendly, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry, but this is in a trust, and we can’t break that trust.’ So, we said, ‘Well, if you ever do, let us know!’ He said, ‘I certainly will.’ He said goodbye, turned around, and walked out. He was so lovely! Meeting older people, they’re usually grumpy, like, ‘What do you want, kid?’ But he was just very, very nice.

Bob Rittenhouse enjoys a bottle of Dad's root beer
Photo Credit: Ryan “Chachi” Craig

A Life Well-Lived

In many ways, Ritt’s journey from a young beachcomber and founding member of the Santa Cruz Surf Club to the kind-hearted, storytelling sage overlooking Black’s Beach reminds us of the transformation of Henry Cowell Beach  into something even more remarkable. Just as the rugged terrain of the Cowell property was refined into a cherished state park, Ritt has evolved into the epitome of a life well-lived — a testament to the enduring charm of Santa Cruz and the incredible people who have called it home.


What was the Santa Cruz Surfing Club?

It may be hard to believe, but the town of Santa Cruz once existed without throngs of surfers packing its plentiful point breaks and well-groomed sandbars. At the turn of the 19th century, surfing first came to Santa Cruz with the serendipitous visit of three Hawaiian princes, who took to the waves breaking in front of the San Lorenzo River mouth on unwieldy, hand-shaped wooden surfboards. Although the spectacle of one of their sessions on July 20th, 1885, was memorialized in a two-page article in The Santa Cruz Surf, their curious pastime didn’t gain traction until Southern Californian surfers visited in the early ’30s to sample the surf decades later.  

It was then that a ragtag group of teens took notice and subsequently caught “surf fever,” borrowing the visitors’ boards while gathering as much advice as possible from their fellow Californians. Afterward, these stoked youngsters began shaping their primitive surfboards in a high school wood shop. Their boards were either solid plank or hollow paddle boards that weighed nearly 100 pounds. Talk about extreme sports! 

 Thus, a fledgling surf community was born, culminating in the establishment of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club, led by Harry Mayo, who passed away in 2022. The Club started with a small group of young surfers from all over town, who braved the frigid waters sans wetsuits, riding the waves at Cowell’s Beach until they couldn’t bear the cold any longer. After their sessions, they huddled up to warm their icy bones with bonfires on the beach. 

Despite being composed of salty surf rats, the Club did their best to appear formal, electing a President, Secretary, and Treasurer, charging dues, and creating t-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with their logo. They even had their own bank account! As the Club gained popularity, they built a board storage house on the beach at Cowell’s, after which the club began to rent a repurposed hamburger stand a stone’s throw away to use as their base of operations. 

This was the genesis of Santa Cruz surf culture, and everyone who’s caught a wave in our treasured surf-centric city owes a debt of gratitude to these unlikely heroes.