A single photograph made Ron Drummond a legend in the disparate worlds of surf and canoeing.
The image, taken at an iconic surf break Drummond fought and failed to save, captures his open canoe taking off on a 15-foot ocean wave. The bow juts well clear of the face and the stern is buried deep within it, while Drummond himself perches at the fulcrum, dragging his paddle like an afterthought to guide the massive aluminum craft down the line where, as if for scale, a lone longboarder scratches for the lip.
To anyone who’s surfed big waves, or handled an open canoe in moving water—solo, no less—the image is mesmerizing. It passed through the surfing tribe like a holy relic in the 1960s, resurfacing now and again until the advent of social media gave new life to the remarkable legend of Canoe Drummond.
Born in Los Angeles in 1907, Drummond acquired his first canoe at 14 and promptly paddled it through heavy shore break on a dare from his brother Tommy, who was a year and a half older. The surf was “about six feet high, thick and curling,” Drummond told surf historian Gary Lynch in a 1988 interview. “The first wave came over right into the canoe. Broke the gunnels in several places, burst the hind end all out, and it took me two weeks to repair. . . . That’s when Tommy says, ‘Aw, you’re dumb anyway to try to take a canoe out in the ocean,’ which made me determined that I was going to learn to enjoy canoeing on the ocean.”
Drummond grew into a striking figure, standing 6-foot-6, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, he was habitually sunburnt and wore a lush beard. He was a standout shot and discus athlete at at UCLA, where he studied mechanical engineering and began to realize he had no interest in the office work his education was preparing him for. When he heard about a mining company that sent canoe expeditions to survey unexplored country in northern Canada—and that the company’s manager came to Los Angeles once a year on business—Drummond arranged a meeting.
“He sort of patted me on the back and said, ‘Son, we only hire graduate mining engineers and geologists,’” Drummond recalled, “but the next time he came out I went to see him again.” This time, the man told him to spend the whole next year studying geology and mineralogy. If he passed muster after a year, he’d earn his shot.
Drummond learned enough rock science to get the gig, exploring and naming five rivers in northern Manitoba and what is now Nunavut. He found a needle hammered out of native copper on a stream northwest of Hudson Bay, and named it the Copperneedle River. The river still bears that name but Drummond moved on, following his wanderlust around the world.
He turned his athleticism and prodigious beard into a professional wrestling career, headlining cards in California, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa under his ring name “Whiskers Blake.” His 1933 bout with “Strong Tom” Lurich filled Sydney Stadium and was immortalized in a cheeky newsreel.
Drummond excelled at all manner of wave riding, starting with the sport’s most elemental form, bodysurfing. His 1931 treatise on the subject, The Art of Wave Riding, has been called the first book ever published about surfing, and it set an enduring tone: Surfing is about fun. “One feels sorry for those who have not learned to enjoy surf swimming,” Drummond wrote in the introduction. “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.” Drummond self-published a run of 500, and remaining copies fetch top dollar from collectors; Antiques Roadshow once appraised Drummond’s own copy at up to $8,000.
Drummond learned board surfing as an L.A. County Lifeguard in the late 1920s and early 1930s, riding the finless wooden planks of the day. One day in 1933 when the waves were brushing the deck of the Long Beach pier—30 or 35 feet, in Drummond’s telling—he paddled out on a redwood slab to impress his future bride, Doris. It was their second date.
“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,” he said. Drummond rode the heavy board through whitewater so thick he couldn’t breath, but held on all the way to the beach.
His lasting moniker, Canoe Drummond, came later, after he’d made good on his teenaged promise to learn how to enjoy canoeing in surf, singlehandedly advancing the arcane discipline in the process. By the 1940s, Drummond and his canoe were fixtures in the burgeoning Southern California surf scene.
When Drummond told California surf pioneer Tom Blake that he was thinking about setting his canoe aside to focus on his surfboard, Blake would have none of it. “He says, ‘forget the surfboard. [The canoe] is really something different. You keep that up,’” Drummond recalled. “So, on his advice I kept canoe surfing.”
In those days before Maverick’s, Tijuana Sloughs was the biggest wave in California, a spooky testing ground for the big wave riders of surfing’s postwar boom. Two of the best, Tommy Zahn and Peter Cole, had a standing agreement with the chief lifeguard there, who would pick up a Bakelite telephone and alert the boys whenever the Sloughs were firing. When Zahn and Cole arrived just after noon on the biggest day any of them remember, Drummond was already out there, in his canoe.
The waves were a solid 20 feet on the inside, but Drummond had his eyes on the outermost reef, a mile or more offshore. “I asked if anybody wanted to go out there with me, but nobody did. So, I went in my canoe and paddled out there,” he told writer Serge Dedina. 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.”
There’s no photo of that ride, just Drummond’s recollection colored by the decades. But whether it was 40 feet or half that, the point is that Drummond was out there as he’d promised, enjoying himself on the ocean in a canoe. Surfing was a lifelong passion for Drummond, who settled a stone’s throw from his beloved Dana cove, home to Killer Dana and a half-dozen other quality waves. He surfed there nearly every day from the 1940s until August 29th, 1966, when the Army Corps of Engineers laid the first of the 10-ton boulders that would transform one of Southern California’s most rippable rights into a sprawling marina ringed in yacht clubs, chain restaurants and asphalt.
“It was like a sudden death that you couldn’t talk about,” longtime local Chris Ahrens wrote in an essay for Surfing magazine. “I couldn’t even look at it for probably 10 years, just the most painful thing you can imagine. It was a whole world, a whole history erased.”
For years, Drummond had been the driving force of the opposition. But in those days surfers were on the fringe. The developer was on the inside, swimming in money, with powerful allies in local and state government. Congress had appropriated a million dollars for the project before surfers had even heard of it. It was a losing battle, but true to form Canoe Drummond didn’t quit.
When the marina work was nearing completion in 1970, Drummond changed tack. He sent a copy of that iconic photograph of his canoe at Killer Dana to the Army Corps of Engineers colonel in charge of the project. The goal was to enlist the colonel’s help in creating an artificial surfing reef around the harbor.
Drummond started with flattery. “You impressed me as being very much of an all-around man—of good physique, and your parachutist insignia indicated courage. Perhaps you would like to ride some of these waves in a canoe with me when conditions are right,” he cajoled, adding, “Larger waves are more exciting.” But the colonel who didn’t hesitate to jump out of airplanes wanted nothing to do with Canoe Drummond’s big waves. He demurred, and the reef was never built.
Drummond kept surfing, swimming and bodysurfing well into his 80s. In 1990, when he was 83, he read from a poem he’d written 50 years before. It was for a Nike commercial, with scenes of old men and women surfing laid over Coltrane’s saxophone, but Canoe Drummond’s words ring true as the life he lived.
Oh, bury me deep in the clear blue sea
Where the crashing waves will spray o’er me
Where my soul will rise with the rising sun
And be surfing still when the day is done