Legendary lifeguard and iconic California waterman Cal Porter died peacefully at his home in Paradise Cove on June 13, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
A 70-year Malibu resident, Cal was born in Hollywood on Sept. 21, 1924. He grew up in Playa Del Rey and Venice, taking the “Dinky” streetcar line back and forth across the bridge over the Ballona Creek estuary to school.
He was an Olympic-class swimmer at Venice High School, trained with Johnny Weissmueler and started his lifeguarding career at the old Venice saltwater plunge in 1938.
As a teenager in Venice, his bodysurfing exploits at the Sunset Pier were famous. He was known as the first body surfer in California who actually figured out how to angle across a wave instead of riding in “straight off Adolph” to the beach. At the age of 16, he joined the LA City Lifeguards and worked for the next 36 years for Los Angeles city and county.
He also ran a commercial fishing boat out of Santa Monica harbor with his brothers, Lee and Ray, and was one of the professional divers employed to survey the seabed for the Hyperion outfall in the early ’40s.
Cal then began to foray up into Malibu in the late ’30s. The three brothers ran their boat, the “Good Ship Clara,” from Santa Monica all the way up the coast to Pt. Mugu and back, often anchoring at Paradise Cove overnight. In 1945, LA County purchased Zuma Beach and Cal’s Malibu lifeguarding career started there. He went full-time at Zuma in 1949. The county owned a couple of houses right on the sand halfway between headquarters and Trancas, so he promptly grabbed one and moved in with his lovely wife, Cathy, and newborn son, Lon.
He was the first LA County lifeguard at almost every public beach in the Northern Division, as the county expanded operations to Nicholas Beach (Zero), Corral Beach, Leo Carrillo, Las Tunas and most notably Malibu Surfrider. When the county took over Malibu Point in 1959, it was deeply resented by the resident surfers, free-spirits and local misfits who made their homes there, but the county figured that since Cal had been a presence in the water there since the late ’30s—and everyone knew him and liked him—he was the perfect choice to take the heat.
“They figured no one would beat me up,” Cal recalled. “They burned down a couple of lifeguard towers, but they all knew I knew who did it, and they were kind of embarrassed about it anyway, so it all blew over in the end.”
In the early ’50s, Cal started the private lifeguard service for the Malibu Colony and ran Cal Porter’s Malibu Swim School and Day Camp, teaching kids in Malibu how to swim. When the county tore down the house on Zuma Beach to make room for those lovely parking lots, he built his dream home on the bluff overlooking Zero Point. Six years later, when the state tore that house down to make way for Nicholas Beach State Park, he settled in Malibu West, and later, Big Rock.
During the war, Cal served in the ROTC while earning his degree in English literature at UCLA. He later earned his teaching credentials and a master’s degree in education from Cal State Northridge, and began a long second career as an elementary school teacher and eventually principal for the Los Angeles County School District.
Cal was always regarded as a consummate mediator. He treated everyone equally with dignity and civility, and could defuse a violent situation with a calm word and a handshake. When the Watts Riots broke out in 1965, he was the principal at 106th Street School and immediately raced to the site to protect the campus. He literally stood outside the front gate and talked down an angry mob bent on burning down the school. He retired from the guards in 1976 and from LAUSD in 1980, moved to Paradise Cove, and enjoyed many blissful and well-earned years with his second wife and love of his life, Adele Porter, traveling to all the exotic places he always dreamed about when he was a kid reading Zane Grey’s tales of the South Pacific in the Venice Public Library.
Later in life, he became a surf historian and regular contributor to Surfer’s Journal, weighing in on such varied subjects as the invention of the swim fin and previously undiscovered accounts of surfing in 18th century maritime journals. He started his own blog, “Cal Porter’s Then and Now,” a chronicle of California beach culture, lifeguarding and surf history, which ran for over a decade, until he decided he’d said just about everything he had to say and shut it down.
He also put in countless volunteer hours on water quality patrol for Santa Monica Baykeeper, testing creeks and outfalls from Latigo all the way to Big Dume well into his late 80s.
Cal was surrogate father to so many Malibu children, teaching them how to navigate the currents, the rip-tides and the big south swells of life.
He is survived by his son, Lon Porter (and wife, DeeDee Davidson-Porter); daughters Cathy Ann Fisher (and husband Neil), Nancy Russell (and husband Guy), Nancy Wynn and Cathy Carter; grand-children Scott Fisher, Harben Porter, Kelly Fisher, Tanner Porter, Julie Wynn, Oliver Wynn and Cal Russell; and great grand-daughters Kalia, Caroline, Eleanor and Esme.
Cal surfed his first wave in 1927 on an 11-foot Tom Blake paddleboard, a gift from his father, and surfed his last wave at the age of 88 on a 7-foot-10-inch Becker at The Hut in Paradise Cove, a gift from his children. For his entire 94 years, he never lived more than half a mile from the edge of his beloved Pacific Ocean. His list of exploits and accomplishments as a waterman, lifeguard, teacher, husband and father are too many to list. He loved Malibu. He loved its open spaces, its pristine coves, its crystal waters and its eclectic mix of people. Amongst his peers, he was known as the “Lifeguard’s Lifeguard.”
Following his mother’s childhood instructions, he prided himself on never having used an “off-color” word in anger, or ever drinking even one cup of coffee. He will be sorely missed by everyone who ever had the good fortune to cross his path, receive a kind word, a little encouragement and the gift of his wisdom.
Donations can be made in his name to Los Angeles Waterkeeper at https://lawaterkeeper.org/donate.