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‘White Lightning’ carries away last of the Hermosa Beach Surfin’ Kerwin Brothers.

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Kerwin San Onofre Surfing

Ted “Bones” Kerwin, Lew Lewis, John Kerwin and Aaron Wolf (foreground) and Bill Edgar and Jim Kerwin with John Kerwin’s Ford during a 1936 surf trip to San Onofre. Photo courtesy of the Kerwin family

by Scott Kerwin

Legendary Hermosa Beach surfer and paddler Jim Kerwin passed away at the age of 95 at his home in Ojai on Tuesday December 27, following a short illness. Kerwin was the seventh and last surviving of the nine Kerwin kids, born at the family bakery and residence in downtown Hermosa Beach between 1911 and 1926.  

The Kerwin Bakery and their upstairs residence at 37 — 39 Pier Avenue now houses the Palmilla restaurant.

In 2003, Kerwin and and three brothers, John, Fred and Ted, and his older sister Mary were inducted into the Hermosa Beach Surfer Walk of Fame as as Pioneers in recognition of their dominant presence in the waves at the Hermosa Pier in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Overlooked in the original Walk of Fame selection, elder brother Joe Kerwin joined the rest of the family with a bronze plaque on the Hermosa Pier in 2006. John Kerwin founded the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club in 1934. The Kerwin family formed the core of the team, which competed with up and down the coast in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Although the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club re-formed after the war, and the Kerwins still held court on the beach north of the pier, the responsibilities of jobs and growing families didn’t allow a return to the glory days prior to the war.

The Kerwin family and crew at the Hermosa Beach pier in 1947. Photo courtesy of Scott Kerwin

Jim Kerwin was the best paddler of the group, winning, among other events, the one-mile individual paddle race in the 1940 National Championships held in Hermosa Beach. Kerwin also contributed to sister Mary (Kerwin) Riehl’s win in the 1939 Pacific Coast Surfing Championship at Long Beach by building her a “lightweight” (55 lbs.) paddleboard out of one-quarter-inch plywood for the competition. The paddleboard was dubbed “White Lightning.” It currently resides in the garage at Kerwin’s Ojai home, where the family has periodically refinished it to keep it “surf-ready.”

Lew Leis, John Kerwin, Jim Kerwin and Ted Kerwin on their return from a surf trip to San Onofre in 1936 or 1937. The photo was taken at the foot of Pier Avenue. Zucca’s a popular nightspot in the ’30s and ’40s, is visible in the background. The location is now the Mermaid parking lot. Photo courtesy of Scott Kerwin

The last ocean outing for the board was in 2011 when, at the urging (and with the assistance) of his large family, Kerwin caught several small waves at Surfers Point in Ventura on his 90th birthday. The board also made an appearance in the “Oldtimers” heat at the first of Dewey Weber’s Longboard Classic revival contests at the Manhattan Beach Pier in 1984.  

Other contestants in the heat included local surfing legends Leroy Grannis, Paul Matthies and John Kerwin. Jim Kerwin was the only the only one not riding a modern, foam longboard. He was riding “White Lightning.” Late in the heat he still hadn’t caught any waves when a set wave rolled in on the south side of the surfing area. Kerwin picked up the clean left-hander and rode it smoothly to the beach. Former pro Mike Purpus, who was judging the contest, exclaimed, “Great wave. I thought he was going to do an off-the-lip in the shorebreak.”  

Jim, Fred and Ted Kerwin on their rooftop yard, over the family bakery in downtown Hermosa Beach in 1924. Photo courtesy of the Kerwin family

Jim Kerwin is survived by his loving wife Roberta, nine children (Winifred, Jim, Pat, Tony, Matt, Bernadette, Mary, Margaret, and Bill), a swarm of grandchildren, and an extended family across much of North America and Hawaii. A Funeral Mass will be held at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 185 Saint Thomas Dr., Ojai, CA on Saturday Jan. 7 at 10:30 am, followed by  a Celebration of Life in the church hall. ER

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