Lifeguard, Surfing Santa Paul Matthies returns to the sea
Paul Matthies was a big, barrel-chested waterman with a wit to match. One winter in the early 1950s, he was surfing on Hawaii’s North Shore when a moke ordered him out of the water.
“Haoles can’t surf here,” the big Hawaiian said.
“No, you have to get out of the water,” Matthies shot back. “This is the haole beach. The sign says so.”
The sign on the beach read Haleiwa.
“Okay, that’s a good one,” the Hawaiian, answered, laughing.
“Pablo,” as he was known to friends, had no need to prove himself physically.
He was was a member of the post World War II generation of Los Angeles County lifeguards who shaped what had previously been a largely volunteer organization into the most highly regarded ocean lifesaving organization in the world. He was a nearly unbeatable lifeguard doryman, early in his career with Greg Hobertg and later in his career with his son Dan.
In 1956, in Melbourne Australia, the year Melbourne hosted the Summer Olympics, Matthies became the first American to win the International Lifeguard Ironman competition. Th run, swim, paddle and dory race had previously only been won by Australians.
Matthies revolutionized dory racing with his invention of the self-bailing dory by adding a sealed, second floorboard a few inches above the boat’s bottom. Water that washed into the dory ran out scuppers he placed along the raised floorboard,
Matthies passed away peacefully at his Hermosa Beach home on June 14, at age 93.
Matthies parents emigrated from Germany to Hermosa Beach in 1914 to escape the First World War. Their son graduated from Redondo Union High school in 1940, just in time for the Second World War. But not before establishing himself as a formidable waterman. When he was 17, he and four fellow members of the Hermosa Beach Surf Club made 14-foot paddleboards from plywood and fiberboard, sealed them with house paint and paddled them from Avalon to the Manhattan Beach pier.
During World War II, he became a staff sergeant in the Asiatic Pacific theater, where his facility for language led him to become an interpreter. That love of language may have accounted for his lifelong propensity for puns and barbershop quartet singing.
Over his three decades as a Los Angeles County lifeguard his ocean rescues and recoveries became legendary. He used an ax to free a family trapped in a capsized sailboat. He helped pull lifeless bodies from the 1969 United Airlines flight that crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff from Los Angeles International Airport.
The lifelong Hermosan served on a numerous of boards and commissions and taught generations of South Bay kids to swim at his Hermosa Swim Gym on Aviation Boulevard. Among his students were blind and Down Syndrome kids and polio victims. He was the fifth recipient of the Los Angeles County Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2003, he was a Pioneer inductee in the Hermosa Beach Surfer Walk of Fame.
In 1978, he agreed to surf at the Hermosa Beach pier in a red, wool Santa Claus suit for the Easy Reader holiday cover. He liked to joke that the wool suit became so heavy he nearly drowned. But photos of that day show him surfing as effortlessly as if he were bareback. The following year his lifeguard friend and surfboard shaper Dan Bendickson built him a red longboard and Body Glove built him a red wetsuit with a big, black belt and white trim. Every Thursday before Christmas, for the next 25 years, Matthies appeared as Surfing Santa on the Easy Reader cover.
In his final year as Surfing Santa, he surfed lying down, unable to lift his big body to his feet. But he accepted his failing physical abilities with the grace and humor that throughout his life earned him the respect and friendship of everyone who met him.
A few years ago, he crashed his Jeep after blacking out. When he regained consciousness the paramedics asked him if he knew what day it was.
He answered, “What do I care, I’m retired.”
Matthies is survived by Aneta, his wife of 65 years; daughter Dinah Stovall and her husband Ken and their daughter Jessica; son Dan Matthies and his wife Nina and their two sons Marty and Mo and Mo’s wife Meghan. He also has four great grandchildren Isabella, Logan, Aurora and baby Brynn.
Services are planned for Thursday, July 17 at 9 a.m. , on the sand south of the Hermosa Beach Pier. ER