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San Clemente Journal

Ellen Petrus, A Consummate Water Woman

Nov 28, 2021 10:20AM ● By Mary Colarik
by Mary Colarik

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with local surfer Ellen Petrus at a sunny table outside Jon’s Fish Market at the wharf in Dana Point. Ellen Petrus is a lively woman with a long history of surfing along the Southern California Coast, and she commented that she has enough stories for a book about her life surfing and competing in contests with well-known legends in the California world of surfing.

Born in Holland in 1957, of Dutch/Indonesian ancestry, Petrus’ birth mother, who died when Petrus was very young, was a descendant of the Kawilarang family of Indonesia. Her adoptive mother, who raised her and her five siblings, met their father, Albert Petrus, in a band in Holland - she was a singer, he a guitar player. However, Albert Petrus’ real job was Computer Programming. He was one of the top developers in charge of converting the old 10 card system to PCs for companies like Phillips, Rockwell and Boeing. 

In 1959, when Petrus was almost three-years-old the family moved from Holland to the Highland Park area of Pasadena. One afternoon, shortly after moving to California, her mom turned on a television program featuring, “this is what Californians do”-Petrus was instantly hooked on the Gidget TV show depicting the surfing teenagers in Malibu, as well as the Beach Blanket Bingo movies. She was fascinated and inspired watching the teens on the screen surf.

A few years later, when her father’s job took the family far from a surfing lifestyle and the California coastline back to Holland, Petrus was crushed, moping about convinced that “her surfing career was over.” She cried and complained to her older sisters about never being a surfer. She considered buying a surfing trophy for herself, but her sisters said, “NO … trophies have to be earned, not bought.” Petrus was only nine to ten years old during the time that the family was living abroad, but she was convinced her whole life plan to be a surfer was in ruins. Luckily, for her, her father’s gig in Holland was over after two years, and the large clan was soon headed back to Southern California. But not before the family had the opportunity to squeeze in and enjoy a couple of memorable trips flying around Europe on the 1960s Pan Am jumbo jets with exciting stops in Spain and Paris. 

Fortunately, when the Petrus clan was settled back in SoCal, Ellen had the opportunity to start her career in the surf at around 11 or 12 years old. Petrus and her brothers would head to Seal Beach or Huntington Beach, first learning to boogie board, then, a few years later, at age 18, surfing and catching waves on a regular basis. She surfed for 35 years in Newport and Huntington Beach and has spent 35 years shortboarding and and 20 longboarding. She was dedicated to being in the water and, soon figured out that if she worked nights she would have all day to surf, plus her weekends free to get her stoke on. She worked for 15 years at A.D.P. from 8pm-6am and, for another 15 years at the Y.M.C.A. 
In 1979, when Petrus was 22-years-old, a significant life changing event occurred - one of her sisters passed away in a car accident. That is when Petrus truly made the decision to be a committed surfer. 
One year later, Jericho Poppler, a World Champion surfer and co-founder of the Women’s International Surfing Association, (W.I.S.A.) with another female surfer, Mary Lou Drummy, spotted Petrus surfing and asked her if she would like to participate in surfing competitions. By 1982 Petrus was living her dream - competing from Santa Cruz to Pacific Beach, and much to the delight of her childhood vision, winning trophies. She never competed outside of California as her parents were very protective, due to her dark skin color and the fact that she been bullied as a youngster because of her appearance.  

Although, these days Petrus still prefers to do most of her surfing early in the morning in the Pacific blue stomping grounds where she has resided for the last 20 years, Doheny and San Onofre, she has also surfed in Mexico with her brothers, staying at La Rocas Hotel during a spring break one year. She also enthusiastically describes surfing on the island of Kauai with its challenging 15-foot waves and rocky coastline as another favorite place to catch waves. 
While getting her surfing career going, Petrus was approached by Steve and Barrie Boehne, owners of Infinity Surfboards and asked to join their team of surfers, and she’s been on the Infinity team for over 40 years! Infinity owner and shaper, Steve Boehne, says, “Ellen joined the surf team at our shop in Mission Viejo in 1980, then she moved with us to our new store in Dana Point in 1986. She was one of the top riders on our female surf team, but mostly she was so good with her surf lessons, teaching new kids and even adults to surf. When the SUP (stand up paddle) craze hit in 2008, she was right there learning and promoting a new sport. She is a consummate water woman.”

Terry Senate was her very first shaper at Infinity Surfboards and has remained one of her best friends. Another of her favorite surfing pals was the legendary surfer, Les Williams (he was featured on the cover of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA album). Williams waited for Petrus to come out of the water one day just so he could meet her and talk with her. She is grateful not only to all the talented surfers that believed in her abilities, but also to her family members, especially her older sister, Joyce, brother-in-law, Ron and her nieces and nephews, Jasmine, Greg, Gabe and Kim Smith who all inspired her and attended her contests in Santa Cruz.

Petrus has an infectious and fun personality allowing her to motivate and inspire people just like she was inspired as a tiny tot many years ago by the Gidget TV show. In fact, Petrus has met her real-life muse, Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, who was also a “little girl with big ideas” and the inspiration for the Gidget stories. And over the years Petrus has developed her own mission statement, “to help each individual be an individual through a great water sport in God’s hands.”
Currently, she’s still with Infinity and, also keeps busy with two other part-time jobs, one at a Rite-Aid in San Juan Capistrano, as a self-described, “prima donna” cashier and as the Activity Coordinator at Riviera Shores Resort in Capistrano Beach. She loves to cook and has a repertoire of yummy sounding specialties; eggrolls, crab cakes, coconut shrimp and poke to name a few.  Her “honey” Hal, who has been by her side for the last nine years, certainly enjoys sharing these culinary specialties with Petrus. She can often be found cooking up big batches for family, and friends for gatherings and celebrations.

 Additionally, she frequently sells these delicious delicacies to her co-workers. 
A delight to meet, Petrus offered me some of her positive encouragement regarding the possibility of my learning to surf - she said she would be happy to teach me. Perhaps one of these days I’ll take her up on it - it is never too late to try something new!