The Pete Peterson Skiff

By James Harris

Mention the name Pete Peterson to any lifeguard or surf history buff and you’ll likely hear them comment that he was the greatest waterman who ever lived. It would be difficult to argue otherwise! One of the original Santa Monica Lifeguards, Preston “Pete” Peterson served briefly during the summer of 1928 before it was discovered that he was underage – he was only 15 at the time… Upon turning 16 (legal working age) he rejoined and, except for a stint serving in the United States Navy during the Second World War, enjoyed a career as a lifeguard until 1955. Peterson was much more than a lifeguard, though. He was exceptionally skilled at swimming, surfing, paddleboarding, rowing, sailing SCUBA diving, boating, water skiing – anything to do with the ocean! In a ten-year period, from 1932 to 1941, he earned the crown as Pacific Coast Surfing Champion 4 times. He competed regularly and earned championship titles in paddleboard, swim and dory racing. Hollywood regularly enlisted him to perform stunt work and small acting roles for feature films and television.

Beyond his skills in the water, Pete was a master carpenter and inventor. While serving as a lifeguard he helped advance the design of the paddleboard and the rescue dory. His boards and boats are among those most coveted by today’s collectors. He also advanced the development of the rescue tube, first inventing the inflatable rubber rescue tube, then creating the more effective foam tube. Today his trademark foam Peterson Rescue Tubes are used worldwide as the primary and most essential piece of lifeguard equipment.

After his retirement from the lifeguard force, Peterson opened a workshop at the west end of the Santa Monica Pier. Here he continued exercising his skills as a craftsman and performed expert repair and maintenance on local boats and yachts. Sadly, his shop and much of his handiwork was destroyed along with the entire west end of the Pier in the catastrophic winter storms of 1983. He passed away just a couple of months later. This skiff, as simple as it may appear, is a testament to his proficiency. Built in 1947, it has survived a lifetime outdoors, serving decades as Peterson’s boat-to-boat transportation for his repair and maintenance work within Santa Monica Yacht Harbor (immediately north of the Pier) before weathering the elements while often being stored outdoors.