What’s behind a name? A reader’s letter challenging our take on the beach’s memorable moniker inspired us to dig a little deeper. If you think you know the correct answer, chances are it’s only half the story.
Photographed by Jeff Berting
RAT Beach, located on the southernmost section of Torrance Beach, is a quiet stretch of sand that’s popular with surfers and divers alike. It’s usually not very crowded, and it can be quite beautiful with the towering Palos Verdes cliffs on one side and the urban sprawl of Torrance and Redondo on the other.
All in all, it’s just a quaint spot that’s ideal for fishing, low-key beach getaways or a quick surf session. But given its idyllic nature, what’s with the unflattering name? Who put the “RAT” in RAT Beach?
Well it might come as a surprise, but that’s something that South Bay locals have been debating for years, and nobody can seem to agree on anything concrete. The short answer: No one knows for certain when the beach earned the name, but according to the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors and lifeguard captain Mike Inscore, the most widely accepted answer is that RAT is an acronym for “right after Torrance.”
“There’s no big secret,” says Mike, who adds that it’s just a nickname, nothing more. RAT is an unincorporated beach that’s a part of the official Torrance Beach, and it’s also south of Torrance, which adds to the credibility of the casual acronym theory.
In an article for the Daily Breeze, Stephanie Walton pointed out that until 1973, the beach stretching from north of Paseo de Suenos to south of Palos Verdes Estates was all privately owned—hence RAT standing in for “right after Torrance.”
“We called it everything but Torrance Beach,” says Carl Kaemerle with the Torrance Historical Society, who spent much of his life in the South Bay. He says that Torrance Beach is broken into several sections, each with their own distinct name, and he’s always known the end of Torrance Beach as “right after Torrance” or RAT.
Surfers have bestowed interesting nicknames to the other sections too. For instance, there’s a section called “Burnout,” which was named after the Hollywood Riviera Beach Club that was once on the cliff above that beach. It burned down on September 29, 1958.
Michael George, also with the Torrance Historical Society, notes that local newspapers—including the defunct Torrance Herald, which ran from 1914 to 1969—print the name RAT entirely in capitals, as if it is an acronym. However, he has yet to track down any official explanation. Michael also mentions that while RAT is most likely an acronym (with “right after Torrance” being the most popular one he’s heard of), it’s only a local nickname, so the actual explanation of the name’s origin is still open to debate.
Which brings us to the long answer: Because the beach is unincorporated, and because there’s a longstanding tradition of beaches in Los Angeles earning unusual nicknames from surfers and other local watermen, it’s entirely possible that there’s another explanation for the origin of the name.
There are a few South Bay locals who disagree with the acronym theory, especially two members of The Original Haggerty’s Surfing Club: Jim Mikkelsen and Lonnie Argabright. They’re confident that they know the real reason why it’s called RAT Beach. And it has to do with a pet rat, of course.
But first, a bit of LA beach history. RAT Beach isn’t alone when it comes to beach nicknames with mysterious origins.
In the North Bay, on the north end of Malibu, is Nicholas Canyon State Beach, nicknamed “Zeros.” According to Surfer magazine’s Guide to Southern California Surf Spots, the origin of that name is somewhat of a mystery.
There’s a story involving World War II-era Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zeros” buzzing the beach (though that’s probably more of a rip on Steven Spielberg’s 1941 than anything else). Famous surfer and shaper Mickey Munoz told Surfer that he and his friends had given the beach the codename “Zeros” because “we didn’t want anyone to know what or where we were surfing.”
Much like Nicholas Canyon, there are a number of other theories about RAT’s name too. Ken Johnson, a former city editor for the Daily Breeze, wrote an article in 1990 detailing all of the popular theories, including the “right after Torrance” acronym. He noted that surfers at the time also referred to the beach as Rat Shit Beach, because of its former unsanitary state back in the late ‘50s and ‘60s—the local kelp beds trapped a lot of trash, which would end up washing up on the beach.
Furthermore, he added that some locals believe that back when the Greek freighter SS Dominator ran aground in Palos Verdes back in 1961, some lucky rats might’ve escaped the doomed ship and swam ashore. (Though Ken pointed out that the real “infestation” back in the ‘60s was from gawking onlookers watching the sinking ship, not rats.)
Another theory has to do with J.J. Haggerty and his Palos Verdes mansion, which is now The Neighborhood Church in Palos Verdes Estates. In the 1920s, it’s believed that Haggerty built a pier near his home to bring up supplies and construction equipment, and whenever ships docked there, all of the rats that had snuck aboard would depart and head off to claim their own private beach.
Jim Mikkelsen, however, finds most of those theories, especially the Dominator one, to be completely unfounded. “I was living here when the Dominator ran aground,” he says, laughing. There weren’t ever any ship-related rats, he notes, just one very special rat, owned by professional surfer Rick Irons.
“I was there when we named [RAT Beach],” says Jim. Rick, winner of the 1964 United States Invitational surfing competition and uncle to professional surfer Bruce Irons and world champion surfer Andy Irons (who passed in November 2010), used to surf down at Torrance Beach as a teenager in the early ‘60s. RAT Beach was one of his favorite spots.
Jim, who was the first president of the Haggerty’s Club, remembers that he and his childhood surf buddies used to look up to Rick because of his phenomenal surfing style. “It was just ironic that he could make that part of the beach look good,” says Jim, “because it was never that much of a surf spot—it’s kind of in an odd corner.”
Jim points out that Rick would often leave his pet rat on the beach while he surfed. So in honor of their favorite local surfer and his little rat, they decided to call Rick’s favorite spot “Rat Beach.”
“Everybody had a habit of giving all sorts of things nicknames; it was just a hobby. Everybody did it,” says Jim. He doesn’t recall what the beach was called before he started surfing there in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but he firmly believes that when he and his fellow Haggerty’s Club members started calling Rick’s spot “Rat,” it stuck permanently.
“He was the darling of Torrance Beach at the time, because he was the best surfer there,” says Jim.
Lonnie Argabright, the current club president and a former team rider for Dewey Weber and Hap Jacobs, also agrees with Jim on the origin of the beach’s name—though for Lonnie, it goes beyond just naming the spot after a pet. “The way [Rick] would hold his arms, I mean it was total style, but just the way he held it we thought, ‘God, he looks just like a rat,’” says Lonnie.
The South Bay local—who aside from surfing with several local ‘60s surf shop teams also served as the inspiration for Rick Griffin’s surf character “Murphy” as depicted in Surfer magazine—fondly recalls that Rick was the best of the Haggerty’s bunch, and that nicknaming that section of Torrance Beach for him was their way of paying respect to the enormously talented surfer.
The club, of which Rick was a member as well, drifted apart during the Vietnam era, when many of its members enlisted. “[The club] was basically like a brotherhood,” says Lonnie.
Their club has only recently reformed, and last summer they hosted a “RAT Beach Reunion,” which Rick attended. He currently serves as the senior pastor for the Calvary Chapel Central in Oahu, Hawaii. For Lonnie and Jim, thinking about RAT brings back members of the golden era of LA surfing in the ‘60s—a time that they feel fortunate to have experienced.
“The first thing we think of is, ‘My God, how lucky were we to grow up in that era when surfing was just starting to take off,’” says Lonnie. “People still looked at us as beach bums and that we would never amount to anything, but we were living ‘The Life of Riley,’ basically—we had the sun, the surf, the girls. It was such a wonderful life.”
True origin stories aside, RAT Beach taps into the longstanding—and often entertaining—trend of local watermen and surfers bestowing nicknames on beaches up and down the LA coast. From Zeros to RAT, these names are equal parts myth and history, and in the end, that’s how they should remain.