International Surfing Museum founder Natalie Kotsch

Natalie Kotsch, left, and Ann Beasley hold early-1980s surfboards in front of the International Surfing Museum. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times)

After the founder of the International Surfing Museum dipped a toe in the beautiful, blue Pacific, she never bothered to hang the other nine.

It was too cold, and the last thing a Canadian farm girl wanted in California was cold.

Even so, Natalie Kotsch was intrigued by surfing culture, in love with the town that calls itself Surf City, and unrelenting in her drive to establish a museum devoted to the sport.

Kotsch, an effervescent real estate broker who grew up more than 600 miles from the nearest ocean and never swam, much less surfed, in the Pacific, died Feb. 20 at her home in Huntington Beach. She was 76.

Kotsch had battled cancer for at least six years, her daughter Julie Holson said.

Kotsch, her husband and their two young daughters landed in Huntington Beach in 1976, drawn by a friend of a friend from Ontario who was working in the oil industry.

She threw herself into civic activities, studied for her real estate license and fell head over heels for surfing — an activity some disdainfully viewed as a refuge for anarchic young bums and old men with time on their hands.

"We needed something to be proud of," Kotsch told The Times in 1991. "We were already Surf City with a kind of negative connotation. So you take lemons and you make lemonade … and you do something for your community."

Over the years, she and a corps of volunteers gathered material for the nonprofit museum: yellowing magazine articles, a bronze bust of Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, surf paintings, surf photographs, an endless reel of the "Endless Summer" surf movie, jars of sand from beaches throughout the world, a display of surfboard wax through the decades and, of course, vintage boards.

The small Art Deco museum has a strong local flavor. It showcases the 1914 cornerstone from the town's pier and the only surviving item found in the time capsule inside: A Huntington Beach Independent front page from June 20, 1914, that proclaims: "This city has one of the finest concrete piers in the world!"

Dick Dale, the renowned surf guitarist, was among a small group that helped Kotsch brainstorm ideas to preserve local surfing's legacy.

"She was so fascinated by all the history when she contacted me," he said in an interview last week. "We sat down one evening over a cup of coffee and it just came as we spoke: We should have a museum. It became a dream between the two of us."

Dale, whose original guitar was until recently on display at the museum, also came to bond with Kotsch over cancer, an illness they shared.

"When I would see her, we'd hug each other for a long time," he said. "I would tell her that when people asked us how we're doing, we should say, 'Hey, give us new bodies and we'll be great.' Then she'd laugh and hug me harder."

Opened in 1988, the International Surfing Museum hosted concerts, drew tourists and served as a meeting spot for locals. It is one of several surfing museums in towns along the California coast.

"It's just what you would expect to be here," said Rick "Rockin' Fig" Fignetti, a 10-time West Coast surfing champion who runs a Huntington Beach surf shop.

But the logistics of raising funds, assembling a collection, archiving documents and running a credible operation weren't always a perfect fit for people immersed in a sport with a hang-loose credo.

"Sometimes they're so busy about going out there to surf that there has to be someone taking care of business," said Fignetti, who for 26 years was the surfer-dude voice on KROQ-FM radio broadcasts about beach conditions.

Born in Waterford, Canada, on Oct. 21, 1937, Kotsch grew up on a tobacco farm and later taught in a one-room schoolhouse. After her marriage to a U.S. citizen, she lived in Massachusetts and Florida before returning to the farm to help her aging father.

She also ran a combination military surplus-used furniture-antique store before her family's move to California.

In Huntington Beach, she was active in business groups and served on the planning commission.

She tried several times to secure a bigger, more prominent location for the museum, which is on Olive Avenue two blocks from the pier, the Surfers Hall of Fame and the Surfing Walk of Fame, where she was chosen for the honor roll in 1998.

In a statement, the Walk of Fame called her "one of our most cherished visionaries."

In addition to Holson, Kotsch's survivors include daughter Simone Kotsch; foster daughter Kate Beaul; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Surfers will hold a "paddle-out" in her memory at the Huntington Beach Pier on Saturday, March 8, at 10 a.m. An observance will follow at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort.

Half of Kotsch's ashes will be taken to a family plot in Canada and half will be scattered in the sea off Huntington Beach.

"She joked that it would be her second dip in the ocean," Holson said.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com