Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Virginia Beach

By Stewart Ferebee
Virginia Living Magazine - 8/4/2011 (updated/corrected by Stewart on 1/27/2014)
John T. Ferebee, Virginia Beach 1944

Boards in arm, three teens in their twenties go cycling along the feeder road leading into the low-rise suburban sprawl of the Northend, past the balmy low-slung Live Oak grove and the frilly bejeweled Mimosa, speeding by, on windless endless days of summer. Light northwesterlies now hone clean the aquatic corduroy of an oily slick daybreak Atlantic, countering sideways with sideways, wind for swell. Drawing lines in their heads as they pedal in anticipation; there already in psychic momentum before they've ever even touched the water. This is what we pray for.

The story of surfing in Virginia Beach is one of dedication. Because in the grand scheme of things its not a place known for its quality surf by the world class standards of California or Hawaii, Australia, South Africa or Indonesia. The culprit is a 300 mile wide energy-sapping joy-killer of swell-reducing shallows known as the Continental Shelf which mockingly insinuates itself off much of the East Coast. Virginia Beach may not have the best waves but surfing here has a history—a formidable one that goes back 100 years and comprises multiple generations. And there is a story to go with the tradition—one of dedication by a handful of intrepid thrill-seekers in the early decades of the 20th century, and now, by modern throngs seeking their own stoke or recognition. Surfers here assiduously seek those small windows when the conditions are right; where light opposing winds compliment a maximum swell at optimum tide. And then just hope you don't get busted for missing work, skipping school or backing out of those plans you made with your sweetheart.

As surf journalist Matt Warshaw points out, “The jaded and enervated surfers sprinkled throughout California are nearly impossible to find on the East Coast, where waist-high waves are often treated as a gift, not an insult.” Marty Keesecker, a Virginia Beach surfer and surfboard shaper of nearly 50 years, is even more pragmatic: “There is something to be said for tenacity,” he says. “If you put the time in, and you drive enough, you’ll find something to ride. If you’re patient and you don’t expect a lot, you’ll have fun and it’ll be enough to keep you in the water for an hour or so. In Virginia Beach, you can’t expect it come to you, you have to go to it.”

Not a great deal is known about the strange, imported coffin-like parcel Walter F. Irvin brought back east from Hawaii in 1912 that would signal the coming phenomenon known as surfing. Irvin’s consignment, which must have flummoxed terminal baggage handlers upon his disembarkation in Tidewater, was a 9-foot-long, 110-pound redwood olo, Hawaiian for longboard. It was a gift for Irvin’s young nephew, James M. Jordan Jr.  According to brothers Jimmy and Shep Jordan in their 1974 book Virginia Beach: A Pictorial History, it was the first board of its kind on the East Coast: James M. Jordan Jr. was their grandfather. While the 1912 board was unique, it wasn’t the first hint of the sport of surfing. In the essay “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki,” published in a 1907 issue of The Lady’s Home Companion, adventure writer Jack London detailed the aquatic feats of early surf pioneer George Freeth and brought news of the Hawaiian art of wave riding to the new-century masses, writing: “I saw him tearing in on the back of a wave standing upright, with his board carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn.” Word spread.

In the following years, James Jordan would become locally famous for his exotic arm-paddled water-craft and wave riding abilities. For most eastern Victorians however, many of whom did not even swim, the spectacle must have all been taken with a novel whimsical shrug. Only as time moved along would the fact begin to resonate so thoroughly on a local level, that it was Jordan’s flag planted which might very well stake Virginia Beach as the birthplace of East Coast surfing. Imagining the vast spaces of that era’s oceanfront, imagining the scene; the place, the pace, the parcel itself; a lithe young man, soaked from the Gulf current’s warmed brine, hauling shoulder-hoisted the deftly balanced olo proudly in a terse and yet aloof sand-scrinching, midday jaunt, from waterline back up to cottage line. Toweling off, considering the tides; ‘Perhaps another go-out later,’ he winces through the a.m. glare. Victorian ladies stroll by the grassy beach-lined lawns sheltered beneath parasols, palming their hats gaily in the summer breeze. Genteel glances and leisurely nods; the casual elegance of a time which moved to a different time. ‘Come Josephine, In My Flying Machine’ crackles warped and softly from a distant Victrola.

In the 1920s and 1930s, amidst the cedar shake grandeur of the Virginia Beach cottage-hotel era, each little redoubt had its own stationed lifeguard. During that time, enterprising individuals like Babe Braithewaite, Hugh Kitchin, Dusty Hinant, John Smith and Buddy Guy would be the first to organize a formal beach service of lifeguarding and chair/umbrella/float rentals along theVirginia Beach oceanfront. The occupation known as “beach bum” was a long way off, but essentially those guys were pioneers of the surfing and beach subculture that would become a craze in subsequent decades, culminating in the cheesy fun of the late 1950s to mid-1960s “Gidget” era.

Thanks to the design innovations of paddleboard maker Tom Blake, surfing was attracting new devotees. Blake, a Wisconsin native who moved to Hawaii in the mid-1920s, revolutionized surfing by making hollow boards that were much lighter than the traditional, solid redwood and Olo boards, the kind Irvin brought from Hawaii in 1912. These new boards were much easier to carry and transport than the old ones, thus spawning surfing’s first micro boom. “Blake changed everything,” former Surfer Magazine editor Drew Kampion wrote in 2000. “He almost single-handedly transformed surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle.”

And it wasn’t long before a new crop of lifeguard/surfers and fun addicts began heading to the oceanfront from Norfolk and various rural Princess Anne County communities. One of them was a Chesapeake Bay harbor pilot, Capt. Robert Barrett Holland, who would head one of the most prodigious surfing families the sport has ever known. His son Bob Lee has been a prominent member of the Virginia Beach surf scene for more than 70 years—from the 1930s to the present. Now in his 80s, Bob Lee Holland is still surfing—and most notably not on “logs,” or the traditional longboards that are the preferred gear of the “old guys,” but on contemporary shortboards.

Bob Lee Holland’s children, Bobby, Johnny and Honey, all followed in their dad’s footsteps and set the bar for surfing performance and competition at the beach from the mid-1960s through the 1970s and beyond. Mary Sydney Barker, a niece, recalls that when she was very young, in the mid-1960s, “My grandfather, Capt. Holland, said to me, ‘When you can stand on an inflatable mat and ride the waves in, I will buy you your own surfboard.’ I surfed on the mats for a few years and when I was 12 he bought me my first surfboard—a 9-foot-2-inch Hobie. There weren’t many girl surfers around then; Becky ‘Bobby’ Mellot and I surfed at the North End with a girl named Leslie Thurston. We would surf in the mornings before the wind came up.”

In contrast, modern surfboards are very thin, short and relatively inexpensive—about $500 to $600. Contemporary surfers buy new boards fairly regularly. Jordan Brazie, a 23-year-old surfer-shaper who has been surfing since he was 12, owns 11 boards and uses all of them—“whichever is the most functional for the waves of that day,” he says. “You have to have a quiver if you want to surf all year.”

But in the early days of the sport, boards were cherished items—hand-made and regarded more like boats. Surfers personalized them with artistic touches much like airmen created nose-art for World War I-and-II-era planes. Hugh Kitchin whitewashed the name “Hugh Boy” across his board from rail to rail. Capt. Robert Holland’s board was emblazoned with the twin flags insignia of the Chesapeake Bay Harbor Pilot Association.

My late father, a Norfolk native, was an avid Virginia Beach surfer from the mid-1940s through the 1980s. He hand-painted the French word coquette (flirt), on his board in a two-tone gothic script. He began surfing when he was 15 then became a lifeguard at the Cavalier Hotel and Beach Club on 43rd Street. The majestic old structure, the most iconic landmark of the entire oceanfront, was built in 1929 (the same year brewery tycoon Adolph Coors threw himself from an upper floor), and of course it still stands today. One prays it always will.

Legend has it that my fathers introduction into surfing concerned one blustery December morning during the august years of World War II, following a saturday night which got so late it became the next day. A night which concerned pipes and tobacco, Lucky Strikes and Stan Freeberg records. And powerful, clear, amber liquid poured over ice into tall glasses. Fellow Norfolk native Mason Gamage of Algonquin Park was onboard for that weekend’s oceanfront festivities. Gamage, several years older than the rest, fresh out of the Coast Guard, was an outdoorsman and sailor, and already surfed. Nursing a hangover and yet full of bravado, Gamage and my father both paddled out into the cold stormy brown Atlantic conditions on two 13 foot wooden boards. In this modern world of high tech neoprene, the winter protection for a surfer, it is almost impossible to even begin to comprehend this anecdote, decades before the wide spread use of the now vitally indispensable cold water wetsuit. Nevertheless, a seed was planted; and as veteran surfer Mike Clark points out, "Once you get salt water in your veins, it is hard to stay away from it."

In 1950, my father forsook his beloved beach boy lifestyle in Tidewater to fly F-86’s out of Kimpo in Korea. He returned about five years later and began his career in the insurance industry, resuming his surfing on weekends. He met my mother, Ann Meredith Stewart, in 1956 and they spent their first date sanding old varnish off his Tom Blake surfboard at a place near Rudee Inlet on the oceanfront’s south end, near the Sandbox—a café and home for years to the annual and infamous Subway party. It was an epic, if charming, first-date faux pas.

“At that time,” says Mike Clark, “there was no inlet and no pier at the south end. We could walk over to Croatan at low tide. Later, in the 1950s, I remember the building of the Steel Pier 15 blocks south of the wooden pier. You can tell a real native when they say Wooden Pier; that is how we referred to them—steel and wood.” Clark adds, “Shooting the pier was a hoot. My dad bought our first board from Dawson Taylor at Fuel Feed Hardware, a Hobie. It was before the Smith & Holland shop opened. My brother and I shared the board.” Norfolk native Scott McCasky, a competitive surfer for more than four decades, also has fond recollections of the south end’s golden, post-war era: “Every day you were there, surfing at the steel pier gave you the undeniable feeling you were in the right place at the right time.”

Pete Smith, age 71, is a mid-century “grom”—an old-timer who still retains a youthful stoke. In recent months he has shared with me many anecdotes about the early days of surfing in Virginia Beach and the ways in which the scene has changed. Looking at photos from the 1960s, he can name practically every individual who surfed in that decade. In a shot taken in front of the erstwhile Mariner Hotel, Smith points out the different types of boards displayed by the diverse group of surfers in the picture: The first generation of wooden hollow boards are held by the guys in the back row, and the new fiberglass boards are held by the guys kneeling in the front row. Three Hollands are in the photograph, along with Scott Taylor, Frank Butler, Skip Rawls, Snooker Turner and Babe Braithwaite’s son, Forbes. Says Smith: “The early years were amazing, because there was just so much community stoke and you knew everybody. It was a really good vibe. There weren’t any crowds; you’d be looking for people to surf with just to have someone to hoot and holler with. It was that transformative era where the old wooden boards were still around but the modern fiberglass boards were starting to show up. It was just a really special time.”

Significantly, a Californian named Les Arndt, then stationed at Fort Story, is also in the group picture. According to Forbes Braithwaite, Arndt was from Malibu and worked for top board maker Hap Jacobs before coming east for his military duty. “Arndt was driving past one day with another soldier,” says Braithwaite, “and saw me going surfing, carrying Scott Taylor’s balsa-wood board. He yelled, ‘Hey kid where’d you get that surfboard?’” Arndt himself recollects that Forbes was about 12 at the time, and was walking across Atlantic Avenue at 49th Street. The chance meeting prompted Arndt to spend two years with Virginia Beach surfers, especially Bob Holland and his family, during which time he helped to get “modern Malibu surfing started in Virginia Beach,” according to Arndt.

How? Thanks to Arndt’s West Coast connections, the group started importing and selling what was at that time a rare and exotic item—modern fiberglass boards from California. The group stored them in a garage owned by Forbes Braithwaite’s mother. In 1963, Pete Smith and Bob Holland opened the area’s first dedicated surf shop—Smith & Holland—one of the first businesses of its kind on the East Coast.

Not long after, Smith wrote a letter to Surfer Magazine, in California, trumpeting the burgeoning surfing scene inVirginia Beach. He wrote the note on the letterhead of the Golf Ranch Motel on Laskin Road, which was situated on the southeast end of Birdneck golf course and owned, along with the Mariner, by Pete’s uncle, John Smith. Pete worked there. John Severson, then editor of Surfer Magazine, showed the letter to Hobie Alter who was the top California board maker at that time. Some months later, Alter showed up at the Golf Ranch Motel on a day when Pete was working. For Virginia Beach surfing, that was a monumental moment. Alter was on the East Coast pushing his boards, and he negotiated a deal with Smith and Holland to carry his boards exclusively.

The early 1960s were a pivotal time in modern surfing. In addition to the new availability of Hobie Alter’s boards on the East Coast, the first East Coast surf contest was started in 1962 on Gilgo Beach on Long Island. Bob Holland drove a group of Virginia Beach surfers to New York for the event, including Butch Maloney, Gary Rice and an 11-year-old whirlwind talent named Ronnie Mellot, a future Golden Gloves Army boxing champ, local board shaper and all around wild man. Many of the VB guys took trophies at Gilgo—they dominated the field. In 1963, with cooperation from the local chamber of commerce, Holland, Maloney and Pete Smith managed to move the pro-amateur surf contest to Virginia Beach, re-naming it the Virginia Beach Surfing Festival. Two years later they changed the name again, to the East Coast Surfing Championships (ECSC). 2012 will mark the event’s 50th year, drawing high-ranking surf talent from around the globe. While ever-increasingly upgrading its carnival-bling to include many non-surf stage-draws such as BMX biking, Jet-Ski antics, and even Cornhole contests (beanbag), presumably in hopes of enticing more diverse and consequently larger audiences, such distractions on the other hand, threaten a diffusion of what is still implicitly touted, according to what it’s very initials imply, as a surfing championship. Prophetically harking back to 1972 and Chuck Dent’s antic rant-alogue from MacGillivray Freeman’s classic surf film, Five Summer Stories, surf-culture and surfing itself often find themselves at curious odds. A hallowed tradition to some, a three-ring spectacle to others; the ECSC is the East Coast’s longest running surfing competition.

Even from its very early years, the ECSC attracted world-class surfers such as David Nuuhiwa, Corky Carroll and Mike Tabeling, along with the best locals. Near the old Cue South, Pete Smith would preside from atop a simple lifeguard stand at the Steel Pier site with nothing more than a clipboard, a visor and a microphone, uttering witty, surf-speak-laced Southernisms in his consummate, slow-mo Tidewater accent. “It was just a special time in those early days of the ECSC,” recalls Smith, “when some of the real hot West Coast and Floridian surfers started coming to the contest. It was such a thrill meeting some of those guys we’d seen in all the magazines, and getting to see them surf.”

By the middle of the 1960s, the West Coast-informed surf boom was fully realized here in the East. In 1965, the Academy Award nominated documentary surf film “The Endless Summer” opened at the madly mod, and very much missed, Buckminster Fuller-designed Virginia Beach Dome; the tragically decommissioned and dissected artifact of what would nowadays be considered a world-renowned tourism-draw of exemplary Mid-century modernism. Filmmaker Bruce Brown traveled with the movie in those early days and narrated live over a speaker system in his laconic west coast  style, as the mellow twang of The Sandals soundtrack played from a reel-to-reel tape machine. My mother and father were there on opening night. My mother recalls Bob Holland’s youngest son, Johnny, zooming around barefoot on his skateboard, the newest must-have accoutrement of 1960’s surf culture. Johnny would become a standout competitive surfer, one of the most gifted wave riders this area ever produced, competing in the World Surfing Championships in California in 1966 going neck to neck along the way in preliminary events with many of this areas best surfers such as Billy Foote, George Desgaines, Fred Grosskreutz, Jimmy Parnell, Bobby Chenman, Billy Almond and Nat Meakins.

In June of 1968, Sports Illustrated did a cover story titled “Surfing’s East Coast Boom.” The cover photo, taken from the steel pier looking south, shows visiting California and Hawaii legend Phil Edwards gracefully negotiating the micro-curl of a fun-looking right-hander breaking in the once sacred, now mythical, 75-yard zone between the north side of the First Street jetty and the south side of the pier. (Roughly 10 years later, the rickety Steel Pier would catch fire and be demolished, prompting locals to rename the popular surfing spot as The Jetty or simply First Street. Surfing Magazine once referred to the area as a “a two-block surfing insane asylum.”) Edwards is quoted in the article, speaking to the core of what surfing is really all about—beyond the contests, sponsorships and commercialism: “I think maybe the best surfer in the world right now is some little kid whose name nobody knows. . . who is riding out there by himself; locked in some curl somewhere, having the ride of his young life. God, it’s the neatest thing.”

Almost as quickly as the change in surfboards took place as the post-war 50s entered the Pop era, so did the Longboards begin to obsolesce at the dawn of the speed-conscious mind shift which presaged the shortboard revolution. Spearheaded on a local level by pioneer board shaper Bob White and his Wave Riding Vehicles quiver of space-aged teardrop foils, lines would be defiantly be drawn in the sand denoting stances in style and of generation gaps; and drawn in the water in ways hitherto unimagined. The area’s first nationally recognized surfer of the new high performance generation, was a lithe, flame-haired, scat-talking wild child named Jimbo Brothers. Something of a prodigy, a beach-blanket ragamuffin of Dickensian proportions, Brothers would dominate local and interstate competitions of the late 60s and early 70’s; a sponsored team rider since the 7th grade, profiled in Surfer magazine by the time he was 10. “One year the newspaper published a picture of me with my trophies and I was struggling to hold up the silver bowl and the wooden plaque at the same time,” says Brothers, now in his late 50’s. “And the caption read, ‘Jimbo had more trouble with his loot than he did with the waves.’"

As the swinging 60's dwindled and the existentially ambiguous 70's reached cruising altitude, the contemporary Shortboard milieu would dominate the kinetic surfing scene at both the Steel Pier and the Wooden Pier, as well as on early pioneering ventures to the sometimes world-class conditions of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As my brother Terry Ferebee would always point out, “You can’t really talk about surfing in Virginia Beach without talking about OBX.” Even for Norfolk boys Gregg Bielmann and his brother Brian, a future world-class, Hawaii-based surf photographer, early-era Hatteras road trips were instigated fairly often in hopes of scoring ‘Hassle-less’, crowd-free, proper surf. As the kaleidoscopic decade of changes pressed on, standouts such as Marc Theriault, Joe Marchione, Chucky Charles, Ed and Chip McQuilken, Bill Frierson, Ronnie Mellot, Ray Shackleford, Bennet Strickland, Allen White, Kurt & Tim Schmalz, Jeff Duff, Paul Darden, Ed Townes and Christian Binford would set the performance bar as surfboards would go smaller and more spearishly radical. Through Marshall McLuhan’s rear-view mirror, decade’s stack up in idyllic compression like so many Smithsonian diorama’s, where diverse transformations occur in time-lapse, all at once, both cultural and technological. Tail-ending the 60’s and front-facing the 70’s, a revolution in both surfboards and wetsuits will transpire; both, ironically, the by-products of the very military-industrial complex so derided by the inner circles of Vietnam War era surf culture bohemia. A cast of characters straight out of Tom Wolfe’s Pumphouse Gang rule the Steel Pier parking lot, that sacred ‘our turf’ zone consisting of stray dogs, ramshackle vehicles, surfer drop-outs, and fishermen-widowers. Al’s Surfshop beneath the ramp of the pier smells of resin, bloodworms, incense and wax; and nearby foosball tables rattle and clatter with roll-fake's, shout-out’s, shut-up's and crank-shots. While Trampled Under Foot by Led Zeppelin blares from the Jensen Tri-axles of Jeff Duff’s forrest green Karmann Ghia as it sputters its way off the Loop road towards fifty-cent tacos at Speedy Gonzales at Great Neck and Mill Dam. Dusk soothes everything, and in the days before video killed the radio star, BYOB surf movie nights at the ironically designated FOP hall (Federation of Police Hall) rounds out nicely the any-day of all-days, of the seemingly never-ending ever-present summer of the early-mid-late nineteen-seventies.

The most notable stylist and competitor of the late years of the decade’s new guard, was a 6-foot-4-inch paddling machine named Wes Laine who brought serious recognition to Virginia Beach and East Coast surfing in general. Laine placed ninth in the world on the pro tour circuit in both 1983 and 1985 competing in line-ups as far flung as Hawaii and South Africa. “Wes was the first Virginia Beach guy to make it in the big time,” says Tim Sullivan, a local surfer turned guitarist for the New York City-based surf music band, Supertones. “He paved the way for other East Coasters, and even 10-time world champ Kelly Slater.” Through Wes, vicariously, directly, or otherwise, The Free Ride generation found one of its exemplary representatives right here at our own beach-breaks. A local lineup was never more proud.

While competitions are one aspect of surfing, they do not figure extensively in the lives of most surfers, who simply surf for the sake of surfing—art for art’s sake as it were. “Are there any soul-surfers still among us; still expressing the original vision?”, as free-thinking local legend Chip McQuilkin once ruminated on the ever-encroaching influence of commercialism on surfing. “For without soul,” he warned, “there IS no vision.” Still, owing to Laine’s pro-circuit success, there was a sharp rise in competitive intensity among surfers at the beach in the 1980’s and 1990’s. By then it was not at all unusual for local surfers to explore Hawaiian-alternative big-wave training grounds such as Puerto Rico and Barbados, following in the footsteps of early 1970’s pioneers like Marc Theriault and Ronnie Mellot. Adding also to the area’s distinct identity was a continuing tradition of local surfboard making—niche-specific wave-tools better suited to the corporocity of Virginia's swellular vernacular than many of the imported shapes built in California or Hawaii. The same tradition is alive and well today, noting talented young shapers such as Jordan Braizie and his Valaric label, and Austin Saunders at Austin. Throughout the golden era of the shortboard revolution, Bob White, Rosi, Con, America, WRV, Westwind, Bearcraft, Seasoned, and Hotline all bore the local standard. The surfer-shaper reigns in the days before automation. 

As another era exerts itself inexorably towards the future, and another checkered decade comes jangling to a close—another balmy Tidewater day at the Oceanfront wanes, as Allen White smooths another wave to pieces.

As the 80s forced its way in on the preceding decade, some people stuck with the beach music program. With the pinks, the greens. And the Shag. Others moved on. Others still, never went there in the first place. Punk rock changed everything. So did the Thruster. The revolutionary three-finned board developed by Australian surfer-shaper Simon Anderson would hegemonistically dominate surfboard design for the next two and half decades.

The 80s new modernity was exemplified locally by the enigmatic, freeform genius of Pete Smith’s son, Pete Jr., known colloquially in surfing circles as simply “young Pete Smith.” As Les Shaw, the owner of Wave Riding Vehicles, says, “You gotta understand, the most unsung raw talent to ever come out of this area was young Pete Smith, with that stream of consciousness surfing style he had. He was just light years beyond everyone else in his approach.” Of the Blaster era and the early Quad, there were other dynamic standouts as well: Jon Klientop and Charles Kirkley dominated local ESA (Eastern Surfing Association) contests as well as ECSC events. Other notables of the era included Jay Monroe, Lad Swain, Rich Rudolph and Tommy Rainwater, as the culminating decade of the millennium would introduce a whole new crop of competitive upstarts, including Chris Culpen and Jason Borte who would go on to dominate in contests, both locally and nationally.

And what of today’s young surfers? Interestingly, a free-thinking new crew of stylists would seem to at least potentially defy Oscar Wilde’s maxim that youth is wasted on the young. Theirs is a teen milieu which seeks retrieval from the past in order to move flowingly into the future; its creed ingrained by a reverence to history, tradition, and for the old guys. Semi-pro longboarder Cam Fullmer, who is 17 and a senior at Norfolk Academy, for example, grew up at the Northend and was taught by resident local Bud Easton, whose daughter Kate is—like Fullmer—a team rider for Freedom Surfshop. Fullmer and his tight circle are primarily longboarders, a neo-retro discipline which leaves many diehard Thruster-era types in a state of bemused stupefaction. That’s because the longboard is, to all appearances, an aquatic reversion to the horse and buggy. But given the consistently modest surf at Virginia Beach, it is a tool which is actually both efficient and functional. And there are other implications—both philosophical and cultural—that reach down into the very core of the user. “It’s less jock-like, maybe,” says Fullmer of the longboard wave-riding technique. He often uses the word ‘motionlessness’ to suggest what it is he is after in his surfing. Of a slight generational gap past Fullmer, fellow Freedom Surfshop team riders Sam Cocke and Mikey Hansen likewise exemplify the super-soulful and stylish aesthetic of the new sincerity, ever-touting the merits of the old-school.

Contrary to some prior generations' nonchalance towards their predecessors, Fullmer speaks reverently about local, old-school veterans like Bob Holland, Mike Clark, Mike Kalana and Bobby Holland Jr.: “Mike is—what?—like in his 70s?” says Fullmer. Gesticulating with glancing, flat-hand motions the way all real surfers do, he adds: “I mean, he can crank a turn; he can cross-step to the nose; he can ride in the pocket and work it with his knees and just ride a wave like its supposed to be ridden…ride a board like its supposed to be ridden. Those guys are always the best ones to talk to. I’d rather talk to them than 99 percent of the surfers my age. They always have something good to say about surfing or about life.” Glancing around at the radically changing psychic contour of the ever-developing oceanfront, he says: “Old Virginia Beach must have been just the coolest thing.”

He would get no disagreement on that point from Dave Shotten, who opened Freedom Surf shop in 2005. Shotten, who by his own admission is an eternal grom in a 44-year-old body, laments the fact that contemporary surf culture has become homogenized. “It’s been diluted with Orange County propaganda that caters to a naive young audience who want conformity.” Freedom Surf sells imported boards yet sports a community vibe, selling gear relevant to the area’s surf conditions. “We are the new kids on the block,” says Shotten. “But at the same time we’ve been gifted a legacy and tradition that has been handed down from some of the original pioneers who put boards in the water in Virginia Beach. Our vision is to look back into the past and celebrate what a surf shop means. We’re about taking a different path.”

In truth, surfing at Virginia Beach has always been something of a different path. We’re not on the map of world-class surf spots, and never will be. But surfers here show their sincere respect for the sea, possess a core dedication to the art form we love, and stay ever vigilant for conditions that produce the best waves.


  1. AnonymousMay 26, 2012

    Virginia Beach is my home town and I really enjoyed this article. I started surfing in the late 80s and spent countless hours in the water over the years. I'm 36 and don't get to surf regularly any more (though I still do occasionaly) but the times in the water down at Croatan or at 1st Street as a hurricane swell was pumping through back then were some of the best times of my life to date.

    Well done article.

  2. Great article on VB surfing history. When Hobie Alter was in town in the early 60's to visit Pete Smith, he stopped by our house on 77th St. to look at a new sailboat my dad, Reid Ervin, had bought called an Aqua Cat. It was all fiberglass with a one piece cockpit and dual pontoons. It was quite heavy. It was a forerunner of what Hobie would design and later call a Hobie Cat. Cannot remember if Hobie took our Aqua Cat out that day, but I do remember his interest in it as he was designing/frefining his new Hobie Cat line which would become the rage in future years.

  3. VA Beach is my home too, but unfortunately I've been away (near Richmond) for so many years. Got re-stoked again after so many years, and get back - but not enough...Bill Frierson shaped a board for me which I really love - but, it's a better board than I am rider - but, it is still a joy in life to be able to surf! One of these days I want to be there for more than a few days at a time...

  4. Enjoyed the history. I remember many of the names and places from the 60's and 70's. I was at the beach the day Corky Carroll rode an early spring storm surge .

  5. Was also in kitty hawk n.c., when corky was surfing. We-locals, paddling like crazy to get out in some huge surf. And here goes corky on a killer, and goes on the nose. Geez, I will never forget that.

  6. Born and raised in Va Beach.....even went to school at Star of the Sea on 15th St and also used to work at the Cavalier teaching swimming lessons. I'm only 30 so it was really cool to read this part of our our history. Awesome article!!

  7. Great article Stewart; interesting and informative. Didn't know your personal connection to the Virginia Beach surfing history/community but recognized a lot of the other names mentioned in the article. Well-done.

  8. know many many persons in article ...was one of the first californians to surf in va. beach so many good times!to all my friends hellos........ dobransky

  9. Great story that really brought back memories of when I first started surfing in the mid-sixties at the North End with the Little brothers, Billy Almond and Joe Dunn. Wish David Thomas had been mentioned, as he was probably the best long-boarder to ever come out of Norfolk.

  10. Renee' UrsprungFebruary 25, 2014

    Fantastic article, Stewart!! Being from Virginia Beach (you and I went to high school together) I love any article about the great Virginia Beach!!

  11. I would like to join the chorus of appreciation for your article. Nice shout out to the 1960's steel pier crew. I had the privilege of being a Summer resident surfer during many of those years and greatly enjoyed the camaraderie and rivalries among various camps. Countless afternoons were spent watching resin dry at the Surboards by Don factory followed by evenings "ghost-riding" through Birdneck point or cruising the boardwalk. The article would be too long if it tried to name all of the surf rats from that period, but at least one omission should be corrected. If a surfing history of Malibu in the 60's could not be complete without mention of Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the real-life inspiration for Gidget of movie fame, then a history of the VaBeach surf scene from the late 1960's could not be complete without paying homage to Bridgett Schmaltz-Keene, Kurt and Tim's Schmaltz's surfing sister. Bridgette was a very young pioneer of the women's surf scene in VaBeach in the 60's and a fearless surf buddy. Great memories of surfing the pier with Kurt, Bridgette, Billy Ellis, Reid, and Gordon. Thanks for bring them back.

  12. Great article on our surfing history. I've been surfing 1st St. for over 50 years. Started in 1965 on a 9'4" Randall board my father bought for me and my brother from the old King's Dept. store at London Bridge shopping center. No one wore cords because the boards were big and heavy and they hadn't been invented yet. Shooting the Steel Pier was hazardous. There wasn't a whole lot of room before you got to the rocks of the new jetty. We've come along way at 1st St. Now they want to build stuff there. LEAVE THE LOOP ALONE. It's ours.

  13. Surfed with Pete Smith, Bob Holland, Butch Maloney, Ronnie Melott, Jumbo Brothers, Bob Tate 1962-1963..Tom Tate


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