In the late 1950s, only a small group of locals surfed the waves in OC. This is their story and the story of how the stoke caught on around the world.
by Stefanie Godfrey
photos provided by John Loeper
WE DON’T rely on the chant of the Kahuna to bring up the surf, christen new surfboards or give an extra boost of courage to surfers taking on big waves. This isn’t Hawaii in the 1700s, after all. But without the 50th state, surfing wouldn’t exist anywhere in the world, including Ocean City. It was early-to mid-1900s before surfing in any form appeared on the island. It was a world where wetsuits were worn in pieces and boards didn’t have leashes. But the stoke was discovered and has been chased ever since.
“Surfing is a true sport of kings. Initially Hawaiian kings were the only surfers. If you had to put it at an esoteric level it’s the Zen – you and the wave,” said John Loeper. “It’s up to you. Nobody else is around you and whether you’re good, bad or indifferent you’re on that wave and you are having fun doing it. It’s a lifestyle.”
John knows this lifestyle well in Ocean City because he started surfing when it was just a handful of guys out in the waves.
“Around 1958, I’d go down on my bike to 14th Street and watch three or four guys on surf boards. Back then it was Bob Harbaugh of the Grill at 14th Street, Pete Schwenk who owned the Nassau, John Carey who owned Carey Real Estate and Dr. Schwab. I used to sit on the corner of the Boardwalk and think, ‘I want to do this,’” said John. “I was 15, the Beach Boys had music out and I thought it would be cool.”
To understand how John happened to spot a group of surfers in the waves as a teenager, we have to scroll back a little further, then head west – Detroit to be exact. First let’s time travel back to 1912. Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku came to Ocean City to stay with fellow Olympian Jack Kelly and together they went to Atlantic City for a surf and swim demonstration. Duke was doing demonstrations all over the world at this time, and is credited with popularizing the ancient sport of surfing.
Duke’s 1912 visit was arguably the first time surfing was brought to the East Coast. Now let’s fast forward a few years to Detroit, where a young Tom Blake (who went on to become a surfing pioneer) had a chance meeting with Duke in 1920. Tom was so inspired by Duke, he eventually made his way to Hawaii to learn how to surf. When he returned to California, he began to craft innovative surfboards. In the 1930s, Tom toured the East Coast with his boards, making his way up to Ocean City where he showed Beach Patrol Captain John Carey the surfing lifestyle and the art of surfboard crafting.
After the Tom’s visit, John buys a Blake board and it becomes the first surfboard used by the Beach Patrol for ocean rescues in 1934. It was only a matter of time before the 13-foot-long board was used for sport and that’s how Carey and his friends got to be surfing the waves while a young John Loeper looked on from his bike on the Boardwalk.
“These two guys (Duke and Tom) traveled around and basically spread the gospel of surf. It got to OC,” said Chuck Allison.
Chuck, a self-described “beach rat” was also itching to surf in the late ’50s.
“In 1959 John Carey took a bunch of us beach rats, mascots for the beach patrol, and began teaching us how to surf on these great big oh-my-lord boards. We figured it out and avoided being killed by them because they weighed more than we did at the time,” said Chuck.
Surfing was so new to the East Coast in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that there was no easy way to get a surf board of your own.
“I couldn’t figure out how to get a surfboard because there were no surf shops,” said John. “I wrote a letter to Greg Noll, he was a big surfer out in California who sold surf boards. I got a response back. ‘There are never going to be waves on the East Coast of the United States and I am not going to send a surf board to you.’”
John eventually got his first board in 1969 from a company called Bunger, which still exists today. It cost him $100. Though in 1961 California boards starting coming in (Pete Schwenk’s garage was the first surf shop in OC, according to Chuck), Chuck’s first board came about a little more, em, naturally.
“After the March 1962 storm, I got a piece of foam from a hotel in Ocean City whose kitchen had been cleaned out by the water. I borrowed one of Pete’s boards and traced it on the foam. I put in my garage and shaped a surfboard. Spring 1962. Then I tried – I didn’t have a firm grasp of chemistry back then – I tried to glass it and almost burned the garage down at 7th and Atlantic. I tried again and the second time I was more successful. That was my first surfboard – a piece of refrigeration foam from 1962. I surfed that board that summer and into the next.”
By 1963, the Beach Boys had released “Surfin’ USA,” and since we did have an ocean, everybody was surfing. According to Chuck, there were a couple hundred surfers in the water from 14th to 17th Street on any given Saturday morning.
“At 10am we all got out because there was no dedicated surfing beach. That didn’t come along until ‘69, or ‘70. If you wanted to surf during the day in Ocean City, you didn’t,” said Chuck. “10am was when the guards came on duty. John Loeper and I were just talking about (author and OC Mag contributor) Fred Miller. Fred was hard core and worked at 14th Street beach. He was to the minute… 10:01am you better be out of the water and you weren’t going in until 5:01pm. Straight-ahead Fred. Good guard,” said Chuck.
George Gerlach had come to town a year before in 1962 and opened up Surfers Supplies.
“George first opened Surfers Supplies at Tony’s Marina. There was this mystery stuff called fiberglass that nobody understood or knew how to work with. Luckily I knew how to work with fiberglass because I had been around boats. So when George opened I went there and got a summer job fixing surf boards,” John said. “I picked up the nickname Doc because I was the doctor of surf boards. When George opened – that was when surfing really took off because he had the product everybody wanted. I remember that first year it was a steady stream of people coming in and out of the shop looking at surf boards, buying surf boards. It really caught on.”
Next issue: the Ocean City Surfing Association begins.