As the 1960s began, surfing was catching on big time in OC. Hundreds were in the line up, surf shops opened and an organization formed.
By Stefanie Godfrey.
Photos provided by John Loeper, Don Pileggi & Sandy Ordille
CATCH A WAVE and you’re sitting on top of the world. In 1963, surfers in Hawaii had just taken on the outer reef of Bonzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu. Surf music was in full play, from the Beach Boys’ fun lyrics to the Chantays instrumental sounds. Hollywood released Beach Party starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon and in Ocean City, NJ surfers were lining up to take on the East Coast waves.
“There were hundreds of surfers in the water. Hundreds, from 14th Street down to 16th or 17th Street,” said Chuck Allison, a surfer and former OC lifeguard. “You would have 200 people in the water on a Saturday morning.”
Surfers here at that time suffered a bit from the reputation the west coast surfers had built for themselves.
“California surfers (were) rebels, party animals. We kind of bought in that too. We were guilty,” said Chuck. “We were like rebels without a clue.”
Some surfers tried to change this unsavory reputation.
“Surfers Supplies used to have a business card that said ‘Surfers Supplies’ on the front and the back said ‘Compliments of a Surfer.’ So if you saw a little old lady broken down on the side of the road with a flat tire you’d stop and fix her tire and hand her one of these cards, create a better image,” said John Loeper. “There was a time – there was a rough time there, but it didn’t last long. People started to realize that it was a healthy sport.”
Supplying the Sport
The early ‘60s saw the beginning of the surf shops like George Gerlach’s Surfers Supplies opening up on the island. George brought in Greg Noll boards (Greg is an American pioneer of big wave surfing and a longboard shaper) in 1963 or 1964, according John, whose family’s has been coming to OC since 1904. Greg himself came to visit and brought a new technique to our Atlantic Ocean waves.
“Greg came to town and stayed in our family’s house. They came in a 1947 woody. Those guys were hot on the waves and right away, everybody picked up on it. ‘These guys are going right to left… how do you do that?’ The steadfast guys at 14th Street, they weren’t going right to left, they were just coming right off the crest of the wave and going to shore. It took them a while, but they caught on,” said John.
About a year after opening Surfer Supplies at Tony’s Marina, George moved his location to the 31st Street building where it stands today. It was a risky move at the time, to open up so far from the main surfing action.
“I said, ‘George, if a kid’s got a bicycle and you’ve got the product it’s going to go. It’s not a problem and you know a lot of people drive. I think it’s going to be in a great location.’ It’s a neat building; it kind of looks like the surf shop type thing,” said John, who was working for George at the time fixing surfboards.
Back then, there were no leashes on boards, so if they got away from their surfer and hit the jetty, they’d get all dinged up. This fact also made it smart to surf with a buddy.
“It was a long swim home,” said John. “I can remember turning around off shore and looking back at the Boardwalk. The people looked an inch high.”
According to Chuck, the first surf leash came into town from Howie Bosbyshell’s parents who ran a laundromat on Atlantic Avenue down the block from the high school.
“Howie went out to California one summer and came back with this bungee cord thing tied to his surfboard and it became one of the very early leashes,” said Chuck. This was in the early 1970s.
Chasing the Stoke
For John, Chuck and the other OC kids who lived in or spent their summers in OC, life was a beach and surfing was the goal.
“When the wind goes off shore the waves get good… that is an established fact. I had a sleigh bell connected to the shade in my bedroom, a pull down shade. When the wind off shore blew that window shade, it would ring. And when that bell was ringing, it was time to get up and go surfing. That’s how I would know if it was good surf,” said John. “I lived on the third floor of my family home. The bell would ring and echo through and wake me up.”
This wasn’t the only way surfers had to be inventive in the mid-20th Century.
“The original surf wax was basically candle wax, and candle wax, if you rub it on and then take it out into cold water, gets really slippery,” said Chuck. “So the technology was that guys would wear sneakers when the water was really cold to improve traction.”
Chuck, who teaches science at Holy Spirit High School, pointed out all the applied chemistry used in surfing.
“Some brilliant guy out of California came up with the idea that you could add stuff to candle wax to make it stickier. There is a whole lot of applied chemistry in the industry of surfing between the neoprene that wetsuits are made of, the resins that the surfboards are made of, the foams, the wax, all this is basically applied chemistry.”
Wetsuits back then were a long way off from the ones used today. But if you wanted to surf in winter, it was pretty much essential gear.
“My first wetsuit came from a sporting goods store on 69th Street in Philadelphia,” said John. “It was bulky; it was thick; it was uncomfortable.”
OC native and former professional surfer Sandy Ordille had a similar experience.
“We used to surf all winter. There weren’t any surf companies making wetsuits. We had to buy them at dive shops; they were hard to move in, very thick,” she said.
Sandy first learned how to surf from her brother Pete.
“I had grown up in the ocean. My mother and father loved the beach, so I didn’t ever have a fear of the ocean. The first wave I got, I rode it all the way in. I was really happy. They have a word in surfing … they call it “stoked” – and it became my passion immediately,” said Sandy. “As a teenager, it was a good thing. When you’re a surfer, you want to go to bed early and get up and surf at dawn. We used to surf before school and you have to get up really early to do that.”
Sandy and John both mention surfing over a famous OC landmark.
“On 16th Street there used to be a sunken ship – the Sindia. The top post would stick out of the water and we’d surf to the north of that,” said Sandy.
As more and more kids were surfing the waves, adults started to realize there was a need for an organized program.
Don Pileggi, then recreation director, along with OCBP lifeguard John Carey, is credited with bringing legitimacy to surfing in Ocean City… an idea way ahead of its time.
“I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We set up an intramural program locally on longboards. We surfed down at the (fishing) pier because the surf was constant. Then we got some guys to pitch in and judge. They had a boys, junior, mens, and girls (division),” said Don. “This was one of the first areas to really have an intramural program for surfing. We gave out medals like the Olympics in summer. Each division had their own placements; Gold, Silver, Bronze. We had a tiered platform too. Third was on the right, top was first, and second was on the left.”
The Ocean City Surfing Association was born in 1963. John Carey came to Don with an idea to hold three major surf contests through the year.
“They had contests called the Turkey Trot during Thanksgiving break, the Polar Bear during winter break, and Spring Fling during Easter break,” said Sandy.
In summer, there were contests every Tuesday night. It was huge.
“The Ocean City Surfing Association was one of the largest amateur surfing associations on the whole East Coast for quite a while. Every Tuesday night there would be a surfing contest on 14th Street beach and the adults really organized this thing,” said Chuck. “TJ (John Carey) and Ed Corman would start the heats by firing a 12- gauge shotgun into the air so they could make sure we heard it out in the ocean. People would come from Long Beach Island and as far south as Cape May for the Tuesday night contests. They were incredibly, incredibly competitive.”
Next issue: The sport of surfing becomes a big business.