Island Surfing originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s July 2007 issue.
In the days of the ancient kings, when King Kamehameha lorded over Cape Island, the brave men of the Hui Nalu rode hardwood surfboards – alaia – through the breaking swell off Broadway Beach wearing little more than loincloths. Surfboard riding was an ingrained part of Cape Island culture for centuries and when Captain Cornelius Mey first sailed past the tip of the cape, he was fascinated by the slim and muscular Cape Mayans riding the waves, as noted in his logbook…
The Cape Mayans’ most common diversion is upon the Water, where the Sea and surf break on the Shore. The Men lay themselves upon a flat piece of Wood about twice their size; keeping their Legs close together and using their Arms to guide the Plank. They wait until the time of the greatest Swell and then push forward with their Arms to keep on its top. It sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity – the great Art is to guide the Plank so as always to keep it in a proper Direction on the top of the Swell and direct it to avoid any Obstacles.
Maybe that’s not exactly how surfing was born in Cape May, but it sure makes a good story. As far as I can tell, surfing first hit the beaches of Cape May in the early 1960s. The city and its inhabitants were never the same.
Trying to describe the impact of surfing on Cape May is like trying to describe the impact of baseball on America – it’s an incredibly broad topic. Many locals have built their lives around surfing, embracing careers that allow them the luxury of ditching work whenever the surf is pumping. For some, surfing defines their lives, chooses their friends for them and shapes the way they see the world. For others it’s a later-in-life hobby that’s now a passion. Anyway you look at it, surfing, even in Cape May, is nothing short of a religion for its most ardent followers.
Surfing was probably born in the Polynesian culture of the eastern and south Pacific. The exact timeline of when men first paddled into the surf on planks of wood is uncertain, but it’s a good guess that the modern version of surfing was perfected in Hawaii. When Jack London wrote A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki in 1907, surfing’s reputation as “the sport of kings” was cemented. Even today Hawaii remains the spiritual center of the surfing universe.
The birth of surfing in Cape May is just as mysterious but perhaps less romantic. Steve Steger, whom I might be so bold as to describe as a living local legend, claims his father was one of Cape May’s original surfers.
“My dad was one of the first surfers in town,” said Steve. “A guy from California introduced him to surfing. My dad owned a store across from the beach, and he sold sundries. He was so into surfing that in 1962 he made the store into a surf shop and called it ‘Steger Sun and Surf Shop.’ ” Steger even has a stretch of beach at the end of Perry Street in front of his former store named for him; good surfing beach, too.
Cape May’s demographics made surfing a hugely popular sport in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In those days, Cape May was still an affordable town and was filled with families and kids. What Little League was to other American towns, surfing was to Cape May.
“There used to be a lot more kids in Cape May,” said Steve. “If you lived in Cape May you hung at the beach, and if you were at the beach you surfed. We used to walk down the street to go surfing and then walk home. The guys I surfed with were Terry Randolph, Paul Gibbons, Jim DeScala, Joe Gilmartin; that was the four musketeers, and there were a few others. That was my generation.”
Mike Owen was 12 years old when he started surfing. Now it’s a part of his DNA.
Mike Owen riding a tube. Photo by Susie Owen.
“I started in 1970 – I was 12 years old – a kid from Texas taught me. He was a Coastie (U.S. Coast Guard family member). In the 70s surfing was growing; we hit it at a great time. Through high school surfing became who I was, I suppose. I didn’t join sports because you had to drop what you were doing to surf,” said Mike.
The surfing lifestyle is a familiar theme in the surf community. The surfing lifestyle, for lack of a definitive description is simply the need to surf. They call it “the stoke.” It’s got to be some kind of chemical thing in the brain that grabs hold of a person and bends the brain patterns so that there is nothing more important than the right combination of wind, sea, and tide. People build their lives around surfing, and Cape Mayans, being so connected to the sea, are no exception. Mike Owen is hardcore.
“Surfing is my lifestyle. I married who I married because of surfing. I wouldn’t go to weddings because the waves were good. My wife understood that – she surfs. The family understood,” said Mike. “So yeah, surfing is pretty important. It’s what I know. My whole family surfs, my friends surf. Surfing has given me great friendships and taken me on great trips.”
Sue Lotozo has the stoke. Sue was a 40-year-old mom watching her daughter surf the Cove at Cape May’s western-most edge and decided she wanted to try it. “My daughter Eliza was learning to surf and she was having so much fun. I didn’t want to be on the sidelines. I stayed away from people at first and it took me awhile to learn, but it’s just so much fun being in the water. I fell in love with it.”
Sue has been known to close up her clothing store on a brilliant autumn day when business is a little slow. She injured herself a few years back – tore her knee up at the Cove – and every time I saw her I’d ask how her rehab was going. There never seemed to be any doubt she’d be back in the water.
“The first time you stand up on a board you think you’re a surfer until you realize you know nothing. The first time is thrilling but there’s so much nuance. Surfing is an ongoing journey, it’s a whole lotta fun and I love being out there with my kids. I’m more in tune with nature, you know? What’s the wind doing today, what’s the water temp, where can I fit this in to my day?”
Stephen “Buckethead” Coon grew up on New York Avenue. He’s hardcore too.
“I used to be able to check the waves by lifting my head off the pillow,” said Stephen. “All I had to do was look out the window; if it was high tide I could see the waves, if it was low tide I had to get up and look. My room was on the third floor, so if I could see the waves from the second floor, it was really good. This was at Trenton Avenue. There used to be a jetty at Trenton and it used to be a good break. Not anymore.”
Stephen and I talked one night for almost an hour about surfing. We talked about the basics like history, changes, good beaches, and surf culture, but what I began to realize was that Stephen’s life is all about surfing. Everything he does revolves around the ocean; whether it is the ocean’s impact on us, or our impact on the ocean, Stephen seems tuned to an oceanic vibration.
We talked about Cape May’s 50-year beach replenishment program, which pumps untold cubic yards of sand onto Cape May’s beaches to keep them from eroding. Stephen’s not so sure it’s a great idea. Even though he was a business major in college he wrote his research papers on surfing: the economics of surfing, the statistics of surfing, the Oedipus Rex syndrome of surfing (okay – maybe not that one). You’ll have to talk to him about the physics of barrier island development, but in a nutshell Stephen claims that all that sand is eventually going to just blow away.
“I’ve studied the ocean and it’s important to keep a long-term view,” said Stephen. “It’s all about doing your homework and being willing to broaden your horizons. Sand bars are shifting and changing.”
Surfing, it seems to me, has a deep connection to the past, and surfers have no problem looking back in fondness. Nobody I talked to was complaining but they all seemed to pine for the days when the water sloshed up under the boardwalk and the jetties stabbed way out into the water. It’s like baseball afficionados who still debate whether the designated hitter is a good idea. Cape May surfers also apparently miss trying to splatter themselves on a wooden piling under Convention Hall.
“We used to shoot the pier,” said Stephen. “The water used to come up under Convention Hall and we used to surf under that. We called it the ‘backyard;’ it was the right that came in from the Stockton Avenue jetty. We jumped off the back of Convention Hall. You had to know where the pilings were. It’s not there anymore.”
“There was a lot less beach back then,” added Steve. “The waves used to be longer.”
Joe Grottola. Photograph by Susie Owen.
“Technology has progressed so much compared to when I started,” said Mike. “For one, it doesn’t hurt to be out in the water anymore. My first wetsuit was just a vest. I was still freezing but I thought that was enough. Jake Lincoln gave us these big thick diving suits. They were so heavy we couldn’t carry them.”
“The kids today just don’t have the access to waves that we had,” said Steve. “It’s not so affordable in Cape May anymore so there are fewer families. They’re all in Lower Township. That extra three miles to the beach makes a big difference.”
But for all the hindsight, some surfers are always looking for that next ride. And whether there aren’t as many kids in town any more doesn’t mean surfing is going to wither away. Jason Reagan is one of the few Cape May surfers who was able to turn pro and make a living surfing. I couldn’t find him for this article but I remember talking to him once and he summed it up nicely.
Jessie Owen riding a wave at the Cove. Photo by Susie Owen.
“Cape May has always had a strong surfing tradition – always had, always will.”
It seems that for many of these local guys, surfing is never a problem. Whether the sand bars change or the beaches get replenished or whether real estate prices change the shape of the neighborhood, it’s still all about the surfing. Generations have found that surfing can be more than a hobby, and more than a passion. It becomes a way of life, a religion almost. Surfing is never a problem. Not surfing? Well now there’s a problem.
“Surfing is such a good clean life,” said Mike Owen. “I met some of the greatest people through my surfing. One of my teachers, Carl Toft, was a surfer, I looked up to him. We had a connection in surfing, and my daughter went through his classes too. He was still around, probably teaching the same stuff. He’s great with kids, had a surf shop too. He’s probably 65 – he’s never stopped. It’s nice to see him out battling the strong current. When I see him it’s an inspiration, I realize I don’t have to stop. I worry that I may have to stop. What am I gonna do if I can’t surf anymore?”