BY TIM KELLY
Surfing culture is so ingrained in today’s society that many visitors to Ocean City might be too busy having fun surfing to realize the town’s integral role in the sport.
“Ocean City has always been a surf town,” says Larry Friedel, who was 18 years old in 1970 when Ocean City designated the beach between 5th and 7th Streets as its first area set aside for wave riders.
“In the early 60s and even before that, (Ocean City) was helping to make surfing more than a sport and a lifestyle,” Friedel said.
Today, he’s a co-owner of a business catering to life on the ocean which bears the name of that famous stretch of ocean and sand, the 7th St. Surf Shops.
He also remembers that surfing was against the law in O.C. until 1967 when the City government finally adopted a resolution allowing the activity on any beach, but only when the Beach Patrol wasn’t working.
“They made that area the surfing beach because it was too dangerous for bathing and there really wasn’t enough dry beach in those days to put down chairs.”
Nevertheless, 7th St. Beach made the grade. On Monday, Ocean City officials gathered an intimate and informal ceremony at the Music Pier to recognize the “Surfing Beach’s” 50th anniversary.
Present among City officials and onlookers for the festivities were 50s and 60s surf legends Bob Harbaugh and Don Pileggi, the former City Recreation Director who embraced the sport, founded the Ocean City Surfing Association and organized hundreds of surfing contests in the 60s and 70s.
7th St. Surf, Surfer Supplies and Heritage Surf are three of the legendary surf shops in town, all with roots dating back to before Ocean City had a legal daytime surfing beach.
Such a welcoming atmosphere made the town an early “surfing mecca,” Councilman Keith Hartzel said, quoting the City resolution.
Well, mostly welcoming.
“Back then, Friedel recalled, “you got up at 5 a.m. if you wanted to be first in the water. But…if you wanted to surf after 10 a.m. and before 6 p.m. you had to take your board and leave town,” said Friedel. “You had to go to Strathmere or Longport, where it was legal to surf in the daytime.
Pileggi’s contests “were a big deal, with the whole island involved” in their operation, Larry remembers.
“The contests were only possible because of hundreds of volunteers who made them work,” Pileggi remarked, “and also through the abilities of John Carey,” he said, referencing the longtime on-beach director of the contests.
“John had talent and he used it to make the contests run like clockwork.”
Regardless of the events’ success, surfers couldn’t do their thing legally in daytime hours.
Everything changed on June 29, 1970 when Mayor Robert L. Sharp, after two years of sometimes contentious debate, officially designated the surfing beach. Daytime wave riding was finally legal in O.C.
He said the city fathers realized that beach was a lost cause for conventional use, but could attract surfers, and their spending power to town.
Though the 1970 designation was a pivotal moment, the scene was already ingrained. By 1962, “Shapers” George Gerlach of Surfers Supply and Dan Heritage of Heritage Surf were making some of the first fiberglass boards in the world. Meanwhile, an ever-growing band of “surf rats” took to O.C. beaches..
“Before it was named the surfing beach, that area was already popular,” said Friedel. “But so were 13th, 14th and 15th Streets, 2nd St., Park Place and some other places. You generally surfed near when you lived.”
Over the years, Ocean City surfing legends such as Dean Randazzo, RonCurcio, Sandy Ordille, Tom McLaren and Mike Monroe would all establish national and in some cases international reputations and be inducted in the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame.
It wasn’t just a boys club. “There was always a decent sized group of female surfers around and they were really good,” Friedel said. Ocean City native Barbie Belyea began dominating local and regional contests in the late 60s.
“She became sponsored and in 1969, received an invitation to compete in the World Championships, held that year in Australia,” recalled Friedel.
There, Belyea brought more fame to Ocean City’s reputation by finishing third in the world, he noted.
Things really started to explode later in the 60s when the local surf shops thrived and surf music helped romanticize the scene.
“You never seemed to meet a surfer who was angry,” Friedel related. “They were (laid back) and accepting of everyone else.”
“(Surfers) knew the ocean is imperfect and changes from day to day. But when everything is right, there isn’t much I can think of that’s better,” Friedel said.
Surfers Supply 3101 Asbury Avenue Ocean City, NJ 08226