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William Madison Randall Library

The Wrightsville Beach Surf Club: Surfing's Avant-garde in Wrightsville Beach


In the early 1960's a small group of energetic individuals began riding surfboards at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Certainly, waves had been ridden in one form or another prior to then, but it was with this group that the foundations for surfing in Wrightsville Beach were laid. Numbering about a dozen or so, these individuals decided to form a surf club. After several informal meetings among surfers and their parents, the Wrightsville Beach Surf Club was founded. Merging their hearts and minds, club members held meetings prescribed by parliamentary procedure at homes, community centers, and surf spots on Wrightsville Beach. And with access to the club's official transportation, a 1949 Packard coach owned by Joe Funderburg, club members frequently traveled the shores of both North and South Carolina, and Virginia.

1949 Packard "Henney" Hearse, the official transportation of
the WBSC. Courtesy of Joe Funderburg.

While there were several reasons behind the origins of the Wrightsville Beach Surf Club (WBSC), a paramount reason was in response to efforts by some of the business owners and town officials in Wrightsville Beach to ban surfing. In late June 1964, Millard Everett “Stinky” Williamson, the Police Chief and Director of Public Safety of Wrightsville Beach, reported that “he was having some difficulty in controlling the hazard to bathers in certain areas from the use of surf boards and round discs, used by bathers for surf boarding. … [and] that he would endeavor to have the use of these discs restricted to certain isolated bathing areas …” [1] Without any valid ordinances governing the use of surfboards on Wrightsville Beach town officials warned surfers to restrict usage to isolated areas of the beach. At an official Town meeting on July 9, 1964, Chief Williamson and Alderman Kenneth M. Sprunt advised Jim Shepard and Jerry King, both of who were members of the WBSC, “that as long as they adhered to the practice of using surfboards or skiboards only in isolated areas, such as north of the Surf Club, and when there were no bathers in the surf where the surf boards were being used, that they would be permitted to use the surf boards.” [2] It was also pointed out that if the surfers did not abide by this rule that it “will be necessary to have an ordinance passed prohibiting the use of surf boards in the surf at Wrightsville Beach.” [3]

Despite this “warning,” it was difficult for surfers to restrict themselves to isolated areas of the beach north of the Surf Club, which was located at Mallard Street, as the quality of the waves was often less consistent or minimally functional compared to other areas of the beach – turning surfing into more work than fun. The additional closure of Moore's Inlet to the north during the winter of 1965 also negatively impacted the quality of surfable waves while the beach south of Mallard Street had better sand bars and wooden jetties, which made for better surfing waves. As a result, tensions between surfers and non-surfers increased. At an official Town meeting on August 13, 1964, John D. Mercer, proprietor of the Atlantic View Pier (Johnny Mercer's Fishing Pier) and his manager complained to the Board of Alderman that “something had to be done to regulate the use of surf boards … that they had become dangerous and citing instances of injury to bathers caused by their use in closely congested areas where surf bathers were bathing.” [4]Recognizing that surfing was an increasingly popular and potentially harmful activity, the Town adopted an ordinance governing the use of surfboards on Wrightsville Beach. As the first ordinance regulating surfing at Wrightsville Beach, surfers were prohibited from surfing between Heron and Oxford streets, Birmingham and Latimer streets, Iula and Wright streets, although they were allowed access to the beach north of Mallard Street. Aside from the aforementioned street restrictions, surfing was permitted before 8:00am and after 5:30pm elsewhere on the beach except when bathers were in the water. [5] Having attended Town meetings and lobbied on behalf of the small but growing surf community, WBSC members recall leaving that meeting feeling elated and victorious in their effort to prevent a complete ban on surfing in Wrightsville Beach.

Despite the enactment of an ordinance regulating surfing on Wrightsville Beach, tensions between surfers and non-surfers continued. On the one hand, the surfers wanted to surf where the waves were good; on the other, town officials were concerned with bathers' safety. In July 1965, thirteen surfers, including this author, were arrested for violating the surf ordinance. Chief Williamson stated that it had become a “daily task trying to get them [surfers] to use the designated surf area” and that several swimmers had been injured by surfboards. He also added, “We've done everything we could possibly do; we've talked with them and met with them at the community center. … If they continue to surf in areas other than the one set aside for them we will continue to arrest them.” [6] The following summer, Cecil Hartell, manager of Johnny Mercer's Fishing Pier, stated that he was “having a lot of trouble with surfers” and petitioned the Board of Alderman to amend the surfing ordinance by restricting to only one section of the beach or to prohibit it entirely. [7] Earlier in the spring, it had also been reported, “surfers are a constant problem and no amount of talking seems to solve it.” [8] Several days later, acting quickly and decisively, the Board amended the ordinance to prohibit surfing between Mallard Street and Masonboro Inlet. [9]

A significant blow, the amended ordinance required individuals to surf north of Mallard Street. For those individuals living on the south end of Wrightsville Beach, having to trek almost two miles up the beach to surf was an extreme hardship. With no discussion or negotiations, it was apparent that the Board was hoping to discourage surfing on Wrightsville Beach. The WBSC, their parents, and other residents protested the new ordinance. At a Town meeting in July 1966, J.C. Pretlow, whose son surfed, argued against the ordinance and was rebuked by Chief Williamson who stated that the ordinance “was enacted to protect bathers from the hazard of surf boards, … and that bathers and surfers could not in any way be mixed.” [10] In September, Frank Sproul, owner of the Ocean Surf Shop in Wrightsville Beach, appealed to the Board of Alderman to lift the ban along the beach strand as the summer season was nearing conclusion. Safety being his paramount concern, Chief Williamson recommended to and was approved by the Board to designate one or two locations at points for surfing where little bathing took place. [11] Interestingly, the Board approved a motion in October to make it unlawful to “enter in any way, for or manner, the Atlantic Ocean at Wrightsville Beach … after the Director of Public Safety of the Town of Wrightsville Beach has determined and declared said ocean to be unsafe, dangerous and injurious for bathing, swimming and wading, or any entry as described above.” [12] Therefore, if the surf was up during storms the Town reserved the right to declare the ocean unsafe. While ensuring the safety of its residents was of paramount concern to the Town, there are several ways in which to interpret the ordinance, one of which was to discourage surfing.

The following spring, discussions were held to once again amend the surfing ordinance and improve relations with the Town. Representing several property owners, Kenneth M. Sprunt, a former Alderman, asked the Board to permit surfing between Mallard and Shearwater streets, between Henderson and Iula streets, and south of Wright Street before 8:00am and after 6:00pm. [13] Despite Sprunt's petition, no action was taken to amend the ordinance, and surfers were still prohibited from surfing south of Mallard Street. In May 1967, a member of the Southern Surfers Club appeared before the Board to offer the Town its assistance in keeping the beach clean and enforcing the laws. Chief Williamson replied telling the individual to “advise persons of our surfing laws and requesting them to not gang up on the sidewalks and boardwalks blocking pedestrians.” G.V. “Jack” Parker, the Director of Public Works and Utility for the Town of Wrightsville Beach, also “requested” the club member to tell members of the Southern Surfers that riding bicycles or any other vehicle across the berm was prohibited. [14] It would appear that Town officials were not in favor of surfers in the water or on the street in Wrightsville Beach.

Concluding the “Summer of '67,” Frank Sproul, along with several WBSC members, again petitioned the Town to allow surfing on additional areas of the beach strand. On September 14, 1967 at the regular monthly meeting of the Town, Mayor Luther T. Rogers Jr. recognized Sproul and the WBSC entered a motion requesting additional surf zones. While the names of club members are not reflected in the Town's official minutes, it should be noted that as a business owner in the growing surf industry, Sproul had as much to lose as to gain by the regulation of surfing. Additionally, surf shops have traditionally served as the gatekeepers of the surfing community so it would be logical that Sproul speak on behalf of the surfers in Wrightsville Beach. The Board of Aldermen responded by allowing surfing between Atlanta Street and Raleigh Street, along with another small section to the south of Crystal Fishing Pier.

Having successfully lobbied the Town for additional surf zones, in October 1969 the WBSC sought to modify the surf zones during the winter months. The Town appointed the Town Chaplain, Reverend Herbert Aman to chair a committee to study and make recommendations on the approval of additional surfing areas during the winter season. On November 24, Aman, whose son surfed, informed the Board that he did not see any problems with surfing during the winter months. Following some discussion, the Board amended the ordinance to permit surfing from October 1 to April 1 in all areas of the beach with the exceptions of Mercer's Fishing Pier, Crystal Fishing Pier, and the south jetty of Wrightsville Beach. [15]

While lobbying for surfing rights was its primary motivation, the WBSC was active in other ways as well. This included organizing surfing contests and surf film nights at the local beach theater. On June 12-13, 1965, the WBSC and Wrightsville Beach Jaycees hosted the First Annual Surfing Contest, the first of many contests to be held over the years at Wrightsville Beach. The next spring, the WBSC held the Spring Surf Festival in conjunction with the North Carolina Azalea Festival. Much to everyone's surprise, Greg Noll, the now legendary big wave surfer, was in attendance. According to the Wilmington Morning Star , Noll “one of the world's foremost surfers … said he was traveling south on U.S. 17 and noticed several cars with surfboards, followed them to Wrightsville [and the event] which was held in front of the Lumina Pavillion.” [16]

Treating surfers from at least five states to a surf movie following the contest, the WBSC also hosted a showing of Greg MacGillivray's The Performers at the Crest Theatre in Wrightsville Beach. Despite the “disappointing surf,” the contest was deemed a success as the WBSC took home top honors in the club division with the Virginia Beach Surf Club finishing a distant second. [17] Nearly two months later, the WBSC co-sponsored the Second Annual Surfing Contest with the Wrightsville Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce. Likely smitten from its loss in the club division to the WBSC in the Spring Surf Festival, the Virginia Beach Surf Club “dominated” the contest in both the individual and club divisions – taking their spoils, which included the club trophy, back across state lines. [18]


Courtesy: Will Allison

As an entirely new interface for enjoying the ocean, surfing was at once considered foreign yet alluring on many different levels in Wrightsville Beach. As members of the avant-garde that ushered in this new activity, representatives of the Wrightsville Beach Surf Club were strong advocates for ensuring its legitimacy and survival with the local establishment. Almost immediately, the beach community had either embraced or distrusted surfing. While surfing was being embraced by the Wrightsville Jaycees and the Wrightsville Beach Chamber of Commerce, it was also being discouraged by Town elders and the Town of Wrightsville Beach Police Department out of concern for safety and fear that surfing would inspire unsavory behavior on the part of its constituents. As champions of surfing in this beach community, the WBSC served as surfing's official spokesmen and campaigned to bring recognition and support to its presence on Wrightsville Beach. Active in surfing's longboard era, the WBSC's presence declined by the end of the 1960s as members entered various stages of adulthood. College, military service, marriage, and work obligated them to change their focus – it was a bittersweet end to a beautiful and exciting era. And with the newly formed Eastern Surfing Association in 1967, many members now felt that they had a larger brotherhood that would fight for maintaining and enhancing surfing rights throughout the Eastern seaboard. Now known amongst themselves as the “Founding Fathers of Surfing in Wrightsville Beach,” various members of the original WBSC reorganized in the mid-1990s and dedicated themselves to preserving their place in Cape Fear Region surfing and waterman history. While gathering every four years to reminisce about their glory days of surfing, almost daily one can spot a member or two still catching waves in Wrightsville Beach.

References

1. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, June 30, 1964, page 417-A. Official minutes of Town Board meetings were the responsibility of the Town Clerk. In the mid 1960's the town's official clerk was required to write the minutes by hand, provide times, dates, location, attending officials, written documents and so forth. The Clerk often summarized discussions on the agenda, and transcribed these notes at a later date on a typewriter. Therefore, while the minutes are a good record, they're a not a complete record like those of today, and are subject to the interpretation of the Clerk.

2. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, July 9, 1964, page 418. It should be noted here that the aforementioned “Surf Club” is a separate organization located at #1 East Mallard Street in Wrightsville Beach, and is not affiliated with the Wrightsville Beach Surf Club.

3. Ibid.

4. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, August 13, 1964, page 421-A.

5. Ibid.

6. “13 Surfers Arrested in Unauthorized Areas of Wrightsville Beach.” Wilmington Morning Star. July 12, 1965, pg. 11.

7. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, June 9, 1966, page 466.

8. Martin Grant, “Ocean Braved All Year By This Special Breed.” Wilmington Morning Star. April 9, 1966, pg. 12.

9. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, June 14, 1966, page 467-A.

10. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, July 14, 1966, page 469.

11. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, September 8, 1966, page 475. It should be noted here that for the first time the Town of Wrightsville Beach recognized a distinction in seasonal usage of the beach by surf bathers. This recognition helped set the stage for the approval of winter surfing zones in 1969.

12. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, October 13, 1966, page 477.

13. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, April 13, 1967, page 485.

14. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, May 11, 1967, page 486. The berm had been installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1966.

15. Minutes of the Town of Wrightsville Beach, November 24, 1969, page 541-541A. It should be noted that near the south jetty of Wrightsville Beach local fishermen enjoyed a fertile fishing area known as the “trout hole.”

16. “Surf Festival in Full Swing.” Wilmington Morning Star. April 9, 1966, pg. 12.

17. “WBSC Cops Championship.” Wilmington Morning Star. April 10, 1966, pg. 2C.

18. “Virginia Team Tops Surfing Competition.” Wilmington Morning Star. May 30, 1966, pg.

Page created and maintained by:Peter Fritzler,  Randall Library, University of North Carolina Wilmington

First online: March 3, 2006
Last update: October 30, 2007



Citing This Page:

Funderburg, Joe, and Peter Fritzler. "The Wrightsville Beach Surf Club: Surfing's Avant-garde in Wrightsville Beach."
Cape Fear Surfing Archive. William Randall Library, University of North Carolina Wilmington.
[Created: March 3, 2006; Updated: October 30, 2007; Cited: ]. Available from http://library.uncw.edu/surf/clubs/wbsc.htm.