Come Cold or Crowds, Ocean City Surfing Is a Way of Life
Chris Makibbin is the first to show up for the early shift. It's 6 a.m. on a Thursday, and he's already been scoping out the other beaches before settling on the inlet. He pulls on his wet suit and grabs his board from the back of the van in the parking lot. The Ferris wheel, idle, looms behind him near the empty boardwalk.
By the time he hits the water, he's joined by two other surfers, then another. The beach will be packed later in the day, but for now it's just four guys, bobbing in the water, waiting for the right wave. The surf comes quick--rides are only a few seconds long--and an upwelling of cold water has made it unseasonably chilly, but a couple of early tropical storms have been kicking up the waves along the East Coast, and the surfers of Ocean City have been taking full advantage.
Makibbin, 30, is the current East Coast short-board surfing champ in the masters division. And as of June, he's the co-chair of the DelMarVa chapter of the Eastern Surfing Association, an organization he joined as a competitor some 20 years ago. He works for his family business, designing and installing fire-suppression systems. When he was younger, if he called in sick, his father would check the surf reports--if the surf was bad, well, maybe he was sick. Now that Makibbin is older, with a 9-month-old daughter and his wife, Cammie, waiting at home with a list of things that need to get done before they can sell their house, it's tougher to find time to hit the water. So he clocks in with the morning shift, along with dozens of others up and down the beach.
The day before, in his house on the bay side of Coastal Highway, Makibbin sat watching the Weather Channel after work, looking for the signs that would tell him what the next day would bring. This summer has been good to the surfers of Ocean City, better than most. Makibbin says it's usually flat through June, and not much better in July, but it's been straight good surf for two or three weeks now. Cammie, who co-chair the DelMarVa ESA with her husband and another O.C. surfer, came into the room as he said this and laughed. "I hate it," she said. "Nothing gets done."
"There's a drive that a lot of the people in this town have to surf," Makibbin says. "For the conditions we get, I mean, usually [the waves are] small. In the wintertime, when there is surf, it's accompanied by freezing weather. Freezing winds, every single element possible against you being a surfer." But "if you really want to surf, you've got to be on it every day there's waves. It's what you do."
When you aren't battling the elements just off the shores of Ocean City, there are tourists to contend with. By the time Makibbin puts his board back in the van at around 8 on Thursday morning, there are about a dozen bodies competing for waves at the inlet, and by afternoon it's a full-on crowd.
Being a full-time resident of OC is like living in a very small apartment with a very large guest room and friends who never leave. The town has a year-round population of around 8,000 people, according to the city's planning department, and a peak summer population of more than 322,000; of the 8 million people who visit every year, about half will come during the months of June, July, and August, and some of them will behave poorly. They will necessitate public service announcements about looking both ways before crossing the street. They will purchase boardwalk T-shirts that ask strangers to perform sex acts on them, and then refuse to cover themselves with them. The Ocean City police force doubles in the summer, mostly to deal with what the department terms "peace and good order statutes." An editorial in Ocean City Today in June opined that "the statistics might show that the bad behavior by this year's crop was no worse than last year's, but that is like saying suffering from a second rash is more agreeable than the first."
The tourists bring with them the money that fuels Ocean City's economy year-round, however; more than half of the jobs in the city are related to tourism and real estate. Without the tourists, and all of the trouble and fuss they bring, there would be no Ocean City at all. Residents may complain about the behavior of the young and college bound in June, but they are the ones selling beer bongs at the supermarket.
For the surfers, the crowds pose a special problem, one which the city has tried to accommodate in various ways over the years: access to beaches. In addition to the general problem posed by trying to surf in a crowd, swimmers in the water along with men and women with large heavy surfboards are a recipe for disaster.
The current solution is this: The surfers get the inlet, a prime chunk of beach with a fairly reliable surf near the south end of the boardwalk. They also get two other beaches, one north and one south, which rotate every day, moving two blocks in either direction, then starting again when they reach the end of the beach. This partly satisfies the tourists, who will at most be denied access to the closest stretch of beach for a day, and partly satisfies the surfers, although there is no guarantee that the surf will be breaking well at a given block on a given day. The designated surf beaches are marked off with yellow lifeguard chairs and policed to keep swimmers out. In the mornings, though, before the lifeguards are out, and in the evenings, the beaches are wide open to surfers, and that is when most of the locals go out, before and after work.
Most of the early afternoon surfers at the inlet are riding short boards, which lend themselves more to the newer, progressive style of surfing, which takes moves from skateboarding--catching air, treating the crest of the wave like the lip of a halfpipe. A few old-timers on the more traditional long boards lurk further out, close to the rocks. From the beach, it all seems fairly courteous: When two surfers find themselves on a collision course, or dropping in on the same wave, one bails out. When one of the long boards catches a wave, though, no one challenges it as it cruises through. It's like watching a woody station wagon passing through a field of sports cars.
It may look coordinated, but the contained OC surf beaches can be territorial, Makibbin says, although it's not like some of the spots he's been in California, where you can expect to get yelled at as you're paddling out. It's more subtle here, but there are ways a bunch of locals can block out an outsider.
"Whenever you get a super pack of guys out there, it's a limited resource, you know," he notes. "Being from this area, people figure, `Hey, I deserve this more than people from out of town.' That's just the way people look at it, which is kind of childish if you ask me. . . . For the most part, on the East Coast, we're just happy to have waves."
Maxwell Press and Kelly Sullivan, both 19, are sitting on the beach at the inlet early on a Monday afternoon, watching around two dozen surfers in the water. Press, home for the summer from Temple University, recognizes a handful of fellow locals. He's working at a Mexican restaurant this summer but finds time to surf and skate every day. He's only sitting on the sand now because he forgot his wet suit--his folks just moved to a new place near Salisbury, and he doesn't feel like getting it, so he's taking a break to warm up.
Even with the crowd, the inlet's a good spot, Press says, because it's consistent. The break of the wave is determined by the ocean floor and, in Ocean City, the ever-shifting sand bar off the beach. An the inlet, sand bars are protected by the stone jetty that marks the entrance to the Isle of Wight and Sinepuxent bays. Out in the water, a pair of surfers take the same wave, seemingly on a collision course--one comes from the left, the other from the right--but they both bail when a third appears, cutting straight down the middle.
Nobody really keeps count of the number of people in the water, but all the surfers interviewed for this article say their pastime has gone through a surge in popularity in recent years. They can see it on the beach.
"The sport has exploded," Press says. "It's turning into the West Coast over here. . . . It's almost a competition for a wave. But if you're not that good, you're not going to be able to compete with someone like Vince out there."
In the year 2008, if you ask 10 surfers in Ocean City whom the best up-and-comer on the beach is, you will hear the name Vince nine times. Next year it could be someone else, but right now, Vince Boulanger is Ocean City's favorite son.
"Vince is the next kid coming out of our town that has a good-looking future at it," says Makibbin, a friend of Boulanger's. "He's doing it right, too. He's trying to compete as much as he can, trying to get his name out there. It's tough, because of how small the industry is here, you have to travel, and to travel you have to have money. You have a lot of guys from small towns that just rip, but they never break through, because they never have the means to."
Boulanger is sort of a late bloomer--he didn't start surfing until he was 13, but he started getting sponsors at 15. Now, at 19, he's on the cusp of a career as a professional athlete. Boulanger's picture is in this month's Eastern Surf magazine and Mundo Rad, a Puerto Rican surf mag, and he's lined up some sponsors. He's in the process of sorting out what it takes to make the jump from being a good surfer to being a pro, and they aren't necessarily the same skills.
"You have to sell yourself," Boulanger says. "You have to market yourself. You have to tell your sponsors, `This is what I'm going to do for you. I'm going to get these pictures in the papers.' It's not necessarily the better you are at surfing, but the more exposure you get. There's way more of the business end behind it than I ever thought."
Boulanger just got back from Huntington Beach, Calif., which likes to call itself "Surf City." He was there for two months, and last winter he spent some time in Hawaii. It's a transition most serious surfers in Ocean City make, from surfing the local beaches to the bigger, internationally known ones. Makibbin tries to take a couple months off during the winter--one of the perks of working for the family business--to travel to Costa Rica, New Zealand, Mexico, Hawaii, Barbados, Nova Scotia.
"When you do travel," Makibbin says, "and you do go away, you're going to take full advantage of the whole time you're there. It's not like, `I'll surf one time today, then I'll see what else is going on.' You're in the water all day long, and you're just so amped."
Boulanger compares the California scene to the one he has at home. Out there he had a manager showing him the ropes, telling him how to market himself to representatives of surfing companies. It's something he's still getting used to. Boulanger is soft-spoken and maybe a little shy. It's not clear whether or not he notices girls' heads turning when he walks by.
"There's not as much surf industry here," he says, "not as many reps and stuff. All the kids here just surf to have fun--more than in other places, especially in Huntington Beach. Every kid there just wanted to be the next sponsored kid, wanted to turn pro and stuff. There's kids here that want to do that, too, but it's just not the same. Here they've got other things going on."
Last night Boulanger says he was talking to some tourist girls, and they asked him what it was like to live in Ocean City year-round. "In the winter, it's a ghost town," he told them.
"When I was a little kid there were only, like, three traffic lights that turned red in Ocean City [in the winter]--all the other ones would be either off or blinking yellow. It used to be, like, in the winter, there was nobody in this town at all. The less people, the more you can really enjoy the town. . . . It's like it's really your town, because there's no one there." Come cold weather, he says, it's easier to skate the buildings downtown without the cops chasing you off, or to sneak into the water park for some wet-suit sledding. But summer has its own attractions.
"The cool thing about summer is there's so many girls, so many parties," he adds. "It's a crazy town in the summer, [but] I really love the winter. I like the isolation. I don't like the big city, I prefer the small town."
Back at Boulanger's house in West Ocean City, he apologizes for the clutter--he's got two younger brothers and another kid staying with them, and the surfboard rack inside the door is full. Two waist-high trophies (second place in the Eastern Championships two years in a row) sit next to them, outnumbered by the smaller BMX awards across the room. He pulls his winter wet suit out of a laundry basket in the back. It's heavy. Even heavier when it's wet. He holds it up: "Dude, it's so fucking hot in these things."
A wet suit with a hood is part of the gear for any real Ocean City surfer. "The only part of your body that's showing is right here," Boulanger says, making a circle around his face with his hands. "Through middle school and high school, I'd always have a tan line in an oval [on my face]. That's how you could tell who surfed and stuff through high school--whoever had that tan line, you'd be like, OK, that kid surfs all winter."
Right now, the good winter surf is a dredged-up memory, like the cold water drawn up as the southerly wind peels away the warmer water on top. The beaches were cleared at midday because of lightning, and early afternoon talk at Malibu's Surf Shop on North Atlantic Avenue turns to a story someone heard about a tourist family who got struck when they tried to take shelter under a beach umbrella. It may or may not have happened, but the threat hasn't deterred the parasailing boat just offshore--it drags a human lightning rod high above the waves like a child's kite.
The atmospheric conditions don't matter to the surfers either way--the water's pretty much dead flat. Boulanger swings by Malibu's, one of his sponsors, and owner Lee Gerachis jokingly gives a him a hard time for not showing the shop's logo in his magazine picture.
Gerachis has a prime location for his shop--right on the boardwalk--and it's bustling with tourists and locals, looking for gear or just hanging out waiting for the waves to pick up. The store's current location opened in 1993 (it dates back to 1986), in a house Gerachis' family owned, and he still lives here with his family. He has spent summers here since he was 8, he says, which was also about when he started surfing. The rest of the year was spent outside Washington. Before he became a surf-shop owner he was a mammalian biologist for the National Institutes of Health, doing cancer research.
"I worked in a lab, pretty much underground," he says. "I enjoyed it, but I couldn't see the longevity for me. It just was not my calling."
He's lived in California and surfed there and in Mexico and Fiji. He tries to travel during the off-season, but it's hard with four kids. Being on the boardwalk makes it easy to cross the beach and surf every morning he can, Gerachis says, "waves and business willing." Compared to other places he's been, he says the surf in Ocean City is "less consistent, but when it's good, I've had as much fun here as I've had anywhere. When it's good here, it's a lot of fun."
Up the street at Chauncey's surf shop on 53rd Street, Blair Rhodes and Zach Augustine have a comedy routine going on. Rhodes is the owner, Augustine's his employee and the vice president of the Salisbury University Surf Club. Rhodes is 55--"the double nickel," he says. Augustine just turned 21. "The sad thing is," Rhodes deadpans, "I could still kick his ass."
Rhodes says he has been in Ocean City for "Forteeeeeee-- don't know. I had a store called Sunshine House up the street for 25 years and I sold that in '92. Chauncey's opened in '94. So, a long freaking time."
He was born and raised in northwest Washington, D.C., and "ever since I can remember all I wanted to do was surf, and I don't really know why. My parents can't figure it out . . . I can't trace it back to anything. I got a paper route delivering the Evening Star when I was 10 or 11 years old and saved up enough money to buy a surfboard when I was 12. Turns out my route manager at the paper route, his son surfed, so he would go to New Jersey and play the ponies at Monmouth Park every week, and would drop us off at the beach to go surfing. I would rent a board--this was before I got my first one--and surf all day long. And that's all I ever wanted to do. I don't know why."
Rhodes started working at Sunshine House at 15, eventually becoming a partner. After he sold that store, he figured he was done with retail, but he opened up Chauncey's, named after his brother, and now the siblings run two locations on Coastal Highway.
Augustine grew up in Dundalk, and his grandparents still live there, a fact that amuses Rhodes to no end. ("You're from where?" "Dundalk." "From where?" "Dun-DAWK." "Just checking.")
Augustine: "My grandparents owned Tosti's Deli on . . . 130th? I can never remember what street that is. Blair, where's that porn shop--that sex shop?"
Rhodes: "Oh yeah--they owned that Italian deli in there? That was awesome. I used to go in there all the time when I lived on 136th Street."
"It's the bomb. You probably met me in there at some point. I used to work the register."
"A kid from Dundawk? I don't think so."
"I was in there all the time. I loved it."
"Where you from again?"
Ask Rhodes what makes Ocean City a good place for surfers, and he says this:
"If you look at the coast and the way it's shaped, we get way better waves than Virginia Beach, way better than northern New Jersey, just because of the way it's shaped--we stick out farther," he begins. "And we have Assateague Island, which faces the south. When we have tropical storms, the way we have the past couple of weeks, as soon as that tropical storm gets in that Bermuda corridor, then we start seeing waves at Assateague, and Assateague can hold a pretty big swell, whereas Ocean City, when it gets six to eight feet, it starts dumping"--breaking--"because our sand bars are better here. But it's deeper at Assateague, so Assateague can hold a bigger swell better.
"The really good surfers, when the swell gets big, they all head to Assateague, but Ocean City is more consistent because it breaks on more tides, whereas Assateague is basically a low-tide break. But yeah, because of Assateague, and because of the angle of our shores, we catch more swell than other places, other than Hatteras, which sticks out farther than we do."
Augustine says Ocean City doesn't have a reputation as a surf beach because the surfing is better when the tourists aren't around.
"We get all our waves in the fall, winter, when no one's here," he contends. "When we do get waves, there's no one who sees them besides the surfers who know the waves are going to be there and come down."
Rhodes usually goes to Hawaii or the Caribbean during the off-season. This past winter he was in California, helping a friend set up a new surfboard factory. He surfed northern and central California from January to May, but because of the winter weather on the East Coast, "the best waves I got all year long were right here."
One of the more popular beaches among local surfers is the stretch around 38th Street. Endless Summer, just down the block, has been there since 1983, run by Salty, a former pro skater who also hosts a motorcycle show on the local Comcast channel. Salty, whose real name is Bobby Selt, was born in the '50s, which is as close as he wants to get to giving his age. He grew up in Rockville, but, as he puts it, "I got out of a shithole and I came down to paradise.
"I grew up in a country club playing golf," he says. "My father was the vice president of Spalding worldwide. I got into skating in 10th grade and quit everything. I told my dad in 12th grade that I was going to be a professional skateboarder. There was no pro anything. He just looked at me like, `You're going to do what?' Luckily, it worked out."
Surfing and skateboarding have a long and tangled history. Skateboarding, which started out as something to do when you couldn't surf, has come back in recent years to influence the older sport.
"Skating was done in the early '60s and late '50s, into the '70s, to emulate Hawaiian surfers," Salty says. "But now, skating has evolved so much that surfers are doing things on waves that the skateboarders were doing on ramps. The tricks now being done by the pros on surfboards came from the skaters."
In the early '80s, when the popularity of skateboarding was on a down cycle, Salty was casting about for something to do and opened his surf shop. He was never an exceptional surfer, he says, never competed. He just loved doing it and goes out whenever there are waves. The splint on his finger (he broke it surfing a couple of weeks ago) doesn't stop him--he just uses his palms more to push up onto the board.
Salty says the popularity of surfing is definitely in an upswing right now. He credits it to the popularity of what he calls "the lifestyle sports--BMX, supercross, surfing, skateboarding, all the X Games stuff"--and the corporate marketing dollars that go into them. "It's a good and a bad thing," he says. "It's bad to have the people because it's crowded, but it's good because it keeps me in business. Business is very, very good."
Business is good enough that, even though he keeps the shop open, he heads south in the off-season. Salty isn't much for the OC winter surf, not when there are other options.
"It's brutal'" he says. "When you're in 30-degree water and it's 10 degrees out, and the wind's blowing 20 knots, you've got to really want to get in the water. Whereas I can be in Tortola and it's 80 degrees and the surf's perfect. When there's good waves here, there's good waves everywhere. It's fun to surf where there's palm trees."
Salty says a lot of his out-of-town customers watch the internet for surf conditions and come down for quick trips. "There's a lot of guys that surf from Baltimore, Washington, Pennsylvania, who have to do the weekend trips, so they rely on our web site or the big forecasting sites and see if they want to come down for the weekend. That technology has really helped surfers."
Ocean City, he says, is "a fun place to learn how to surf--it's a sand-bottom beach break, as opposed to a reef, or rocks, or a point break, where there's a lot of currents or things like that. It's a beginner-friendly place to surf."
It's Monday night, and the Ocean City City Council is meeting down on Baltimore Street. A young surfer from Florida apologizes for being nervous, but he's never been in front of a city council. He's here to get permits for the upcoming Cooterfish surf tournament, and after some snickering over the name, the council approves it, with one question: Will there be a class for old guys like Shelly?
If Ocean City surfing had an ambassador, it would probably be Shelly Dawson. He might as well be the official spokesman for the beach itself. Sitting in the front row, he's here for something he never would have imagined 10 years ago, much less when he was an 18-year-old surf bum. Now, at 58, with a shaggy gray bowl cut, Dawson gets up and thanks the city for helping out with his environmental campaign to clean up the beaches. He's the head of the local chapter of the Surfriders, a volunteer environmental organization staffed by surfers. When he's not surfing or working, which he says he tries to do in that order, Dawson tries to raise awareness about the state of the beaches and the impact of tourism. He scored a coup this year, getting some prime billboard space for the Surfriders' "Leave Only Your Footprints" anti-litter campaign.
Dawson is from Salisbury originally but says he spent weekends and vacations at a piece of land his family owned in Ocean City. He was a lifeguard at Assateague from '68 to '75, and he's been surfing for about 40 years. He did take a break from the sport for a while, after his son was born, and "tried to grow up," but he says that was a mistake, "Now I'm in total regression," he says. "I'm worse now than I was when I was 18."
"Back then, when you got out of school it was kind of--you put the kid stuff behind you, and surfing was something you did as a kid, which is ridiculous, obviously," Dawson says. "For about eight years I got away from it." It was his wife who noticed the way he talked with his old lifeguarding and surfing friends. She told him he was a whole different person around them.
"I realized that, working in construction, I'm not going to be able to leave a lot for my son, but what I got from my dad--he taught me to swim in the ocean, he taught me to fish in the bay. I kind of picked up surfing on my own, but he taught me to body-surf at 5 or 6 years old," Dawson says. "I think I got his love for the ocean and the beach, and I figure that's the one thing I can leave my son and my grandkids. It all just kind of fell into place, so I got back into it in the early 1980s, and it has just consumed me more and more. And I'm not the exception--I'm maybe the one who admits it the loudest, but there are a lot of guys--you look around and you'll see [surfboard] racks on every conceivable vehicle in this town."
Dawson is a bit of a contradiction--like the way he says he's naturally shy when everyone else seems to think he's the most talkative guy on the beach, at least when it comes to surfing. As a builder specializing in new construction, he relies on the continued growth of the city for his livelihood, although, as an environmentalist, the last thing he wants is more building on the beach. As a surfer, he says he's the first one to complain about all the people in the water, but as the chairman of Surfriders, he fights to get them access. More people mean more litter, more cigarette butts in the sand, more bottles for him to pick up, but without them, the small-town part of Ocean City, himself included, would be out of work.
"This is a huge machine," Dawson says of his hometown. "And it has to run itself. It's a huge economy, and it's an important piece of real estate that has to be protected."
Dawson sees the two forces--economy and environmentalism--working together. He thinks that's why, for the most part, the city has been receptive to the Surfriders' requests over the years. He can bring the cause to people the way he sees it. He has to protect the beach for the tourists, but also because it's where he lives and where he surfs, which for him seem like they're almost the same thing.
"I think for most people, there is a spiritual, if not a religious connotation to [surfing]," he notes. "When you go out there, all you think about is what you're doing. The workday and, unfortunately, the family, all these things disappear. You may sit there and talk to the guys around you, but really you're in your world in the water.
"For me, everything I do is surfing. It's that consuming."
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