Surfers are neat. Surfers are also cool, nervy, graceful, clear-eyed, four-square, uniformly lovely, thrifty, brave, reverent, kind and only slightly crazy. Try to fix these labels in your mind immediately, because the last time you may have noticed surfers were a pretty scruffy lot. Most of that has changed. Five weeks ago, at a California surfing awards ceremony, they came in tuxedoes and evening gowns. The new image has fallen upon them. Would you want your sister to marry one? May we see your sister first, please?
More than that, the next thing you know, surfing may become an Olympic event. If it does, it will come complete with red-white-and-blue surfboards, and there will be a great deal of patriotic parading about on the beaches and perhaps a few choruses of Give My Regards to Edwards, because Phil Edwards (see cover) is largely responsible for giving the sport its Jack Armstrong look.
Having fought its way out of the sociological swamps, the sport is now on a phenomenal surge across the U.S. Or, more correctly, all around the edges of the U.S., wherever the water is bumpy enough and in a lot of spots where there is barely a ripple. There are, as you read this, uncounted thousands of people standing on grounded surfboards with ripples lapping up around their ankles—looking rapturous. Surfing is a thing now. It is here.
The West Coast, where Edwards became famous, arrived years ago. California now has so many surfers that the people who make surfing movies shoot them in other locations just to get an uncluttered background. (Real surfers, surprisingly, sometimes appear in these movies. Edwards has been James Darren on the faraway shots, a trick that makes the In crowd hoot with laughter. In their bad old days the In crowd also tore up a drive-in movie or two.)
Along the scalloped coastline between Point Conception and the Baja peninsula, surfers ride board-to-board, a sunburned army in droopy drawers. Surfing Guide to Southern California
estimates 285 surfing sites on the Coast, a figure that will dismay a lot of residents because many of the locations face private beaches.
Nonetheless, with all this, an even more surprising scene is taking place in the East. While most people were looking the other way, surfing has become perhaps the fastest-growing sport along the more than 1,500 miles of eastern seacoast and inlets. There are more than 50,000 eastern surfers, by ragged estimate, and Lord knows how many more who carry surfboards atop their cars as prestige props. These boards cost on the average $150 each. This fact is important, for the one sure path to status in this country is for a sport to become an Economic Factor.
"You must understand from the start that eastern surf is not all that good," says Bob Holland, co-proprietor with Pete Smith of the Smith and Holland Surf Shop in Virginia Beach, Va. "The continental shelf inhibits the wave. But our waves run about three feet through the year. They are fun to ride, great for hot-dogging—that is, performing tricks—and the East with its population centers is generating the enthusiasm." Both Smith and Holland are enthusiastic. They run their shop wearing shorts and breakaway sneakers, and when the surf is up they will march right out and reopen later when the water calms down.
"The East Coast may be the greatest training ground for future surfers," says Smith. "If they learn to ride well here, they are ready for Hawaii."
But preparing for Hawaii has become so much fun that not everybody will want to go. After Virginia Beach, which surfers consider one of the best in the East, there are other spots with eastern characteristics all their own, from Cocoa Beach, Fla. to Portland, Me.
At Virginia Beach, on a perfect day, the surfing zone is packed with little people just this side of puberty. Half of them are in the water by the Steel Pier, straddling their boards, waiting for the best waves to come curling in; the other half are standing in struck poses on the beach with boards under their arms, waiting for an opening. There are more than 2,000 boards in town on weekdays, and weekends bring many more.