By David Quick
Of The Post and Couier Staff
Frank Davis laughs a lot when he talks about surfing in the Charleston area in the mid-1960s.
"I was 16 or 17 years old, coming from Santa Cruz, California, and was just full of it,” says Davis, now 58 and living on James Island. “I walked out on Folly Beach with a nine-foot Greg Noll longboard and heads turned."
Davis lived and breathed surfing. He was among the first to ride the waves on Folly Beach, played in a Beach Boys-style band called The Pendeltons, and co-founded the West Coast East Surf Club, consisting of mostly Air Force base kids who enjoyed the dawn of surfing in the Lowcountry. was great. They were cool, cute girls were everywhere, and the realities of the Vietnam War and adulthood seemed an eternity away.
"The combination of this surf club and the band drove surfing to a frenzy here. We were always promoting surfing. We did everything to boost it," he said
In those days, the boards were, at first, fairly scarce, cost about $100 and were typically longer than eight feet. Instead of specialized, commercially made surf-board wax available today, surfers melted blocks of paraffin wax on the deck of boards for foot traction. And boards didn’t have ankle leashes. If someone wiped out, he or she had to swim to get the board.
On the Isle of Palms, a group of East Cooper teens were catching their first rides, too. They soon formed the Carolina Coast Surf Club and started traveling the Southeast’s shore, from Cocoa Beach, Fla., to Virginia Beach, Va., to compete in surf contests. Among them were Lucy Price Jacobs, now 56 and living near Charlotte, and her sisters. The sisters, and few other girls, were welcomed as equals among the 15 boys in the club.
“We hung out at the long-gone pavilion (on the Isle of Palms),” recalls Jacobs. “I remember my first ride. It was so exhilarating. I was immediately hooked.”
Surfing, depending on who you talk to, arrived at Charleston beaches in 1963 or 1964. Like most national trends, it took a while to get here. Polynesians in Hawaii were probably surfing before Christopher Columbus stepped foot in the Americas. Surfing in Hawaii barely survived efforts by Christian missionaries to stamp it out and, in the first half of the 20th century, spread slowly to Australia and California. In the 1950s, the mo-mentum was building, and it be-came ripe for international popularity, especially with release of the 1959 movie “Gidget.” Teens started showing up on local shores with a few boards years later. They were pioneers of Lowcountry surfing. Surf boards and products weren’t available, nor were advanced weather forecasting systems that many rely on to-day — such as Web sites monitor-ing buoys in the Atlantic that can give an indication of wave conditions days in advance.
Also, some of their parents didn’t know what to make of surfing, which was part of the growing counter-culture of the 1960s.
“My dad and mom couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to play high school basketball or football, “says Andy Benke, now 49 and the Sullivan’s Island town administrator. “There was no way to describe the feeling of surfing to them. It was better than hanging out at the high school football game, better than drinking parties, better than anything. My parents had a hard time understanding that.” Benke fondly recalled starting surfing in 1965 and buying his first board, a 10-foot Royal Hawaiian, from the Edwards Five and Dime store on King Street. “I couldn’t even carry it to the beach by myself,” he said.
Unlike the much younger Benke, the glory days of that first generation of surfers ended near the end of the decade. Some headed off to fight in the Vietnam War, some went to college and some started families. Some kept surfing and some quit. Some scattered across the country. At the same time, surfing itself changed. The mass introduction of the shortboard — boards measuring 7 feet or less — ushered in a new style of surfing and an era of individualism. The combination essentially caused surf clubs to die. Today, many of the first kids who surfed locally are facing 60. But they haven’t lost their memories of surfing in the good old days. And in recent years, they have reconnected on Labor Day weekends for surfing and stories.
In 1999, former Carolina Coast members and surfing buddies Hal Coste and Tom Proctor started toying with the idea of reorganizing the club. But it wasn’t until Coste appeared on a segment of the home improvement cable TV network HGTV that it started rolling. As a result, Jacobs and Coste talked and he told her the idea. Coste, Proctor, Jacobs and others started the club back up, held re-unions in 2001 and 2003, have plans set for a club surfing trip to Costa Rica next February, and plan to hold reunions and surf contests annually. The Carolina Coast club is open to everyone, young and young at heart. Part of its reason for existing, Proctor says, is to pass the tradition on to the next generations of surfers.
This weekend marks another reunion. Members — some of whom are coming from Hawaii, California, Texas and Florida — gathered on the Isle of Palms beach Saturday, held a dinner Saturday night and have plans for another day of surfing today and Monday. For one member, local attorney Nick Sottile, the reunions have meant a rebirth in the passion of his youth.
“I went 30 years without surfing because of career, working summertimes, raising money for college and what not,” says Sottile, now 52. “I showed up at the re-union in 2001, the surf gods intervened (provided good waves), and everybody hit the water. ... I’ve had the fever ever since. ”Now, he’s not only surfing regularly but has traveled to Costa Rica with his sons to surf.