OCEAN CITY — With close attention to a nostalgic past and a careful eye on a promising future, a new chapter in the legendary local surfing culture and community was launched on Monday with the announcement of the formation, or resurrection more appropriately, of the Ocean City Surf Club.
A virtual who’s who of Ocean City surfing pioneers and legends gathered at the Greene Turtle in West Ocean City on Monday for the announcement of the major change in surfing landscape in the resort area. A couple of generations of surfing legends, many of them with more and more gray in their hair and beards but still with the fire in their hearts, gathered for the announcement of the renewal of the Ocean City Surf Club, which will replace, for all intents and purposes, the Ocean City chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
Ocean City Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation Executive Director Shelly Dawson announced he is stepping down from the position after 14 years and is now heading up the Ocean City Surf Club. While the “new” club will adhere to the fundamental principles of the Surfrider Foundation, with its emphasis on environmental advocacy and clean beaches, competition, camaraderie and education, it will have a decidedly local focus.
Ocean City surfing pioneers Skill and Al Johnson, along with their late brother, Carl, were among the first to bring surfing to Ocean City in the early 1960s and formed the first Ocean City Surf Club in the fall of 1963. Skill, who now lives in Hawaii and has for several years, and Al, who just turned 70 on Sunday, were on hand on Monday night at the Greene Turtle in West Ocean City to announce the resurrection of the long-defunct club with Dawson as its new leader some 50 years later.
“Fifty years after they did it, we’re going to do it again,” said Dawson. “It’s something many of us have been talking about for 10 years, finding a way to further surfing in Ocean City, further the community and help further the youth. We batted the idea around for years, but as of a few months ago, we knew it was going to happen.”
Dawson said the Ocean City surfing community was not abandoning the Surfrider Foundation altogether, but instead was focusing its energy and efforts on a local club with local results.
“After 14 years of participating with the Surfrider Foundation, it’s now become three times larger than it was and has become this big corporate entity,” he said. “I’ve felt for a while Ocean City’s surfing community was sliding off to one side, so I chose to resign and help starting doing something right here, right now for Ocean City.”
Dawson said the new Ocean City Surf Club will focus its attention on the local surfing community and will continue the fundamental principles of the Surfrider Foundation in the resort over the last decade or so. Under Dawson’s watch, the Ocean City Surfrider Foundation has been instrumental in advocating for clean beaches and clean water, including the ubiquitous “leave only your footprints behind” campaign.
The new Ocean City Surf Club will continue those efforts, but will also place a renewed emphasis on charitable works in the community and fostering and nurturing the next generations of surfers in the resort area.
“The club will be a way to collect money and give back to Ocean City,” said Dawson. “We’re still going to be all about the environment and we’re going to leave that all on the table, but we’re also going to focus on charity and scholarships for our youth and opportunities to advance surfing in the community.”
The affable Skill Johnson presided over the evening’s proceedings, and along with his brother, Al, told stories of the nascent days of surfing in Ocean City. Johnson also narrated grainy 8mm films shot in the 1960s in and around the resort that had been converted onto DVDs and were shown on most of the televisions in the bar.
The films paid homage to those early days and included footage of the Johnson brothers’ trip across the country along Route 66 with a kind of local version of the timeless classic Endless Summer. With a nod to the current generation, a slide show produced by local surf photographer Nick Denny also played on some of the televisions during the event.
Skill Johnson regaled the assembly of surfing legends with famous stories of the early days of surfing in Ocean City and the surrounding coastal areas. Johnson said his brother, Al, first starting hearing about surfing when he was in Texas on a football scholarship and the brothers set off for California to find out more about it as early as 1961. They made it to Malibu and tried to find a place to rent surfboards, but never made the connection.
Back in Ocean City, where they lived on 8th Street not far from the current Malibu’s Surf Shop, the Johnson brothers continued to look for a place to find surfboards and were connected with a guy in Harrington, Del. who had a few boards. When the Johnsons went to meet the man, who ran the local post office, he closed the post office down for a chance to sell one of his boards to the brothers. Skill, Al and Carl Johnson got their boards that spring and began legendary surfing careers that have taken them all over the world.
The Johnsons formed the first Ocean City Surf Club in 1963 and the club grew as more and more local residents became involved. As the sport grew locally, the club eventually dissolved and splintered, but it was resurrected with the announcement on Monday. Several years ago, Skill Johnson bought the Internet domain name for oceancitysurfclub.com for $15 on a whim and it will now be the club’s new home.
“We’re transitioning into a new system,” said Johnson. “The hope is to revamp the same spirit of that very first club 50 years later.”
Dawson said the new club is in the formative stage and is in the process of putting together a steering committee, by-laws and acquiring its non-profit organization status. Judging by the heavyweights in the room on Monday, the new club appears to be on the fast track to success.
Ocean City promoter and surfing advocate Brad Hofman is among the core members of the new club’s leadership. Hofman said the renewed Ocean City Surf Club will continue the fundamental principles of respect for the ocean and respect for other surfers while continuing its environmental mission and nurturing the next generations.
“We have a vehicle to do great things,” he said. “As you look around here tonight, you see we have a lot of deep roots. We want to pass that along to the next generation and help young kids today understand and respect. This is just a big family of surfers and we’re going to make things happen in Ocean City.”
Another member of the core leadership is longtime Ocean City surfer Chris Tilghman, who grew up under the tutelage of pioneers like the Johnsons and others and hopes to continue to pass along those same principles.
“Ocean City and the surf community has been such a large part of my life,” he said. “Unfortunately, young people now don’t have that same venue and support. We’ve all really hoped there was a way to help the kids and it was a thing we all talked about, but we’re always so busy. Now, it looks like there is an impetus for that with this club.”
Dawson reached out to the surfing community for support in a variety of ways for the new club.
“We really need your help, first and foremost with the steering committee,” he said. “We need to identify where the need is and where the money will go. We will start by doing a few things exceptionally well, and with this turnout, it cannot fail. This thing is growing wings, not wheels.”