History of Surfing in North Carolina

By Nancy Gadzuk

Ben Wunderly, museum curator at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort and co-collaborator with John Hairr on the Surfing NC Project, spoke at the October 15, 2018 meeting of the Federal Point Historical Preservation Society. Ben spoke on the History of Surfing in North Carolina.

While the title slide of Ben’s talk featured a 1966 photographic image, surfing in the state far predated the 1960’s. Ben moved outside North Carolina and traced the earliest recorded awareness of the sport to the late 1700’s. Captain James Cook’s expeditions to the Pacific reported Tahitians riding the waves on a board they described as “the stern of an old canoe.”

By the late 1800’s, awareness of surfing in the Pacific had spread to the East Coast. A “surfing party” was held at the Atlantic Hotel in Morehead City in 1885. A Watauga County man wrote about an excursion he took to Wrightsville Beach in 1894, where “All sorts and sizes were riding the waves during the entire day.”

After the turn of the century, reports of surfing in North Carolina became more widespread. A 1907 postcard from Wrightsville Beach appeared to show surfers in the water, though an ancient precursor to Photoshop may have been used to doctor the photo.

The earliest well-documented surfing activity in North Carolina was Virginia Dare Day in 1928, which featured surfing demonstrations by NC surfing pioneer Willie Kaiama.

By the 1950’s and 1960’s, surfing in North Carolina had spread – even inland to the original Bert’s Surf Shop in Kinston. Given the lack of beaches in Kinston, Bert had to sell clothes and shoes along with surfboards before opening a series of surf shops along the coast.

In 1964, Harold Petty and Lank Lancaster founded East Coast Surfboards in Carolina Beach, shaping their own brand of surfboards. In 1965, the Atlantic Surf Shop opened in Kure Beach, despite the town leaders banning surfing that summer due to complaints from fishermen who blamed the surfers for their bad luck. The Spring Surf Festival was held at Lumina in Wrightsville Beach in 1966.

By 1974, the North Carolina coast was recognized for having the best surfing on the East Coast, and the United States Surfing Championship was held in Buxton, the first time since the competition started that it was held on the East Coast. In 1997, the East Coast Wahine Championship of Surfing was established at Wrightsville Beach.

Due to time constraints, Ben was not able to talk in much detail about more recent history in this presentation. However, the Surfing NC Project included the development of Surfing NC: A Timeline of the History of the Sport of Surfing in North Carolina, a book Ben co-authored with John Hairr.

PDF copies of the book are available for free download from the Maritime Museum website:

https://ncmaritimemuseumbeaufort.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/North-Carolina-Surfing-NC-Timeline-2nd-Edition-HAIRR-WUNDERLY.pdf    [PDF]

What struck me most was the amount of work involved to ferret out the history presented during the evening, and in much greater detail in the book. When our focus is on war or politics or other more institutionalized subjects, there are often good written records to follow.

Surfing, however is more informal, with its proponents generally more interested in finding the next good wave than chronicling their activities in writing. Fortunately, Wunderly and Hairr have done much of that hard work and provided a fascinating history of the sport in North Carolina.