ORLEANS – Barney Burrill stood next to the homemade plywood surfboard his uncle George made in 1965. When Burrill pulled that old surfboard out of his uncle’s garage a few days ago, his uncle explained the plywood design simply. “He said, ‘Poverty is the mother of invention,“ said Burrill.
“I was just a little rascal back then (in 1965),” said Burrill. “I was nine years old. I was thinking it was cool, man. Way cool. I thought my cousin was the luckiest kid in the world.”
Almost 50 years later that surfboard resurfaced, on loan to display at the Nauset Surf ‘N Music Festival at the Old Jailhouse Tavern. The event was put on by the Orleans Chamber of Commerce to celebrate surfing on the outer Cape, said Chamber president Dick Hilmer.
This was a cultural event, a film festival, and more. There were displays of old surfboards and many surfing photos and surfing magazine and newspaper articles on display. According to Hilmer, the owner of Explore Cape Cod, a kayak tourism company, he’d been thinking of a surfing festival for two years, and real planning began about six months ago.
He brought in surf films, including “Endless Summer,” a display of surfboards, and surf dignitaries such as Keiko Beatie, advisor to the Surf Heritage Museum in California, and a historian of surf films.
But what he really did was bring together the surf community for a three-day celebration of their heritage and lifestyle. To do so, Hilmer, who is a kayaker but not a surfer, began reaching out and “Brendan McCray’s ‘s name kept coming up. The word I had was that he was the most well-respected surfer out there,” said Hilmer.
When McCray was contacted by Hilmer, “I thought this guy’s got some big ideas. I was like, good luck pal,” recalled McCray of his initial reaction. “I thought it was interesting but I thought it was a total pipe dream. Flying people in from California. It seemed grandiose to me.”
Grandiose it was. Grandiose and real. Hilmer persisted. McCray became involved. “I’m basically a bridge between the mainstream Cape Cod surfing community and the underground, hard-core surfing community,” said McCray.
Mainstream versus hardcore. It was a topic of conversation at this mainstream event that had somehow attracted the underground hardcore surfers, who McCray and others thought would not show up. McCray suggested “a lot of the guys in these pictures aren’t interested in this sort of thing.”
Yet many of them did show up because this sort of thing just doesn’t happen very often.
“How often do you get to break out these old photos, and old surfboards and these stories some of us have?” said Burrill.
Willie Lindblom, aka Willie Wipeout, walked in carrying a bag with a container of something he called, “Wipeout,” a combination of wine, ginger ale, vodka and Southern Comfort. “We started experimenting in 1966. We perfected the recipe in 1969. When we went to a party, I’d go with a bucket of Wipeout. Guys would get smashed on just the fruit.”
Decades ago, surfers had a bad reputation, according to McCray and others. “We were called slackers, even though we were working,” said Billy Sullivan of Wellfleet. “A lot of people didn’t surf because they didn’t want to be associated with that. Now we’ve got surfers who are attorneys and doctors and business owners. More people surfing these days.”
Surfing is more popular, more mainstream if you will. Mainstream surfing is associated with brand names like Billabong and Quicksilver, and romantic images and contests and trophies, said surfers. Underground surfing is about the waves.
This bringing underground surfing to the surface brought out a display of surfboards made on Cape Cod by local “shapers,” as the craftsmen are called.
According to Jason Feist, who grew up in Eastham and lives in Santa Barbra and owns J7 Surfboards, a surfboard shaper is “part artist, part craftsman, part carpenter. Every shaper is unique.” When it is suggested that he has a cool job, he said, “It’s a lot of work to have a cool job.”
And despite the slacker image, it takes a lot of work to be a surfer, especially an underground surfer. While mainstream surfing was described as “look at me,” Burrill said he recalled conversations along the lines of, “I’ll meet you here and try and get there alone. Mum’s the word, you know.”
“We just want quiet time in the ocean with a bro,” said Burrill. “Big crowds and all the contests turned it into too much publicity, We don’t like crowds. We keep things quiet. We’ve got secret spots. We’d be fine with no trophies and no contests.“
And yet here he was, celebrating surfing at a very public event, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. As the liaison between the two communities, McCray explained his role as, “They wanted me to find shit. I found shit. Here it is.”
The surfboards, and photos on display made the Old JailHouse Tavern appear to almost be a surfing museum, which is something Hilmer is thinking about creating. Many people pitched in, such as Burrill with his uncle’s surfboard.
The boards came “from everybody’s garage,” said Sullivan. “I brought three. I’ve got 39 more in my garage.”
According to Zach Bastian, of Rhode Island, who learned to surf at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, “There’s only one perfect spot on each wave to take off on.” So when surfing becomes more popular, there is more competition for that perfect spot. Looking at some of the older surfers, Bastian said, “They had all the waves to themselves.”
“It’s a lifestyle, man,” said Burrill. “The true surfer sees the beauty of the sand and the sun and the ocean. It’s about being in nature, a cross between religion and a lifestyle.”
This talk of surfing being bigger than just an activity comes up often when talking with surfers. Bastian, who is a paraplegic, is promoting a film called, “Endless Abilities.” He said, “Instead of being a guy in a wheelchair, I found being a surfer became my identity.”
And Shawn Vecchione of Wellfleet, owner of Vec Surfboards, said, “You never surfed? Get a surfboard. You’ll figure it out.”
— Brian Tarcy