WELLFLEET – This is a story about the poetry of surfing – specifically the 39th Cape Cod Oldtimers Longboard Classic Surfing Contest at Whitecrest Beach on Sunday. (See slideshow below)
“You are sliding on the surface of the ocean and this wave came from a thousand miles away,” said Steve Soumerai, 60, who began surfing in 1967. “At the end of a good ride, you just want to giggle.” Soumerai, of Brookline, summers in Wellfleet.
The poetry starts with the landscape of Whitecrest Beach, a mix of dune cliffs, and an enormous stretch of beach, sea, and sky, but to hear surfers talk about surfing is to get the sense that nature offers even more poetry than what meets the non-surfer’s eye.
“You can’t ride a light wave. You can’t ride a sound wave. But you can ride an ocean wave. And life comes in waves.” said Lee Anderson, 61, of Easton, who has been surfing since 1960. While he talked, twangy beach music played from a nearby car. Surfers showed up. Old timers, and wannabe old timers.
“We were looked down on back in the day,” said Billy Sullivan, 62, of Wellfleet. “Now, respectable people surf.”
Jim “Duke” Papadonis, 60, of Brewster and Medfield, said he is a bank executive who never told anyone at his bank that he surfed for the first 25 years working at the bank. “Because of the reputation of surfers,” he explained. “When we were riding these boards in the 1960s, they called us slackers, nonconformists, hippies.”
“Surfing shaped my life,” said Sullivan.
“All of us hung out on these beaches and surfed,” said Papadonis. “Some more than others.” Decades ago, he said, “this was known as ‘Surfer’s Beach.’ ” It was also known as “4-Mile Beach,” he said.
The sand dunes have shifted and the surfing here is not as good as at other places. Now the place on Cape Cod that usually has the best waves to surf is Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, said surfers.
But here they were, at the old “Surfer’s Beach” holding court over a surfing contest with nine age categories, including “Puppies” (21-29); “Bitties” (women 21 & over); “Yuppies” (30-39); “Corporate Types” (40-49); Oldtimers 50-61), and “Social Security” (62 and over), plus various categories of lifeguards.
Many in the nine categories were related to each other. This is literally a family affair.
The “Oldtimers” name is not from the age of the surfer, but rather the age of the surfboard, or at least the style of the surfing. “No wetsuits, shortboards, or leashes,” said the rules.
The contest started 39 years ago when the current old-timers were not anywhere near social security. “When the boards started getting smaller, a lot of guys were still using long boards,” said Mike Houghton, organizer of the event. He owned the now-closed Jasper’s Surf Shop, which was once the center of the Cape Cod surfing community. “They used to call us old-timers for doing it ,” said Houghton.
So he turned a negative into a nostalgic positive.
“It’s that 60s surfing atmosphere,” said Dana Franchitto, of Wellfleet. “I love this event. It’s my summer milestone. It’s not a serious contest. It’s fun. There are a lot of old traditional boards, longboards, one big fin in the back.” Franchitto, 62, described himself as “sort of the Beavis and Butthead of surfers.”
As the contest started, Edward Gurnett, of Eastham, wearing a “Surfing Rots Your Brain” hat, sat in the lifeguard chair and announced it through a microphone. His banter was colorful, off-color, and often hilarious.
Surfers in each category lined up, posed with their surfboards and then ran in the water. Anytime a surfer caught a wave, or missed a wave, Gurnett explained it in his own unique way to the crowd. Surfers, old to young, male and female, made the sport look easy. Catch a wave, stand up, ride it in. It happened over and over.
“Most people think the hard part is standing up,” said Papadonis, “but the real hard part is catching a wave. Having the upper body strength to paddle over and get the wave.”
Early in the contest, the waves were small but as the day wore on, the waves got bigger. A storm was coming, but it wouldn’t show up until after the contest. Dogs watched. Kids played, and there was an attentive audience for the contest. .
“This becomes a passion when you do it,” said Papadonis. “It’s exhilarating catching a wave. It’s not like any other sport.”
“It’s the most exhilarating feeling in the world,” said Soumerai, “and at the same time, it’s one of the most beautiful feelings.”
— Brian Tarcy