50 Years of ESA
Local Surf Organization Continues to Guide Young Enthusiasts
Surfing is once again a trendy thing that even the city kids want to learn. But it’s been a way of life on the Outer Banks for many decades, and the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) has been a guiding star to the sport for generations.
Celebrating its 50th year, the largest amateur surfing organization in the world has held its annual championship tournament here since 1971. But it is also here where the ESA has proven to be an especially good fit with our insular community of free-spirited, family-oriented surfing enthusiasts.
“I think that nationally, surfing has really taken off,” says Ricky Brake, ESA Outer Banks North Carolina district director. “It’s a fun, healthy, exciting sport. More people are finding out about it.”
And thanks in part to the ESA, which has 24 districts from Maine to the Gulf Coast, the Outer Banks is synonymous with great surfing.
For unclear reasons, Brake says the local district’s numbers were down between 2011 and 2014, but they’ve since been steadily building. Membership was probably at its highest in the 1980s, he says. Today there are 136 active members, ranging in ages from about 8 to 64.
Back in the early days of surfing, Buxton, Rodanthe and Nags Head were where everyone went for great wave riding. With the recent advent of text messaging, surf cams and surf forecasting, surfers today can readily chase waves up and down our barrier islands.
“The Outer Banks has the most consistent waves on the East Coast,” Brake says, comparing it to reliable surf spots off Pacific beaches. “The East Coast doesn’t have as many destination waves. The Outer Banks has destination waves.”
The ESA, which is organized in districts and divisions similar to other sports, teaches young people sportsmanship, the value of teamwork, volunteerism and toughness, Brake says.
“We try to teach the kids that surfing is very competitive,” he says, “but if you don’t win, you’re still having fun at the beach.”
Competitions won’t be held if the water is flat, but rough conditions won’t necessarily cancel a contest. “We’ll hold them if it’s 8 feet and choppy,” Brake says, “but we respect the ocean enough that if we see any storm where’s there’s danger, we’ll call it off.”
By participating in local contests, competitors can accumulate enough points to qualify them to compete in regional events. Top winners in the regionals can then compete in September in the National ESA Eastern Championship, better known as the Easterns.
Traditionally, the Easterns had been held every year on the Outer Banks at Buxton, partly because of its location on the coast, but also because of reliable waves. Due to increasingly unpredictable road conditions on Hatteras Island, it has been relocated in recent years to Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.
The district’s third local competition this year is scheduled on July 15 at Dare County’s new Rodanthe Park, a location that Brake said conveniently sits on one of the best wave breaks in Rodanthe.
Brake said that he is grateful for enthusiastic support for the local ESA chapter from Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Dave Hallac. Considering the rocky relationship the ESA had with some prior park managers over the decades – some of whom refused to even grant an event permit for the Easterns – Brake says it’s a refreshing change.
“It used to take six months to get a permit from the National Park Service,” he says. “We got this one in two weeks.”
Other local and regional contests during the year take place at Eckner Street or nearby beach accesses in Kitty Hawk and at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.
Brake moved to the Outer Banks in 1973, and started surfing in ’79. He got involved in the ESA when his first child was 9 years old in 1999. All three of his boys surf, and two are ESA members.
Brake, 55, was the assistant to the director for three years prior to taking on the role himself. His wife JoAnn, serves as his assistant.
Annual membership cost $65, but scholarships are available from the ESA if the fee is unaffordable. Contest fees are $20 for the first division, and $10 for each additional division.
Brake, who is employed as a project manager for Barnhill Contracting, says the district averages about 70 entrants per contest – and he’s one of them. He still competes regularly.
“I have fun surfing,” he says. “I don’t place very high, but I still compete. To me it’s more about having fun.”
Although more girls and women are competing over the years, the female divisions are still lighter than the men’s, Brake says.
Leanne Robinson, 34, co-owner of Secret Spot Surf Shop in Nags Head, was the only girl surfer on Hatteras Island when she was growing up. She started surfing when she was 11, and her cousin encouraged her to enter her first ESA contest the following year.
“I just fell in love with surfing, and taught myself,” Robinson says. “It was really cool to have that family camaraderie with surfing . . . It was like a tribe.”
Encouraged by then-Outer Banks director Julie Hume, Robinson thrived in the ESA’s supportive atmosphere.
“You always felt you were wanted and appreciated,” Robinson recalls. “I grew up surfing with ESA, basically, full time for eight years.”
It was more the sense of belonging and the community, she says, than the competitive aspects of ESA that she liked.
“Competing wasn’t one of my strong points,” she says. “Personally, I think I’m a much better surfer when I’m not competing. It always made me nervous.”
Back when she was younger, Secret Spot – which has been in business more than 30 years – had sponsored Robinson. Now Secret Spot is sponsoring its own team – of about 25 people, 15 who are under age 15 – that Robinson coaches. And to support her team, she still competes.
“It’s kind of full circle, the whole competition thing, for me,” she says. “I’m there, so I’m like, ‘Why not?’”
Robinson says the ESA helps give young surfers a sense of how to surf properly and fairly, while enjoying the positive edge and energy of friendly competition.
“Surfing with a bunch of good surfers makes you a better surfer,” she says.
Although the sport is still male-dominated, Robinson says, there are a lot more girls surfing now on the Outer Banks, more so around Nags Head than Hatteras. Sometimes female surfers even outnumber males in the ocean.
I always surfed with the boys,” Robinson says. “You had to be aggressive catching any waves with the guys. But there weren’t many girl surfers back then.”
Robinson says most girls who surf just are not as keen on competition as boys.
“We’re out there trying to have a good time, where they’re out there performing against each other,” she says. “I feel there is a good group of girls coming along, but time has shown that women’s competition hasn’t gotten much stronger. I would say, in general, women aren’t into competing in surfing, because for women it can take the fun out of it.”
But the ESA provides the opportunity for both sexes, of all ages, to compete, or to just provide support or volunteer at competitions.
Bob Hovey, 47, grew up in Virginia Beach and started competing in the ESA’s body board division as a child. By the time he was 15, he was surfing in the Easterns, and before long, he was competing in Hawaii and California.
“That competitive drive started in the ESA,” Hovey says. From about age 18, Hovey surfed professionally and “strived to make a living at it.” Eventually, he came back to the Outer Banks, and moved to Kill Devil Hills permanently in the early 1990s.
Hovey, owner of Duck Village Outfitters, an outdoor recreation retail store and surf shop with locations in Duck, Salvo and Kill Devil Hills, says his business started sponsoring a local ESA surf team shortly after opening his Duck store in 1998.
Although he no longer competes, Hovey says he sees the value ESA has been to the community, especially families.
“We’ve been supporting the ESA – it’s kind of our main charity,” he says. “Promoting surfing is a great way of promoting youth activities.”
For Hovey, the ESA gave him the competitive bug. But it also gives young people an opening into the surfing industry network, as it did for him, that could lead to a career related to the sport they love.
Numerous semi-pro and professional surfers honed their talent in the ESA, including Florida native Kelly Slater and locals Jesse Hines, Noah Snyder and Brett Barley.
“I’ve centered my life around surfing,” Hovey says. “Now some of the people I competed against are surf refs and board shapers.”
Hovey says that when he started surfing, the ESA kept everyone connected to the local and coast-wide surfing community. With today’s cell phones and the Internet, and the proliferation of surfer videos and websites, the surfing community no longer depends on associations like the ESA to hear about the action.
“There’s so many more outlets now,” he says. “People are getting a lot of expression putting up photos on Instagram. When I was a kid, the ESA was everything. The ESA kind of expressed your surfing ability.”
There are also more competitive surfing events nowadays, put on by surf shops, national surf retail companies and newer surfing organizations.
Still, despite being a small part of a huge pool of East Coast surfers, Hovey says the Outer Banks surfing community churns out more than its share of exceptional surfers.
“We’re here in a very small coastal population,” he says, “putting out as much talent.”
But as a surfing destination, the Outer Banks is also appreciated for the camaraderie in its tightknit surfing community – and the ESA deserves credit for keeping the surfing vibe vibrant and friendly.
“It’s such a great organization,” Hovey says. “I think it’s going to be around for a long time.” ♦
Top feature image: A young Kelly Slater surfing in the ESA, 1980s. Slater is now a professional surfer and World Surf League Champion. Photo ESA archives.
ESA Pioneer Takes A Look Back
hen Cecil Lear was a kid, he first rode waves on a version of a wooden ironing board and later, on surf mats and surf boats. He didn’t get his first real surfboard until he was 31.
“They were all longboards,” recalls Lear, co-founder of the Eastern Surfing Association, which is celebrating its 50th year. “We had no leashes and the boards weighed 35 to 40 pounds and were about 10 feet long.”
As a surfing pioneer, Lear, 86, was one of a handful of surfers who was instrumental in bringing the East Coast into the then-nascent world of competitive surfing, alongside Hawaii and the Pacific Coast.
Fifty years later, the ESA is now the largest amateur surfing association in the world.
Born near Caldwell, N.J in 1930, Lear spent all of his summers at the family cottage in Belmar on the Jersey Shore. “Usually, we’d open up the house after
Memorial Day,” he says. “Yep, I was the luckiest kid in the world.”
Today, Lear lives four blocks from the ocean in a different house in Belmar. He kept surfing until about age 78, but now he surfs only on body boards, or he just surfs without any board.
“That’s how we started out in the beach towns,” he says. “You body surfed.”
Despite Lear’s lofty place in surf history, he doesn’t see himself as any sort of visionary surfing sage. In fact, when he was asked to start the ESA in 1967 with Rudy Huber, who had been connected to the soon-disbanded U.S. Surfing Association, Lear says he barely knew Huber or other players on the surf scene then.
“I just happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right enthusiasm,” he says. “Sometimes it’s luck and, I guess, sometimes it was what’s meant to be. We got together. We got recognition. It enabled the East Coast, the West Coast and Hawaii to be part of the same thing.”
Lear was ESA’s original competition director, and is still an active member of the ESA Board of Directors.
ESA’s first championship event, the Easterns, was held in 1971 at Cape Hatteras in Buxton. It became a favorite annual event, with surfers looking forward all year to driving to Buxton with family or friends and camping. Frequent road closures about eight years ago forced the Easterns to relocate to Nags Head.
“It’s the best place,” Lear says. “People from Hawaii, from Australia – they love the Outer Banks, the wild ocean.”
In ESA’s first year, Lear says, membership was about 500 to 600 and by 1970 it had grown to between 900 and 1,000 surfers. At its height, there were probably as many as 10,000 ESA
“It’s gotten to be tremendous,” Lear says. “We really have developed a true surf culture.”
According to Michelle Sommers, ESA’s current executive director, there are now about 4,000 members, of which 34 percent are female.
Women are more likely to compete before their 20s, Sommers says, and then when their children are competing.
The ESA’s family-oriented programming encourages a healthy lifestyle for kids, she says, and if they’re interested, it supports more serious surfing. “All the professionals who have gone pro from the East Coast started in the ESA,” Sommers says. “We also have a lot of people from the ESA working in the industry.”
In the last five years, there’s been an upswing in surfing – and ESA membership. The association stays abreast on advanced technology and digital communication tools. For instance, there are now live webcasts and recasting of ESA events.
“We’ve got to give the people what they want,” says Sommers.
Still, the ESA is welcoming for all ages. “It’s more than about competing. It’s more about making friends and life-long relationships,” she concludes. ♦
Legendary photographer and Outer Banks icon Mickey McCarthy was a fixture within East Coast surfing community as well as at the Eastern Surfing Association contests – where he’d always be on the beach or in the water photographing competitors and encouraging young groms who were headed out to the line-up.
McCarthy, who died on Dec. 23, 2016 of complications from a heart attack, was a huge supporter of ESA and other surfing events and is recognized for his great contribution to the organization’s longevity and success. McCarthy spent nearly four decades behind his camera lens documenting the East Coast surf community, especially locally. Before that, McCarthy built his own boards for his company, New Sun Surfboards.
Catherine Kozak has worked as a writer and reporter on the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head and enjoys running in the woods with her dog, Rosie.