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 A real “start-up” Surfing in New England 1964-1968


Hi, this is the story of the Hobie Shops in New England, and how they started in 1964-1968. Narragansett Surf Shops, the Hobie Dealer for Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine formed a great “team” in the fullest sense, and many who participated went on to  shape the sport both in New England and around the world.


“Time in New England took me away, to long rocky beaches, and you by the bay.  We started a story whose end must now wait.”
And tell me “When will our eyes meet? When can I touch you?  When will this strong yearning end? And when will I hold you again?”

            Music and Lyrics © Randy Edelman, Alfred Publishing, Inc., performed by Barry Manilow, 1975


Well, we started a decade prior to 1975, but the song lyric captures it well.  With the Beach Boys surf music which was popular at the time, music provided a sound track for a golden age when surfboard riding came to New England.  And the sport remains so popular, that it’s true “The end must now wait.”  Anyway, below is the beginning of the story.  It will come out in several chapters, as is appropriate over a five year period of growth and increasing popularity.


Chapter One – Starting Wave Action


 Photo at left: Will Somers – Narragansett Beach - Summer 1965 – Photo: Rob McCall


Here’s how we got the surfing action started in New England.  It was an odyssey that I never envisioned, and opened a path that I ultimately did not follow.  But the four plus years I facilitated and contributed to surfing’s growth there have led to an enduring sport in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with echoes in Connecticut and Vermont as well; I still love the area and its people.  In surfing terms, I can say, “What a ride!”


The company I started in 1964, Narragansett Surf Shops, Inc., ended up with five retail stores by the end of 1966; two in Rhode Island, two in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire (the NH store was “franchised” to a local surfer, Rick Zetterberg and his dad).  Many great people joined us and supported us, not the least of whom was Hobie Alter, who provided us with his line of surfboards to sell in New England.  We made a number of lifelong friends, and, in this narrative, I’ll tell what I know about each of their roles and subsequent lives, as well as mine.  Great people, all, and they have gone on to create successes and surmount challenges for four decades now.  Each has his or her own story, which I hope they will tell as well.  Some continued to surf, some didn’t, but I think it is safe to say that, to a person, over their lives they have sustained and cherished their love of the ocean.  In any case, our success was a shared effort, including folks who worked in and managed the surf shops, who surfed on our teams in each state, and who helped with contests, publicity and beach manners and comradeship.


How did this all start?  I didn’t grow up in New England.  My roots are in New York, Florida and New Jersey.  My Dad was an officer in the Air Force during World War II, and since he was an obstetrical doctor, there wasn’t cause for him to serve overseas.  We ended up in Clearwater Beach, right on the Gulf of Mexico, and he delivered babies for military wives in the Tampa – St. Petersburg area.  From 1942 through 1946, my family lived on Mandalay Road in Clearwater, one short block from the gulf.  From the time I was three, I was in the ocean, not just at the edge.  By four, I was body surfing, and I remember a pleasant swim on Christmas day 1944, at five years old.  As you could say, I grew up on the beach.  I guess that’s where I got the “sand in my shoes,” which I’ve never been able to shake out.


When the war ended, and my father was discharged, the family returned to New York, as he prepared to start his obstetrical practice in Bergen County, New Jersey.  We stayed with my paternal grandparents for a few months in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, NY, and I attended PS 268 on Bedford Avenue.  What a change for a beach kid who was used to a sandy playground!  I remember playing games on the asphalt, and wondering where the sunshine and warm breezes had gone.


My later boyhood and teenage years were spent in New Jersey, but not on the “Jersey Shore.”  In point of fact, the beach for my family and me still meant Florida.  While others went south in the winter, we preferred the late summer and early fall, when, coincidentally, the waves were the biggest and best.  But neither in Florida, where we went for years, nor in California, which I visited in 1949 and, with a group of friends for a couple of weeks in 1958, did I ever see a surfboard.  Always in the waves, but with my body prone and with a “fish-eye” view.  By the early 60’s, I had warmed to the Jersey coast, since it was an easy place to reach for swimming and body surfing.


The first board surfing I ever saw was on television, in 1962.  By then I was married, living in Trenton, New Jersey, and viewed one of the first televised surf contests, from Makaha, Hawaii.  My reaction was that it sure looked like fun, but that the waves I saw were no different from what we were body surfing on Long beach Island.  My thought was that “If I could find something to stand on, I’d really like to try that.”  Even then, it also looked to me as if this was going to be a serious sport, with many people having a growing interest.  Obviously, that kind of expansion would constitute a “market opportunity” in the language of the Harvard Business School student I was about to be.


At that point, fate took a hand.  One of my college roommates who was then living in New York City had been a life guard in Santa Monica, California for the summer of 1963 and had brought back with him a nine foot, two inch long Duane surfboard (which weighed about forty pounds).  The board was red and shiny, and so long he could not stand it up straight in his small apartment.  The next part of the story sounds strange, but is absolutely true.  I said “Bob Rob, I’d really like to have that so I can try surfing out.”  His answer was “What will you give me for it?”  Mine, in turn, was “Maybe that old beat-up car I’m driving.”  So I swapped an old French Simca for my first surfboard.  Sounds crazy, but I ultimately sold the board for $60, and I think Bob had to spend $25 to get the car towed to a more friendly location in New York.


Even then I was already thinking that this could be a business opportunity. On one of my trips to the beach I discovered a Surfer magazine, and in the back was an ad for Jim Kidd’s Malibu Surfboards.  They weren’t even polyurethane, they were polystyrene (what goes around comes around), but they had a decent shape, and were very affordable.  My idea, which I proceeded to implement, was to buy six of them, sell three, and, in doing so, pay for the ones I would keep for myself and my friends.  So now I had a total of seven surfboards, and I wore out as many as I could learning to surf in Belmar, Manasquan, Ship Bottom, Surf City and Beach Haven, New Jersey, during the winter of 1963 and the spring and summer of 1964.


Then fate really intervened.  Bruce Brown, Phil Edwards and Hobie and their wives made a trip east to show “The Endless Summer.”  Les Reitman, one of the owners of Manatee Sea Center in Belmar had been awarded the Hobie franchise for New Jersey, and he made the introductions.  I told Hobie that I planned to attend graduate school in Boston in the fall of 1964, and asked if he had anyone selling his boards up there.  The answer was, “No, is there surf up there?”  My response was “I don’t know, but I sure hope there is.  And if there is surf, maybe I can sell some surfboards.”


A few weeks more passed and in early September we drove one car up to school with a shiny red surfboard on top.  By September 9, 1964, I was riding my Duane at Horseneck Beach, on the south shore of Massachusetts.  Beautiful, glassy seven foot hurricane waves, firm, gently sloping hard sand bottom, sets so close together that it was tough to get outside.  So, yes, Hobie and friends, there is surf up there!   And on that classic September day I was the only one riding it!


Then, a week later, the swell had dropped a little.  I had flown back to NJ to pick up my other car, a black MG with one of the Malibu surfboards tucked in it, and begin a pilgrimage along the Connecticut and Rhode Island shorelines, my intention being to turn off at every beach until I hit the first spot I could surf. Route 1 northeast through Matunuck, a turnoff to the south to the beach, and I saw a mirage, or at least it seemed so to me.  There was a point break, on the East Coast.  And, miracle of miracles, there actually was someone surfing it on an old log.  I hoisted my snazzy blue Malibu, paddled out and caught the first left, ridable for about 600 yards, into the beach.  “Where did you get that board?” was the first question the boys and girls on the beach asked me, “and where can a person get one like it?”


My question in return was “What do you call this place?”  “Mary’s Bah.”  “Oh, Mary’s Bar?”  “Ayah, that’s right.”   (You kids don’t know what you’ve got.  In New Jersey, we would think we had died and ended up in Heaven to have a reef break like that).  Investigation prompted that the nearest population center was the seashore resort of Narragansett, Rhode Island.  Once the local kids had gotten past saying “Boy, you talk funny,”  I was able to hire a couple of them to work with me, to introduce me to a local owner of a block of stores, and to vouch for my renting a small shop for the princely sum of $50 a month.  The fact that I wanted the rental for a year round use was incentive enough, I guess.  And so, we built the first surf shop at the top of Kingstown Road near the town beach in Narragansett.  That was the start.


Almost every weekend that fall we drove down from Boston and surfed in Narragansett, Matunuck and Point Judith.  We made the trip down 128, I-95 and RI 2 in the Volkswagen with a couple of boards on the top, or in the MG Midget, with a board riding shotgun, its nine feet towering over the seat where its nose impacted, and actually extending out almost past the back of the car.  From a business standpoint, I was reassuring myself that if I could drive over a significant stretch of New England to surf, others would be willing to do so to buy a surfboard.  And that certainly turned out to be the case.


Since we were living in Watertown, I also tried looking for surf spots on the North shore in Boston, and what would you guess, we found some great ones; Lynn, Nahant Beach, Salem, Beverly.  Perhaps much more importantly, I met a couple of people there who became great friends and colleagues.  One was Fred Silton, who I first saw out in the water on Good Harbor Beach In Cape Ann.  He was a black and shiny creature out in the ocean, the first New Englander I had seen with a full length wetsuit.  At first sight, I thought he was a seal.  Also, I met really nice people in Lynn and Nahant, A second one was Ron Pare who became our overall board repairer and patcher and contributed significantly to building each shop.  Then Ron said "One of the things I like to do is to take surfing pictures."  So he became our “official” photographer as well.


Even though I was willing to drive from Boston to Narragansett, I wasn’t sure that would be as facile for others, so from the beginning I thought about a second store in Massachusetts.  In the late winter of 1965, I made my first trip to Hull, or Nantasket Beach, which was on a peninsula guarding Boston’s South Shore.  Hull was a classic beach town, one which would have felt at home in Los Angeles South Bay or in Orange County.  Waves were up and down (as with every other place) but at least in Fall, Winter and Spring could offer a good ride.  There were a bunch of adjacent towns like Hingham, Weymouth, Milton, Scituate and Cohasset, and a great group of enthusiastic beach-going teenagers.  So we noted Hull, and came back to it later that summer as things progressed.


Then things got really interesting. Hobie showed up.  It was a February day in Narragansett.  We were still in shop setup mode.  I had bought five or ten additional surfboards (not a trivial number, given that my starting capital was $3500, and that money was intended to pay tuition for my second year at Business School).   Moreover, I was about to sign an order for twenty “pop-outs,” since it didn’t look like we could be dependent on shipments from California in response to customer orders.  I had already had some challenges with Rick Surfboards, Jacobs, Bing and Gordon& Smith in arranging timely deliveries. 


To that point, Hobie had been no better. While we saw surfboard company ads in Surfer, but we had no idea how small these manufacturers really were.  I had written to Hobie several times, gotten one vague answer, and was pretty much going in a different direction, as described above, when a rental car pulls up, a guy in a raincoat with a strong tan gets out, and Hobie Alter says “Hi, Will.  Good to see you again.”  “Hi, Hobie.  I hadn’t heard from you.  It’s a pleasant surprise to see you.”  “We-e-ll, I um lost your letter.  Just came across it again this month.”


Hobie: “Nice little shop you got here.  Let’s go and see the waves.”  This was (surf) music to our ears.  By this time, we knew every break in “South County” as the western portion of the Atlantic Coast in Rhode Island is called colloquially (It’s official name is Washington County).  We also had gotten very involved in local politics on behalf of the surfers, since there was an element of beachfront property owners who would have liked to ban the new sport entirely.   I had written to the State Environmental Commissioner, a Mr. Cotter, in October 1964 and gotten a nice answer.  Moreover, the local leader for beach and seashore park management was Captain Roger Wheeler, one of the finest men I have met (There is a state park named after him now in Galilee, Rhode Island, and no memorial could be more appropriate).  Cap Wheeler saw both the potential of surfing for Rhode Island, “the Ocean State,” and for the local young people to participate in what he viewed as a wholesome sport.  We had already sold some boards, had made some allies, and we could show Hobie the potential of the area as we viewed it.


So we did our local “surfari” with great interest all around.  Hobie didn’t say much, but we could tell he was impressed with both the beach settings and waves, and, most importantly, with the avid surfers, who, with their friends and acquaintances, would be the potential surfboard buyers.  We got back to the shop, and Hobie said “Will, can I use your phone to call California?”  “Sure, Hobie.”  I figured he wanted to make some travel arrangements or something.  Hobie calls the factory in Dana Point, and asks for Jim Gilloon, his second in command.  “Jim, send Will Somers twenty-four surfboards.”  Hobie, I don’t have the money to pay for twenty-four surfboards.”  “Will, that’s OK, you’ll sell them.  And of course, we did.


Well, I cancelled the planned order for the pop-outs, and became the Hobie dealer.  We decided to make our own rental boards (with Hobie’s blessing), and also got into the surfwear business, with wetsuits, racks and all the other surf paraphernalia.  Hobie was quite clear with us that that was where we were going to make any money.  Neither the markup on surfboards nor the volume of sales ($150 was a lot of money for a teenager in those days) was going to be sufficient to keep us in business.  


There is more detail, but that will come in Chapter Two.