David Lauderdale

Surfing still rides Beaufort’s love affair with water

Timmy Rentz of Beaufort rides down the face of a large wave at Hunting Island as Hurricane Irene travels up the east coast, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011.
Timmy Rentz of Beaufort rides down the face of a large wave at Hunting Island as Hurricane Irene travels up the east coast, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. Staff file

Hunting Island was their Big Sur.

The Melody Makers were their Beach Boys.

Military kids who had tasted the ripping waves of California and Hawaii were their models.

And the endless summer began for the boys of Beaufort.

It is a freedom. It’s a culture within a culture. It’s kind of a nomadic life.

Dennis Litchfield

Half a century later, the sun still hasn’t set on the long, thin line of Beaufort surfers.

As the city now celebrates its love affair with the water with the 61st Beaufort Water Festival, local surfers are still chasing the big breaks, poring over weather statistics, living by the tides, and either dashing to the sea or cursing the burden of a work week.

They still live for the word of storms far over the horizon that churn up swells in our gentle, shallow surf.

They live for daybreak in a pounding ocean with rowdy curls.

“It is a freedom,” said one of those early surfing military brats in Beaufort, Dennis Litchfield, now almost 64, now making custom surfboards in Florida, and still surfing. “It’s a culture within a culture. It’s kind of a nomadic life.”

He said the 1966 movie “Endless Summer” or the 1991 movie “Point Break” with Patrick Swayze can explain it to people not used to paddling in circles — or cramming seven kids in a 1955 Chevrolet for the dash to Hunting Island State Park with with eight boards and one more kid on the roof.

It’s a culture that Beaufort parents tried to discourage. But not even the Vietnam War breathing down their necks could shut it down.

It’s a culture that prompted Harry Bazemore and a buddy to hitchhike from Beaufort to California in the summer of 1969, lugging a Hobie surf board and only $12.

“It took us 52 rides to get to LA,” said Bazemore, now in his 60s, still a free spirit, and still chasing waves in Florida.

“It’s a culture that was ragged on for many, many years,” Litchfield said. “You know — ‘you guys are all slackers, why don’t you work?’ But how can you work when the waves are good?”

Surfing rural USA

Old surfers say there wasn’t much to do in Beaufort.

“Growing up on the beach, all you could do is watch the turtles, surf or play Frisbee — or chase girls. That’s where the girls were,” said former City Council member Mike Sutton. He and his brothers — Mark and Bob — surfed while their dad laid the infrastructure on Fripp Island.

Richard Neill, now a 66-year-old respected Realtor in town, says, “I was the best surfer.” He may have been the first in Beaufort to hang five.

He worked all summer at Six L’s Packing Co. on St. Helena Island to buy a surf board. It arrived by freight train on Depot Road after what seemed like an endless trip.

He had an old Ford Econoline that had ‘Look Homeward Angel’ painted on the front.

Fred Gauch

Fred Gauch, now living aboard his sailboat on Hilton Head Island, was leader of Beaufort’s hottest band, the Melody Makers. Its still making music, but in the late 1960s, it was synonymous with Beaufort surfing.

He attributes the craze to the throbbing tunes of the Beach Boys.

“Ronnie Nobles and I had two surfing vans,” Gauch said. “He had an old Ford Econoline that had ‘Look Homeward Angel’ painted on the front, and I had a VW van with a peace symbol painted on the front with ‘Happiness’ painted over that.”

They started the Hunting Island Surfing Association that peaked at about 30 members. Members wore burgundy, hooded pullovers with a black diamond sewn on the back with the white lettering of an association that would sometimes host competitions with the funny-talking kids from Charleston.

Most people point to Greg Clark as the father of surfing in Beaufort. Other names are legion: Robert Gay, a shrimper who at one time owned a surf shop on St. Helena Island; Bill Deloach; Mike Rainey; David Brown; Barry Gooch, the unofficial photographer who sometimes posts old surfing photos on Facebook; Ted McCaston; Steve Hughes; Jack Keener; Joe Harter; Bill Murphy; David and Milledge Morris, when they could get away from work at their daddy’s Humble Buck’s Esso and its caged tiger; “Fast” Freddie Bazemore; Randy Bazemore, who worked 50 crab pots in Battery Creek when he was 13; Ray Charon; Ted Ledford; and even a few girls, like Gail Knight, Gwen Cail and Sissy Burgess.

Many of the kids hung out at Woods Grocery on St. Helena near the beach, where operators Bill and Frances Montcalm would sometimes run them credit on sliced baloney. They would even go to Melody Makers shows with the kids at the old Baileys club in Okatie.

Bill was a strapping, old-timey retired Marine, and Frances could weld anything and shoot a gun. They ran the store for her daddy, Henry W. “Mac” Woods, who preferred to be hunting or farming such oddities as a 103-pound pumpkin or watermelons so big they made him quit bringing them to the Waltermelon Festival competition in Hampton.

“Kids could eat there,” said Linda Cail, who worked at the store for her aunt and uncle. “Everybody was helping each other back then. There was not much on the island then.”

The surfers also befriended a harmless starving artist they called “Driftwood” Corry, who made art from driftwood and other found objects and sold it in a hut by the road.

Still surfing

Today, when a storm is brewing, as many as 70 surfers can show up at Hunting Island.

They don’t have to scan the skies at dawn or listen to the buoy reports on NOAA weather radio. Websites tell exactly what waves will be doing and where. They can do group texts to keep each other in the loop.

“It’s like rocket science came to the surf shack,” Litchfield said.

Number one, they’ll always be thinking about surfing and nothing else.

Harry Bazemore

Glenn Godley of Beaufort led an online petition last year that got 812 signatures and helped the state change its mind after prohibiting surfing at the best spot at South Beach because it is a swimming area in the Hunting Island park.

In 1982, Godley won a Water Festival Surf Contest promoted by Niels Christensen. He’s in the new generation of Beaufort surfers who don’t get as much grief from their parents about “wasting time” at the beach.

“When we have a big gathering in the surf during business hours, we call it a ‘board meeting,’ ” Godley said. “We can have bankers, insurance salesmen, lumber salesmen, contractors, dentists, doctors.”

A new book, “Surfing in South Carolina” by Lilla O’Brien Folsom and Foster Folsom, sketches the long history of surfing up and down the coast — the Grand Strand, Pawleys, Folly Beach and Hilton Head.

“Today, surfing has morphed into a family adventure,” they write. “Parents are footing the bill for surf camps and vacations that were unimaginable in the 1960s.”

Harry Bazemore tried to tell his parents surfing was good, clean fun that kept him in shape and out of trouble.

He thinks there’s something in the ions of the foam and breaking waves that gets you addicted to the surf.

Which leads him to his two top reasons parents should not worry about kids surfing.

“Number one, they’ll always be thinking about surfing and nothing else,” Bazemore said. “And, number two, they’ll always be thinking about surfing and nothing else.”