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Riding the wave: For Pawleys Island Surf Club, it’s a wave of nostalgia

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Larry Walker loved surfing at Pawleys Island more than anything in the 1960s — far more than spending a warm, sunny day at Winyah High School. If the morning wind and the tide were right, the temptation was often so great that he’d take the chance his daddy wouldn’t see him leaving home with his surfboard.

“When I walked out to go to school in the morning,” Walker said, “if I could smell International Paper Company and I knew what the tide was, there wasn’t any school that day.”

Walker would often find his friends at the beach too, ready for a whole day on the waves and away from the books. And it was no surprise when Gary Roberts would pull up in his 1959 VW bus from Georgetown to join them.

Once the teens at Pawleys Island discovered surfing in the mid-’60s, it became a passion bordering on obsession. Nothing seemed quite as important as catching a wave.

A dozen members of the Pawleys Island Surf Club got together Saturday night to reminisce about the days of “hanging 10” and “shooting the pier” when they were young and thin and tanned. Their old surfboards were leaning against a porch rail at the Lachicotte house on Rising Sun Avenue off the North Causeway. Host Billy Hall had pork and chicken on the charcoal grill, and the stories flowed like, well, a good wave. David Mercer re-recorded some 8-mm movies his father took of Pawleys Island surfers from the top of Pawleys Pavilion, bringing back memories of the old long boards and how riders had to “carve” into the little waves to reach shore. Mercer remembered his brother, Danny, being a “goofy-footer” with his right foot in front on the board.

Craig Thomas was the surf club’s first co-president, along with Bruce Hall, Billy’s brother. Thomas lived on the beach at Pawleys Island from spring until fall with his grandparents and was a year or two older than most of his fellow surfers. He’d play surfing songs on his guitar for campers near the Pawleys pier, mimicking The Ventures and the Beach Boys.

“Surfing got over here later than California,” Thomas said. “We were right behind Virginia Beach, the first surfers in South Carolina.”

People didn’t know what to make of these young guys riding the waves. “I remember people standing on the fishing pier,” Roberts said, “and they would watch us paddle out and they thought we were riding doors off the bathroom or something. They’d watch us paddle on those boards and stand up, and they’d ask ‘How can they do that?’”

Thomas said members of the Pawleys Island Surf Club would see pictures in surfing magazines and copy the moves. “We were doing a 360, where you circle the board, and practiced shooting the pier,” he said. “We didn’t realize the pylons are 15 feet apart in California. Ours were 6 feet apart, kind of tricky for us. We wanted to learn it anyway and kept practicing, but our waves break once they hit the pier. You couldn’t really shoot em, so we gave up on that.”

Not long into the summer of ’64 the kids from Georgetown wanted to surf too. “When they saw it,” Thomas said, “they had to have a board.”

The Georgetown surfers took the name North Pawleys Island Surf Club, for the end of the beach with the best waves. Billy Hall had a bright orange sign with white letters from the Pawleys Island Surf Club at the party Saturday. Someone from the rival club had painted the word “North” on it about 50 years ago.

Thomas said there was little rivalry between the two surfing clubs. Members knew each other from school and summer dances at the Pavilion. The North Pawleys Island club was sponsored by Fogel’s men’s store in Georgetown and had blue jackets as opposed to the orange and white of the Pawleys Island club with black embroidered lettering.

The idea of surfers at Pawleys Island didn’t go over well with the Civic Association at first. The boys’ long hair and that rock ’n’ roll music were worrisome, but Bruce Hall convinced the establishment that the surfers were good kids. “Bruce spent a lot of time meeting with the association as liaison,” Thomas said, “so the Civic Association agreed to go light-handed if we’d maintain decorum. Some homeowners on the beach stood up on our behalf. Esther Johnson managed the fishing pier and ran herd on us.”

The surfers became ad hoc lifeguards on the island, responding to trouble when a call came to the pier’s gift shop or warning swimmers about sharks.

If outsiders came to Pawleys Island to surf, club members would make sure everybody was cool. “We wanted to bring surfing up with the character you needed to have on family beaches,” Thomas said. “We did a good job, considering we were all kids.” The club was recognized for its beach clean-up at a surf contest at the steel pier in Virginia Beach.

The club hosted contests that drew big-name surfers like Mike Doyle, Rusty Miller and California big wave rider Corky Carroll. “All the big guys,” Thomas said, “they all stopped here. We were the premiere stop between Cocoa Beach, Fla., and Virginia Beach.” Winners’ trophies were little wooden surf boards.

The Pawleys Island club members came up with a way to finance their trips to surf contests in Charleston and Virginia Beach and snow skiing in Tennessee: surfboard wax. Reece Hart, a local chemist, helped with the formula, and club member Scott Beason got his father, Bob, to ask technicians in the lab at International Paper to work on the cooking method.

Club members got lanolin from Weldon Industries and cooked up the first batches in the surf shop at the pier. The operation eventually moved to the back of Anne Walker’s ceramics shop on Highway 17, today’s home of Landolfi’s Bakery. They began supplying the board wax for the first artificial wave park in Arizona and packaged it under the name of Con-Trol Competition Wax for a vendor. The boys only saw it as a means of financing their trips, not as a potential business.

Thomas brought some 40-year-old pieces of board wax to the reunion Saturday. It was still soft and pliable, and he wondered what might have been had one of them stayed with the wax business.

Roberts ran the surf shop during the long summer days and played drums at the Pavilion at night. He slept in his VW van at night and showered in the mornings under the pier. Roberts said his parents called the pier, asking when he was coming home. “I don’t know,” he told them.

He was having too much fun in what seems like a fantasy land just a half-century ago. “You couldn’t get in trouble,” Roberts said. “There was nothing to do but surf all day.”

Though it seems dangerous today, surfers would run to the end of the Pawleys pier, throw their boards over the edge and dive into the ocean. “We were all good swimmers,” Thomas said. When the waves were choppy before a storm, the surfers had to go to the end of the pier and jump in because they couldn’t ride against the strong wave action to get in position to surf. “Big storms came in with three sets of waves,” Thomas said. “At the end of the pier you could get beyond what they called the third set, the shore break. The only way to get past the first set was to walk out on the pier.”

Nothing seemed to faze the young surfers.

• When a fisherman at the pier caught a big shark, the surfers went up to help pull it to shore because they wanted to ride waves close to the pier. Roberts remembered the shark’s tail dragging the sand as the fishermen drove away with it in the back of their pickup. “It must have been 9 feet long,” he said.

• Roberts and Johnny Knowles spotted what they thought was a weather balloon drifting off shore. They wanted to retrieve it because there might be instruments. “The harder we paddled,” Roberts said, “the further it blew out to sea. We paddled for probably an hour and a half, chasing that thing. It was a dadgum beach ball. When we looked back we must have been 5 miles offshore, so far that we squinted and asked ‘Is that Pawleys Island?’”

• A call came into the pier that people were drifting out to sea off King’s Fun Land on a raft. “We could just see something,” Thomas said. We jumped on our boards and went to the rescue. We get out there, and it’s a shark rig with a test tube full of blood and a big sign saying ‘Do Not Disturb.’ We went out to save somebody, but we didn’t even go back to the pier. We went straight to King’s and called DNR. In three days they caught the guy who set that rig.”

• When Avis Havel — she’s Avis Hutchinson now — agreed to be secretary of the surf club she had to paddle on a surfboard around the pier in her nightgown. Avis was a good sport, but her older sister, Hedy, who resembled French actress Brigitte Bardot, got more attention, club members recalled.

• David Mercer remembered racing around the pier and back paddling their surfboards. He was leading the race but realized that he had gone out too fast and wouldn’t be able to finish. “I came back around the end of the pier and just kept going,” he said. “About six of my friends went with me, and we came in about 30 minutes later.”

So few young people back then had cars Deputy Sheriff Claude Altman would sometimes give the boys a ride when he passed them walking down the road. Some would return the favor for a dog named Castro. A newly hired pier manager named Mr. Horne began giving Castro, a Pawleys Island mainland family’s dog, rides to the beach in the mornings and home at night. Castro would spend his days on the pier’s gift shop roof, watching the parking lot. Castro was quite a romantic, according to Walker. “We’d wait on the girls to come in every week,” he said. “Castro was waiting on their dogs.”

Roberts would sometimes give the dog a ride when he closed the surf shop early. “He’d get in my VW bus,” Roberts said. “I got home one night in Maryville when I had a date, and there was Castro in the back seat. I forgot to let him out. I had to take him all the way back to Pawleys Island. When my date asked why I was late, I said, ‘You won’t believe this, but ...’”

Those were the days. Even cutting school to surf occasionally worked out.

Walker said he and some friends saw an old man casting into the surf on the north end of the island one beautiful, warm day. As they got closer, they realized it was W.W. Doar, vice principal of their high school, playing hooky.

“We were supposed to be in school,” Walker said. “So was he. We saw who it was and paddled right by him. ‘Mr. Doar, see you taking a day off from school too.’

“We went in the next day and heard the announcement: ‘Larry Walker come to the principal’s office.’ He had me an excused absence. Needless to say we didn’t have to worry about missing school as long as we caught him over there at the beach.”

That reminded Roberts of a time when his daughter was learning to cut things with scissors in kindergarten. She asked if he had learned to cut in school. “If the wind,” he said, “was blowing from the east or the west ....”

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