If you walk into Freedom Surf Shop on a Friday afternoon, you might be lucky enough to catch a cowabunga from the store’s ambassador of stoke: surf legend Pete Smith.
“Pete came with the store,” said owner David Shotton, who took over the shop on Laskin Road in 2007. Spotting Smith in a surf shop is fitting, being that he opened Virginia Beach’s first one back in 1963 – one of the only surf stores on the East Coast at that time.
Today, Smith’s job at Freedom Surf (which he defined himself) is to “meet, greet and throw a few cowabungas.” It’s an ideal role for the East Coast Surfing hall of famer, now 79, who pioneered the surf culture that put Virginia Beach on the map as a reputable surf destination.
Smith spent his early summers working at Virginia Beach Patrol, providing float rentals to beach goers – which allowed him time to hone his craft. “I started as a float boy in the 50’s, and worked up to becoming a lifeguard,” said Smith. “That’s how I worked up to surfing – we’d pump up canvas rafts until we could stand up on them.” The first formal board Smith ever rode – a 14-foot, 100-pound longboard that belonged to his uncle John, hangs on display at Freedom Surf Shop today.
In the 1960’s, East Coast surfing was still in its infancy – so when Smith heard about a surf competition happening in New York, he and a few fellow Virginia Beach surfers decided to make the trip. “The Gilgo Beach surfing competition was the first East Coast competition that we had heard of in ’62,” said Smith. “About a dozen of us went out there.” Among the surfers that made the journey were surf greats Bob Holland and Butch Maloney. Maloney tied with Smith for 5th place. “That first contest gave us the motivation to start [a competition in Virginia Beach] the next summer,” Smith said.
He likely didn’t realize it at the time, but that competition would someday become the second longest running surf event in the world – one that would draw pro surf competitors from all over the globe to Virginia Beach: the East Coast Surfing Championship.
A celebration of surf culture
“The East Coast Surfing Championship (ECSC) is a weeklong, volunteer run competition and festival that’s free to the public,” explained Ron Wudarczyk, this year’s ECSC chairman. “We have around 300 pro and 400 amateur surf competitions. It’s a sanctioned event with the World Surf League, which means surfers gain points for the championship either in Hawaii or California. It’s a stop here for points and money. Last year, we had a $100,000 purse for the pro series.”
In addition to pro and amateur surf competitions, volleyball and flag football games take place throughout the duration of the week, as well as motocross biking and the Miss ECSC pageant. “The Miss ECSC swimsuit competition started with surfers just walking up to girls on the beach,” said Wudarczyk. “It was very grassroots.”
“It started out being just Saturday and Sunday, and it’s truly has grown and prospered,” said Smith. “In the early days did a little judging and of course, entered the contest, but my main contribution was as the M.C.”
If playing spectator doesn’t pique your interest, there’s plenty more for ECSC visitors to do. “Local vendors and sponsors have booths out with swag and promos,” said Wudarczyk. The week concludes with an outdoor concert series on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Now in its 56th year, the ECSC has been drawing top surf talent to Virginia Beach for the past five decades – which has helped inspire the next wave of up and coming local surfers. “What makes Virginia Beach special is that it’s the epicenter of the surf industry here,” said Chase Pittman, surfer and co-founder of Logstradamus. “The ECSC is the largest part about that. Any time you get the world’s best surfers traveling to a place, it elevates the talent level. We have this wonderful mix of influences here that has created a bunch of world class surfers. Kids get to watch their heroes surf in front of them in their hometown. That’s what makes this place special.”
Experience the surf at Virginia Beach
Sandbridge is a popular surf spot for Virginia Beach
Sandbridge is a popular surf spot for Virginia Beach locals. (Photo: Visit Virginia Beach)
The landscape of Virginia Beach makes an ideal setting for beginner surfers. “We have 4-5 miles of resource out here,” said George Alcarez, general manager of ECSC. “Anyone can learn how to surf – and you can end up being a pro.”
If you’ve never set foot on a surfboard, there’s plenty of opportunity to do so on the less intimidating waves Virginia Beach is known for. “It’s very inviting here,” said Alcarez. “We have six surf schools, and they have a designated area to help get you on a board.”
“The entire resort is set up so that you can eat, dine and watch surfers all day,” Alcarez continued. For those who’d rather admire the sport from afar, local surf hotspots include the Virginia Beach fishing pier (which has its own sandbar that builds up and breaks away), the jetty at 1st street, Croatan and Sandbridge. “In between those areas, there are a lot of places that people can go surfing – it’s open to everyone,” Alcarez explained.
Surf legend Pete Smith throws a cowabunga at Freedom
Surf legend Pete Smith throws a cowabunga at Freedom Surf Shop. (Photo: GET Creative)
Visitors also like to take a little bit of the Virginia Beach surf stoke home with them. “So many people, even if they don’t surf, love the surf shops,” said Smith. Which likely has as much to do with Smith’s welcoming “cowabunga” as it does with the authentic surf merchandise for sale at Freedom Surf Shop.
The surf culture of Virginia Beach wasn’t built on big swells. What started with Smith and a few friends who loved to surf has grown and evolved – but the spirit of surf camaraderie hasn’t changed.
“Surfing has been a tremendous part of my life,” said Smith. “I’ve made a wealth of friends and acquaintances – I’m a millionaire when it comes to friendships.”
“Sometimes the surf here isn’t great,” Smith continued. “But the great thing about surfing is that it doesn’t have to be. As long as its rideable, just a foot of waves, you can have a lot of fun.”