Richard Lisiewski discovered surfing during the 1940s in a “Popular Mechanics” article.

The article outlined how to build a surfboard, something that was largely foreign to people on the East Coast at that time, even though the sport had been around for hundreds of years.

“If there was anyone else surfing on Long Beach Island at the time, I didn’t know of them,” said Lisiewski, who is now 81 and lives in the Brighton Beach section of Long Beach Township. “But I wanted to give it a shot because it was something else to do on the water and I’ve always loved being out on the water.”

From the early days of homemade boards, the surfing industry has grown into a $7.22 billion-a-year business, with Northeast surf shops accounting for about one-third of that business. On Long Beach Island, Ron Jon Surf Shop opened in 1961 and has become one of the most recognizable brands in surfing.

Today, surfing’s popularity in New Jersey continues to grow. A museum in Tuckerton that pays homage to New Jersey surfing opened this year, while on Friday night a documentary on New Jersey surfing, “Dark Fall,” opened to a sold-out audience at the House of Blues at Showboat Casino-Hotel.

But back then, there was a small subculture of surfers in the area, men such as Lisiewski and Ron DiMenna, founder of Ron Jon Surf Shop in Ship Bottom. Many of the surfers had to make their own boards, or buy them from California and bring them back. Even though the passion for surfing hit a few, it took several more decades before many locals discovered the sport.

When the sport did catch on, Long Beach Island became the place to be.

“Long Beach Island probably had more to do with the exposure of surfing than anywhere else on the East Coast,” Lisiewski said. “It got its start out west … but it became a way of life for people here.”

It’s still a way of life for many on Long Beach Island.

“Most of the people who live here year-round surf, especially the younger people,” said James Schwartz, a 19-year-old surfer from Ship Bottom. “It’s just something everyone has always been around. It’s a part of their lives.”

But the surfers of today’s generation are aware, and appreciative, of the surfers who paved the way for them.

“There are still some kids on the island who shape boards, but it’s nothing like the trial and error ways it used to be,” Schwartz said. “It’s pretty cool how far things have come since the ’60s.”

The recently opened New Jersey Surf Museum at the Tuckerton Seaport — recognized as the first of its kind in the state — offers a glimpse into the unique bond that surfing, and the surfboard in general, share with New Jersey and southern Ocean County.

Organizers admit that the museum, which will eventually feature more than 300 surfboards and other surfing-related items, only scratches the surface of what the sport means to the region.

“Surfing is something deeply embedded in the culture of this area, and it has been since the 1940s,” said Kathy Conrad, 65, of Lower Bank in Burlington County, a Seaport volunteer who chairs its exhibits committee. “And after the sport exploded in the 1960s, it had a profound effect on the Jersey shore.”

“Catch a Wave”

Lisiewski followed the “Popular Mechanics” blueprint and built the first surfboard he ever saw outside a magazine. The hollow, wooden board was about 10 feet, 2 inches long, 21 inches wide and 4 inches thick.

“Whenever I brought that thing down to the ocean, I’d have an audience of people watching me because they’d never seen anything like it. But I had no clue what I was doing,” he said. “It was trial and error back then. If you fell, you got back up on top of it and tried again. We didn’t even know anything about using wax to keep you from slipping … what I did was cut up an old rubber inner tube and wrapped it around the back of the board so my feet would catch on it.”

After eventually getting a handle on the sport, Lisiewski headed to California to study surfboard making from the legendary Bob “The Greek” Bolden. And by the time he opened Brighton Beach Surf Shop in 1962, his was the fourth surf shop on Long Beach Island.

One of the three shops to beat him to the punch was the now world-famous Ron Jon Surf Shop, which was founded by Ron DiMenna (and his next-door neighbor, John Spodofora, now a Stafford Township committeeman) as a simple retail location in Ship Bottom in 1961. The franchise now includes stores and restaurants in several different countries.

Lisiewski said there was more than enough business to go around for everyone.

“Long Beach Island is right in the middle of New York, Philadelphia and Washington. There are millions of people who come here for vacation, and who come here just to surf,” he said. “Everyone wants to own a surf shop, and I don’t blame them. It was good to me, and I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be good to them, too.”

New Jersey surf shops maintain that while the West Coast might have a bigger market for surfing accessories, including surf-style clothing and shoes, more surfboards are sold on the East Coast than out West.

“Even though it’s more seasonal out here, especially in the northeast, people in the northeast vacation, and they vacation hard,” said Michael Lisiewski, 41, of Stafford Township, who now owns and operates his father’s shop. “It may be this yearlong lifestyle in southern California, but the guys in Philadelphia and New York, they want to come here, they want to have fun and they want to surf every day.”

Do you remember?

The New Jersey Surf Museum at the Tuckerton Seaport leads patrons from the humble beginnings of surfing on Long Beach Island to the state-of-the-art techniques used by today’s surfers.

“Surfing initially became very popular with the youngsters who worked in the clamming industry. They’d finish their shifts and then schlep over to the beach to surf,” said Tuckerton Seaport volunteer Linda Salmons, 56, of Little Egg Harbor Township. “And they’d use whatever they could get their hands on for surfboards at that time, including ironing boards to homemade surfboards they made out of wood.”

Every surfboard in the museum has a special story.

There is the second surfboard Richard Lisiewski built using the “Popular Mechanics” blueprint — the first fell off his car on the way home from the beach after the first time he used it.

There is the massive surfboard that a Citgo gas station once used as a sign, which local surfers would rent from the gas station to use as an intimidating force on the waves. And there are comparatively tiny modern boards donated by local professional surfers.

There is even a surfboard that has never been used.

“It was being made as a ‘welcome home’ gift for a young man who was away at war. But he was killed shortly before he was scheduled to come home,” said Salmons. “It’s such a sad story, but his family wanted it to be a part of the museum.”

There is a display of valuable surf waxes, vintage body boards and skim boards, and even the once-popular rubber rafts that were manufactured by Converse and resemble the famous sneaker.

From the floor to the ceiling — literally — there’s something for surfing enthusiasts of all ages.

“We constantly get people in here who’ll see a surfboard similar to one they had when they were younger and will get excited because it brings back memories for them. They’ll tell us their own surfing stories or about what surfboards they had,” Conrad said. “The response has been tremendous. We’ve even had three weddings in here.”

And even though the Seaport is largely known as a Barnegat Bay decoy and Baymen’s museum, Salmons and Conrad said the surf museum is a perfect fit.

“A lot of the techniques used in making a surfboard are the same techniques used in boat building,” Salmons said. “That’s probably one reason surfing was so popular here. … ‘Watermen’ are always looking for excuses to get out on the water, and the technology for this was already in place.”

Still surfin’

The ironing boards made way for surfboards made of solid wood, which led to chambered wood and then balsa wood. The late 1950s brought with them foam surfboards and polyester resin. And “the wave of the future” of epoxy resin started gaining popularity in the 1980s.

Long Beach Island’s surfers changed along with the materials they used.

“Initially, guys here would just work with what they saw. You had all these surfing movies popping up from California, and boys on the East Coast would see that and want to be that. If their heroes in the movies started using foam or a certain fin, well, that’s what they wanted,” Michael Lisiewski said. “Surfers now want to be individuals. They like being on the edge and being unique. They’ll come in with a bizarre idea for a board. Not because they saw someone else with it, but because they want it to be their own.”

And with the change of materials and push toward individuality, the region’s surfers started learning how to build surfboards that were better suited for Long Beach Island’s waves, which were vastly different from the waves their idols surfed at famous locations around the world.

“We have sandbar beach breaks. We have no reefs and there are no big rock formations where waves peel. There are no point breaks. So it makes the wave a quicker and sometimes a dumpier — more top to bottom — wave,” Michael Lisiewski said. “This requires different things in a board. A lot of times we need more volume for quicker paddling, and sometimes you need a little less length. There’s just a lot of tweaking involving in making an ‘East Coast board,’ but it takes a lot of input from a lot of riders.”

Long Beach Island may have discovered surfing later than in California, but the sport will forever be associated with the island’s identity.

“What makes LBI such a little mecca for surfing is that it’s a barrier island. It sits out a little bit and is totally east facing, so what it does is pick up swells from all different directions. And there’s not a whole lot of other places, I don’t care where you go, that have 11 surf shops in nine miles,” Michael Lisiewski said. “You’re on an island that’s incredibly surfer-populated. In other spots in the state there are very specific beaches where everybody goes, where here, you have 18 miles of beaches and you can go to any of them.

“On a good summer day, there’s probably someone surfing on every beach on the island,” he said.

Contact Robert Spahr:


N.J. Surf Museum

The New Jersey Surf Museum at the Tuckerton Seaport, which opened in May, offers visitors a glimpse into the unique bond between surfing and New Jersey. The museum will eventually feature more than 300 surfboards and other surfing-related items. Each board on display — from the 10-foot-long, hollow wooden surfboard to the high-tech boards of today — has a story that makes it unique to New Jersey.

The Tuckerton Seaport is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $3 for children 6 to 12. Children 5 years old and younger get in free.

See the movie ‘Dark Fall’

‘Dark Fall,’ a celebration of New Jersey surfing, premiered Friday at the House of Blues in Atlantic City. Additional viewing dates include:

Aug. 5, 2010: Tuckerton Seaport Museum, 120 W. Main St., Tuckerton.

Aug. 6, 2010: The Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences, 120 Long Beach Blvd., Loveladies.

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