Linda Davoli celebrated her 57th birthday July 15 at the same place she has spent most of her life: in the waves off Brigantine.
Davoli was once one of the world’s best surfers. The feel of maneuvering on a board comes back quickly each time she paddles out into the ocean.
“I caught a nice little wave,” she said. “It was just boom, boom, boom. I did a bunch of nice turns and then a nice kick out, and I was like, ‘Yes, a birthday wave.’”
Davoli has spent her life on the beach, excelling at sports dominated by men. She’s a female surfing pioneer and is now one of the region’s top surf anglers. She’s surfed the most daunting waves in Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia.
“Wherever I went,” she said, “in between my two surfing boards was a fishing rod.”
Davoli grew up in Brigantine, three houses from the beach on 35th Street. Her father, Ben, spent plenty of time on the beach, and so did Linda and her older brother, Ben Jr.
She and her brother were out of the house at 7 a.m. each summer day. They came home for lunch, then headed back to the water in the late afternoon to swim and ride rafts.
“We had no texting, no computers,” she said.
With all that time at the beach, Davoli almost couldn’t help but become a surfer.
When she was a girl, surfboards had no leashes. If a surfer fell off his board, it floated to the shore. Davoli stood on the water’s edge and picked up the 10- and 11-foot boards. She then paddled them back out to the surfers. One day, a local surfer named Chris Williams asked her whether she wanted to ride a wave.
“He pushed me into a wave,” she said. “I stood up and rode it all the way in.”
New Jersey waves seemed huge to her until she went to California at the age of 13 for a surfing tournament and saw the waves there.
“I was like, ‘Wow, look at these waves,’” she said. “I wanted to ride them — no fear.”
Davoli became one of the first New Jersey surfers to have a national impact. She was inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 2002.
Linda Salmons, curator of the New Jersey Surf Museum at the Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum, said Davoli was devoted to surfing.
“For other women, (surfing) was a hobby,” Salmons said. “She was majorly serious. She hit every tournament. The guys accepted her right off. She had the (credibility) to back it up. There were other women surfing who still had that girly thing going on. Linda was right up there with the guys, and they knew she was their equal.”
Davoli’s surfing accomplishments are formidable. She won the girls division at the United States Surfing Championships in 1973, becoming the first East Coast surfer — male or female — to win a national title.
She was the first East Coast surfer — male or female — to win an Association of Surfing Professionals ranked pro event, winning in 1981 at Bells Beach in Australia, one of the world’s most renowned surfing beaches.
She surfed on a 1980 episode of the ABC television show “The American Sportsman.”
“It’s you and the wave,” Davoli said of surfing. “You’re like doing a dance. You’re leaning into that board, carving a big bottom turn, and then you’re shooting full speed back up to the top again.”
Now, with her competitive surfing days behind her, Davoli concentrates mostly on fishing. She loves the challenge of catching the big ones.
“Thank God for fishing,” she said. “It’s like a whole new ball game. I’ll fish until I’m 90, hopefully.”
She scours the beaches of Brigantine and Absecon Island, studying sand bars and looking for the perfect spot to cast a lure. She proudly says all her fishing is hands-on. The younger guys, she said, look for hot spots online.
“She puts a lot of time in,” said Fred Hynes of Riptide Bait and Tackle Shop in Brigantine. “She’s been doing it a lot of years. Her father was a fisherman and taught her a lot over the years. She’s out (on the beach) for a lot of hours, so a lot of people know her.”
Fishing now satisfies the same competitive desires that surfing did for her.
“Going out there and throwing a lure and pulling a fish out of the water is great satisfaction,” she said. “It’s rewarding finding a spot that you think is going to produce fish and get fish out of there.”
Davoli has won numerous local fishing contests, so many that friends joke she shouldn’t be allowed to enter anymore.
Davoli lives alone in Brigantine with her two cats. She works in the winter painting homes. She repairs surfboards in the summer.
She still can be found on the beach almost every day. But don’t look for her laying out to catch a tan.
“I’m not the type to sit in a beach chair,” she said.
Davoli lived in Hawaii from 1975-81. She considered moving to Australia in the 1980s. But she ended up back where she grew up. She’s well known around Brigantine. Kids still stop by her home asking for surfing tips.
“Fifty-seven years is a long time,” she said with a laugh.
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