Wildwood Crest’s Mike Sciarra surfed his first wave in summer 1963, when the sport was just starting to catch on at the southern tip of Cape May County.
“I was 13, and I saw a short movie clip about surfing, and I thought, ‘That’s something I’d like to try,’” he said. “A friend of mine, Mike Kelly, had a board he let me borrow. I carried it from his house all the way to the beach, paddled out and stood up. After that, I was hooked.”
Thus began a legendary career in which Sciarra evolved from top-notch surfer to noted board shaper. Now 69, Sciarra’s dedication to surfing has resulted in his selection to the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame was established in 2015 and has held bi-annual induction ceremonies. This one is special, however, because it marks the first time it has honored anyone from the southern-most section of the state.
Sciarra and West Cape May’s Lisa Roselli and Joe Grottola are part of the 12-member class that will be inducted May 31 during a ceremony at the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan.
The new group of Hall of Famers also includes Steve Dwyer (Longport), Matt Keenan (Ocean City) and Danny Maragliano (Ocean City).
Roselli is the co-director of the South Jersey chapter of the Eastern Surfing Association. Her husband, Joe Grottola, is the ESA’s Northeast Regional director. Both were also among Cape May County’s top surfers.
“I’m very humbled by this,” Sciarra said. “Joe and Lisa have done a lot more for surfing with all the contests they’ve run for the ESA. They deserve it more than I do.”
Joe and Lisa disagree, however.
The ESA may never have become so popular if not for pioneers like Sciarra, who helped introduce the sport to the Wildwood/Cape May area in the 1960s.
“I’m so happy to see Mike get recognized,” Roselli said. “It’s well-deserved.”
Sciarra was one of the people who introduced surfing south of Avalon, along with Cape May’s Harry and Jeffrey Gibbons, Steve “Hag” Piacentine and Steve McDuell.
It was tough to get surfing-related equipment on the island in those days. Scoop Taylor, owner of Scoop’s Sporting Goods on New Jersey Avenue, carried his own line of boards. Then there was Turco’s Sports a few blocks away that had an odd combination.
“It had guns on one side and surfboards on the other,” Sciarra said with a laugh.
Armed with a used board and a wetsuit he bought out of a Marvel comic book, Sciarra spent his teenage years riding waves next to the Wildwood Crest Pier on Aster Road with a crew that included boyhood friends Larry Bonelli, Dave Bowman, Greg Fulginiti, Robby Goodman and Ray “Flipper” Morey.
The 1967 Wildwood Catholic High School graduate spent a year at Florida Institute of Technology, then transferred to the University of Hawaii.
In 1969, he returned home for the summer and started building surfboards with friend Scott Grider in his garage on Nashville Avenue. The late Dan Heritage, a member of the first Hall of Fame class in 2015, helped out by glassing the boards in a factory he had in Woodbine.
Soon after graduating from Hawaii in 1971, Sciarra opened Kona Sports in the same building that previously housed Scoop’s and began selling surfing and sports equipment.
His shaping days were put on hold for a few years, but he recently opened Kona Surf Co. on Rio Grande Avenue in Wildwood with son Chris and purchased an Australian shaping machine called the APS3000 to make their own surfboards and standup paddleboards.
He even made one for himself, an 8-foot board he uses to ride swells in Cape May and the Wildwoods.
“I try to get out there once a week if the waves are good,” Sciarra said.
Fifty-six years and one knee replacement later, he still gets the same thrill out of catching a wave at age 69 as he did at 13.
As the Beach Boys famously sang, “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.”
For Mike Sciarra, Wildwood is the top of the world.
David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.