Surfers and businesses rode to success on the waves at Cocoa Beach
They were the children of the ’50s through the ’70s, known as the baby boomers.
It was a time many describe as the hippie era, the beginning of the Space Age, the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll.
For those who grew up in Cocoa Beach, surfing the waves is just one of their fondest memories.
During the late ’50s and early ’60s, this sleepy little beach village, positioned south of Cape Canaveral on the barrier islands of Brevard County, witnessed a population explosion and transformation that no one living there could have ever foreseen.
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station began launching rockets and NASA set up shop in the early ’60s. The following year, Alan Shepard became the first American in space and the area’s population rose more than 1,000%, seemingly overnight.
A1A, the narrow, lightly-traveled two-lane road that was flanked by a serene landscape of palm trees and sand dunes, suddenly became a major throughway to South Florida.
These were exciting times for the many scientists, engineers and astronauts who came to the area seeking employment with the space program.
And for the many teenagers who enjoyed the beach lifestyle while learning to surf and attending weekend concerts at the Cape Canaveral Pier, these memories are etched in their minds like fine portraits with exquisite brush strokes that portray vivid details.
Greg Thomas, author of Standing on the Front Porch, A ’60’s Story of Cocoa Beach and Beyond, remembered the era and his youthful days growing up in Cocoa Beach as “wild, crazy and carefree.” He said of his adventures on the playground of Cocoa Beach, “I would not have traded these days for any amount of money.”
Thomas, who lived near what is now Fourteenth Street South, in a home that was built in 1947 and just 400 feet from the beach, was one of the area’s first surfing pioneers.
“Part of my daily routine was to wake up each morning and check the surf conditions,” he wrote in the book’s first chapter. “It was a rare sight back then to see another surfboard anywhere.
“It’s hard to imagine the area was like this when I grew up, as now there are hundreds of surfers in these same waters on a good day with waves.”
Based on demographics alone, the surfing boom exploded on the East Coast and Cocoa Beach was the premier location.
Thanks to healthy allowances, the offspring of aerospace engineers and business owners spent their money on everything from surfboards to bikinis, bell bottom jeans and beach attire with surfboard makers and retailers quickly benefiting from the money that was suddenly pumped into the area’s economy.
By the late ’60s, Cocoa Beach had become one of the most popular surfing destinations on the East Coast and was put on the global map by a surf-talented hothouse of school kids, many of whom were close friends with Thomas.
Among them was Gary Propper, a hyper, white-blonde local hot-dogger. His blinding foot work and stylish stance eventually led him to win the 1966 East Coast Championship in Virginia Beach and his signature model Hobie longboard became America’s top selling board of the decade.
Mike Tabeling, a Cocoa Beach High School graduate and the first east-coaster to land on a 1971 cover of Surfer magazine, was one of the area’s inaugural standouts who went on to join the icons and celebrities of Cocoa Beach’s ’60s and ’70s surfing era. He was among the first to conquer Sebastian Inlet’s First Peak, just a few years after he learned to ride his first waves at age 12 in 1962.
Just four weeks prior to his death from kidney cancer in 2014, Tabeling was quoted in Matt Warshaws’ The History of Surfing. “We were eating, living, dreaming and dying for surf,” in reference to his youth in Cocoa Beach.
Along with Propper, Tabeling and Freeman, surfboard craftsmen Claude Codgen, Pat O’Hare, Dick Catri and twins Rich and Phil Salick were among the first mentors and icons who pioneered the waves and contributed to the growth of surfing in Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast. The list of professional surfers began to grow and by the ’80s and ’90s, Cocoa Beach and Brevard had produced a growing list of world-class surfing talent.
Bob Freeman, a native of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, moved to Cocoa Beach in 1966. He became part of the Space Scene via Rockwell Collins as an intern in 1967. He then worked on the Apollo program from 1967-1969. A former surf forecaster for Florida Today as well as an Eastern Surfing Association multiple winner, he won the Florida State Men’s Open Championship in 1968.
Freeman learned to surf in 1964 in the cooler North Carolina waters, so transitioning to the Space Coast and the waves in Cocoa Beach was a pleasurable experience. He fit right in with the vibe, immediately taking to the warmer climate and competing in just about every contest held in the area from the early ’70s and beyond. He was one of the original team riders for Ron Jon Surf Shop in 1967.
“My memories were not only that just about everything in those days was groovy, but it was a time when East Coast surfing was beginning to produce talent that even west-coasters were impressed by,” Freeman said.
“The waves were gentle, and the water temperatures much warmer than the surf on the Pacific coast, and plentiful year-round,” he recalled. “They were less intimidating [except, of course when the swells produced by hurricanes arrived] and for the most part, far less challenging for beginners who wanted to learn the sport.”
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
As surfing became more popular in Cocoa Beach, competitions began to attract more talented surfers and the arrival of one of the biggest surf shops on the eastern seaboard, Ron Jon Surf Shop.
The concept for the shop was founded in 1959 by avid surf pioneer and entrepreneur Ron DiMenna, who built his first location in Ship Bottom, New Jersey, and literally revolutionized the meaning of one-of-a-kind, when it came to surf shops. Two years later, DiMenna jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of the growth of the sport in Cocoa Beach and the surfers who flocked to the area.
Today, the one-of-a-kind, two-acre flagship store, located just south of State Road 520 on A1A, is the world’s largest surf shop and attracts 1.5 million visitors annually.
Stocked with surf gear and every board imaginable, the inventory not only includes clothing and lifestyle accessories, but snowboarding, windsurfing, skateboarding, body boarding, wakeboarding, diving, waterskiing, jet-skiing, rollerblading, camping and bicycling equipment.
Ron Jon Surf Shop played a crucial role in the expansion of Hang Ten, the surf company founded by Doris Moore and Duke Boyd in 1960 in Seal Beach, California, and many other surf brands and boards that were manufactured during this era.
The addition of stores in the Florida cities of Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Fort Myers, Panama City Beach, Clearwater Beach, Orlando, Orange Beach, along with Ocean City, Maryland, Orange Beach, Alabama, and two locations in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, brought the Ron Jon surfing mystique closer to loyal followers in those areas, as well.
By the late ’60s, surf contests began to evolve and Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast became the new center for surf competitions.
ONE BIG PARTY
One of the biggest and oldest competitions [50 years plus], the annual Easter Surf Festival, began as an event put on by the Jaycees and organized by Dick Catri, who was known as the godfather of surfing on the East Coast. Held at the Cocoa Beach Pier, the festival became a huge gathering and party of sorts, complete with bikini-clad women, top-notch competitors and in recent years, even dog-surfing participation.
The local contests became a way for even amateur talents to hone their skills and surf their way up the ladder to higher levels.
Just down the road from Cocoa Beach, Sebastian Inlet’s iconic First Peak was where many set their sights to become future standouts. As shorter boards became popular, and new innovative shapes replaced the longer models typically designed for the smaller surf, the best surfers emerged. Many eventually became employed in multiple facets of the surfing industry as shapers, instructors and even world-class tour competitors.
Fast forward to 1996, when after nearly 30 years of surfing contests in the area and dozens of representatives from Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast competing in both professional world surfing tours such as the Association of Surfing Professionals and the Eastern Surfing Association feeder competitions, the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame was founded. The organization’s purpose was to recognize surfers and others, including shapers and media icons, who contributed to the growth of the sport.
The hall’s first inductees were Cocoa Beach natives and the event was held bi-annually at Surf Expo, a surf industry-related event that featured everything from new surf boards to surf lifestyle apparel. There was even a shape-off contest that featured craftsmen who competed for monetary prizes and status for carving the best replicas of the boards shaped by the ’60s and ’70s era craftsmen.
While the growth of the space program and NASA were ideally the catalysts behind the growth of Cocoa Beach, surfing and its deep rooted history have never trailed far behind.
Probably the biggest contributor and icon of the sport was a progressive style master and phenom, Kelly Slater, who grew up surfing on the waves of Cocoa Beach during his youth.
An 11-time world champion, he began his career as a teen, winning just about every contest ever held in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Slater, who is recognized as the greatest professional surfer, is one reason why Cocoa Beach is considered the capital of East Coast surfing.
It is those who mentored him in the early days — when the lineups were sparse — who argue that the sport was fostered by those who remember the days when Cocoa Beach was a mere sleepy little village void of the hustle and bustle of its transformation into the space exploration mecca of the globe. Yet, it is also a famed place where those surfing baby boomers once roamed and everything and everyone was described in just one word — groovy.
STANDING ON THE FRONT PORCH, A ’60’S STORY OF COCOA BEACH AND BEYOND
Author: Greg Thomas
Available at: Amazon.com, eBook: kindle
Sue DeWerff Panzarino
Sue is an avid surfer, shark attack survivor and storyteller who loves to write about the wonderful people and great organizations on the Space Coast.