The late 1980s was a boom time for the American economy. Reaganomics, Gordon Gekko, conspicuous consumption: As GDP climbed and crested in nearly every economic sector, the surf industry rode the wave of supply side economics, expanding its reach into new territories. At 200-plus pages the monthly surf publications of the day — “Surfer Magazine” and “Surfing Magazine” — were bursting at the seams with contest coverage, advertisements from new brands seeking to outfit surfers from San Clemente, Cal. to Satellite Beach, Fla. in the era’s fashion de rigueur (namely short-shorts and day glo), and dispatches from formerly obscure pockets of surfdom.
Tucked into a 1987 (Vol. 28, No. 4) issue of “Surfer Magazine” is a neat, little insert bearing the title “East Coast Surfer.” Four years before the advent of “Eastern Surf Magazine” (RIP 1991-2017), this semi-regular supplement to surfing’s “bible” was evidence of the surf industry’s newest foray into East Coast courtship — a love affair that has waxed and waned in the decades since.
“Surfing was on an upswing in the late ‘80s,” said local surfer Mitch “The Mayor” Kaufmann. “From the late ‘70s, early ‘80s it was on a downswing. But starting in the mid-80s, even in California, there was a resurgence of amateur competition, amateur teams and a lot of surf shops opening up. North Florida started getting more exposure.”
Aside from ads for many of the right coast’s prominent surf shops and homegrown surfboard brands, as well as a smattering of ESA contest results, Vol. 28, No. 4’s “East Coast Surfer” includes a five-page spread introducing Jacksonville Beach as “Florida’s most overlooked power zone.” With articles written by Jacksonville-by-way-of-Taiwan surfer/shaper Tim Chew and former Hart’s Surf Shop owner Dave Hart, as well as a treasure trove’s worth of black and white photographs featuring some of the area’s best local surfers, the spread makes for a compelling time-capsule and documents a unique time and place in Northeast Florida surf history.
“My goal was to write something that the Jacksonville surf community could be proud of,” said Chew, who authored the spread’s lead article. “When I moved [to Jax Beach], I immediately recognized this place as the Santa Cruz of Florida. It’s a little colder and we had a tremendous number of underground chargers — just like Santa Cruz does. People seemed to come out of the woodwork and just rip.”
The photos in the “Surfer Mag” spread, many of which were taken by legendary North Florida lensman Joaquin Garcia, certainly proceed the area’s reputation for subterranean shredding. There’s Mitch Kaufmann, crouching and holding a high-line through a thick-lipped barrel at the Poles. Standout competitor Alan Riik progressively negotiating a meaty end-section, and Jason Hoey — one of a trio of Duncan U. Fletcher: Class of ‘87 standouts that also included Mike Herndon, and soon-to-turn pro Sean Mattison — doing his best Laird Hamilton impression with an inverted (presumably) flyaway air.
“There was an incredible crew of surfers that graduated [in ‘87],” Kaufmann said of the trio of standout amateurs, who all surfed for the then-prominent Hixon’s Surf shop. At the time, Kaufmann was just starting to collect surf clips for his seminal local skate and surf public access television show “The Radical Side.”
According to Kaufmann, the talent in the water made the task both easy and absorbing. He credits, the well-run, well-funded and well-attended competition circuit of the day, which included contests put on by both the Eastern Surfing Association and the National Scholastic Surfing Association, for playing an outsized role in the development of North Florida surfers. “The ESAs were really big at that time. Back then it had a lot of clout It was such an important feeder into the pro ranks. All the surf shops would pile kids into vans and drive them to the contests. The talent level just exploded because there was so much support.”
Thirty years later, certainly much has changed since the Northeast Florida surf community was first exposed as an influential zone. Kaufmann and Chew both argue that the waves were better in those days, citing intermittent dredging and efforts intended to combat beach erosion for the disappearance of the region’s formerly well-formed sandbars.
“Back then we had waves all the time,” Kaufmann said. “In the fall and winter, it never got under head-high. We’d have overhead nor’easters for days and weeks on end. Then it’d go offshore and we’d have clean barrels for days.”
Still, much remains the same. Armed guards still hassle surfers on occasion for crossing into the military base at Hanna Park. The area’s lineups persist as significant feeder pools to the pro ranks, with surfers like Justin Quintal, Kayla Durden and the Thompson Tribe (Cody, Evan and Tristan) being some of the most recent and prominent examples.
“It was a great area to grow up surfing and still is,” Hoey said, who moved to the North Shore of Oahu shortly after the article came out, before coming back to Northeast Florida to takeover the family business some years later. “We had great mentors back then. Mitch Kaufmann and all these older guys were taking time out of their lives to take a bunch of kids up and down the coast to compete. It was such a rad experience, and it really pushed the talent level.”
As for the decrease in wave quality presumed by his elders, Hoey agreed to disagree. “I would argue that might be some old man’s disease,” he laughed. “You know, ‘everything was better in the old days.’ Really, the window of opportunity for waves here is so small. If you travel or spend time in other places, you realize the surf isn’t all that good here, and you might get jaded. But if you’re hardcore and on it, you can get great waves. That hasn’t changed.”