Billy Sautner: The Early Wave-Riders of Rockaway
[Billy Sautner surfing Rockaway Beach in 1965 on a Challenger Eastern.]
As New York surf culture continues to grow it’s important to recognize the forefathers who laid the foundation for others to follow by making things like surfboards and surf movies available to the local surfers. Billy Sautner started surfing in Rockaway during the summer of 1963 and was the grom amongst early pioneers like Mickey ‘the Mole’ McManamon, Pat Reen, Larry Miller, Pete Ennis, Dee Mclean, Ernie Vohs and the Schreifels brothers. Sautner was a kid when Walter and younger brother Kenny Schreifels first brought Challenger Surfboards back from California and sold them on the beach in Rockaway. He bought a board from them in 1965 and a few years later he and Kenny Schreifels opened S and S Surfboards, a showroom for Carl ‘Tinker’ West’s Challenger Eastern line located on Rockaway Beach Boulevard just east of the 100th Precinct. S and S is considered Rockaway Beach’s second surf shop after John Gunderson’s Rockout which opened a year earlier in 1967. After wintering on the North Shore with Rockaway OG’s like Reen and McManamon, Sautner got involved with Natural Progression Surfboards and began distributing their boards in Rockaway during the summer. Filmmaker Hal Jepson was part of the NP crew and Sautner screened “Cosmic Children” in the Knights of Columbus on 90th Street, as well as Macgillvray-Freeman’s “Five Summer Stories” uptown in Belle Harbor at St. Francis De Sales. Each winter Sautner would return to the North Shore with money made in New York during the summer selling boards and screening surf films. In the mid-seventies he wound up staying in Hawaii where he attended university, fell in love and would spend the next twenty two years. Sautner now lives in Florida where he works at the VA and runs a special program for war veterans, still surfing occasionally although usually saves his stoke for semi-annual trips back to Hawaii. This interview was conducted over the phone in June of 2014.
Michael Machemer: When were you first exposed to surfing?
Billy Sautner: The winter of 1962. I was living on 114th Street where I grew up in Rockaway and began to see a couple of guys in the water out on longboards down on 110th Street. That got me inspired and I started surfing in the summer of 1963.
MM: Who were some of the early guys you remember surfing in Rockaway?
WS: A guy named Harry ‘Hal’ Olson, Mickey McManamon, Larry Miller and Pat Reen. People may debate who the first to surf in Rockaway was but the first guys I ever saw were all lifeguards. They had the Rockaway Surf Club and used to meet in a bar called McNulty’s. Mike McManamon aka 'Mickey the Mole' was chief lifeguard on 117th Street for years and went out to Hawaii with Reen in the early '60s. Mickey stayed and became a stock broker, surfed big waves and knew everyone, guys like Buzzy Trent and Joey Cabell who he introduced me and the Rockaway crew to. Mickey’s the first person I looked up when I got to Hawaii in 1968. Pat Reen was older, he’s five or six years older than myself and the guys I started with. Pat was a very good surfer with very smooth style. He had surfed in Hawaii and we all kind of looked up to him as kids. He was so good in fact I think he was the first guy on the Hobie surf team in Rockaway. He became a good friend and we lived together for many years on the North Shore and there are many Pat Reen stories better told over a couple of beers in a bar. Suffice to say Pat was a risk taker and I’ll leave it there. Back then a guy named Dee McLean would be out on 121st Street, a couple guys uptown, this was in 1964-1965. Dee and his younger brother Dennis McLean were good surfers, especially Dennis. He came out to Hawaii with me a couple years and later went back to Rockaway and became a fireman. Age wise I’m in between Dee and Dennis, the Stathis brothers were younger like Dennis. Geri Vartan was another character all these guys are known for something. Geri was the art director for Atlantic Surfing. Mark O’Malley was another guy, a great surfer and out of all of the kids who surfed in those days he had the most potential. Mark lived on 92nd Street and was four years younger than me. He lives in Hawaii surfs big waves and is making up for lost time. Mark was an old St. John’s Boys home kid, a place in Rockaway. There was a brother there named Brother Bob Levy who was a surfer. They had diving suits, those quarter inch thick neoprene ones and he’d let me borrow them. They all had holes. If you fell in the water you’d have to just scull with your hands because if you moved in any big way the water would rush into your suit. In the winter, Wally Schreifels, Larry Miller and I used to down a half pint of blackberry brandy and go surfing up at 120th Street. Brother Levy left the order and married a Rockaway girl.
MM: What kind of boards were you guys riding?
WS: When we started surfing most of us couldn’t really afford much so we bought these manufactured pop outs. My first surfboard was a Tiki that I bought at Paragon sporting goods in Manhattan in 1963. The guy who got the first Tiki lived a street away, Jimmy Corey. He and I took the subway in to Paragon and brought this ten foot board back to Rockaway on the train and got quite a few stares from people. There was another place in Queens, a big sporting goods store that sold surfboards, the cheaper manufactured ones. Some guys were able to get custom boards; the earliest would’ve been Hobie and the Long Island surfboards like Hannon and Bunger. I remember when Bruce Brown came through and Mickey Munoz from Hobie came down to Rockaway. Reen was associated with Hobie in California when he was out there and had met Mickey.
MM: Do you remember where Munoz surfed?
WS: I want to say down near me by 114th Street or thereabouts. He had a Hobie nose rider and it was the first time we’d seen one. Emilio brought him down to Rockaway. He had a small place in Queens that sold mostly skiing stuff and Hobie Surfboards. Hobie was the preeminent surfboard at the time everybody wanted to get one. Challenger kind of replaced it, at least in New York. They were the rage when Kenny and Wally Schreifels started bringing them back, they looked really good.
[Stepping out in Rockaway 1966]
[Styling between 1967-1968]
Sautner and goofy foot Terry McConnell doing a ‘go behind’ in downtown Rockaway circa 1967-1968]
[Speed crouch on a small Rockaway left circa 1967-68]
MM: Tell me more about your involvement with Challenger Surfboards and the shop you had with Kenny Schreifels.
WS: The history there is his older brother Wally in the earlier days lived in California and met Carl West who was partners with a guy that had Challenger Surfboards. When Wally came back, they sort of represented Challenger and franchised. Fall of 1966 they split off from the guy in California and packed up Tinker’s big white truck with a bunch of surfers and came to Rockaway. A guy named Dale Dobson came and surfed; Paul Chapey ran an article in Atlantic Surfing about it. Eventually Tinker settled in the Highlands of New Jersey, opened up a factory and started producing Challenger Eastern Surfboards. How I got involved was I bought a board from the Schreifels in 1965 and started hanging with those guys. Kenny and Wally sold them out of their parent’s house for a few years and then they got busy. Wally was in grad school and Kenny was in college, Tinker took a liking to me so I started repping the boards in Rockaway and sold them out of my house for a few years, mostly custom orders. I went to Hawaii in 1968 and came back for summer. In May, Kenny and I opened up the shop on 90th Street and called it S and S Surfboards. It was near the police precinct. There was an old gas station there, actually the guy who owned the gas station owned the shop and Kenny, his father and I fixed that up. Pretty basic place, initially we stocked fifteen to twenty boards, Tinker fronted us and we took many custom orders. We also sold Challenger Eastern t-shirts and patches. That was the year boards transitioned from longboard to shortboards, everybody wanted a surfboard and we sold quite a bit of boards that summer. Kenny was a lifeguard and I was working for the Parks Department and we did well enough to go off again that fall to Hawaii in time for the winter of 1969. We ran into a guy from Long Island out there named Kenny McIntyre and he was responsible for us getting settled on the North Shore that year. He was one of the older East Coast guys and he put us in touch with a guy who had a house right on the beach at Kammieland, adjacent to Sunset Beach. That was the year, December 6th 1969 when the fifty foot waves came and hit the North Shore and demolished about twenty houses. Reen was working for the fire department in New York but later on that winter, I want to say February he retired and joined us. He, Kenny, Mike Rourke and I lived at this house at Sunset which was next door to a heavy local guy named Tiger Espere. All you had to do was mention Tiger and the locals left you alone. He and Mike Turkington had a surf shop called Country Surfboards in Haleiwa and we’d get boards from them sometimes.
MM: Who else were you getting boards from on the North Shore?
WS: When we got to the North Shore I got boards from Billy Hamilton. He became a friend and shaped my boards and we’d have them glassed. We didn’t really ride brand name boards, some of the old shapers had garage shaping rooms and we’d get it shaped from one guy and glassed by another. Nobody really bought shop boards. Later that summer when I returned to Rockaway I began selling Natural Progression Surfboards.
MM: Out of the S and S shop?
WS: No, we didn’t reopen the next year. We had the breakout year and that was it. I was doing other things, showing movies in Rockaway and Long Beach in the summer and whatnot. Terry Zuckoff was one of the owners of Natural Progression. He was the guy I knew. I think they were out of Santa Monica or somewhere just north. I met Zuckoff on the North Shore and he asked if I wanted to rep boards and I said sure and started doing that.
MM: What surf movies were you screening?
WS: I’d come back to Rockaway in summer and would rent halls or auditoriums, rent the movies and show them. I did several. Hal Jepson was a filmmaker associated with the Natural Progression guys and he made a movie called "Cosmic Children" and that was the first movie I showed at the Knights of Columbus on 90th street and they were breaking the doors down to get in to that place. After that I showed a movie called "The Expression Session," a precursor to the "Pipeline Masters" that they made a full length movie out of that. I showed a great film called "Sea Dreams" by Peter French and "Five Summer Stories" by McGillivray-Freeman. That was a real big one we did down at St. Francis de Sales on 129th Street. I think I showed "Five Summer Stories" in Long Beach too at some public school. I remember riding my bicycle throughout Rockaway, over the bridge and into Long Beach putting up my little posters on telephone poles and marketing that way. I made enough money doing that in the summer time to go back to the North Shore and surf in the winter.
MM: What about surfing in Long Beach back then or any other places on Long Island or New Jersey?
WS: Getting out of Rockaway was a real adventure, and in those days we used to call them “surfaris.” I had some friends in Long Beach, Mike Oppenheimer and Donny Eichen. Donny was the guy who lost his teeth surfing between Pipeline and Pupukea and who “Gums” is named after. Kenny and Bobby McIntyre were two other Long Beach guys. Kenny went to St. John’s University and played basketball. He was quite good and got drafted by the St. Louis Hawks and played professional basketball for a season. He and his brother had a bar called the Beach House in Long Beach on one of those streets right by the ocean. That’s where I really knew those guys from. They were very successful and super nice. Kenny later opened the Salty Dog, a chain of restaurants based after Joey Cabell’s Chart House. He also used to write surfing articles under the pen name OT Wood. He was playing college basketball and they didn’t like him surfing so he had sort of this fictitious persona. If you look at some of the old Surfing East mags you’ll see articles that he wrote. We didn’t get to Long Beach a whole lot, if we surfed outside of Rockaway usually it’d be Ditch Plains. Reen, Schreifels, and a guy named Ernie Vohs would all go. Ernie was a sander for Challenger and quite a guy. When the surf got big in Rockaway he was the craziest guy. He’d take off on anything. He was a chief lifeguard in Rockaway and pretty high up in the Parks Department. This is the mid-sixties and we’d drive out to Montauk after the bars closed. I remember Sunrise Highway was the only way out and the milkmen used to deliver milk and donuts to all the shops. We’d pilfer those and get out to Montauk right before the sun came up and surf Ditch Plains. There weren’t many guys who surfed at Ditch and that was the first time I surfed anything that resembled a reef with a rock bottom. Very unusual and also why the waves are so good out there.
[Total involvement in 1968, Sautner on the nose…]
[…shredding off the tail…]
[…and back on the nose again.]
MM: How old were you?
WS: My mom used to let me go to Ditch Plains when I was 14 years old; she trusted Reen and those guys. They took good care of me but I was exposed to a lot of wild shit. We’d surf in the Hamptons every now and then and places out by Gilgo that broke close in. When the surf got real big we’d go up to Fort Tilden. We got rousted by the Military Police up there one time, Reen arguing with the MP’s holding his surfboard looked like the kind of stuff you saw happening at Camp Pendleton in California. Just like in the magazines, surfers getting kicked out of the water by the Marine Corps. I remember a lot of good times with Reen, Miller and the Schreifels, who were all lifeguards and would finagle time off and do a lot of surfing in the day. If ever the swell came up and wind blew west we’d go over to New Jersey and surf the point break at Sandy Hook. In 1966 some friends of mine, Dee Mclean, Terry O’Connell, Eddie Brennan and Paul Mattes bought and old woody and restored it that winter in Terry’s garage. Summer of ‘66 we heard about a surfing contest in Seaside Heights, NJ called the Atlantic States Surfing Contest and so we all piled in that woody and drove out to the contest. I’ll never forget this, they used to have the big boards, the heat boards with all the names and we see Terry’s name and underneath it said, “D. Weber.” We said that can’t be Dewey Weber but sure as shit it was, and he was in the heat with Terry. I think Donald Takayama was also in one of those heats with a Rockaway guy. That was when a lot of shapers came to the East Coast to market their brands of boards. We surfed in a few of those contests, one in Atlantic Heights, one in Belmar and one in Long Branch, NJ.
MM: Did you know of anyone shaping boards in Rockaway back then?
WS: The first guys I saw shaping surfboards in Rockaway were guys from Breezy Point. Dennis Farrell and the Tarrano Brothers had a shop right down the corner from me, either the year I had my shop or the year after called Full Moon Surfboards. They had lived in Huntington Beach one winter, came back and started shaping surfboards. They were pretty crude but they made them right there. Shaping and glassing right in the back of the shop on Rockaway Beach Boulevard between 113th and 114th Street. They were open for a year or so. A guy from the Five Towns who made boards early on was Billy Goldkind for Crestwood Surfboards (1961). Tony Michaels and Mickey Fremont made surfboards out of a little factory on 99th Street right up from the church in the early '70s.
MM: Do you remember Rockout Surf Shop on 116th?
WS: I remember Rockout; it was next to a supermarket. The year before Kenny and I had our shop, John Gunderson opened Rockout Surf Shop and sold Challenger and Challenger Eastern Surfboards. It was the first real surf shop in Rockaway and we all hung out there. There was a hole in the floor and Gunderson had some surfboard lockers down there with access to the supermarket next door. The shop rats would go down into the hole and get some donuts, Cokes and stuff, helping themselves to the product. There was another shop across the street, well not really a surf shop but they rented surfboards and sold records. A guy named Al Seaman owned it. He tried to be a surfer but never really fit in. He was a political guy and a bunch of them got together and got a petition to surf in Rockaway and went to city hall. We had the first surfing beach open that year at 112th Street in Rockaway, one beach. Not that many were surfing, it was growing. It really took off when the boards got short. When I first started you had to look for people to surf with. In the winter time there’d be no one.
[“I am on the far right standing, Ernie Vohs is next to me (I think it is his wedding when JP got punched out by Tinker), Kenny Schreifels is standing dead center (dark hair), Frankie Stamp is far left, Tinker is next to Frankie holding his power planer.”]
[“This is a great photo of some of the Rockaway surfing crew and lifelong friends. Taken on the beach at Number Threes - South Shore -- it works in summer and is absolutely one of the best rights anywhere but really crowded. We had a few dawn patrol sessions there. Left to right : Richard Sterman, Bill Wanner, me and Peter Cummings. Sterman and Wanner still live in the islands. Peter is currently in Iraq -- no surf there!”]
MM: Have you been back to Rockaway recently?
WS: I go back to Rockaway every now and then and I’m still friends with those guys. There were a bunch of really good guys living in that Sunset house and other places on the North Shore. We all surfed together and those were some of the best years of my life surfing on the North Shore. We have lifelong memories and still keep in touch. The early years were a lot of fun. Really ground breaking stuff to be at the forefront of anything and watch it grow is kind of exciting. The last time I was in Rockaway I saw people surfing by the rocks and it’s a total zoo. I’ve seen a couple of movies that were made about Rockaway. Richie Sterman another Rockaway surfer, a kid from Brooklyn who eventually wound up in Hawaii with me and now owns a major real estate company, somebody sent him this video about surfers from Rockaway that surfed downtown and they didn’t mention any of the real guys. They didn’t mention Pat Reen and I was like, what the hell is this? I call it revisionist history. When did that start? There is a definite history and guys who were pioneers in those days. They certainly paved the way for others to follow and should be properly recognized. I feel fortunate that I got the best waves in Rockaway before the crowds.
MM: Sounds like you got to Hawaii before all that too…
WS: Certainly, I got there before the crowds and cords later called leashes which started in 1972. The North Shore wasn’t that crowded then, it was a very friendly place and we had those uncrowded perfect waves for quite some time. It’s out of control now but still a great place. It was my home and I lived there for twenty two years. I started going to university, had a girlfriend and stopped going back to Rockaway around 1974. I got my Masters degree from the University of Hawaii and a real job eventually. We moved to Florida in 1990 after I had my second child. The deal I have with my wife is if you’re going to move me this far away I get to go back to Hawaii and surf every year or two.
[Kenny Schreifels , Sautner and Pat Reen, Sunset Beach 1969.]
[“House on Ke Iki Road demolished by the waves of Dec 6th 1969.”]
[“Another house where a wave went in the front door and came out the back. Thirty plus houses were demolished after that they started building them up on stilts.”]
[“Rainbow from our front yard overlooking Kammieland.”]
[Sautner and Kenny Schreifels, “enjoying the good life and spending those S and S Surf Shop profits, our house on Ke Nui Road, Sunset Beach.”]
[“Surfing Rocky Point rights before leashes in 1971.” Photo by Terry McConnell]
[“Me at Pupukea”]
[“Me (left ) and Richie Sterman, Pupukea circa 1975.”]
MM: Weren’t you friendly with Butch Van Artsdalen? I’ve heard stories about him at the Sunset house and he has an interesting connection to New York surf history.
WS: Yeah. Paul Chapey invited me to go on a Windjammer Cruise. After Atlantic Surfing, he became editor of International Surfing and moved to California. He gave an ad to Windjammer Cruises and in return for the ad they sent about eight of us to the British and French West Indies to sail and surf. The summer of 1969 or right before me, Dick Catri from Cocoa Beach, his team rider Joe Twombly, Butch Van Artsdalen and a guy named Billy Bollander. Butch worked for a company named Surf Jet on Long Island. Surf Jet was a precursor to computerized shaping, they had deep pockets and a lot of money but Butch didn’t last too long with them. We sailed throughout the West Indies looking for surf so I got to know him really well. He gave me his number and I looked him up the next winter when I went back to Hawaii and would get with him quite often. He was the first lifeguard at Sunset Beach and died very early in life at Wahiawa hospital. Peter Cummings, another Rockaway lifeguard and surfer was close with Butch as was Kenny McIntyre. Butch was quite a character and partier, he once told me he took LSD, surfed the Pipeline and saw goldfish, and said, “I know there are no goldfish - but anyway.” Butch was a good surfer and a great guy.
- Words by Michael Machemer, photos courtesy of the Sautner Collection