[Cover of Vol. 1 No. 4. Cover photo taken at Ocean City, Maryland.]
In 1965, Brooklyn residents John Gundersen and Paul Chapey published Atlantic Surfing, the first east coast surfing magazine. They had learned to surf in Miami Beach two years earlier and were fully jazzed on surfing, bringing a Dale Velzy pintail back home to Bay Ridge as a souvenir. A serendipitous encounter with surf filmmaker Bruce Brown in 1964 helped conceptualize their magazine, when he suggested they advertise the upcoming project at his movie screenings. This generated content for their first issue, one that would unify the eastern seaboard and a culture that had been developing independently. A year later in the winter of 1966 Gundersen opened Rockout Surf Shop located on Beach 116th street in Rockaway, arguably the first of its kind in the five boroughs. Lifeguards and pioneering Rockaway surfers Kenny and Wally Schreifels sold Challenger surfboards a year or two before at a depot near the 100th Precinct – not far from where Boarders Surf Shop on Beach 92nd street exists today. Surfing in New York was still technically illegal when Rockout opened, but you could get away with it when the lifeguards weren’t on duty or during the off season. Many surfers were issued citations and Gundersen himself was arrested for ‘assaulting’ a police officer, an exaggerated charge later thrown out in night court but indicative of the level of beach conflict at the time. In May of 1967, Gundersen, Chapey and others marched on City Hall and were given a meeting with Mayor John Lindsay who, after some convincing, allowed surfing in the waters of New York City on a temporary basis. Surfing remained temporarily legal for the next thirty eight years until 2005 when a surfing-only beach was finally declared. The Vietnam War cut Atlantic Surfing days short along with Rockout, as both Gundersen and Chapey were called for active duty. They were recently inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame. This interview was conducted over the course of a few phone conversations with Gundersen and one with Chapey.
Michael Machemer: You’re from Brooklyn?
John Gundersen: I was born in Norway and came here when I was two. My parents were Norwegian and immigrated to the United States before the war and afterwards went back to Norway to adopt a child. I’m an authentic World War II baby.
Paul Chapey: I was born in Brooklyn. I dropped out of St. John’s in 1963 and moved down to Florida with Gundersen and that’s when I first started surfing.
JG: In 1961, I went away to a private military academy in Virginia called Staunton and one of my roommates was from Hawaii and all he kept doing was showing us how to catch a wave on the floor. Other than that I could care less about surfing. I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in the Fort Hamilton area. When I was 13 or 14, an older kid from the neighborhood would take me and my buddies bodysurfing in Riis Park. In early 1962, Paul Chapey and I got jobs out in Breezy Point at the surf club. We would always go bodysurfing but never saw anyone surfing. That summer we went to see a surf contest at Gilgo Beach but in reality we just wanted to see the young girls in bathing suits. I’d seen surfing in the Gidget movies like Beach Blanket Bingo but that day at Gilgo was the first time I saw it in person. I think Donna Snodgrass won the women’s division. She was Reuben’s daughter and he was selling Carl Ekstrom’s surfboards at the time. I learned to surf the following fall after graduating military school.
MM: In Florida?
JG: I caught my first wave when I was 18 in the back of a kosher hotel called The Sterling, up on 59th and Collins Ave. in Miami Beach. Chapey had gone to Florida with his mother every year for a week and talked me into going to Miami Beach and becoming a beach boy. He said we could learn to teach surfing and maybe do some scuba diving. So we drove from New York down to Florida and the first place we stopped to see the water in Florida was Melbourne Beach. We went body surfing in the rough ocean and I still didn’t see anyone surfing. I remember coming back to the car looking up and saw the first surf shop I’d ever seen in my life – Murph’s Surf Shop. We continued on to Miami and after getting set up met the only surfers at the time and learned how to surf. I was hooked for life. It was the fall of 1963, we lived right across the street from Jack ‘Murph the Surf’ Murphy and that’s how I got to meet him and all his friends.
MM: Would you guys surf together?
JG: Yeah, I used to surf with him all the time; Jack was a very good surfer. He grew up in California but ended up in Miami in 1958 or 1959. He was a notorious jewel thief, a second story man who stole the Star of India and a bunch of other stuff from the Museum of Natural History in 1964. For legitimacy he had a surf shop up in Melbourne Beach but it was very seasonal. He and another guy named Dick Catri were partners as a clown diving team for all the fancy hotels in Miami Beach. Paul and I were now working on the beach at the hotels and everybody was like one big clique. We became friendly with Barney Cipriani, the world high diving champ at the time who was on Wide World of Sports every Saturday night. He ended up giving us our lifesaving certificates for the Red Cross and taught us how to scuba dive. We were fairly decent at surfing and I was teaching people how to surf after I learned how. Paul and I were on a twenty five percent commission for selling suntan lotion and putting pads out on chairs at the beach clubs. The first week of 1964 we made like a quarter because it was raining. We decided we were going back to New York to go to school and get an education. Paul and I bought a Dale Velzy pintail from Cipriani for twenty dollars, that’s the board we shared. Later when we decided we wanted to go a little shorter, I went and ordered a 9’4” from John Hannon back in New York. He was making boards and selling them through White Mountain Ski Shop up on the north shore of Long Island. We drove back to Brooklyn in early January and on the ride home I was hounding Paul that we needed to come out with an east coast surfing mag. I was pretty stoked on surfing and reading all the different magazines that were out at the time; Surfer, Surfing Illustrated and Surf Guide. Out of all the magazines I could get my hands on, I only found one picture of the East Coast. I kept thinking it was a good idea to put out a magazine and all he kept saying was that we had no money, no experience and that I was out of my mind. I moved back in with my parents and we got jobs as indoor lifeguards at the City Squire hotel in Manhattan. A guy named Kenny McInytre was showing surf movies at different VFW’s and high schools around Long Island and would attend those.
PC: I knew McIntyre while attending St. John’s in Hillcrest. He was one of the first guys I ever met who surfed. He was a star basketball player at St. John’s and founded the Salty Dog restaurants.
MM: What films was he screening?
JG: He showed Bud Browne’s movie Locked In, and early films by Bruce Brown and Greg MacGillivray. Paul and I were deciding to do the magazine and still figuring out how we’d get content. Then in 1964, Bruce Brown came to town with the Hobie crew, Corky Carroll and Robert August and they came across in Hobie’s motor home and were showing Endless Summer. Bruce didn’t have enough money to do sound on it so he’d be up on stage narrating what was going on in the movie. After the screening, I went over to introduce myself to Bruce and tell him about my idea of an east coast surfing magazine and how he thought I could get pictures and stories for it. He looked at me and said, ‘I just gave you your magazine. See all the people out here, I’ve got all the surfers right here. Put some fliers out and have them give you the pictures and stories.’ So that’s what we did, we followed Bruce around the east coast when he was showing his movies, went to see Kenny McIntyre’s screenings, rented movies ourselves from Bruce and Greg MacGillivray and showed them all over Long Island. We kept putting out mimeograph sheets about a new magazine coming out and this is how we did our first issue of Atlantic Surfing which came out in early March of 1965. The second one was published in early fall and we did nine issues total; the last was in late 1968. We also came out with the only east coast surfing comic book called Surf Humor. Chapey just found one in reasonable condition for hundred dollars. Carl Herman did the cover, he was partners with Richard Van Winkle and they started a surfing magazine called Surfing East, which came out about two or three months after we did ours in 1965.
PC: Carl was the founder of our competitor, Surfing East. He’s a world-class illustrator and graphic designer and the most prolific, USPS stamp designer with over 400 designs, including the classic Duke Kahanamoku stamp. He started surfing a few years before me and was a Tobay Beach lifeguard. He now lives in Carlsbad, California.
The challenge with Atlantic Surfing was the photography. Back then, publishing in the analogue days before digital was really difficult and very expensive. There were no surf photographers on the east coast, people didn’t even really have cameras capable of taking good photos and certainly weren’t shooting color, if anything they were shooting black and white. Getting material was the real challenge. Everybody was clueless about how to take good surfing photos, there was one water camera, the Nikonos. I had one and tried to use for surf photography but it was very wide angled and you had to preset the focus, it was a challenge. You shot transparencies, they were either properly exposed or improperly exposed, and more often than not, improperly exposed. Shooting with the long telephoto lenses, they just did not have the optical precision to take the type of quality shots that you needed for a magazine. National Geographic had them but we certainly didn’t, they were very expensive.
The west coast was so far ahead in terms of surfing and surf publishing, the lack of good long focal lenses were so wanting that everybody in California, any type of well-known surf photographer used to get their lenses handmade from a place in Hollywood called Century Precision Optics. They made lenses for the movie industry. Century was the only place making lenses that had the sharpness and color resolution to do what Kodachrome 2 was capable of doing. They were preset lenses too, not automatic and were difficult, I think 5.6 was the lowest f-stop and the east coast didn’t really have the light that Hawaii and California did to accommodate those lenses. When I later became editor of Surfing Magazine, we didn’t publish any color unless it was shot with a Century lens on Kodachrome. We wouldn’t even publish Ektachrome, which you could take to a lab and have them clip test the first three shots and adjust the balance but you couldn’t do that with Kodachrome, because the only people who developed it was Kodak. So you were either right or wrong with your exposure and to be a surf photographer in those days required a lot of technical ability. With digital you point and shoot as many photos as you want. Back then if you sent someone on a surf trip, that guy really had to be good because if he came back with bad photos the entire experience would be gone. It was the dark ages, you didn’t have scanners for color separations, the scans were all done by an operator. I remember one time we had photos from Puerto Rico and the water was really turquoise, this beautiful blue and we got them back and they looked like the Hudson River. The guy said he wanted to make it look real. He’d never seen water like that so he made it the same color as the muddy Hudson River. It looked faked and you had guys making judgments like this. There was no FedEx so if a guy came back from a trip and lived in Virginia Beach he had to it postal or sometimes special delivery which would take three days.
MM: Where was Atlantic Surfing printed?
PC: The first two issues were printed at Royal Litho down on Lafayette Street which used to be the printing district. After that we moved printers quite a bit, we kept changing the number of copies and our need for color and would need to find a new printer to meet our new format and requirements. Our last issue was printed at Danner Press in Canton, Ohio they were a big time magazine printer, some other issues were printed at a place in Philadelphia by Weir Brothers Litho.
MM: Let’s talk about your role in getting surfing legalized in NYC?
JG: One day about four or five of us drove out to the Fort Tilden in this 1948 woody that we’d bought from a Puerto Rican guy in downtown Brooklyn for $150. When we got out of the water the police started chasing us. I was the last one standing there with the board and they gave me a NYC traffic citation. It was illegal to bring any type of flotation device into the waters of New York City. I never paid the fine, just blew it off and never heard anything about it. I think the ticket was 1965 or ‘66. In New York City it was against the law to bring any type of floatation device into the water. It’s a very litigious state and New Yorkers in general can’t swim. The city didn’t want to get sued. Surfing was put on a temporary basis starting in May of 1967 and legalized in 2005. Nobody bothered you off season, that’s when everybody surfed or you’d do it after the lifeguards went home or before they went on duty. We went over to City Hall and marched around picketing. I took a bunch of the local kids with surfboards, some of the guys were married and had wives and children so I thought it would be nice if they brought them to make it look like more of a family oriented thing. We weren’t the kind of protestors they were used to seeing and so they called us in. I had a meeting with Mayor Lindsay, the City Attorney and the Supervisor of Parks and Recreation who runs the beaches. They said, ‘What is it that you people want?’ I said, ‘We want surfing to be legalized’ and the judge asks, ‘What’s surfing?’ So I tell him, ‘Like in the Beach Blanket Bingo movies, Gidget, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean.’ We talked about it and they talked about it and one of them goes, ‘Ok, surfing is like boating?’ And I say, ‘No, it’s nothing like boating, sir. This is surfing.’ And the City Attorney says, ‘Ok, we have to make sure it’s safe and put a restriction on it, so anybody who goes on one of these boating platforms has to wear a life preserver.’ I looked at him and said, ‘What are you nuts? I assume you think you’ll be saving yourself from lawsuits and people drowning but decapitations are okay?’ They asked what I meant by that and I said when you fall off a surfboard on a reasonable size wave the idea is to dive down under the water, count to five, pop back up and the rushing white water will have gone by. But that’s not good enough if you want these kids to fall off their boards wearing buoyant life preservers in the whitewater and have these big surfboards decapitate them. ‘No, we can’t have that,’ they said and we all finally agreed. That was the original way surfing got legalized, on a trial basis in New York City. From what I understand, two congress people from the Rockaway area took credit for getting surfing legalized when it finally got approved.
MM: Tell me more about early Rockaway…
JG: Well, the first time Duke Kahanamoku rode a surfboard in the continental U.S. was in the early 1920’s in Rockaway Beach. I’ve been looking into getting the actual facts on this. A woman in Honolulu contacted me who’s working on Duke’s life story and has all the information about him being on Long Island and surfing Rockaway but she wants three thousand dollars for it and I will not buy information. There are a lot of old people in Rockaway who were around and remember the famous incident.
["The people from the city feel strange here."]
["I've always wanted to go back to Rockaway."]
PC: I got a job teaching surfing at the Breezy Point Surf Club in the summer of 1964 but really wasn’t interested in teaching anyone to surf, I just wanted a place to keep my surfboards. So I scammed this position of being an independent concession because I knew some of the guys that ran the place. They started building the Silver Gull Beach Club on the eastern side of Breezy closer to Rockaway and I ran into two guys who were going for jobs as lifeguards. It was Pat Reen and Geri Vartan and we started talking, said they surfed and I asked if they knew about Atlantic Surfing and Vartan goes, “I’ve been wanting to meet you guys, I’m a graphic designer studying at Pratt” so we became friends and he became our art director. Reen’s brother Jerry also surfed so did the Schreifels brothers, Kenny and Wally. Kenny now lives in Oceanside, California Wally lives in Mexico somewhere, two really smart guys. Wally is a Penn State Ph.D in chemistry and Kenny is a general contractor and they’re both very educated. They were all lifeguards in Rockaway. John will tell you that he had the first surf shop but the Schreifels were selling boards before him. Then there was a younger generation of surfers like Jim Deppe, Louis Stathis and Terry McConnell, who were younger than Schreifels and Reen. Larry Miller was an early surfer also -- a friend of Reen and the Schreifels brothers. Those guys who grew up in Rockaway were all unique, all Irish, all crazy heavy drinkers for the most part and loved to party. The kind of guys you wanted to be around, just lots of fun.
["New York Bible Society"]
[New York '60s shred]
MM: Who was the hottest surfer of that crew?
PC: I’d probably say Pat Reen. He wasn’t flashy but he was a guy who could handle himself in big surf. Reen was a New York City fireman who got injured and retired early on disability. He was one of the fastest thinkers on his feet that’d you ever meet. A real sharp Irish street kid loaded with intelligence and smarts, he went to Annapolis and it wasn’t for him so he dropped out. Reen had Hawaii experience early on and knew a lot of those guys out there but he was in a class by himself. The Schreifels were really good surfers, same with Sautner, Louis Stathis was really good too. A lot of them used to travel to Puerto Rico very frequently as is now very popular. A guy from New Jersey submitted photos to us of Puerto Rico in 1965 and we went down there shortly thereafter.
JG: In the '60s Kenny and Wally Schreifels were bringing Challenger surfboards out from San Diego and driving them across the country. They had a little outlet shop right next to the police station in Rockaway. This is 1963-65, and then when Carl ‘Tinker’ West moved to New Jersey they stopped doing it. That’s when I opened up an actual surf shop in January of 1966, the first in New York City. It was called Rockout Surf Shop, located on 116th street. Surfing was still illegal at the time. I had the first surf team in New York City too, with guys like Pat Reen, the Stathis Brothers, Jim O’Leary and Jim Deppe who bought Crestwood Surfboards. Initially, I just sold Challenger Easterns because that’s what all the local kids wanted. That was Carl West and Bruce Springsteen.
MM: The Boss?
JG: Yeah, Bruce was a semi-homeless kid when he was 16 or 17 and lived in the Challenger Eastern warehouse. He used to help with deliveries sometimes and always had his guitar with him. I’d bitch and moan, ‘You suck, go get a job!’ I’m actually trying to get ahold of him now to see if he’s done any surfing on Long Island. I know Bruce did most of his surfing in New Jersey with Jim Phillips.
MM: Didn’t Jim shape in New York?
JG: Jim worked for Micris Surfboards in 1966, it was owned by a TWA pilot named Bob Evangelist. They used to make all of the Beachcomber Surf Shop’s boards in Amityville. It lasted about two years and then Jimmy wandered off to New Jersey and went to work for Tinker who owned Challenger Eastern surfboards and who later became Springsteen’s road manager.
Getting back to Rockaway, since everybody had to come on the subway I cut a hole in the floor of Rockout, built a staircase down to a repair shop and also made these long sleeves that you could slide your board into. For five dollars a month you could leave your board at my shop and take the subway home. This way I was guaranteed that you’d come back here to go surfing, and if you needed something, you’d buy it from me. I sold huaraches, the tire tread leather sandals from Mexico, Kensington Hawaiian shirts, wax -- of course, Kanvas by Katin board shorts, wetsuits by Dive and Surf who became Body Glove and later we had O’Neill wetsuits. I got my first used boards when Chapey was out on the west coast selling ads for the magazine. He went up to a shop in Costa Mesa and called me saying they were selling used boards for fifteen to twenty dollars that were in great shape. I called the shop and bought thirty of them sight unseen for twenty bucks a piece across the board. They flew them into Kennedy Airport, we got them to the shop and they were sold in thirty days. That’s how we started flooding Rockaway with surfboards.
Two years later, in 1968 I started selling boards by Hannon, Grosskreutz, and Ernie Tanaka, the guy who taught Donald Takayama all he knew about shaping. In 1967, another shop opened across the street from me on 116th called Storm Surf. It was run by a guy named Al Seaman and in the winter he was the dog catcher out in Brookhaven if I remember correctly. It wasn’t what we considered a ‘real’ surf shop; it was basically a record store. He sold records and stuff to a lot of the nerdy kids who wanted to be around surfing but didn’t really surf. He had a couple of boards in there and t-shirts. In fact a lot of the kids would steal stuff from him and come running over to me hoping it’d buy it. Al helped us get surfing legalized though. He went on the John Pine show, a really outspoken guy and talked about surfing. I had my shop until 1969 and then had to get rid of it and the magazine because I got activated into the Marine Corp. Tommy Senna bought me out, all my merchandise when I was closing up the store. That’s how he got started. His current shop is about five doors down from where Rockout was. When I came back from Vietnam my wife and I had our second child. She’s asthmatic and our second child was born asthmatic. Everybody said we should move out west. We sold our house in Coram, Long Island and in the summer of 1971 moved to San Diego.
MM: What do you remember of early skateboarding in New York?
JG: Paul Chapey and I bought our first Hobie skateboard, a little wooden thing about a foot long for $9.95 and used to ride those things up and down the hills of Brooklyn. In our first issue of Atlantic Surfing Magazine on the back cover is the Hannon surfboard team skateboarding in one of the empty pools in an apartment building or hotel in Long Beach. This would’ve been 1964 because the magazine came out in 1965. The same year he came to New York on that Hobie trip. He was 15 at the time and went on the Johnny Carson show to demo this new skateboard that Hobie had put out. While he was exhibiting, the skateboard got loose and hit someone in the third row and cut his head open. They had to haul the guy out and of course Johnny wouldn’t get on the skateboard.
['60s skate jam]
[Hannon team skating what looks to be the Executive Towers pool in Long Beach.]
- Words by Mike Machemer, archival photos of Atlantic Surfing