Surfing in Virginia

Virginia has sandy beaches next to the ocean. Virginia has a "fetch" where wind can blow over thousands of miles of ocean, just like Hawaii and California.

The shape of the ocean floor off Virginia and North Carolina is too gentle to generate the big waves for which Kauai and Malibu are famous, but still creates some of the best waves on the eastern seaboard. Surfers began to ride the waves at the Outer Banks by 1909, just two years after surfing was popularized by exhibitions in California, and Hawaiians demonstrated surfing in 1928 at Roanoke Island.

The broad rise in popularity on the East Coast was triggered by California-based movies in the 1950's and early 1960's, especially "The Endless Summer" in 1965. In 1966, the Nags Head Surfing Association formed. The Eastern Surfing Association Championship ("the Easterns") were first held at Buxton in 1971, and the U.S. Surfing Championships brought West Coat competitors to Buxton in 1974. Surfboards at the time were made from juniper wood, prior to the adoption of foam and fiberglass.1

The first surfboard used at Virginia Beach was made of redwood. It was 12 feet long and weighed 100 pounds.

Virginia Beach has hosted the East Coast Surfing Championships since 1963, making it the "oldest continuous-running surfing competition in the country." The surfers who created the event met at Long Island, at the first East Coast Surf event on Gilgo Beach in 1962, and they decided Virginia Beach should host it the next year.

Pete Smith and Bob Holland opened Virginia Beach's first surf shop in 1963, and Hobie Alter chose it to sell his boards on the East Coast. What was originally the Virginia Beach Surfing Festival became the East Coast Surfing Championships in 1965, and Virginia Beach evolved into the epicenter of East Coast surfing and stand-up paddleboarding. The area around First Street and the Steel Pier (now gone) became known as a "two-block surfing insane asylum."2

"Surfing's East Coast Boom," the cover story of Sports Illustrated in June, 1968, noted that the Virginia Beach waves were only three feet high, but they were constant and suitable for learning trick maneuvers. Local surfers suggested they had one of the world's greatest training grounds for developing surfing talent. The downside of having waters packed with young surfers was a lifeguard's complaint that someone was always getting zonked with a loose board.

The limited size of the waves may help make surfers appreciated them more. Experienced surfers have multiple boards, allowing selection of the right size and shape for different wave conditions. As described by one writer:3

The jaded and enervated surfers sprinkled throughout California are nearly impossible to find on the East Coast, where waist-high waves are often treated as a gift, not an insult.

The current sponsors of the East Coast Surfing Championships, the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees), have expanded the surfing championship weekend into a week-long event with land-based activities, including skateboarding and BMX biking. The city has contributed $10,000 annually for marketing, and in return the East Coast Surfing Championships has generated $1.2 million in taxes (plus over $14 million in economic activity in the area) at a time when few tourists normally visit Virginia Beach.

The president of the Virginia Beach Hotel-Motel Association noted the economic impact in 2014, after the city doubled its fees for providing services such as police patrols and trash collection:4

That's typically a down time for us and the ECSC [East Coast Surfing Championships] fills lots of rooms.

The city decision to double fees in 2014 was part of an overall increase for the over-500 events scheduled each year, reflecting increased costs for city services. The Jaycees responded by threatening to stop sponsoring the East Coast Surfing Championships, because the fee increase (from $40,000 to $77,000) would increase the costs to host the event by over 7% and absorb the profits generated for charity.

In 2019, the event generated more economic activity than any other festival or marathon in Virginia Beach.

All plans changed in 2020, after the COVD-19 pandemic limited crowds. Activities such as a volleyball tournament and a motocross showcase, which had spread across 10 city blocks, were cancelled.

The 2020 East Coast Surfing Championships were limited to a maximum assembly of just 50 staff and surfers, with no spectators. A week of surfing involved rotating the 200 contestants through defined spaces, with no more than 10 at a time in the water. The space required for the scaled-down event used just one-half city block.5

From Dome to Surf Park

Virginia Beach

Virginia Tourism and Virginia Business

there were multiple divisions for contestants in the 2020 East Coast Surfing Championships, but no crowds of spectators
there were multiple divisions for contestants in the 2020 East Coast Surfing Championships, but no crowds of spectators
Source: East Coast Surfing Championships, The Virginia Beach Jaycees Present the 58th Annual Coastal Edge East Coast Surfing Championship (August 25-30, 2020)



1. "New Exhibit Reveals North Carolina’s Surfing Legacy," North Carolina Maritime Museums,; "History of Outer Banks surfing goes back nearly 100 years," The Virginian-Pilot, June 11, 2017, (last checked September 23, 2020)
2. "Butch Maloney, surfing’s East Coast wild child, dies at 76," The Virginian-Pilot, November 9, 2019,; "Virginia Beach Surfing: Past and Present," Visit Virginia Beach,; "How Virginia Beach became a surf destination," USA Today, April 2, 2018,; "Stealing the waves? Some surfers in Va. Beach think so," The Virginian-Pilot, September 27, 2010,; "Throwback Thursday - The History of Surfing in Virginia Beach," Sandbridge Realty Blogs, August 16, 2018,,Coast%20Surfing%20Championships%20(ECSC). (last checked September 23, 2020)
3. "Virginia Beach Surf History," Legendary Surfer, June 11, 2018,; "Surfing's East Coast Boom," Sports Illustrated June 1968, (last checked September 23, 2020)
4. "Surfing championships may be in trouble," The Virginian-Pilot, January 28, 2014, (last checked February 1, 2014)
5. "The East Coast Surfing Championships are returning to 'the soul of surfing'," The Virginian-Pilot, August 21, 2020, (last checked September 23, 2020)

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