Evidence shows first East Coast surfing contests were held in Wrightsville Beach

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In the run up to the 2020 Summer Olympics, which will for the first time feature surfing, a local historian said he has discovered evidence that Wrightsville Beach hosted the first ever surfing contest at the turn of the 20th Century.
J. Skipper Funderburg, vice president of the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, said he has uncovered several advertisements in Wilmington newspapers promoting “surfing competitions” at Wrightsville Beach’s legendary Lumina Pavilion.
“The Lumina was a big building, it had three stories,” Funderburg said. “Spectators would go up and sit and watch from rocking chairs.”
The discovery is seperate from Wrightsville Beach’s previously-established position as the birthplace of East Coast surfing, which was recognized with a historic marker on Waynick Boulevard in 2015.
While that marker acknowledged Burke Haywood Bridgers and others efforts to bring the pastime of surfing from Hawaii to North Carolina, Funderburg said the new discover shows that those surfers also held what are the first contests on the East Coast.
“The early twentieth century surfers proved that surfing migrated from Hawaii to California and North Carolina about the same time, then Florida,” he said.
These contests were recorded into history through newspaper advertisements and articles promising “surf board contests,” with one piece describing surfing as a “royal sport” and another promoting Labor Day activities that included an effort to old “surf board contests such as are held on the Pacific Coast.”
Funderburg said that the swimming and running contests provided the infrastructure needed for surfing contests.
“There was a starting gun, course clerks, referees and safety personnel,” he noted.
The earliest article, published in the May 29, 1907 Wilmington Morning Star, described surfing as a “fine sport” but did not specifically describe a surfing contest. However, the Sept. 1, 1909 article in the Wilmington Morning Star described “sports on Labor Day” at the Lumina Pavilion that included a surfing contest, as well as contests for swimming and outrigger canoeing. That same event was also featured in a Sept. 4 advertisement in the same paper, promising “surf board contests” for the patrons that paid 25 cents to ride the train to the Lumina.
Wrightsville Beach earned the recognition as the birthplace of East Coast surfing after Funderburg discover a letter in April 2, 1910 edition of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, where Bridgers wrote to a friend in Hawaii asking for tips on wave riding, a sport he had tried for the first time at Wrightsville Beach the previous summer.
There was also a June 25, 1910 advertisement in the Wilmington Morning Star promoting a variety of July 4 athletic contests on Wrightsville Beach, including a surfing contest, along with sack races, potato races and flag races, among other activities.
This year, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper ratified the surfing contest in a proclamation declaring September as “surfing month.”
Funderburg said the discovery is well timed with the 2020 Olympics, where surfing will be contested at Tscurigasaki Beach, Japan.
History shows that South Carolinian Alexander Hume Ford helped promote the Hawaiian sport of surfing in the mainland United States, including communicating with Bridgers.
“This transfer of meaning through the experience of this long-cherished Hawaiian symbol of prowess, altered the sport, leading to the development of modern surfing,” Funderburg said. “The role of American cultural expressions such as films, the media and celebrities altered the meaning of the sport of surfing. While the act of surfing may bear similar resemblance today to the ‘royal sport’ of ancient Hawaii, the appropriation of the activity by the Honorable Alexander Hume Ford drastically changed the essence of surfing and it developed into a modern competitive sport bereft of richness it once held in the Kingdom of Hawaii.”
In August, Funderburg argued that a 1888 wood-cut illustration in an Asbury Park, N.J of the so-called “Sandwich Island Girl” riding a surfboard couldn’t be proven, allowing Wrightsville Beach to keep its distinction as the birthplace of East Coast surfing. The surfing girl was christened “Mamala” and declared her to be a legend, Funderburg said, allowing the New Jersey town to keep the illustration as part of its history.

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