I stood on the rain-soaked deck at The Windjammer on the Isle of Palms, my hands tightly gripping the wood handrail. I was fixated, entranced even, by the sheer power of the ocean. A late-spring storm surge had kicked up waves; they rose gradually then crashed violently in an avalanche of foam and white water.
My mind returned to a state of reality when I realized that I was at The Windjammer on assignment and needed to locate the Carolina Coast Surf Club members I was there to interview. I postured up and strolled back inside, leaving the terrifying but strangely inviting ocean at my back.
It didn’t take long to locate the boys from the Carolina Coast Surf Club. Hal Coste, Tom Proctor and Vernon Owens, planted behind a high-top table, motioned me over. A round of drinks set the stage for captivating conversation about the waves that day and the forecast for the upcoming weekend.
Surfers don’t anticipate good waves – similar to the ones crashing ashore at The Windjammer that day – the way they once did. When Coste and Proctor formed the Carolina Coast Surf Club “back in the day,” websites listing the week’s wave schedule for every major beach did not exist. Hell, the Internet was no more than a futuristic dream back then. The original members of the Carolina Coast Surf Club didn’t find out what the waves would be like until they approached the Isle of Palms sand dunes, eagerly anticipating a glimpse of the waves and hoping against hope that the capricious Atlantic Ocean would provide a meaningful day of surfing.
The Carolina Coast Surf Club is rooted deep in East Cooper history.
“The club first came together back in 1963 when we were 15 and 16 years old,” Coste reminisced as he pulled out a copy of the group’s original bylaws.
Back in those early days of surfing, surfboards, typically longer than 8 feet, would cost in the $75 to $100 range, imperfections and all and without ankle leashes. But that didn’t stop Proctor and Coste from forming what is now the oldest surf club on the East Coast – at least the oldest they know about.
“We don’t necessarily have any proof that we were the first club on the East Coast, but nobody has ever told us that we aren’t,” Coste commented with a laugh.
The first chapter of the Carolina Cost Surf Club story was written by teens at Moultrie High School. Along with Coste and Proctor, the club’s founding fathers, there were about 15 other original members, including Lucy Price Jacobs and her sisters.
Coste remembers becoming infatuated with surfing during his childhood days while trying to stand up on an old Opti-sunfish sailboat. He soon tired of sailboat surfing and got together with six or seven friends to buy a real surfboard.
“We pooled our funds from our summer jobs – cutting grass and lifeguarding – and bought a green 9-foot, 6-inch Malibu popout board,” said Coste “Once we had that board, you couldn’t get us off the beach. We must have been out there for about 80 percent of our summers.”
Current Club President Ken Kirchner remembers his Moultrie High surfing days fondly.
“In those days, there were hardly any other surfers in the water,” he said. “I remember the summer when I was 15 years old, and Tommy and Hal – who I really looked up to – got me hooked.”
Although they all went to the same high school, Kirchner is a year younger than Proctor and three years younger than Coste. Kirchner remembers trying to mimic his friends’ surf prowess on his “homemade plywood surfboard.” The mid-60s were memorable times for members of the Carolina Coast Surf Club.
“We were out in the ocean regardless of the weather. High seas, no waves, cold, hot, choppy as all hell – the conditions never mattered, because we were just having fun,” said Kirchner.
As the summers passed, real life cast its shadow over the original Surf Club members. Some, such as Coste, went off to fight in the Vietnam War.
“I still remember that day at the post office when you got your letter,” Proctor said to Coste.
Others went to college or started their own businesses, and, in 1967, club members began drifting apart. More than three decades later, in 2000, Coste appeared on an HGTV program. Sally Price, one of Lucy’s sisters, saw him on the show, one thing led to another and, with the help of Proctor and Coste, the club reunited.
The 30-year hiatus did not change much for the Carolina Coast Surf Club. The principles of having fun and spreading the spirit of the surf still run deep. At 67 and 63, respectively, Coste and Proctor are known at local surf shops as legends of Charleston surfing.
“It’s funny how they treat us like kings,” said Coste. “But, really, we’re just old guys who know how to surf.”
Although Proctor did catch “one hell of a nose ride” in a Huntington Beach surfing contest, and Kirchner, also known as the “Surfboard Doctor,” builds and sells surfboards, the sport is much more than a business to them. For Coste, it’s about sharing his love for surfing with his daughter and granddaughter, a 3-year-old who is already catching waves. For Proctor, no matter what kind of problems he faces in life or at work, he can find sanctuary and relief in riding waves.
These days, the camaraderie continues to generate memories among members of the Carolina Coast Surf Club. Activities such as organized beach cleanups and surf trips to Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Cocoa Beach, Florida, are filling their agenda. The club welcomes everyone and hosts annual reunions and competitions, all aimed at establishing surfing in the Lowcountry for generations to come.
As my discussion with the original Surf Club members drew to a close, the focus of the conversation switched to my own budding surf career. My new friends offered advice about a board that would fit my 6-foot, 5-inch, slightly awkward frame.
“I’d stick to a longer board for now. We can’t have you out there on a potato chip,” they joked, as our eyes shifted to the feverish Isle of Palms break.
Story by Cullen Murray-Kemp
Photo by Brandon Clark