King of the Surf
by Sean Smith
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Family reunions are usually all the same. You must put on your Sunday best and mind your manners as you mingle with people you barely know. My family has a reunion which differs from the stuffy affair many of us dread. Instead of hot suits and uncomfortable dresses, at my familys reunion all you need is a towel and bathing suit. That is if you want to have a chance at winning the annual King of the Surf competition. This event involves up to fifty family members in a body surfing competition where almost anything goes. This practice was initiated by my father and his cousins over twenty-five years ago. The King of the Surf competition is an invented tradition my family practices to keep close ties and to continue our involvement in the Ocean City community.
King of the Surf is a fun
tradition that everyone in my family looks forward to every year. The
ocean has always been a summer vacation spot for all the members of my
family. My fathers great-uncle John B. Kelly Sr. bought a house
for his sisters to use on 34th street. Mary Cruice was my father's grandmother
and she had the use of the beach house through the months of August and
September. Her four daughters (Marion, Constance, Elaine, and Gene) spent
the summer here with all of their children. To accommodate all the people
living in the house over those two months, John B. Kelly had the garage
across the street converted into the infamous bunkhouse. The bunkhouse
was where all of the cousins stayed in an attempt to keep the eight young
boys out of the parents way. George Cruice Smith, my father, describes
the bunkhouse and the importance it played in the beginnings of King of
We had the beach house
for August and September
Originally it was the garage
part of the house,
And that was converted
into a bunkhouse by uncle Jack
We were obviously rambunctious
But the bunkhouse was where
the sons of the four daughters,
For years and years when
we were teenaged boys
We were competitive about
many, many things
My father and his cousins
had a lot of great times together over the years in the bunkhouse. Summer
after summer the families would return to the house on 34th street, and
in doing so a strong bond was formed by the cousins. In 1962, a winter
northeaster hit Ocean City and destroyed the 34th street house. As the
cousins grew older and left for college and military service, the summers
they grew up with were never the same. However, through their many years
of playing tricks on each other and fierce competition, a tradition was
In the years spent at the
34th street home, my relatives enjoyed the summers with each other by
competing in bodysurfing. The simple act of competing with each other
was never meant to become an annual event; it was just something they
enjoyed doing. The summers in which they grew up could never be the same
after the beach house was annihilated. My relatives are all close, quite
possibly as a result of their summers together, and began meeting annually
with their families at Ocean City in the early seventies. One of the original
cousins, John Lehman, and his father bought a beach front home on 46th
street, which became the meeting place for all the relatives. It was here
that the King of the Surf began in the summer of 1975.
The summers my father and
his relatives experienced prior to the first King of the Surf are truly
responsible for our family tradition. A piece of my familys past
is remembered by incorporating bodysurfing into the annual gathering.
In competition with each other, we experience what it was like every summer
at 34th street. Stories about the bunkhouse and bodysurfing are told by
the older cousins every year. In essence, the King of the Surf is a way
for the younger members of the family to take part in the fun their parents
had growing up. It is also clear that the event is still a source of enjoyment
for my father and his cousins and a time to spend together reliving the
great times they created. In George Schoemakers "Introduction:
Basic Concepts of Folkloristics," he explains invented tradition:
"Recently, there has been another way of regarding tradition that
de-emphasizes the idea of continuity over time and space, and emphasizes
instead the interpretation of practices of the present in terms of its
connection (sometimes real, sometimes symbolic) with the past. In other
words, some practices are invented traditions-made to have a link with
the past in order to validate and legitimate them in the present"
(Schoemaker p.5). The King of the Surf is a new family tradition that
is deeply rooted to the past of those who created the event.
Bodysurfing is the basis for
much of the festivities that take place at King of the Surf. Yet, there
are many other competitions that have been incorporated into the King
of the Surf. With upwards of one hundred people involved in the event,
we must find ways to keep everyone involved. To accompany the bodysurfing,
other events have come and gone over the years. One event which is still
practiced today is the horseshoe tournament. Teams of two men are assigned
by either Bob Smith (my fathers older brother) or John Lehman early
in the day according to who is already at the beach. The tournament lasts
all day and is a very serious business. For example, if there is a questionable
throw that could decide a match, judges are called over to make a decision.
Once a team is declared the winner, a trophy is presented at the evening
ceremony. As serious as the horseshoe competitions are, the humor of my
family is seen in the subject of the trophy: a horses ass.
In the early days of the event
there were no lavish catered meals after the competition as there are
presently. When the King of the Surf started, my family took competition
to the grills and our evening meals. The barbeque cook-off was practiced
at many of the earlier reunions. In this competition several relatives
would grill chicken and baste it with their own sauce. In this event the
women and men were both involved, hoping to take first place and the cook
off trophy. John. Kelly, Sr.s daughter, Peggy, describes the cook
off and the King of the Surf in Tim Cains Pecks Beach:
A Pictorial History of Ocean City New Jersey: "The families
are so big, actually, the children and grandchildren and all. Theres
bodysurfing, and it ends in a tug of war, and there are all kinds of events.
We have different judges every year. One year it was Grace, and T. John
Carey was always one of the judges. Then we have a big chicken bakeoff.
We have different judges every year for the big bake-off, she continued.
One year my brother Jack got Frank Perdue as one of the judges.
Frank came for the weekend"(Cain p.43). Obviously, Frank Perdue
would not show up to judge the contest if the participants were not going
to take the event seriously. We dont mess around when it comes to
being crowned King of the Surf or King of the Grill.
The King of the Surf is a
family affair, and all are encouraged to participate in the events. Women
and children did not always participate in all the events that took place
on Labor Day. In the beginning it was the men who competed in the bodysurfing
and the horseshoes. George Smith comments on what has been done to include
women in the event:
The women were not, well
in the early years, I suppose,
but I have to say none
of them have ever won,
matter of fact in some
years the events have become so elaborate,
The role women play in the
King of the Surf has changed much over the course of the events
duration. Presently the women participate in all the events the men do
and are never excluded. In the early stages of the King of the Surf, we
see that this was not always the case. My mother, Donna L. Smith, recalls
the early days and how the women initially participated in the competition:
The women didnt have
any kind of role
our role was basically
to run back and forth
as the years kind of developed
Donna Smith points out the
exclusion of women in the bodysurfing in the early years and how they
became included soon afterwards. By including women the King of the Surf,
the event takes on a new form from the all boys' competitions held years
earlier at 34th street. My families invented tradition evolves constantly
from its original form in order to maintain a reality.
Over the years King of the
Surf has had many faces. The years of Chris Levine and Michael Loesch
dominating the bodysurfing competition, after Joe Lehman had done so for
quite a long time, seem to signal another change in the history of the
event. For at this time it became clear that the original cousins were
unable to compete with the younger people. They sure tried everything
they could, from suit pulling to crawling along the sea floor, to compete
for the trophy. Yet, it was clear that the event was now decided between
the younger cousins and their children. The next generation was now responsible
for carrying on the tradition of competition with each other every summer
in hopes of bringing home the trophy to display proudly on the mantle.
Being a part of the younger
generation in which the competition was then focused on, I can say that
the level of competition took on a whole new facet. My generation of cousins
did not spend the time together that our parents had growing up. We all
know each other but are not nearly as close as they were. It is here that
some of the competitive edge was lost in King of the Surf. Donna Smith
explains the change that occurred as the next generation became the competitors.
Yes, although its
changed over the years;
But as they have gotten
older they are
So now they are counting
on their children
That has toned down the
In the summers my generation
spent at Ocean City, we were merely observers of our parents competition
amongst themselves. Our time together was spent playing with each other
and having fun. The bodysurfing is still fun for all of us, yet, the mentality
to beat one another is not as strong and has resulted in a more relaxed
The competitions are just
a part of the whole affair. On Labor Day the goal may be to win the King
of the Surf trophy, but the purpose is for family to be together making
new memories. In The Grand Generation, Mary Hufford describes why
events become memorable: "In order for things to be memorable they
must have both fixed and variable components" (Hufford p.38). The
King of the Surf is full of fixed traditions and is likewise in continuous
change. Memorable experiences are always being created over Labor Day
and will continue to do so. The changes that occur are necessary to keep
the event a reality and still rooted in the concept of competition started
The King of the Surf may seem
silly to some of those who see it for the first time. Many other beach
goers see our familys antics and point and laugh. However, once
you become a part of it, the point of the activities becomes clear as
the day unfolds. Katie King, my girlfriend, illustrates what she saw as
her first time at the event over the summer of 2000.
I thought that it was pretty
Not a lot of families have
I remember seeing your
It had everyones
name on it who had won.
Plus you guys take it so
Katies story reveals
that to an outsider it is a strange event for a family reunion to be based
around. Yet, the enthusiasm that we have for the event is an element of
our families' closeness. To us the event is completely natural and very
important in keeping strong family bonds.
Through all of the years we have practiced King of the Surf, from 1974 to the present, we have all had a wonderful time. As many of the family were not involved in the origins of the competition, we all have realized how the event came to be and why competition is a part of our family reunion. Passing on the tradition of bodysurfing from the older generation to the younger generation takes King of the Surf to a different level, making another change in the events history. As the competition changed from when women were excluded to the end of the tug of war, a new event has always been implanted in its place. Recently a sea kayaking race has taken over for the tug of war and the catered dinner has pushed aside the bake-off. The spirit of competition is rooted in the original tradition of bodysurfing at 34th street. It is in this tradition that the current practice is founded, even though it differs greatly. The continuous changes of King of the Surf will always be a part of my familys summers. Who knows, maybe when my generations children take over the reigns from us, they will have the killer competitive edge the boys of the bunkhouse created.
Cain, Tim. Peck's Beach: A Pictorial History of Ocean City New Jersey. New Jersey: Down the Shore Publishing, 1988.
Hufford, M. Hunt, M. and Zeitlin, S. The Grand Generation: Memory, Mastery, Legacy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.
Schoemaker, George H. "Introduction: Basic Concepts of Folkloristics." In The Emergence of Folklore in Everyday Life. Bloomington: Trickster Press, 1990. 1-10.
King, Katherine. Personal Interview. 15 Mar. 2001.
Smith, Donna. Personal Interview. 21 Mar. 2001.
Smith, George. Personal Interview. 24 Mar. 2001.