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 family’s 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.

Fieldwork and Analysis

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 father’s 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 the Surf:

We had the beach house for August and September
and there was a bunkhouse that was built.

Originally it was the garage part of the house,
the house was right on the beach.

And that was converted into a bunkhouse by uncle Jack
so that all the boys who were roughly the same age,
there were six to eight of us,
who roomed together in the same place
and not be in everyone’s hair.

We were obviously rambunctious young boys
and basically, my grandmother and her four daughters
and their families all stayed in this house, a large cape cod style house.

But the bunkhouse was where the sons of the four daughters,
and the four daughters were Marion Cruice Smith, Constance Cruice Lehman,
Elaine Cruice Beyer, and Gene Cruice Goit,
their sons of which I was one all stayed in this bunkhouse.

For years and years when we were teenaged boys
we were very, very competitive bodysurfers.

We were competitive about many, many things
but . . . ah . . . we were especially competitive about our bodysurfing
and our other sports events.

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 born.

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 family’s 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 Schoemaker’s "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 father’s 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 horse’s 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 Cain’s Peck’s Beach: A Pictorial History of Ocean City New Jersey: "’The families are so big, actually, the children and grandchildren and all. There’s 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 don’t 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 actually,
in the surfing to this day we don’t actually have a separate women’s event
but they can obviously participate in the surfing now

in the early years, I suppose,
it would have been considered something of a sacrilege
but the women have participated in the surfing for quite a few years now

but I have to say none of them have ever won,
and I think some of them have actually come close
and there is also a women’s horseshoe contest,

matter of fact in some years the events have become so elaborate,
it has taken a lot of effort to get them completed..

The role women play in the King of the Surf has changed much over the course of the event’s 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 didn’t have any kind of role
in this competition that was going on

our role was basically to run back and forth
with the cameras and cheering, laughter,

as the years kind of developed the women
took a position that they should be included
in the festivities and they did then incorporate
the women into the surfing and their own tug of war.

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 it’s changed over the years;
when it first started out it was these boys
in competition as grown men.

But as they have gotten older they are
not quite as competitive, as they use to be.

So now they are counting on their children
to be the competitors.

That has toned down the competitiveness
of the whole affair.

In the summers my generation spent at Ocean City, we were merely observers of our parent’s 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 competition.

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 long ago.

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 family’s 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 neat
that your family had a tradition
that everyone got involved in and
looked forward to and all
psyched up and stuff.

Not a lot of families have competitions
in the family they take really serious.

I remember seeing your trophy and
thought it was cool that you had something
that was passed all around by all the
family to the winner.

It had everyone’s name on it who had won.

Plus you guys take it so seriously.

Katie’s 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 family’s summers. Who knows, maybe when my generation’s children take over the reigns from us, they will have the killer competitive edge the boys of the bunkhouse created.

Works Cited

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.

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