“Endless Summer, ” the famous 1966 documentary credited with bringing the joy of riding the waves and standing up to the world at large. Facebook, a social media tool responsible for three-quarters of a billion people surfing the Internet for more than 700 billion minutes every month. What do these two thinly associated endeavors have in common?
The answer lies in the “Surfing Alabama in the 70’s” Facebook group. Two Alabama natives, Pete Trainor and Mike “Tank” Young, administer the project that keeps the “Endless Summer” dream alive for surfers who rode the swells along Alabama’s 53 miles of coastline. The group serves as a way for true Lower Alabama beach boys (and girls) to remember their glory days, and perhaps even trace the path from “who they were” to “who they have become.”
Two years ago, Trainor’s daughter convinced him to go on Facebook, and he confesses he saw it solely as a reunion tool. “While reconnecting with old acquaintances, sharing photographs and stories of going to the beach when I was a kid, I connected with Tank. We discovered we had surfed together without really knowing each other at the time. You really didn’t know a lot of the names, maybe just nicknames; everybody had a nickname in the surfing crowd.” Members of the Facebook group have revived ones like “Buttons” and “Bodhisattva.”
But, Trainor and Young always keep a close eye on “Surfing Alabama in the 70’s” page to make sure some things stay buried in the past. “There are plenty of stories that are probably best left unsaid. We were all young at some point, ” laughs Trainor, a Minnesota resident for 20-plus years now.
the endless road trip
Rory Russell surfs Pipeline in ’73. During the 1970s, surfers documented their waves on 16 mm cameras. Then, they would screen the movies across the country at small venues, like USA’s student union and local high schools, to spread the word about the water sport. jeffdivinesurf.com
In the 1970s, the primary source of information on the surfing life came from Surfer Magazine – no YouTube, no cable, no multiplex cinemas.
If surfers were hard to find on Alabama’s ’70s coastline, imagine the difficulty in buying a board in the pre-Internet marketplace. Many would-be surfers were undeterred and created their own boards. Plywood, Styrofoam, and even that green hard foam used in artificial flower arranging were put to the test. Trainor remembers his brother’s efforts to come up with a surfboard. “We finally bought an old board and cut it down, sanded and glassed it. It kinda worked, but I spent a lot of time pulling fiberglass splinters out of my chest.”
Summerdale surfer and entrepreneur Les Stinson saw this as an opportunity. He and partners opened surf shops in Gulf Shores, Dauphin Island and Mobile. Natural Wave Surf Shop specialized in real surf equipment for real surfers. It was only natural that they also opened up the channels of communication with the surfing world at large.
At the time, surfers were creating 16 mm surfing documentary projects, as a means of supporting their surf habits. Stinson remembers, “Guys were filming the greatest surf locations in the world and using that as the impetus to travel … so they could surf those spots themselves.”
Approached by a like-minded entrepreneur already in the surf-film business, he embarked on a career as a surf-film distributor covering an area from Maine to Texas. According to Stinson, “We would rent a venue, like the USA student union and Murphy High School gym, to show the films. We would come into town early and spread the word at the surf shops, parties … wherever. On the night of the showing, we would take cash at the door. Another way we generated income is by giving away salty popcorn and then charging a dollar a glass for lemonade that we made in a big trash can.”
We were on the road for three years, living out of a van and taking in cash at night to finance the trip, but we were surfers, living a surfer’s lifestyle in our own way.”
Competitive surfers like Floridian great Bruce Valluzzi, who made a name for himself riding waves in Australia, Hawaii and South Africa, inspired young locals along the Gulf Coast to take up the sport too. Throughout the ’70s, other big name surfers, such as Nat Young, Mike Purpus, David Nuuhiwa and Corky Carroll, stopped in Alabama en route to East Coast promotional tours. jeffdivinesurf.com
Where They Are Now
Many of the group’s members have retained their youthful love of the outdoors on into adulthood. During our interview, Tank is still groggy from an all-nighter in the Delta, hunting alligators with his son who had won a lottery license. Trainor speaks to me from a camping trip in Montana. Other members include professional surfers, boat dealers and offshore workers. Les Falls, a Murphy and USA graduate, migrated to Costa Rica where he co-owns a hotel within feet of the Pavones Break, a surfing mecca on the Pacific Coast. In the “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” category, Paul Filligam Jr., son of another Murphy surfing alumni, is a world-class surfer also living in Costa Rica.
But there are also plenty of white-collar jobs represented in the group too. Young points out that the surfing crowd, even in the ’70s, was just ordinary people, not a bunch of beach bums as the stereotypes were portrayed.
“I think it was because we all had long hair and always seemed to be on the water. Most of us had jobs, families and responsibilities. We just looked different than the few other folks on the beach in those days.”
How different? The City of Gulf Shores actually banned surfing in 1966, a law that was still on the books in August of 1973, much to the dismay of a young Pete Trainor. “I couldn’t believe it. This deputy waved me in from the surf and threatened to arrest me for surfing, but he ended up just giving me a ticket instead. Some guys (names withheld from publication) were arrested and taken to jail. It was just a much different time socially.”
surf and sunnyland
While many of the businesses and city fathers in Gulf Shores seemed set on ostracizing the surf crowd, one retiree made a much greater impression on the group by welcoming them in. Walter Ferguson owned a gas station/store/10-room motel called Sunnyland.
Surfers Mark Swanson, Randy Loftis and Pete Trainor spent many days “hanging out” at the store until Ferguson finally put them to work. In doing so, Sunnyland became the defacto homebase for what was to become the “Surfing Alabama in the 70’s” crowd.
Trainor remembers, “Walter was just a kind, old gentleman who still had some vim and vigor. He loved to go dancing at night, which would result in the phone lines heating up with word that there was a party at Fergieland, which we called it between ourselves.”
“At night we would all pile up in a little room just big enough for two beds. There would be people on the floor, in the bathroom, everywhere. But we were on the beach, and any day on the beach was a good day.”
A search of the ordinance archive of Gulf Shores found a number of directives over the last four decades consistently banning surfboards and wind surfers from the public beach areas. While the first ordinance from 1966 seemed to be in protection of fishermen, later rulings were tailored for the protection of the increasing number of family vacationers.
Trainor confesses it really probably shouldn’t be that much of an issue since the best surfing is seldom on the public beaches in jurisdiction of lifeguards. Young’s-By-The-Sea Pier, Little Lagoon Pass, and a locale only known to the ’70s surfers as “the old broken down pier” were three sites purported to offer the best opportunities to catch a wave. Trainor recalls the jetties at Alabama Point as being the best site to surf. “I would say it probably still is. You’ve got those breakers on both sides of the pass. You have to watch the tides though.”
Surfing Then and Now
Mike “Tank” Young catches a wave at the jetties at Alabama Point in Gulf Shores.
For Young, the Facebook group is not just about nostalgia. He updates the page on a regular basis with Alabama surf information for members who still retain their sense of balance on the water. “Back then, there was a phone number you could call and get buoy reports so you could tell where the action was likely to happen, or the word would pass person-to-person, ” he reminisces. “But now, with technology, you can get reports right to your smartphone, anytime, directly from the Coast Guard.”
“Surfing Alabama in the 70’s” has also become a source of local hang ten history for the current generation of lower Alabama surfers. When asked about the difference between the beaches of their youth and now, both Young and Trainor are quick to reference Gulf Shores-before-Frederic. “At that point there wasn’t an Orange Beach, it was just Gulf Shores all the way from Fort Morgan to Perdido, ” Young remembers.
A visit to “Surfing Alabama in the 70’s” is like eavesdropping on a conversation between old friends. Even if you weren’t one of them, you can appreciate the stories and probably even join in with your own relatable yarn on occasion. Like Trainor says, “We were all young at one point.”
text by Catt Sirten