Montauk Surf Museum

By Ruth Thomas - September 22, 2015

Dedicated to the Sport that Defines Montauk

On a warm summer night, August 27, 2015, The Oceans Institute of the Montauk Lighthouse Museum, aka the Montauk Surf Museum celebrated its grand opening, set against a brilliant sky. Situated between the Montauk Point Lighthouse and the WWII Fire Control Tower, the Montauk Surf Museum is located in the original Fog Signal House constructed in 1896. The 1,000 square-foot white brick building originally housing the generator for the Montauk Point Lighthouse fog siren, sits atop a 68-foot-high bluff overlooking the surf spots, “Alamo” and “Turtle Cove.”

The Montauk Surf Museum’s grand opening coincided with the 50th Anniversary of “The Endless Summer” film by Bruce Brown. The movie was shown on a large outdoor screen at the first “soft” opening on July 25, where legendary surfer Tony Villar was among those attending. At the August opening, many local surfers and some celebrities were present, including singer-songwriter and surfer Jimmy Buffett, who along with curator Bettina Stelle and surfer Russell “Rusty” Drumm, acting curator of the museum, launched the Kickstarter campaign. Also instrumental were Board members Chris Gentile, Julie Gilhart, John Chimples, Ed Patrowicz, public relations coordinator Michelle Swavely, and Montauk Point Lighthouse Committee member, Greg Donohue.

Tony Caramanico, a legendary Montauk surfer since the 1960s, who attended the opening, has several surfboards on loan to the museum from his own collection and plans to loan two replicas of the original surfboards from “The Endless Summer” movie that he bought at the live auction days before in Washington D.C. “The Endless Summer” film, iconic poster, and a surfboard shaped by Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968), widely credited with popularizing the sport of surfing, were inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, hosted by The Surfing Heritage & Culture Center (SHACC) on August 21, 2015. “The Endless Summer” filmmaker Bruce Brown, the stars of the film, Robert August and Mike Hynson, and Caramanico were among the luminaries at this historic event in Washington D.C.

The crowd of about 300 at Thursday night’s grand opening of the Montauk Surf Museum included people from all walks of life: surfers, celebrities, and locals, joined together in celebration of their favorite pastime, surfing. All were gathered in and around this historic building under the moonlit sky to pay homage to a popular sport in Montauk that at first came under great scrutiny by the town.

As letters and plaques on the walls testify, the early beginnings of surfing in Montauk had a choppy start as the East Hampton Town Board was set to ban surfing, due to its belief that it brought in an “unruly element.” Surfers had to agree to register with the town in the summer of 1967 by wearing bronze medallions on leather thongs around their necks or on their board shorts, identifying them as law-abiding community members.

One father writes to supporter Reverend Friend, “To my surprise, I found that the group of kids who surfed were not belligerant [sic], rude, or profane, but on the contrary, they were most polite, mannerly and obsessed with just one thing – the surf!” A mother writes of her son serving in the Vietnam War, “We hope the Montauk Association for the Preservation of Surfing, can keep a place at Ditch Planes [sic] open so that when the boys come home, if they come home from the war, they will be able to surf out at Montauk.” Original medallions from the ’60s are displayed on surfer mannequins in a beach diorama along with other surfing memorabilia exhibited at the museum.

The Montauk Surf Museum will feature rotating exhibits in the summer months. Several installations and displays will illustrate the many aspects of surfing, from the origins of waves to the evolution of surfboard design and wetsuit technology, to coastal phenomena such as erosion and sea-level rise. In “The End,” the Montauk Surf Museum is off to a great start, as the popular sport of surfing will continue to evolve from one generation to the next.

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