The Beachcomber

Remembering the Friendly Rivalry: Koseff Surf Team and Ron Jon’s of the 1960s

By JON COEN | Jul 13, 2018
Courtesy of: Renny Koseff The Koseff Surf Team, September, 1965.

Most historians credit materials developed during World War II, polyester resin and polyurethane foam, as helping surfing’s first boom period. Surfboards made of foam and fiberglass first built in the 1950s made surfboards lighter and surfing more accessible. It became part of music and films, woven into the fabric of a burgeoning youth culture. As the pursuit spread to the East Coast, Long Beach Island developed a thriving surfing scene, just like any other coast.

Though it’s a bit more complex today, the idea of product endorsement was very much the same as it is now. Back then, surf shops were vitally important hubs. Surfboard companies would forge relationships with them. If a shop carried a certain line of boards, it would bring in surfers. If a board label could get into the right shop, it could be good credibility. And one way for both shop and label to build their brand was to have good representatives – in this case, a surf team.

Renny Koseff and his brother, Ernie, got the idea to sell surfboards out of their parents’ Beach Haven department store in 1963. Renny Koseff would open Koseff Surf Shop behind the department store in 1965.

The Ron Jon Surf Shop story is somewhat more famous, although there are different versions of it out there. Manahawkin’s Ron DiMenna’s business started by ordering three boards from California, selling two to cover the cost of his own. He began selling boards from his parents’ butcher shop on Route 9, got a foothold in Ship Bottom out of a trailer in ’61 and then a more permanent building. He kept the shop running as he moved to Florida and opened doors in Cocoa Beach. Today, Ron Jon’s is a retail empire, with some 12 locations on the East Coast plus international locations and airports. While now known far more for selling branded drink tumblers, in the ’60s it was a hardcore shop. And like Koseff, DiMenna had to build a team.

Two of the biggest names in the surfboard industry of the 1960s were Greg Noll and Dewey Weber. Noll was from Manhattan Beach, Calif. He learned to shape boards under the legendary Dale Velzy and moved to Hawaii at a young age, where he pioneered big -surfing. Greg Noll Surfboards became a pillar of the surfing world.

Weber did his time in Hawaii and then set up Weber Surfboards out of Venice Beach. In 1966 and 1967, he was reportedly outsold only by Hobie Surfboards. His Weber Performer was wildly popular on every coast.

“When surfing was kicking in here, everyone else was selling pop outs,” recalled Renny Koseff, referring to production boards as opposed to boards shaped by hand. “We saw an ad in a surf magazine for Greg Noll Surfboards. We picked it up, contacted him, and we really formed a great relationship.”

At 20 years old, Koseff, who now owns Ben & Jerry’s in Beach Haven, took some time off from college and moved out west, where he worked in the Greg Noll Surfboards shop in California.

“That was good for me. I learned a lot about the industry; I needed that experience.”

When he returned, he opened Koseff Surf Shop.

Those who recall explain that Ron Jon’s didn’t foster the immediate relationship with Weber that Koseff had with Noll, but still had to have a solid team to sell boards.

The co-captain of that team was Dawson Smith, now owner of Lawn Gevity Landscaping, based in Tuckerton. Smith remembers getting his first surfboard, a Ten Toes pop out, from the DiMenna family garage on Route 9 before Christmas, 1962. He also got a skateboard with a label that said “West Wind Surfboards” and had Ron Jon in the logo.

“Why I was the co-captain, I don’t know,” admitted Dawson. “There was no captain. Dave Jenkins and I were the co-captains. I was maybe 15 and had just transitioned from riding a raft to a surfboard.”

To make the Ron Jon team in 1964, there was a tryout. DiMenna had California surfer Mike Doyle judge a makeshift contest while Doyle was visiting New Jersey. Doyle was runner-up at the 1964 World Championships, and was regarded as the best all-around surfer in the ’60s. He surfed for Hansen Surfboards, which Ron Jon carried. Hansen Doyle models were sought after then, and now.

“The tryout was by the circle in Ship Bottom,” Dawson said. “Ages didn’t matter. They just threw five guys in a heat. In ’64 and ’65, some guys were just standing on these big tanks. It was all about length of ride, but there were some good surfers.”

Smith was picked and remembers Frank Yuhas of Barnegat also making the cut.

Down on the south end, surfing for the Koseff team meant surfing for Greg Noll.

“Having those boards was a big deal for me. It helped me sell more boards – the Noserider, Da Cat, the Duke Kahanamoku,” said Koseff.

Today he can easily recall the team – Bruce “Huckleberry” Sanders, Sam and Ernie Baugh, Dave Shinn, George and Mike Sellarole. Dick Crosta, who is now retired from the Beach Haven Public Works department, was the captain.

“Barbara Oughton was very good,” remembered Koseff, “We had a couple of girls on the team, like Jill Anderson and Diane Pinnix.”

Oughton’s name comes up a lot in LBI surfing. An impressive athlete, she would later move to California and become part of a professional water ballet group.

Once he had the team established, Koseff was back on the West Coast and talked his Californian friend Dean Ward into coming to LBI. Ward wound up staying and surfing for Team Koseff, taking several events. Some still joke that Ward was considered a ringer.

Making the Koseff team or the Ron Jon team meant getting the team “baggies” and the team jacket, both with the shop team patch and often the board label patch sewed on. Some of these old Birdwell brand trunks and jackets can be seen at the New Jersey Surfing Museum at the Tuckerton Seaport.

“Wearing the jacket was really cool,” Smith said. “I just remember being taken to all the contests by the guys who could drive. I just had to keep my mouth shut.” He laughed. “Basically the guys from Brant Beach and north hung around Ship Bottom. Then there was a Beach Haven crew. I don’t remember too many surfers in the middle there.”

Brighton Beach Surf Shop opened in 1965. Owned by Matador Surfboards shaper/founder Richard Lisiewski, Brighton didn’t have as competitive a team. Lisiewski can still be found sitting in front of the current Brighton Beach Surf Shop, now run by his son, Michael.

“He did have guys that surfed for him and would go to contests, but I don’t know that you would really call it a team. Some were employees that were just really talented,” said Michael Lisiewski.

The times that the two teams did meet was at surf tournaments – the budding Eastern Surfing Association events up and down the coast or local LBI contests. The ESA events took surfers to Long Branch, Ocean City and Virginia Beach for the Easterns Championship.

The local events were fairly special. In her 2003 book Surfing LBI, local historian Caroline Unger of Ship Bottom has a record of those classic 1960s events, including some 300 spectators at an August 1964 contest in Surf City that Greg Noll competed in. There were events in 1966, one in July and one in September. Unger’s book has a photo of Surf City’s then-mayor Bruce Nelson congratulating the winners.

If a team rider won and/or many team members made the podium, it was great for the shop. A few years in, Ron Jon became a huge retailer and started selling Weber Surfboards.

“Ron was energetic,” said Smith. “It was always get more boards, get more boards, get more boards. And we were just sucking them right out of California.

“But the West Coast only had a few hundred miles where they could sell boards back then,” said Dawson. “He knew there was potential on the East Coast because we had thousands of miles where people go to the beach.”

Smith recalls a time that DiMenna called Weber, asking him for any boards he could get.

“That delivery was the nicest Dewey Weber boards we’d ever seen. He sent out triple stringers, resin tints and beautiful boards with pinstripes. LBI was an epicenter,” explained Smith.

The two teams had something of a rivalry, but Koseff plays it down, and Smith readily admits that the Koseff/Noll team was very strong.

“When I wrote my book, everyone I spoke with from those two teams just remembers it as a kick,” said Unger. “I know Koseff really had a good relationship with Noll. Sammy Baugh has so many colorful stories.” Unger’s book is still available at BarnesandNoble.com.

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