On January 1st, 2017, the Eastern Surfing Association kicked off a yearlong celebration of a massive organizational milestone: its 50th anniversary. When Cecil Lear, Rudy Huber, and Hoppy Swartz organized seven disparate districts under one amateur surfing banner in 1967, no one anticipated that it would eventually grow to be the biggest in the world. Or, within a few short years of its formation, produce the first wave of championship-caliber names like Propper, Codgen, Loehr, Tabeling, and Crawford. In 1972, patron saint Colin “Doc” Couture took over and turned the ESA into the most well-oiled contest machine in the world, churning out further international stars like Zamba, Laine, Kuhn, Rudolph, and Kechele. And in the ‘80s and ‘90s, more heroes emerged: Hobgood, Lopez, Melhado, Randazzo, Mendia, Hewitson, Bourgeois, Nolan, Kling, Geiselman.

But there’s no denying the ESA’s greatest success story: Robert Kelly Slater. The man who would eventually become the world’s greatest surfer kicked off his dominant career in 1982, when he showed up at Cape Hatteras for Easterns and won the first of four Menehune titles, followed by two Boys victories before he went pro and landed his first cover shot at age 15. We all know what happened next: 11 world titles, earth-shattering video parts, greatest-of-all-time discussions, and a complete rethinking of the potential for surfing greatness when combining power, speed, and style with flawless technical execution.

Kelly would probably be the first to tell you that the secret to such greatness grew out of many places: Cocoa Beach, Sebastian Inlet, the North Shore, Tavarua. But don’t forget to add Cape Hatteras to that list, where Kelly first surfed unforgiving waves. First saw truly cutthroat competition. And first tasted victory. All thanks to the volunteers and district directors and tabulators and beach marshals who devoted their free time to the ESA and its surfers. Without that structure, without that outlet, and without that drive to the Outer Banks waiting on the calendar each September, Kelly may not have become Kelly. So thank you, ESA. And here’s to 50 more years.

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