The East Coast surfing family has suffered several major losses recently. Mike Tabeling, Joe McGovern, Dick Catri and Mickey McCarthy are but a few of the Right Coast icons who have died from dreaded illness, unexplained accidents, or physical malfunctions within the past 24 months, with each loss being as sad, shocking, and heartbreaking as could be for our shores. Now we have lost another one of our true legends and a bona fide, old-school waterman when being a “waterman” was not an overused cliché but was something that was lived as a lifelong pursuit of ocean excellence in so many different disciplines, riding a wave or otherwise.
Bob Holland, Sr. was a humble, gentleman waterman from Virginia who passed away in his sleep Monday evening at the age of 88 after succumbing to the debilitating rigors associated with Alzheimers. The word most frequently used when speaking about Bob, Sr. is class. Perhaps the second most often used is modest, as in humble, used just before the last sentence above. Accomplished should be another descriptive, as Bob is the only surfer to be selected to the elite Virginia Sports Hall Of Fame. He was naturally inducted into the first class of the East Coast Surfing Hall Of Fame, as well, along with racking up numerous ESA victories and championship titles.
His accolades and intriguing surf history continue on unabated from there, so please read former ESM Editor Matt Walker’s in-depth “I Am Legend” feature published in the January 2009 (Vol. 18, #134) issue of ESM and celebrate the life of Bob Holland, Sr., a life lived — and surfed — to its fullest possible potential by the Gentleman from Virginia Beach.
The following biography was originally written by Matt Walker in 2008
Bob Holland has inspired surfers almost since birth. Eighty years later, he’s still at it.
Cape Hatteras, NC. Early November. A fun north swell meets a good northwest wind. Off the groin, every overhead lefthander bends onto the sandbar and stands open. In the distance, the Lighthouse offers a landmark to aim for. And somewhere between, two people start talking about Bob Holland, whose 80th birthday is just a couple weeks away. “Bob’s 80?” asks local kingpin Kevin McCabe. “Man, I used to surf with him out here 30 years ago. I remember thinking, ‘I hope I’m still charging like that when I’m his age.’” Just then, a prime peak swings straight toward the graphite-haired, 50-something goofyfoot. And just like that, McCabe shuts up, spins late, and heads for the horizon.
The East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame boasts a proud lineage of legends. Competitors. Activists. Visionaries. Pioneers who made successive marks in history, collectively laying tracks for successive generations to follow. Like most, Virginia Beach, VA’s, Bob Holland’s list of accomplishments is long and unique: 7 U.S. Championships; 12 ESA Eastern titles; the first East Coaster to win a national crown in Huntington Beach; the only surfer in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. Still, while Holland’s concrete achievements went down a good 20 years ago, his contributions continue every time he enters the water, making the bulk of his impact less tangible — yet, ultimately, more far-reaching.
“Bob Holland was one of the first guys who earned respect in California and gave us credibility,” says former ASP Top-16 pro Wes Laine. “He was instrumental in ECSC (East Coast Surfing Championships) and a fixture in ESA competition —especially at Easterns in Hatteras, where he was the man for years and years and years. There’s almost too much to cover. But the vision I’ve always had of Bob Holland is during those big days at the Lighthouse, charging as deep as he could be on a shortboard. And all these years later, it still is.”
Bob’s story reaches all the way back to the earliest roots of East Coast surfing, on November 30th, 1928, when the son of first-generation VB waverider Robert Barrett Holland was born into royalty, literally coming up on the shoulders of giants. “John Smith and Babe Braithwaite would take me out on their paddleboards and put me on their shoulders,” Bob recalls today, his charismatic Southern drawl sounding more like antebellum Richmond than modern-day VB. “That’s what started it all out.”
Smith. Braithwaite. Dusty Hinnant. Hugh Kitchin — in the 1920s, these men made Virginia Beach ground zero for East Coast surfing. Hinnant and Smith ran a winter beach service, stopping in towns across the coasts of South Carolina and Florida and introducing waveriding along the way like some strange mix of the Duke and Johnny Appleseed. In the process, they met legends like Tom Blake and learned about making surfboards — everything surfing was supposed to be in its miraculous infancy. And when they returned home to rent beach chairs in VB, there was Holland, a mere schoolboy, getting the education of a lifetime every summer. “I used to work on the beach for 50 cents a week,” Holland laughs. “I’d help put umbrellas and chairs out in the morning and they’d give me a free float to stand on anytime I wanted to use it. When I was about 11 or 12, my father let me take out his paddleboard. It was about 10 feet long, no fin, mahogany with spruce sides, and weighed 100 pounds or so. I’d put it on a wagon and I’d have to drag it to the water. All you could do was go straight and nosedive.”
Over time the boards got fins. They also got lighter. And Bob only got better. Back then, Virginia Beach’s feeder road was still a railroad track, bringing carloads of tourists from Norfolk and Richmond, who frequented the baths and casinos near 31st Street and the Cavalier. The surfing community stuck far to the south to make sure nobody got hurt if a board got loose. Even then, there were few surfers Holland’s age. And when World War II called every able-bodied young man to battle, they left an adolescent Holland to surf the next four years virtually alone. “There was maybe one or two other guys who would go out when it was just right,” Bob recalls, “when the waves were just big enough to break. I’d surf 24th Street, or the North End if I could catch a ride. But I never left Virginia Beach.”
In fact, for 43 years, Holland would hardly ever leave VB — or at least the Mid-Atlantic — except to compete or judge events in California, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico. Like his father before him, he took a job as a Virginia pilot, and at just 19 years old he began enjoying a long career steering ships up the Chesapeake Bay. Still, while he may have started as a teenage apprentice, he was no rookie. “We rowed to the ships back then,” he explains. “And the only way we could get the pilots out to the boat when it was rough was to bring them off the beach. I’d been counting waves my whole life so I’d say, ‘Let’s wait, there’s a swell coming.’ Soon the pilots would call me up every time one was coming on or off the boat — even when I was off watch — because they knew I wouldn’t get them wet.”
Fortunately, being anchored in Virginia Beach allowed Holland to solidify his hometown as a surfing epicenter. It was Bob who headed up negotiations with the city to first open the North End to surfing — even if only for morning and afternoon. It was Bob who ran the first ESA-Virginia District; who judged comps from the Easterns at Cape Hatteras to the 1972 World Surfing Championships. It was Bob who convinced ECSC organizers to move the contest from New York to VB in 1963 — its home ever since — not to lure tourist dollars, but because “Gilgo Beach was too far from Florida and the water was cold as hell.”
And in a town that gave birth to multi-state retail chains like Wave Riding Vehicles and 17th Street Surf Shop, it was Bob who first saw a future in selling surf gear. He started by offering surfboards out of his garage in 1955. Then, in 1962, he opened Holland Surf Shop — VB’s first, back when hardware and auto parts stores hocked wave tools next to power tools, and surf fashion was anything but fashionable. “We sold some surfboards by Jacobs,” says Holland. “Then when Pete Smith and I opened Smith and Holland on 28th Street, we started getting Hobies — Western Auto had ‘em before me. But you couldn’t give a T-shirt away. In Virginia Beach, that was an undershirt [laughs].”
Bob tells this story as we’re sitting on a couch in the showroom of another shop, the one in Kill Devil Hills, NC, run for a few summers by his sons, Bobby and John. (Both were champions themselves, along with their sister Honey.) When it closed in 1968, Bob converted the small beach box into his summer home, where he spends half the year today. Behind him a rack of old wooden shelves still carries the handwritten tabs of paper with waist-sizes taped to the front; on top stands a reverse chevron of ten shiny trophies from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The Shortboard Revolution may have killed some ‘60s fixtures’ careers, but Holland found greater success with the smaller design’s performance potential. He still does. Overhead in the rafters, a selection of sleek modern outlines lines up, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. And though they may be slightly longer and thicker than they used to be, they’re still way more high-tech than the average 80-year-old’s quiver. “That Busbey is what I ride most when it’s hollow,” he notes, pointing out a pulled-in, 7’0” In The Eye.”
I immediately flash to the 2007 Atlantic Tropical Season. Checking the waves out front, I watched as Bob intentionally backdoored a head-high closeout on his backhand then came up laughing. I ask him what it was like to be one of the first surfers to get worked here 40 years ago. “Aw, it was something else,” he marvels. “I remember taking my two sons out here when they were real young and scaring the crap out of ‘em [laughs]. Of course, when we first came down here, we’d go to Coquina Street — brought Phil Edwards there once. Then when the [Bonner] bridge was built, we started surfing the Lighthouse. That was the place. You didn’t ride inside the groin when the swell was big; you rode beyond it — sometimes right over top of it.”
Call it a cross-generational interstate homecoming. Holland’s mom was from Avon and his great-grandfather, Isaac Farrow, was a lighthouse keeper in 1830, for the one built before the current black-and-white icon. You can still find Farrow’s name on the modern foundation. And throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, Bob would etch his own signature across the lineup. When he stopped piloting in 1990 — two decades after helping move the ESA Easterns there in 1970 — Holland bought a house in Buxton so he could spend his falls surfing there every day. But retiring opened up even greater opportunities to explore places he never could while working full-time. And he immediately took off.
“I spent a month in Hawaii when I was maybe 65,” he recalls. “I was surfing Rocky Point one day and the guys were like, ‘Watch out, it’s getting bigger.’ But I stayed out. Next thing I know, a set comes in, a gigantic one. I got over the first one. And the next one. The third one, all I could do was let my board go. Well, the whole thing evidently went down on me, because when I came up my arm was dislocated, hanging down by my waist. My wife takes me to the hospital, and I’m in so much pain I’m running in circles. So this Hawaiian doctor says, ‘Let’s do this right now.’ They grab ‘hold of me, put me down on the floor; the doc takes his flip-flops off, sticks his foot on my chest and pulls. It hurt when he did it, but I could’ve kissed him afterward [laughs].”
At an age when most people are slowing down to play shuffleboard, Bob spends every winter crossing off another fresh experience: two weeks in Tavarua, whole months in Bali and New Zealand, surfing the entire coast of Australia and spearfishing sharky waters in between. Last year, he took a boat trip to Sumatra; next year he’s looking to lock down a little Nicaraguan tube time. He’s only got two rules: the waves need some power, and the water better be warm. “I hate cold water,” he says. “Even in California I never put on a fullsuit.”
Which is why Holland hardly ever surfs between November and May — at least not in Hatteras or VB. But after 70 years, even that old habit may become history as Bob looks to stretch his limits at home. “I didn’t surf that big day at Avalon Pier last November,” he admits, discussing the day Jesse Hines went XXL, “but the next morning I borrowed my grandson’s wetsuit and tried. Damn thing was too tight — I about killed myself putting it on, much less paddling out. But my son Bobby just got me a 2-mil long suit, and this year I might just have to try it out.”
Kevin McCabe’s right. Bob does still seem 50. Maybe even 20. When the waves are good he knows it. When the World Tour comes up in conversation, he can say which title Kelly’s looking to capture. Or when told the Virginia Beach Team won the WRV Battle of the Banks, he quips: “Was that Barley boy surfing it? That would’ve changed things.” Truth is, Bob’s a legend not because of what he’s done for surfing in the past, but because he’s always surfed in the present.
This May, when the beach driving issue was going full-bore in Cape Hatteras, the rulemaking committee allowed an intermission for public comment. Along with Jesse Hines and Whalebone Surf Shop owner Jim Vaughn, Bob agreed to speak on the surfers’ behalf — just as he did for VB long ago. When his turn came, Holland stood up, and politely stated his mind: “My great-grandfather must be rolling in his grave right now…”, then quietly took his seat. Between statements, I showed him his entry in The Encyclopedia Of Surfing — one of only 43 East Coasters chosen among 500 surfers total.
“Well, that’s nice,” he said nonchalantly, though he’d never seen it before. He then asked — again — if the winds really stayed offshore all day in Nicaragua. Infinitely more interested in his next session than his last.