Checking in with Charlie Bunger: A New York Surf Legend
In the eyes of many, Long Island is a barely perceptible blip on the radar of mainstream surfing. A place where, after the seeds of interest were sown by the likes of Duke Kahanamoku in 1912 and Tom Blake in the 1930s, surfing developed slowly and in near isolation from the West Coast scene blossoming in California and Hawaii. And in part that may be true. As recently as the early 1960s, surfboards were such a rare commodity they were all but impossible to come by and the coast itself was practically unexplored. However, despite the challenges facing aspiring New York surfers, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw a fledgling scene take hold and develop. Led by a core group of inspired and stoked individuals who gleaned what information and influence they could from magazines and movies, but for the most part made it up as they went along, the first generation of full-time Long Island surfers sprung up and took root.
Shaper and surf shop owner Charlie Bunger was one of these early New York pioneers, and today, at 63 years old, he is the de facto elder statesman of the local surf community. His shop, Bunger Surfboards on Main Street in Babylon, is a gathering point for the now-thriving New York surf scene. Surfermag.com sat down with Charlie on a balmy August morning to discuss not only the past, but to check in on the current state of Long Island surfing, and to probe the unique nature of being a surfer in a place, that at times, can seem worlds away from its hub.
SURFERMAG.COM: Charlie, how did a kid from Brooklyn end up devoting an entire life to riding waves?
CHARLIE BUNGER: I guess it was back in the early ’60s, maybe around ’59 or ’60, we were into skin-diving, and we saw an ad in a skin-diving magazine for a surfboard that was used for spear-fishing. Checking that thing out sort of piqued my interest, it got us all thinking about it actually, but I didn’t really start surfing until maybe 1961 when I started just borrowing boards from the lifeguards over at Cedar Beach and Gilgo.
SURFERMAG.COM: Was this all after you moved out to Long Island from Brooklyn?
CHARLIE BUNGER: Oh yeah, I moved when I was 11 years old so I had been around the ocean for a while at that point.
SURFERMAG.COM: What was the New York surf scene like then?
CHARLIE BUNGER: Well there really weren’t many people at all. It was mostly just the lifeguards. They were probably the only ones who had boards, and the thing to do was borrow one from them and just figure it out. At that point there really were just a handful of us. A few surfers here in Babylon, and maybe some in Rockaway, and out in Montauk there were a couple guys, but for the most part no one was really into it.
SURFERMAG.COM: Did that change when the whole Gidget thing hit?
CHARLIE BUNGER: Yeah, I mean that’s probably what really got it all started here on the East Coast. The whole Gidget lifestyle thing and all that. It was during that era that I started building surfboards. I had built one for myself, so my neighbor came to me and he wanted one, and then they guy down the street wanted one, and it sort of took off for me from there. It just kept snowballing along with the popularity of the sport.
SURFERMAG.COM: What sparked your interest in shaping?
CHARLIE BUNGER: Well I’ve always been handy. I’ve always been good with my hands, so it was something I just thought I could do. I just started fooling around with it.
SURFERMAG.COM: Where were you guys getting your cues from as you were learning to shape?
CHARLIE BUNGER: [Laughs] It was all self-taught. We had no one to teach us anything because nobody really knew how to do it. There were a few of us, me, Bob Hawkins and John Hannon, who were experimenting and trying to figure it out, but it was all trial and error. John had been to California, so he was a bit more knowledgeable than we were, but basically we were just working and trying to learn from our mistakes. John had a bit more background, but I think we caught up pretty quick.
SURFERMAG.COM: Was the whole New York scene in general taking its cues from California at that point?
CHARLIE BUNGER: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean that’s what it always seems like here doesn’t it? It always seems like we’re taking things from them, but really, back then, a lot of the manufacturers were shipping tons of their boards back East. It was a big market for those guys, even though they didn’t accept us as “real surfers.”
SURFERMAG.COM: Yeah, it seems like recognition has always been a problem for the East Coast and for East Coast surfers, even today. Do you think Long Island surfing is properly perceived by West Coasters and has been properly portrayed in the surf media?
CHARLIE BUNGER: Probably not. I mean most people think we don’t get any waves and we can’t surf, but in some ways that’s good, I guess. I mean Long Island is a great place and it’s a beautiful place. Most people don’t realize that because when they think of New York, they immediately think of the city. But it’s a whole different world out here. It’s better than people think.
SURFERMAG.COM: Tell me about Gilgo Beach back in the ’60s. What was it like?
CHARLIE BUNGER: If you were from around here that was the place to be. It was where it all started. It was a neat scene, kind of a Gidget scene. We’d build fires on the beach in the fall so you could warm up when you came out of the water, and we’d hang out and do all that stuff.
SURFERMAG.COM: Was the rest of the island sort of unexplored back then, or were most of the spots established?
CHARLIE BUNGER: No. Every time out was an adventure. Our first trip to Montauk was a neat trip. There were guys out there who already surfed, but we found a few spots that had never been ridden before and that was something that was really fun about it back then.