The Man Who Started It All

We know from 17th-century eyewitness accounts that the local Indians fished from canoes, even chased whales with them

    I believe I’ve discovered the identity of the first person to ride Montauk’s waves, at least on a surfboard, and also where the surfing took place. Before I proceed, I would like to recognize this as one of those Columbus-“discovered”-America claims.

    We know from 17th-century eyewitness accounts that the local Indians fished from canoes, even chased whales with them. It is inconceivable they did not use ocean swells to help propel them back to shore. And, surely they enjoyed the push — surfing defined.

    This said, I believe it was a man named Richard Lisiewski who first rode a surfboard in Montauk. The year was 1950. The Korean War was raging.  Lisiewski was in the Army stationed in the metropolitan area. The Jersey Shore native is now 86. Memories begin to fade at that age, but with the help of his son Michael, who runs a surf shop in Brighton Beach, N.J., Lisiewski recently recalled how he came to surf Montauk.

    That he marched to the beat of a different drummer is an understatement. In 1949, he became obsessed with the idea of surfing. Michael Lisiewski said it was unclear if his father had watched surfing demonstrated by one of the sport’s early prophets. Duke Kahanamoku himself, “the father of modern surfing,” visited New Jersey and Long Island not long after the turn of the 20th century, and there were others who planted the Hawaiian seed here after the Duke.

    However the bug bit, it bit hard. Richard Lisiewski found the plans in Popular Mechanics magazine for a wooden semi-hollow board from a design pioneered by an innovator named Tom Blake. A Kook Box, as the boards became known, was built with the help of one or two of the crafty types who frequented the family-owned tavern. Michael Lisiewski said his father was adept at securing leave from his Army duties, so he stuffed his 12-foot-long, 100-pound surfboard into his Cadillac convertible and hit the road.

    He drove to Montauk because he knew about Camp Hero, which was an active Army base at the time, complete with antiaircraft batteries. The batteries drilled using live ammunition fired at drones towed across the sky out over the ocean, scaring charter boat customers in the process.

    Apparently, his comrades in arms at Camp Hero welcomed the soldier-surfer. He remembered riding waves in a very rocky area, which the beach and reef at Camp Hero certainly was — and is. In 1953, the Army turned the installation over to the Air Force so that by the 1960s when Montauk started to become a popular surfing destination, Lisiewski’s pioneered spot had become known as “Air Force Base.”

    He also remembered a beach with cabanas, obviously the ones at the Montauk Beach Club, created by the developer Carl Fisher in the 1920s and located on the beach in downtown Montauk. So, it’s possible Lisiewski was also the first to ride the waves at the beloved surf spot named Atlantic Terrace after the hotel that overlooks it. The soldiers at Camp Hero allowed him to keep his board on base. He returned again and again.

    In 1961, Lisiewski formed Matador Surfboards, one of the first modern foam-board businesses on the East Coast. Several of his old Kook Box boards can be seen at the New Jersey Surf Museum.

    Speaking of Kook Boxes, an enduring mystery regarding the history of surfing in Montauk was a young man’s discovery of an old wooden semi-hollow board, covered in seaweed and barnacles, washed up in one of Montauk’s moorland coves in the 1970s. The board was given to Lee Bieler, a Montauk surfer who once owned the popular Blue Parrot bar and restaurant in East Hampton and it hung for many years on the wall behind the bar.

    The board, a large ding in its wooden rail repaired by the renowned shaper Billy Hamilton, now graces the wall in Bieler’s house in Princeville, Kauai.  The question is, whose board was it? Where did it come from, and how long had it been in the ocean? If it was a seed, it has taken root big time.