Surfing is not the first thing that comes to mind when looking at the pristine sheets of sea that surround St. Thomas, but in 1967 Don Edwards moved to the island and was one of the pioneers who started cultivating the surfing culture in the territory. Now 73 years old, he said he may have been the first to catch a wave in Hull Bay.
Today if you talk to the young, local surfers who frequent Hull Bay or even the longstanding island residents and surfers, like Walter Bostwick, they will tell you that Edwards is one of the “original surfers.”
While now Hull Bay is known to be the go-to destination to find breaks, in the ’60s, Edwards said, there was no road and if you wanted to surf you needed to make the trek. Similar to who can be found there now, Edwards said the area was full of generations of Frenchies and a rich community of sea dwellers and farmers.
“They are truly wonderful ocean people, but they spent all their time off of the reefs,” Edward said, explaining how the community then gained sustenance from the sea whereas Edwards didn’t use the ocean for a livelihood, but rather for a thrill.
“There are maybe six to eight places on island you can catch a break, but Hull Bay is the great lady. The sea behaves well, and the winds are in the right direction. When I moved down there … everyone in St. Thomas said there’s no waves and to the unpracticed eye it looks flat. But I got lucky and found Hull. Now there must have been someone before me at some point who had surfed it, but when I had moved I found no one to get information or resources from about it, so as far as I know I may have rode the first waves out there,” Edwards said.
The surfing maverick called a buddy, Michael Kiddon, and told him “Hey, we got waves down here, bring some boards,” and Kiddon came to St. Thomas within just a couple weeks.
Before Kiddon was down, Edwards said he was linked with a man named Russell Edwards who had a couple boards that he had brought to St. Thomas after surfing in Puerto Rico, but had never used them in St. Thomas. Edwards was able to make use of the boards until Kiddon made it to the territory and “paddled out into Hull Bay for the first time using Russell’s board.”
“It was a complete change for me, surfing on the island, because it’s coral and coral rubble, not sandy bottoms. At the time that was how Hull Bay was, just a lot of live corals, but I guess now there is less and less all the time. But it was certainly different,” Edwards said.
By the mid 1980s surfing had developed and the culture grew, drawing more and more people in, Edwards said. Eventually Bostwick and Edwards created a surfing competition called the Hull Bay Classic. An event that Bostwick said had an original purpose of raising money for calculators for math classes at Eudora Kean High School because a math teacher there at the time was also a surfer.
“I remember the day me and Wally Bostwick made the trophies for that year of little tiny replica surf boards,” Edwards said, describing pendants as long as 10 inches, made of redwood and strung with a string that were presented on handmade platforms which were awarded to the winners of the Hull Bay Classic.
For the next 15 years Edwards said more and more of the local kids who grew up watching the men surf started to do it themselves until they were ready to do competitions.
“We started that and did it quite a few times going to different events in different parts of the world. I didn’t go but helped organize. But my buddy ‘Mike The Surf,’ he took the kids a few times and made his life all about Hull Bay,” Edwards said.
While Edwards and Bostwick don’t claim to have made surfing their lives, they certainly have both surfed for a good majority of it.
Bostwick said his family home is just across the street from the beach in Daytona Beach, Florida, and he was in the water before he could walk.
“So body surfing the waves was taught by my dad almost in preschool. I learned to surf on a board in Puerto Rico in 1970 while going to high school in the Condado,” Bostwick said.
Edwards too had started swimming at a young age and was taught to surf by his father. He became a lifeguard in Fire Island, New York, before moving to St. Thomas and even recalls the first surf boards being handed out to lifeguards who before that only utilized dories, a small water vessel about 16 feet long.
In the late ’60s and ’70s Edwards said most boards, including the one handed out during his early lifeguarding days, were made out of balsa wood. He said one of his boards made of balsa wood measured more than nine feet long, but his favorite came much later in life and was around seven feet, six inches.
The best adaptation to the boards were the leashes, which most surfers at the time didn’t like as they saw it dulling the rebellious spirit of the surfer.
“It was the whole ‘you’re not going to leash me’ kind of idea” Edwards said.
Edwards said he saw the leash as useful, especially in Hull Bay where if you lost your board to the current it could be a 20-minute swim before you recovered it.
But Hull Bay isn’t the only place you can surf in the territory. Bostwick said there are about half a dozen places to surf in St. Thomas, with Hull Bay being the easiest to access now and most consistently ridable.
“There are also spots on St. John, St. Croix and Water Island as well as the British Virgin Islands. Many of the other places in St. Thomas can require walking long distances, access by boat, etc. Although other places may have better waves under their best conditions of swell and wind direction, Hull Bay will usually be surfable during most north swells,” Bostwick said.
Because the nature of local surfing has been to keep it hidden from tourists, Edwards was reluctant to pinpoint any exact locations. But Bostwick said, “There are few places in the V.I. where truly giant waves are frequent or surfable.”
For Bostwick there are many reasons he relishes the experience. He said he enjoys the physical “sensation of gliding along the surface of the water, powered only by your own coordination with the forces of nature is amazing. This is enhanced in the V.I. by clear water giving the feeling of flying over the grasses, rocks and coral, yards below. It is an activity that literally immerses you in the natural world.”
He added that he also enjoys the surfing community, which he finds is mutually supportive.
“It is not unusual to have surfers in their 60s cheering on kids or beginners.”
The love of surfing is so ingrained in Edwards that his band that was started in his early days on St. Thomas and still plays on today is called “Groundsea,” a name derived from the local island term for a ground swell, which is a large swell of the sea.
For Edwards the reason he loves surfing came quickly to his tongue: “It’s easy to love because it offers you that free ride.”