Dog surfing is one of the goofiest and most beloved contrivances of the American mind since Letterman’s stupid pet tricks. But if its origins are obscure, it’s here now: there’s a “World Dog Surfing Championships” in California (where else?), local dog-surfing competitions have popped up along the California and Florida coasts, and something like the “Incredible Dog Challenge and Surf Competition” has been going on long enough in Huntington Beach to clock in its 24th year last July.
Last fall Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston and Commissioner Eric Cooley, who have four dogs between them, attended the “Pups and Sups Dog Surfing Weekend” at the Guy Harvey Outpost Resort in St. Augustine. They were floored. Cooley had already seen dog-surfing videos, but they were taken by the atmosphere at the contest, the tongue-in-cheeky fun, the sheer zaniness of it, and how it drew all sorts of dog-surfing fans from afar, including people who form a subculture of their own, going to those contests on both coasts.
Cooley, who owns the 7-Eleven in Flagler Beach, has a view on a stretch of beach begging for a piece of the dog-surfing action. So now he and Johnston want to bring the goofy sensation to the city for a one-day competition.
“We saw first-hand how much fun it was and thought it would be the perfect fit for Flagler Beach since we are a dog friendly beach,” Johnston said. “You’re going to see Flagler Beach go viral.”
It’s on for May 21, on the sands parallel to South 5th Street off State Road A1A: the Hang 8 Dog Surfing Contest will take place between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. (For grommets uninitiated in the sport’s lingo, the name is a take-off from the common surfing terms that points to the sort of balancing that allows the rider to hang 10 toes from the front of the surfboard. Since dogs have only four fingers on each paw, well…)
The entry fee hasn’t been set yet but it’s usually between $20 and $30 for the surfing itself, while other events planned for the day, including a dog-costume contest (including dog-owner’s costume), a biscuit hunt and a dog-kissing tent, require no entry fees. The Tourism Development Council’s Amy Lukasik will be setting up the dog-kissing tent, which may or may not be in the shape of an A-frame, to mimic the Flagler Beach pier’s A-frame.
There will be prizes: hand-painted trophies, a dog-bone plaque hand-painted by a local artist, each prize an original creation by local artists. There’ll also be t-shirts and some vendors, including possibly local veterinarians, and local sponsors. The event is being advertised on social media, and with posters and word of mouth, as well as direct contacts with dog-surfing regulars.
All proceeds will go to the Humane Society, Safe Pet Rescue, and possibly two other dog-rescue organizations, Cooley said: that’s the whole intent of the event. Beyond the fun, it’s to bring awareness to dog-rescue issues and to help organizations financially. He has no idea how many people and dogs will show up. It’s the first year. As an inaugural event he expects it to draw a limited number of entrants, but there’ll be photographers and videographers, so after that, who knows.
Cooley scheduled it on May 21, a Saturday, purposefully before the end of school, so it does not coincide with a logjam of vacationers on the beach. “We did not want to compete with summer break with the schools,” he said. “We don’t want to try to wedge ourselves into the beach when all the kids are out.”
Before getting there, the two members of the commission had to get their commission’s approval. Flagler Beach band dogs on the beach, and the city also bans unleashed dogs. The event will happen on a stretch of beach, and by necessity, dogs will have to be unleashed at times, so they can surf.
But it was not a complicated ask by Cooley, who stepped down from his seat on the dais, stood at the podium, and made his case just like any other city resident would, when applying for this or that permit. The whole request, in the context of a city commission meeting last week, immediately took on the same character as the contest it was referencing, with Cooley conceding the ridiculousness of dogs surfing and commissioners laughing their hearts out–and Commission Chairman Ken Bryan bringing out his cat side: “I bring it back to the board for discussion or a motion,” he said, when Cooley was done, and without skipping a beat, added: “I’m going to bring my cat in, Max, and I’m going to smoke all those dogs.”
The proposal had drawn just one comment from a resident, Anthony Cinelli, who had this to say: “Come on. It’s surfing dogs. It’s half a block. It’s half a day. I think we can do this. Surfing dogs. How cool is that?”
But Commissioner Jane Mealy was also concerned about people who don’t like dogs. She wanted signs and web notices ensuring that people who’d normally use that portion of the beach would know of the contest. Cooley expects most of the dogs to be on the boardwalk anyway.
“Eric don’t misunderstand me. I think this is a wonderful idea. I just know that not everybody is a dog person,” Mealy said.
“This is something that as a dog owner, I’ve been wanting to do for many, many years and have decided to take the plunge on this,” Cooley said. He and Johnston own dogs called Sedar, Chewie, Wednesday and Tia. Wednesday is the only surfer. The others prefer to lounge on the beach, though Chewie used to surf, but she’s 21. “She will surf, but we don’t want her to,” Cooley said.
Most dogs will have to be led out into the surf by their owner before they can ride the waves. Some dogs have the ability to pull their own boards, get on them and ride them back, but not many. Those tend to be championship-caliber dogs.
Naturally, Cooley did not take part in the vote, which was unanimous (the mayor does not have a vote, except veto power).
How far back does dog surfing go? Nobody knows. Between an article about how American soldiers fighting nazism “took London” and another about “Working Dogs,” the September 1944 issue of National Geographic devoted an eight-page pictorial on how “Surf-Boarders Capture California.”
The last picture was of Tom Blake, founding father of California’s surfing culture, riding a wave with what a cheeky caption-writer called “His World-champion Dog Surfer, Rusty,” though there was no such thing as dog-surfing at the time. Rusty was merely “so fond of the sport that he will beg anyone launching a board to take him along.” There’s never been any other mention of dog surfing in the magazine’s 134-year history. Maybe Flagler Beach can change that.