We are the Campions

June 2012
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Bobby Altman

Grand Strand trio is winning surfing titles and seeing the world




The iconic images of ocean, sunshine, summer and sand go hand-in-hand with young surfers in their prime. While Californians usually get the lion’s share of the U.S. surfing recognition, it’s three boys from the Grand Strand, a place not especially known for its big waves, who are currently making a very big splash.

Wherever there’s a coast, you’ll find surfers. From the icy waters of Alaska to the sun-kissed shores of Australia (and everywhere in between), somebody will be out there riding the waves. The ancient sport of surfing was first noted by Europeans visiting Polynesia in the 1700s, but “papa he’e nalu” (its Hawaiian translation) probably goes back much, much further.

Here on the Grand Strand, our coastal region is named Long Bay and is one half of the double arc easily visible on maps. While the relatively shallow and calm waters of Long Bay make friendly little waves and great beaches for swimming and sunbathing, they aren’t so great for surfing. So when three boys from the area swept their Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) divisions last summer (with a 15-year-old also winning the national championship), surf-watchers everywhere asked “Myrtle Beach? Huh? How?”

“Our waves are actually really good to learn on,” said Myrtle Beach Realtor David Nuckles, a retired six-time Eastern Surfing Association winner and one-time U.S. national champion. Nuckles now coaches and volunteers his time to help the Strand’s next generation of surfers see their potential. “It’s a pristine training ground for these kids—they all had a phenomenal year. If you can ride in Myrtle Beach, you can ride just about anywhere. But to get really good you’ve got to go where the [big] waves are, and that means traveling.”

The three local “groms” (surf lingo for very young surfers) of note, have all done a lot of traveling. We met them, along with their dads, one afternoon to discuss their extraordinary success and a bit about what it’s like to be a kid growing up at the beach. We spoke with 11-year-old Micha Cantor, 15-year old Addison Miles and 16-year-old Cam Richards, who is the son of Garden City Beach surf guru and Village Surf Shoppe owner Kelly Richards.

“I’ve been to just about every continent except Antarctica,” said Cam Richards, a polite and shy kid who has been winning major surfing competitions since he was 10. In 2012 the then 15-year-old Richards won the Men’s National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) U.S. Open Championship, beating every other surfer to take home the top prize in the nation’s largest amateur surfing contest. “Last summer I went to Indonesia, Tahiti—I’ve been to France, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand,” he continued matter-of-factly. He’s traveled with his dad and older brother, Cole Richards, a surfing champion in his own right, but Cam regularly travels to far-flung lands as an unaccompanied minor—something he’s done since age 13.

Addison Miles attends the Christian Academy in Myrtle Beach. “All my friends at school play basketball,” he said with a smile, “but I surf at 64th Avenue. I want to go to the Nationals. I’ve been to Puerto Rico, Hawaii, California—never been to the moon, though.” He, along with Cam Richards and Cantor, is part of the team sponsored by the Village Surf Shoppe.

The Richards family surfing dynasty is firmly in place. The senior Richards, Kelly, competed on the East Coast as a young man, but is best known for his skill at designing and shaping, literally sculpting, surfboards. He’s made and sold some 15,000-plus hand crafted Perfection brand surfboards from his little shop in Garden City Beach. “My shop’s been here since 1969,” said Kelly, who purchased the business in 1988. “At one time we were the third-largest surfboard producer on the East Coast. Now there are [imported] manufactured boards we sell against, but it’s all part of the deal. We have retail, rental, clothing—a little bit of everything.”

Richards’ shop, adorned with surfing murals and filled with his sons’ trophies, predates any other Grand Strand surf company and represents the quintessential laidback old-school surf headquarters, even sponsoring a team and offering lessons. Visiting the 43-year-old business is a right of passage for any local grom getting into the sport, but Richards faces serious competition, too, with a dozen surfboard retailers dotting the Grand Strand, as well as vying with online sellers.

When the Village Surf Shoppe opened in 1969, surf music troubadours The Beach Boys had moved on to experimentation with psychedelic tunes, leaving their early 1960s surf songs behind. But their lasting tributes to the surf culture, “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfer Girl,” “All Summer Long” and “California Girls” could not be so easily forgotten. The 1966 classic movie Endless Summer, an award-winning surfing documentary, further propelled the imagery that endures today. Surfing had taken root and the message of fun in the sun spread like wildfire.

That the waves are better in California than anywhere else in the continental U.S. is not disputed. But the East Coast has its share of hot spots—from Long Island, New York, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Cocoa Beach, Florida—and  the surfing rivalry between East and West is longstanding. While there are a number of surfing associations, the NSSA offers the fiercest competition and success within this organization and is considered a precursor to an all-out professional surfing career. Pro surfer Kelly Slater competed in both the ESA and NSSA before going pro.

“Last year the regionals were held in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina,” said Stoney Cantor, father of young champ Micha. “The biggest [East Coast] event is in Virginia Beach. If you can develop a style in Myrtle Beach, you’ve got an advantage.” The elder Cantor is another local and former competitive surfer, as well as the owner of Surfwater Promotions based in Myrtle Beach. He is one of the many “surf dads,” the surfing equivalent of soccer moms. These men spend countless hours and personal resources helping not only their own kids move forward in competitive surfing, but volunteer their time for the entire community of surfers. It’s a group of shaggy-haired, athletic boys and slim, suntanned athletic girls, all with an unmistakable swagger, culture and language completely their own. These surfer kids have their favorite local hot spots, but the most serious among them have helped put a lot of miles on their parents’ minivans.

“We’ve all hauled these kids up and down the East Coast so many times,” said Kelly Richards, “even David [Nuckles], who does not have a kid in competition. He travels and spends so much time with them. Just a few months ago we took a group of 27 to Puerto Rico, ages 7 and up. These kids meet other kids from all over, become lifelong friends, and learn to travel.”

“I’ve surfed all my life,” said Nuckles. “When I was a kid you got in your beat up van and drove to Florida or Virginia Beach. You were lucky to get to California or Hawaii maybe once in a lifetime. But these kids, at this level, will see every beautiful beach in the world.”

The training and travel is time consuming and expensive, but the dedication of the men involved doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated by a non-surfing dad. “I’d asked David to coach Addison,” said Realtor Scott Miles, father of champion Addison Miles, “and he was nice enough to do it. I don’t surf, but guys like David and Kelly and Stoney, who spend their time and who take these guys under their wings … yes, it’s unique that Myrtle Beach has this many good surfers, but it’s because of guys like these, and others, who really care.”

The 60-mile Grand Strand has dozens of designated areas for surfing, and it’s not rare to see handfuls of surfers working on their tricks year-round. A great surfing area requires a land feature called a “break,” which causes the waves to behave in specific ways. “There aren’t a lot of breaks here,” said Kelly Richards, “but the Dunes Club [area], and the south end of Pawleys Island have little breaks. The rest is about all the same.”

Competitive grom and member of the Village Surf Shoppe team, 10-year-old Luke Gordon hones his skills near his home in Pawleys Island. The Richards boys and Cantor found Garden City Beach near the pier to be their fruitful training grounds, and Addison Miles usually surfs at 64th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach. Additional spots in North Myrtle Beach, Cherry Grove, across the state line into Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach and, a local’s favorite daytrip, Wrightsville Beach, all support small surfing communities.

“The event that these guys won was the East Coast Surfing Championship,” said Kelly Richards. “It’s the second-oldest continually running surfing competition in the world.” Myrtle Beach competitors have done well in the past, but to have three from the same region winning the top prize in one year is unheard of, according to Nuckles. “These three kids swept the (2011) Eastern Surfing Association championships,” he said. “It’s never been done.” And they’re in the midst of another run at it this year. To win in competition takes dedication, skills, big tricks and lucky waves.

“Micha is probably the youngest kid on the East Coast to have a Front Side Air Reverse [trick] down. It’s very advanced, and he hates to lose,” said Kelly Richards. All three boys are focused and driven, according to Nuckles and their dads.

“I like the Air Reverse, Floaters, Round House Cut Backs,” said Addison Miles, who is part of the 2012 ESA All-Star Team, along with Gordon. “Skateboarding is good [practice],” he continued, “they’re both board sports. You have a lot of the same body movements.”

 “You’re at the mercy of the waves,” added Kelly Richards. “There’s a luck factor. You’re going to beat surfers who are better than you and you’re going to lose to surfers who are not as good. It’s just the way it goes. When I was kid we looked up to “Nuck” [David Nuckles’ long-standing nickname]. He was the hometown hero that put Myrtle Beach on the map.  He was the first guy on the East Coast who learned to do a 360 going down the wave. He couldn’t be beat.”

That was in the 1970s and ’80s. How about in this current crop of local groms?

The kid to watch is Cam Richards, though he won’t be a grom much longer; 16 is about as far as gromhood reaches. He’s been featured in just about every surfing publication in the U.S. He’s gaining worldwide “up-and-coming” status and has earned endorsements from Billabong, Arnette sunglasses and other surf apparel and accessory manufacturers. “Cam won the Men’s Open,” said proud father Kelly Richards, almost in disbelief at the feat of his then 15-year-old son. “Hello?! Cam is the youngest pro surfer in the world,” he said. “When he was 10 he won money for placing at an East Coast Surfing Association-sanctioned event.”

Just prior to press deadline, Cam Richards was off on an all-expense-paid trip to Australia, a prize he won last November as the overall winner in the Rip Curl GromSearch national competition. Though he misses a lot of school, he keeps his grades up with online coursework and tutoring.

“We could put these three guys in the car and go to Cocoa Beach, Cape Hatteras, New Jersey or the West Coast and they can win,” said Kelly Richards. “They can surf and win against guys who live in California and Hawaii, where every day the surfers can go eight to ten hours and ride 100 waves. Our guys here can ride maybe 40 waves a week, and some weeks you can’t get up at all. That’s what’s so amazing. We’re like the Jamaican Bobsled Team.”

While our local surfers maybe haven’t embraced surf lingo as enthusiastically as their Californian counterparts, a few surfer terms occasionally slip into the vernacular, and might require translation. For example: “Brah, did you see that barney goat boater? What a hella dode. I’m trying not to be aggro—lots of sick nuggs here at the zoo. I gotta chillax. I need grindage.”

Say What?
Cowabunga, y’all!

Aggro: Very aggressive
Barney: A beginner who doesn’t know what they’re doing
Brah: A bro, brother, friend
Betty: A girl who surfs
Chill: Relax
Chillax: To totally chill
Cowabunga: Greeting
Dode: One who pretends to be a surfer
Epic: Perfect conditions
Goat Boater: A kayaker in the surf (and in the way)
Gnarly: Difficult waves, great skills
Grindage: Food
Grom: A young surfer
Hella: Very much, as in “Hella amped”
Mahalo: Thank you
Nugg: See “Betty”
Poser: One who poses as a surfer, but rarely enters the water
Shred: To complete a series of turns on a wave
Sick: Excellent
Wannabe: See “Poser”
Zoo: A full beach with nowhere to surf