Alliance for a Living Ocean Holds Most Successful LBI Longboard Classic to Date

Mike Melega of Beach Haven the first LBI Surfer in Years to Win
By JON COEN | Aug 14, 2019
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Ship Bottom — There’s a general pattern to the wind in the summertime. The breeze is either light at daybreak or it’s out of the west. These are pretty much optimal conditions for surfing. Then the wind comes up, onshore by mid-morning. By noon, or sometimes early afternoon if we’re lucky, the wind is honking from the southeast. It lessens by evening, and then we start the whole pattern again.

On Saturday, the wind stayed offshore all day for the 11th Annual Alliance for a Living Ocean LBI Longboard Classic in Ship Bottom. There was a healthy 2- to 3-foot combo swell, and it was the first time the wind had stayed west for an entire day this whole summer. It was a classic in every sense, with surfers all riding big, heavy longboards from the 1960s and Beach Haven’s Mike Melega taking the men’s title in stylish fashion.

Alliance for a Living Ocean is a grassroots local organization headquartered in Ship Bottom. It began in 1987 when a handful of locals banded together after a 50-mile garbage slick washed into the New Jersey coast, closing the beaches of LBI for three days and crushing the tourism season. Today, it serves to promote and maintain clean water and a healthy coastal environment through education, research and active participation.

The longboard contest has come a long way, now complete with a village of sponsors, live music, food on the beach and hundreds of spectators.

“We’re happy to have our biggest contest to date in the books, 80-plus surfers across five divisions all supporting our mission to promote and maintain a clean and healthy coastal environment. Our organization is run by surfers and supported by surfers who all understand the necessity of protecting what we love,” said ALO Executive Director Kyle Gronostajski after the event.

Surfing has come a long way for that matter. In the early ’60s, LBI’s town fathers looked at surfers as freeloading love children. In 1964, Island surfer Henry “Stretch” Pohl, a teacher/lifesaver who actually coached high school football under a young Vince Lombardi and the Rev. Earl Comfort of Manahawkin, had to organize the Long Beach Island Surfing Association to convince the towns that surfing was actually a healthy activity.

“Long gone are the days of surfers being bums. You’re more likely to see surfers grabbing trash out of the water or off the beach than jobless and drinking and smoking. Having people directly connected to the ocean makes spreading and furthering our mission that much easier,” added Gronostajski.

And longboard surfing is still alive and well. In fact, it has enjoyed a massive rebirth in the last 10 years, with a new generation adopting the classic style of waveriding. And the level of surfing this year was proof of that.

The women surfed incredibly well all day, with a duo of Cape May County surfers, Meredith Meidema and Elizabeth Kirk, taking first and second place. Meidema repeated her title. Holding it down for LBI was Sophia Byers, who finished in third.

This year saw a record number of kids surfing the junior (15 and under) division that featured the next generation of LBI surfers as the field was full of the offspring of local carpenters, restaurant owners, mortgage reps, screen printers, administrators and teachers who all surf.

Sean Smith took third place. At 8 years old, Niko Sanchez did not ride a longboard, but his board was still considerably longer than he is. He took off on a 3-foot wave (overhead on him) and pulled directly into the bowl. His surfing earned him a trip to the final where he got second place among some 15-year-old surfers. Winning for the third year in a row was Ryan Todd of Surf City who laid down some classic longboard moves, including a coffin and cheater five in the final.

The tandem event has become an entertaining favorite to watch each year, and this year did not disappoint with 12 teams surfing. This division saw “lifts” where one surfer lifts the other, funny wigs, “wheelbarrows” and always comical wipeouts. But in the end, it was Chuck Labin of Beach Haven who had beautifully executed lifts with his daughter Carolina to take their first-ever win.

There was also an AARP for surfers 55 and older. These surfers compete in the men’s event, but the one who makes it the furthest is the winner. This year that honor went to Holgate’s Tom Beaty, a former executive director of ALO. It was a fitting honor as Beatty actually started this event back in 2009. Wayne Ignatuk, who won this last year, took second place.

The last heat of the day was the men’s final. The wind was still perfect, although the tide was full and forced the surfers to squeeze as much as they could out of each wave, right into the shorebreak.

The finals came down to Jim Naplacic of Ocean City, Chris Sanchez of Barnegat Light, Greg Warren of Harvey Cedars, Mike Melega of Beach Haven, Brian Aji of Ship Bottom, and Gronostajski.

Melega was as light as a feather, walking to the nose of the board, walking back and then perching himself back on the nose, in the smallest waves. As captain of the Long Beach Township Beach Patrol in Holgate, he only takes off two days all summer, the day of the Classic and the day after, “to recover,” he said, laughing.

In 2018 he took third in a close final. But this would be his year.

“ALO hosted such a great event again this year, and I’m so appreciative to the volunteers of that organization as well as the other sponsors who made this contest happen. I think the competitors and spectators both had a lot of fun and were able to enjoy the history and style of classic longboarding, which I really love and appreciate,” Melega said. “It’s a celebration of surfing history, a friendly contest and a great fundraiser for ALO.”

Melega has been an ALO member since he was a teenager.

“I’m stoked to win a very close final with talented surfers, and I’m proud to represent LBI,” he added.




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