For the late Bette Marsh, surfing was much more than a sport — it was a way of life. In the 1960s, surfing was just beginning to catch on in North Carolina. Marsh, along with five other industry trailblazers, formed the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA), made up of six competitive districts between New York and Florida. The launch of the association marked the beginning of organized surfing competitions on the East Coast, a milestone that earned Marsh the epithet “The Matriarch of East Coast Surfing.”
Not only was Marsh instrumental in organizing the ESA, but she was also an important voice for the sport of women’s surfing. In 1972, the first pro surfing contest ever held on the U.S. mainland was hosted at Marsh’s home beach: Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. While the men’s competition was funded by a group of West Coast surfboard manufacturers, the women’s division lacked sponsorship. To right the inequity, Marsh generously funded the entire lady’s division using money from her own pocket.
That same year, Marsh opened Marsh’s Surf Shop (formerly Marsh’s Surf and Sea) in Atlantic Beach. Fast forward to 2020, and the shop is still owned and operated by the Marsh family and features an expansive selection of surf wear and boards, as well as a jewelry line honoring the late matriarch. Marsh’s youngest son, Mickey, manages the shop, while his children, MJ and Frances, run the day-to-day operations. Mickey and MJ have also made their mark on the surfing world as athletes. Both have competed around the world and won numerous awards.
The surfing legacy that Bette Marsh helped create in Atlantic Beach lives on in the 21st century: the first thing motorists see after driving across the town drawbridge is a mural depicting a surfer navigating a swirl of green capped by white foam.
Photos by Kevin Walsh and courtesy Marsh family