By Donald Wittkowski
Most 5-year-old boys will probably spend their days on the beach building sandcastles, flying a kite or playing ball.
Brian Heritage, the son of legendary Sea Isle City surf shop owner Dan Heritage, was already riding a surfboard when he was just 5. A treasured black-and-white photo showing him surfing in Sea Isle in 1967 proves it.
“I grew up as a second-generation water baby, literally,” Heritage recalled of his family’s ties to the surfing industry.
Glancing fondly at the old photo, he noted, “That was the first surfboard ever made for me.”
Heritage’s late father made him the board. Dan Heritage, who founded Heritage Surf and Sport in Sea Isle with his wife, Barbara, was an acclaimed surfboard shaper who is a member of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame and New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame
Brian Heritage, now 55, is set to join his father in the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame. He will be inducted Friday night during ceremonies at the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City. He is being honored for his days as a top-level professional surfer as well as a mentor to legions of younger surfers.
“To me, it’s a family legacy,” he said of the honor. “It’s not just New Jersey. It’s also a recognition and representation of surfing on the entire East Coast.”
Although he certainly didn’t know it at the time, those thrilling first moments on the surfboard at 5 years old were the start of a lifelong passion for the sport.
“The shop guys had a hand in watching me at the beach when I was a little kid because my parents were busy at the store,” Heritage said.
At first, the older surfers would make fun of him for staying close to shore in the shallow water and gentle surf. Growing tired of the teasing, a breakthrough came when he decided to join them in the open water.
“One day, when I was around 10, I paddled to the outside. From then on, you couldn’t stop me,” he said.
In his teens, he became a highly skilled surfer, competing in the East Coast championships in the short- and long-board divisions. His amateur career included surfing in 10 East Coast championship finals.
He turned professional in 1982 when he was 20. As a pro, he was among the top 16 ranked surfers in the Association of Surfing Professionals East.
At the height of his pro career, he was among the top 75 surfers in the world. While competing in the world tour, he surfed in Europe, the Caribbean, the continental U.S and Hawaii.
The life of a prof surfer may sound glamorous, but Heritage noted that in those days the top competitors were making only about $20,000 annually and he earned just $2,000 per year.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made,” he said.
Heritage, though, said he became the first surfer to secure a sponsorship deal, paving the way for the modern-day surfers who make big money from commercial endorsements. His first sponsorship deal was with Sundek clothing. He lined up other sponsors later.
Heritage was also at the forefront of technological changes in surfing during his pro career. The surfboards themselves were changing in a new wave of innovation. His father, renowned for his surfboard shaping, gave him an advantage.
“Having a father who was at the cutting edge of technology helped me to stay around,” he said.
Heritage was shaping his own boards while on the pro circuit. At the same time, he was encouraging other New Jersey surfers to learn how to shape their boards to capitalize on the latest innovations.
After retiring from prof surfing in the early 1990s, Heritage began serving as a mentor to younger surfers. Even while he was still a pro, he stepped into the role of surfing promoter. He organized professional surfing competitions at the Jersey Shore in conjunction with the Association of Surfing Professionals and also developed teams of young surfers.
“I guess I’m most proud of the mentoring of literally thousands of surfers and giving them a shot at learning something new and making something of themselves on the world stage,” he said.
In the business world, Heritage and his family have built up their holdings outside Sea Isle. They expanded the Heritage Surf & Sport brand to Ocean City and Margate. Heritage said he took a cue from his father in business.
“My dad used to say, ‘Always lead and never follow,’’’ Heritage said. “It led very quickly to the development of our third store in Margate.”
Heritage’s 73-year-old mother remains the matriarch of the business. Brian is also joined by his wife, Jamie, and his sister, Tracy, 53, in running the shops.
He paid tribute to his mother, in particular, for developing the stores in what is largely a male-dominated industry.
“She gave birth to what is a lot in the industry,” he said.
Heritage Surf & Sport traces its roots to the early 1960s, when Dan Heritage began making boards in his garage and selling them to surfers on Long Beach Island in Ocean County.
Considered one of the founding fathers of South Jersey surfing, Dan Heritage opened his first surfing store in Sea Isle in 1964, two years after Brian was born.
Brian followed in his father’s footsteps as a surfer, mentor, promoter, surfboard maker and businessman. Now, he is about to join his father in the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame in recognition of his own accomplishments in the surfing world.