Just Add Oars: South Jersey Surfboats

Decades after his family revolutionized surf rescue boats, Tom Van Duyne still makes them the old-fashioned way, by hand.

Lighten Up: Tom Van Duyne leans on one of the surfboats that generations of lifeguards have relied on to rescue imperiled swimmers and boaters. Made of fiberglass, the Van Dunye boat is maneuverable than the wooden boat it replaced.
Photo by Matthew Wright

Newspaper clippings, awards and old photographs paper the walls of Tom Van Duyne’s tiny office in his Mays Landing boatyard. The mementos amount to a museum of his family’s legacy as builders of lifeguard rescue boats stretching back more than half a century.

“Now, that right there is something cool, man,” says Van Duyne, rising from the piles of paper on his roll-top desk and crossing the room to stand before a large color photograph of the rescue boat his family made indispensable on beaches from Maine to Florida. In the photo, the 17-foot craft rides high in the water, despite being loaded down with 15 strapping New Jersey lifeguards, more than a ton of humanity.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” says Van Duyne, 58, with the sleepy lilt and rolling cadence of a lifelong surfer. “There’s a reason these boats have become a pretty famous thing, man. They’re unsinkable and indestructible.”

That isn’t an empty boast. Since Van Duyne’s father and uncle sold their first fiberglass rescue boat (also called a surfboat) in 1962, the heavy wooden boats they supplanted have faded into history. Yet the operation remains as bare bones and provincial today as when Tom’s father, John, and Uncle Sam fashioned the first one in the vacant chicken coop behind Sam’s Linwood home in 1951.

“This was my dad and Sam’s vision,” says Van Duyne, pointing at the large photograph. “These are their boats. Now it’s up to me to carry on the tradition.”

Until the Van Duynes came along, wood was the unquestioned material of choice for rescue boats. Not only were the boats heavy, weighing as much as 500 pounds, their heft made them unwieldy to launch, maneuver and drag ashore.

Trained at the Ventnor Boat Works, John and his older brother Sam had become masters, designing and building all kinds of craft, from kayak-like Barnegat Bay sneakboxes for duck hunting to luxurious yachts for celebrities like Robert Stack, star of TV’s The Untouchables, and bandleader Guy Lombardo. The Van Duynes parlayed their carpentry and design know-how into a second business building custom homes.

“My dad and uncle Sam were the most skilled craftsmen I’ve ever known,” says John Van Duyne Jr., Tom’s older brother by three years, who owns his own custom-home business in Ventnor. “They made furniture, wooden bird carvings, you name it. They were just incredible.”

Having watched lifeguards struggle with their heavy wooden boats, John Sr. came up with a simple, but novel idea—make rescue boats of fiberglass, a relatively new material that was not only as buoyant as wood, but also lighter, tougher and more resistant to weather and salt. A fiberglass rescue boat, John Sr. reasoned, would weigh about half as much as a wooden boat and be easier to control. In short, it would be much more “seaworthy,” as Tom puts it.

That fall of 1951, John Sr. and Sam set up shop. They modified the standard rescue boat design only slightly, helping the boat cut through waves more efficiently. The big difference was the fiberglass hull lined with firm, airy foam, creating what Tom calls “flotation pockets,” for added buoyancy, ease of handling and speed. Measuring 17 feet, 3 inches long and 5 feet, 2 inches wide at its middle, the Van Duyne rescue boat weighs 350 pounds. Outfitted with one or two sets of oars, it plows through swells and surf like a champ.

“They handle the seas better than anything I’ve seen,” says Murray Wolf, chief of the Avalon Beach Patrol since 1967. “With a boat like that, you can bring in 10 people through rough surf and still pinpoint where you want to land within inches. There’s a reason they’re so iconic.”

For all its advantages, the Van Duyne surfboat took years to catch on. “Everyone thought that because it was made out of fiberglass, it wasn’t going to be as durable,” says John Jr. “Patrols wouldn’t even take it out for a test.”

For years, the brothers made a living building other things. Then one day in 1962, John Sr. and Sam loaded the boat onto a trailer and drove it to Seaside Heights. There they persuaded beach patrol captain John Boyd to take it for a spin. By the time Boyd rowed it up onto the beach and clambered out, he was convinced.

“That was the first one my dad and Sam ever sold,” recalls John Jr. “And it was all the credibility we needed.”

Though Tom’s boatyard on Oakwood Boulevard—built by his brother 11 years ago, with radiant-heat floors and state-of-the-art ventilation—is far from primitive, Tom still uses a rotary phone, does his bookkeeping manually and makes every boat by hand, one at a time.

“At first, I didn’t have a computer, because I couldn’t get around to buying one,” says Tom. “Now it’s on purpose. I just got used to the way my dad did things.”

Tom keeps his records—from date of order to date of delivery and everything in between—with a pen on lined sheets of five-by-eight paper. Thumbing through decades of these forms, Tom pulls one out from 1997, the year his father died. Halfway down the sheet, you can see the handwriting abruptly change—a lasting, legible passing of the torch.

“At first I found it really hard to work without my dad,” Tom says, pausing to hold back tears. “That really bothered me. But I just worked my way through it. Still working my way through it.”

Tom never imagined he’d end up the custodian of the Van Duyne legacy. In his late teens, he started playing jazz guitar with local bands in Atlantic City casinos and nearby nightclubs, barely making a living while dreaming that music would one day become his full-time occupation. Drawn to his father and uncle’s high level of craftsmanship, he often assisted them in their Linwood shop. When Sam retired in 1980, Tom became his father’s full-time apprentice.

“When I was young,” he says, “I don’t think I really knew what I had. I was running away from it. I don’t know why. But when Sam retired, it became a lot of fun. We’d listen to the radio, take a break to get coffee, make an occasional surfboard or skateboard. Those were good days.”

Though the company name remains Van Duyne Bros., it’s really just Tom. John Jr. lends a hand as needed, but mainly focuses on his custom home business. Tom—who is married but has no children—is not complaining.

“There’s almost an art to boat building, because there are no straight lines,” he says. “It’s like giving a good haircut. It’s all gotta flow together. That’s why I don’t want to go out and hire anyone. It took me a lifetime to learn how to do this.”

During the busy months, October through April, Tom usually arrives around nine in the morning and stays until six, sometimes later, depending on how many orders are backed up. Since the first Van Duyne surfboat was sold, more than 2,000 have been shipped. The Van Duyne is the rescue watercraft of choice from Sandy Hook to Cape May, as well as Jones Beach and Fire Island in New York and a smattering of beach towns up and down the East Coast. Apart from the occasional surfboard designed for himself or a friend, surfboats are all Tom builds.

Tom constructs 10 to 15 boats per season and “re-fits” 10 to 15 others. Each new boat takes about three weeks. The process starts with brushwork, applying layer upon layer of liquid fiberglass to a wooden mold. When the mold is removed, mahogany trim is added for the gunwales, and the craft is painted white. Tom then stencils the name of the town onto the hull. Occasionally, a beach patrol will order custom decals or lettering, for which Tom hires a Cape May artist.

“No matter what, though, there’s always enough to keep me busy,” he says. Every municipality pays the same price per boat: $9,850. “There’s not much money in it,” he admits. “I could make more money doing other things. And it’s hard work, man.”

But it’s rewarding work. Every year, Tom attends the John T. Goudy Memorial Lifeguard Rescue Races at Suffolk Avenue beach in Ventnor. Lifeguards from about 20 Jersey beach patrols will hop into Van Duyne surfboats to try to outdo each other in rescue maneuvers.

“When you make these boats one at a time, you sort of forget about them once they’re out the door,” he says. “But when I see them all lined up on the beach, and think about how I made every single one of them in this little shop—I feel like a proud father.

“And when I watch them go into the water and see them perform the way they’re supposed to, thrashing in the surf but never breaking or tipping over—I take a lot of pride in that, man.”

Nick DiUlio is the South Jersey bureau chief of New Jersey Monthly.

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  1. Gene Sykes

    Enjoyed the article , amazing creation that surfboat a true lifesaver ! I myself used one for 20 yrs of my lifeguard career , its quite a reliable in all aspects of ocean rescue . Tom your dad’s and uncles boats have now become your boats . Nice transition by you , in way your now saving many lives performing this form art work to continue into future . Congrads Tom