Eye on the Ball: Where’s Dave? Follow the Jeep to the surf

BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO Surf’s up. Dave Hamilton heading out in — what else? — one of his Jeeps.
BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO Surf’s up. Dave Hamilton heading out in — what else? — one of his Jeeps.

Each week I find myself thinking: I need a story this week. And I only have a couple of days to deadline. Somehow, something always seems to pop up.

This week was no exception. I was having coffee at Stars Café and started talking to Dave Hamilton. The more we spoke, the more fascinating his life seemed to be. Until then, I didn’t know much about Dave except the fact that my son bought a Jeep from him. It’s an understatement to say Dave has a passion for Jeeps. In fact, he enjoys them so much he makes his living from them. Dave buys, sells and works only on Jeeps.

Dave is all about passion, with the three things at the top of his list being his family, surfing and, yes, Jeeps.
Dave was born in San Diego but came east with his family at age three when his father, an engineer, landed a job at Grumman Aircraft. After a few years with Grumman, he moved on to work on the space shuttle at Cape Canaveral in Florida. This was the first time eight-year-old Dave tried surfing.

After a few years in Florida, it was back to Long Island where he met his lifetime friend and mentor, Jerry Erb. Dave, an expert surfer, said that Jerry is one of the best surfers he’s ever known.

Dave’s first visit to Shelter Island didn’t come until after graduating from high school in 1984. He went to Suffolk Community College and then the Academy of Aeronautics in Queens where he received his airframe and powerplant mechanic’s license.

He moved to Southampton where he could do some surfing in his spare time. When a job opened at Coecles Harbor Marina he got it, working for John Needham for the next 10 years. He had a good relationship with John; if the waves were up, he’d have to miss a day of work. John had to be a great boss, since he accepted Dave with the proviso that he would always get his work done.

The more he spoke, the more I realized I really didn’t have any idea what a surfer’s life was all about. I had the impression surfers had one or two boards. That was until I visited Dave’s home and saw boards all over the place.

He had about 10 stacked outside the house and another 20 in the basement. When I asked him about them, he said he has surfboards all over the world. He doesn’t like to travel with them so he has boards them in places like Barbados, Costa Rica and Nova Scotia.

I picked one up and couldn’t believe how light it was. Dave told me the boards are made of foam and fiberglass. He doesn’t buy name brand boards, but has his own designs custom-made by two men, Chris Birch in Melbourne, Florida and Joe Tirzzino in Southampton.

He talked about the design, the length, width, curve, nose, tail, fins and deck shape. I had no idea what he was talking about.

Long Island, Dave told me, has some great spots for surfing, which was a surprise. He said, “When the waves are good here, they are as good as anywhere.” He mentioned Montauk, Block Island, Gardiners Island and then a few he wouldn’t reveal. As far as the Island, he’s surfed at Reel Point and even the causeway out to Ram Island.

His favorite spots in the world? Nova Scotia, Cape Hatteras, Costa Rica and Barbados.

Dave enters surfing competitions in the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA). In a recent Long Island competition, he finished fourth. One of the three guys who beat him was none other than his old buddy, Jerry Erb. Like he said, he is one of the best surfers he has ever known.

Surfing runs in the family, with both his wife Danielle and his son Jared excellent practitioners of the long board. In fact, he said Jared is now probably a better surfer than his old man.

But what about all those Jeeps? He fell in love with the 4-wheel-drive beauties while traveling the dunes. He calls them the ultimate “surf mobiles,” and in 1992, he opened Dave’s Jeep and Marine right here on the Island. Now he’s dropped the Marine part and just does Jeeps.

Dave gives Pat Sulahian credit for giving him the idea of doing what he really enjoys and going after it. He did, and I couldn’t help but notice that behind his house a large structure is being built where many more Island Jeeps will be repaired.

Among the fleet in his yard is his original 1977 model, with over 330,000 miles on it. Dave claims it still has a long way to go.