Brace yourself. I’m about to say something extremely contentious.
So far, in my short tenure as editor, I’ve pilloried the high-on-marketing-low-on-substance One Spark festival, chastised the Jaguars sack leader for “talking out of his ass,” wondered aloud whether the mayor’s inaction on HRO could elicit an Indiana-style blowback in the River City, and co-opted Old Testament verbiage to poke fun at Jacksonville’s billionaire messiah, Shad Khan.
But my next proposition is likely to be my most divisive yet.
Here we go:
Northeast Florida has world-class surf.
We OK? Still here? Let me back up.
I haven’t always felt this way. Anyone who grows up surfing on the East Coast is acutely aware of his or her third (or fourth) world status in the eyes of the surf world’s foreign correspondents. However uninformed, it’s a common regret of many a Northeast Florida youth to have been born on the right coast instead of the left. “I’d be so bitchin’, if only … ”
Shortly after college, I moved West. I spent more than half-a-decade exploring different seaside pockets of California, the jagged coast and temperate weather offering endless wave-riding opportunities. Those were some of the surfiest years of my life.
My last four years in California were spent in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood. Our apartment sat three blocks from Ocean Beach, one of the heaviest beach breaks in the world. For Ocean Beach, August to October means sunny, 70-degree weather, all-day offshore winds and shoulder-high Southwest groundswells. This lasts until mid- to late-November, when the Pacific Northwest begins churning out megastorms, unleashing 20-foot mountains that detonate 100 yards offshore at 18-second intervals. In San Francisco, if you’re frothing to surf (and even the least bit unhinged), you can ride world-class waves for seven months.
Until February, that is. Then offshore winds turn on, blowing 25 to 40 knots all day, every day for five months. If you are without reliable transportation (capable of taking you beyond San Mateo County), you will not be surfing.
Alas, Santa Cruz’s endless south-facing (and at some points, southeast-facing, oddly) point breaks lay just a short drive south. The only problem: The Santa Cruz points are crowded, ungodly so. Weaving one’s way around aggro locals and soft-top-wielding kooks is an inexact science that can make the proposition of trying to catch a decent share of waves during a crowded session at Pleasure Point, The Hook, or Steamer Lane seem unworthy of such hassle. Don’t get me wrong, a 2-to-3-foot pleasure point peak can give a minimally competent wave rider some unforgettable lines. But to emerge from the water with a realistic perception of satisfaction is to catch a dozen or so waves.
Pick a wave with a household name on the California Coast — Blacks, Windansea, Rincon, County Line, Malibu — and it’s the same deal. The same economics of scarcity exist — lots of people battling for a single takeoff point.
If I haven’t lost you yet, let’s come back to the East Coast.
To anyone willing to compare, the consistency of Northeast Florida surf rivals any Atlantic coastal town, and many California ones. From Talbot Island to Flagler Beach Pier, with the right board, a flexible schedule and an open mind, one could conceivably surf three to four times in a bad week and fix to six times during fruitful one. Though they aren’t reefs, the right tide and the right amount of sand buildup around our multitude of structures — piers, poles, and jetties — can produce point-like experiences. And our flat summers are often offset by the size produced from tropical activity in the fall and by cold fronts in the winter and spring. Best of all, if one wishes to avoid the heavy crowds at the pier or poles, with more than 90 miles of coastline, one can easily do so.
All this is to say, there’s surf here and we should celebrate it.
Admittedly, the beach can make itself easy to dismiss, at times. Too many swimsuit contests. Too much white-guy reggae (broggae). Too many beer bongs. Misogyny in abundance.
Like much of Northeast Florida, the beach is evolving. And the surf community has played a big role in that evolution. A survey of any lineup these days is as likely to produce a doctor, a lawyer, a musician, an artist, or a writer as it is a Jeff Spicoli.
As evidenced by this week’s cover story, which sheds light on the origins and impact of the WaveMasters Society — a prominent Northeast Florida surf club — the First Coast is an incubator (or accelerator; still not sure of the difference) of surfing talent. A short list of surfers with Northeast Florida ties who’ve made an impact on the surf world at-large is hard to quantify, but Bruce Clelland, Dicky Rosborough, Larry Miniard, Joe and Vince Roland, Sean Mattison, Karina Petroni, Gabe Kling, Asher Nolan, Ryan Briggs, and the Brothers Thompson are a solid start.
From surf brands to surf media, the sport is a multi-billion-dollar machine, and one could make a case that Northeast Florida has as many cogs in the wheel as any other hamlet. St. Augustine’s Zander Morton and Jimmy “Jimmicane” Wilson have ascended to the highest honors of the media ranks, as editor of Surfer Magazine and photography editor at Surfing Magazine, respectively. Local surf shops Aqua East and Sunrise are giants in the industry, their logos easily recognizable from Bethany to Bali to Bondi Beach. Local shapers such as Mike Whisnant and Jim Dunlop are world-renowned for their high performance sticks. Local style-master Justin Quintal is a two-time U.S. Open of Surfing Champion.
How can such marginal waves cultivate such an influential surf culture?
The answer may be a matter of promotion as much a perspective.
While it continues to produce its share of ambassadors, the Northeast Florida surf culture is largely written off as insignificant by the public at large. At the beach, the masses are more likely to turn out for a music festival headlined by purveyors of Cialis-commercial blues than they are for the longest-running surf contest in the state. The Jacksonville media is just as out of touch, devoting more ink to our hometown third-string quarterback with an amateur arm than our U.S. Open champion waterman.
We have a history in Northeast Florida of neglecting our unique homegrown exports. From razing The Harlem of the South to abandoning Downtown Jacksonville to whitewashing St. Augustine history, we’ve been terrible at preserving and promoting things of cultural value.
More than a half-century after exploding on Florida’s shores, the beauty of surfing still rests in its identity as a purist, selfish pursuit. When you’re in the water, the world at large — with all its problems — is rendered inconsequential. Given Northeast Florida’s history, maybe it’s best if surf culture remain marginalized.
It’s OK; the waves here suck, anyway.