Live to surf
By JORDAN KAHN | News-Journal Outdoors Writer
DAYTONA BEACH — Here's an argument starter: What sport holds sway in these parts with the most passion, the most power, the most persistent quest for perfection?
The answer is, like, a no-brainer, dude: Surfing.
It's easy to overlook the heritage of surfing in Central Florida's coastal towns, especially in Daytona Beach, where NASCAR's gasoline bullets are the thundering king.
Surfing doesn't bring in a half-million fans, and surf shop owners, tournament directors and board shapers aren't making a killing, but they don't do it for the money. The local economy would be hurting if surfing drove the money machine. Surfing is more of an underlying belief system than a tourism slogan, more collective soul than commercial force, more like a beating heart than a humming cash register.
And so while the sand-strewn towns dotting the local coast may have latched onto racing and its myriad benefits, many would argue that surfing has always been closer to the pulse of Daytona Beach.
In 1930, the hard-packed sands that made pursuit of the land-speed record possible were also hosting the area's first surfing contests.
And while stock car racing has become a multi-million dollar sports industry, the fourth generation of Floridian surfers slips anonymously into the ocean, taking part in a unique and diverse culture that spans the globe.
Some of them are easy to spot.
Huddled between the pink seawalls of the Hartford Avenue beach approach in Daytona Beach, they are standing there in the little parking lot off A1A, equally mystified by the ocean and the beachcombers walking by.
"When will the waves start pumping? How can that person live here and not surf?"
They are in their 20s. Many have tattoos. Unlike the '60s surfer stereotype of the shaggy hippie, they keep their hair buzzed like Kelly Slater, the six-time world champion surfer from Cocoa Beach. This crowd is more "surf or die" than "peace and love."
The beach approach is public property, but it is also their territory. It is the gateway to the waves they've been riding all their lives and the circle's creed is locals only.
They represent a distinctly different generation of surfer. But after 70 years, all sorts of surfers have evolved.
The first Daytona Beach surfers were riding 16-foot wooden boards that weighed 100 pounds. These surfers were far-out pioneers, like Daytona Beach native Gaulden Reed, who flew gliders, fished for tarpon from his surfboard and protested tolls to drive on the beach.
By the mid '60s, surfboards were made of foam and fiberglass, opening the door to the masses. Gidget, the Beach Boys and Surfer Magazine burst onto the scene and soon, as the Beach Boys sang, "Everybody's gone surfing. Surfin' USA."
The scene developed detail. The Northern California soul surfer flowed into being. Kings of the beach dug being stars of radical hip. Surf reports were born. Aging surfers looked to make a comeback in the waves.
One thing all surfers have in common, though, is passion for the ocean. Only the smallest part of surfing is actually riding waves. Almost 90 percent of a surfer's time in the water is spent paddling. But it isn't work. It's exploration, positioning, getting in synch with the infinite, heaving ocean to catch a wave that originated in a storm a thousand miles away.
Finding a swell that breaks slowly, peeling down the line of a smooth, tubular wall became the Nirvana of the ultimate wave. But it's just a pipe dream here. The state's waves are so famously small, the Florida surfer mantra is "pray for hurricanes."
Still, the region's surfing hotspots have become an unlikely breeding ground for some of the best surfers on the planet. There is a long list of amazing surfers who come from Central Florida beach towns.
Only hard-core surfers would recognize some of the names, like Aaron "Gorkin" Cormican, from New Smyrna Beach, inventor of the Gorkin flip, a double-rail grab aerial flip, or Jack Murphy, aka "Murph the Surf," a Californian who shaped boards in Florida and became famous for stealing the largest sapphire in the world, the Star of India, in 1964.
Four-time world champion surfer Frieda Zamba gets airborne in the 1980s. Surf conditions in Zamba's native Flagler Beach only rival those of California and Hawaii when tropical storms or hurricanes are nearby, but Central Florida's uneven surf hasn't prevented the area from generating champion surfers.
But a few names stand out, like Lisa Andersen, from Ormond Beach, and Frieda Zamba, from Flagler Beach, two local women who won four world championships each. There's C.J. Hobgood, from Satellite Beach, the current No. 1 pro surfer in the world. His twin brother, Damien, is a top pro. Shae Lopez, who lives in Ponce Inlet, is one of the top 10 professionals on the men's World Championship Tour.
There's Mimi Munro, from Ormond Beach, who was the first person from the East Coast to surf in an international surf contest when she won the 1966 World Contest in San Diego.
Then there's Slater. Slater isn't just surfing's undisputed all-time greatest, he's one of professional sports' most tantalizing marketing machines. The guy gets huge salad bowls of money to roam the world's paradises, surfing perfect waves. It's Michael Jordan meets Endless Summer.
But surfing isn't about competition or fame, and many surfers have come to despise the professional surfing world's attempt to sell surfing, which only results in more wannabes in already crowded waves.
"Man, the pro tour is just an advertisement. Surfing's not a sport. It's a way of life."
There can be 100 people crisscrossing the lineup in the New Smyrna Beach side of Ponce Inlet, one of the most well-known breaks on the East Coast. Paddling into that ordered chaos can be very intimidating.
But there are lots of places to surf, and before the jetties were built three decades ago, the inlet wasn't even a place people went surfing. The waves weren't any good.
The surf changes constantly. Sandbars shift and development projects come and go, altering the best spots to surf.
"Hey bro, I was driving to work and the waves are going off at that little break just north of Granada."
Surfers develop a preoccupation with studying the constantly changing tides, storms, winds and the shifting ocean because they affect the waves.
During a strong nor'easter, 50 cubic yards of sand per linear foot of shoreline can get washed offshore, according to Thomas Smith, an ocean engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville, who has been surfing for 30 years.
That's 250,000 cubic yards of sand per mile of beach, or enough sand to make 2 life-sized sandcastles of the Roman Coliseum. After a nor'easter moves through, the gladiators who swim with sharks must brave a completely reshaped ocean bottom of runouts and holes.
Even though surfing spots change, a few places seem to always be popular spots, whether it's because of ease of access, availability of parking or the quality of the waves.
Piers have always been favored. The pilings disrupt the current, allowing more sand to settle on the bottom, which builds up the sandbar. The more elevation a sandbar gets, the smaller the swell it takes for waves to break in that spot.
But even pier breaks don't last forever. When the end of a pier gets knocked off by a storm, it can affect the waves in that area. Some people still surf by the old Ormond Pier, which is long gone, but the piling remnants jutting out of the water build up the sand.
Some areas have reputations for having good waves, and when there are no waves in one place, the waves can be breaking just a couple of blocks away.
Surfers have become very sophisticated at tracking wave conditions. There is a growing segment of the surfing population that is part dude, part Internet meteorologist.
"Dude, I'm so stoked. I was online looking at buoy data and it looks like there's a good ground swell in the Atlantic that should kick up some head-high surf in a couple of days."
People wearing baggies sitting at their PCs have learned to decipher globally animated weather models written by the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just so they can figure out which day to call in sick and go surfing.
And these people aren't just rebellious youth, punk rock surfers knocking off because the surf's up. There are lawyers, doctors and older professionals who wear turtleneck, long-sleeved rash guards into the water and wear so much sunblock their faces look green. These are the old sea dogs.
There are the hotties, teen-age hotshots aspiring to be the next Kelly Slater.
There are still stoner surfers, up at the crack of noon to get another orangish-bronze coat of sun shellacked onto their status-symbol tans.
But today's amateur leagues are attempting to counter that negative image with an all-American one by requiring minimum grade-point averages and administering drug tests. And there are soul-surfer environmentalists, who see competitive surfing as a corporate perversion of the original relationship between surfer and Mother Ocean.
A wide variety of people are floating around out there on their boards, calling each other dude. It's part of what makes it Daytona Beach.
The number of locals who surf far exceeds participants in more publicized local legends, like auto racing. But despite its history, the local surf scene is only an outpost, not an epicenter.
Surfing remains Daytona Beach's hidden industry, attracting only as much attention as its laid-back culture's footprints in the sand.