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Local surfers salivate over Tropical Storm Isaac's potentially big waves

TREASURE ISLAND — Gulf Coast surfers don't mark years passed like most folks, with births, marriages and high school graduations, but with the names of storms and the height of the surf they produce.

"We are all on alert," said Frank "Pops" Piazza, a local surfer who's been riding the Gulf of Mexico's swells for more than 40 years. "All we can do is watch and wait, but if it stays far enough offshore, this could be a good one."

Piazza, a 55-year-old attorney from St. Pete Beach, couldn't hide his excitement over Tropical Storm Isaac. Cyclonic weather systems that track far offshore are a wave rider's dream.

Surfers like long lines of well-spaced waves because they are much easier to catch. The wind generated by tropical storms blows in gusts, and as a result, the waves form into "sets." The longer the distance ("fetch") the wind travels, the better formed ("cleaner") the waves will be.

"On days when the surf is good, nothing else matters," Piazza said. "We have different priorities."

Joe Nuzzo of Treasure Island's Suncoast Surf Shop can judge how good the surf is by how much wax he sells.

"With Tropical Storm Debby, I went through about 300 bars in about two days," said Nuzzo, who opened his Gulf Boulevard shop in 1966. "This weekend, I bet we sell 500."

The west coast of Florida has two surf seasons — winter and summer. From late October to early April, the Suncoast typically endures a dozen good cold fronts, each one kicking up two to three days of rideable surf.

Only die-hard youngsters and veteran board riders, a.k.a. the "gray beards" and "silver backs," venture into surf in 50 degree water temperatures.

But come August, when the tropical storms line up like freight trains, everybody surfs. Folks come from as far away as Florida's East Coast to catch a summer swell.

But hardcore locals such as Scott Orsini usually get the jump. "I've got my calendar cleared and I am ready to go," said Orsini, a 46-year-old lawyer. "I've got boards stashed at my house, office, everywhere so I am not going to miss this one."

Nuzzo said he expects the waves to linger for two or three days.

"They should be head high . . . maybe even overhead," the 69-year-old said. "I don't think we have had the formula for this since '05."

That year's hurricane season, one of the most active on record, saw Hurricane Katrina pummel New Orleans. That's why both Orsini and Piazza said they had mixed emotions about the powerful storms.

"I am a homeowner, and I don't want to see property damaged or anybody to get hurt," Piazza said. "But just like you prepare for hurricanes by buying extra batteries and food, we surfers get ready, too. You stock up on wax, buy an extra leash — you never know what to expect."

Orsini, who works with the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group that fights for clean oceans, said he thought the storm would make landfall in downtown Tampa.

"With all those Republicans there, where else would it go?" he joked. "But knowing those guys, they probably pulled some strings to get it to change course."

Local surfers salivate over Tropical Storm Isaac's potentially big waves 08/24/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 24, 2012 10:45pm]
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