There are three things every beach-loving Florida kid should learn how to do: the stingray shuffle, dodge an afternoon thunderstorm and ride a skimboard. The first two come pretty easily, especially through trial and error. All it takes is a barb in the foot or a bolt of lightning that lands so close it makes the hair on your arms stand up to demonstrate nature's awesome power. But skimboarding? Now that is a little trickier … "It is a very technical sport," said Frank Papa, a 38-year-old St. Petersburg attorney who started skimboarding the Atlantic near Deerfield Beach in his teens and never looked back. "It is easy to get discouraged. You have to keep at it, but once you get the hang of it, you will be hooked for life." Over the years Papa, who moved to the Gulf Coast to attend Stetson Law School in Gulfport, saw so many youngsters struggling with their skimming skills that he and friend Chris Langer started a summer camp to help them with this iconic Florida water sport. "A little instruction goes a long way," said Papa, the pied piper of the local skimboard scene. "It takes a lot longer to learn if you are out there struggling on your own."
The California craze
The skimboarding craze is said to have started in California in the 1920s, when a group of Laguna Beach lifeguards began skimming along the waterline on pieces of plywood.
But while Laguna Beach is still considered the spiritual mecca for skimboarding, Florida's Gulf Coast has more skim enthusiasts than any other place in the country. From Naples to Pensacola, there are dozens of towns vying for the title "Skim City, U.S.A."
While Papa is partial to his old East Coast haunts, he said Pinellas County's beaches hold their own against anywhere else in the state.
"This is a really great place to skim," he said. "You just have to know what to look for."
A lot has changed since Papa first started skimming. The sport went mainstream in the early 1970s. But technology and technique have improved greatly in the last decade. Today's skimboards are much lighter, more like surfboards, and as a result, much faster. The new generation of compression-molded fiberglass skimboards can accommodate a variety of riders.
There was a time when skimboarding was only for kids. Today, it is not uncommon to see 30-something skimmers busting moves on the local surf breaks.
The guru speaks
The skimboard camp, sponsored by St. Petersburg's Reno Beach Surf Shop, has been running every other week throughout the summer.
"We have had such success that we are planning to keeping going into the fall," Papa said.
On a typical Saturday, the two-hour Reno Beach Skimboard Camp at Sunset Beach in Treasure Island attracts about 20 kids. The skimmers are divided into three groups: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Most skimmers can get up and riding after a couple of sessions.
But if you can't make the camp and want to try skimming on your own, Papa has a few words of advice:
• Be patient: Like anything worth learning, it takes time to become an accomplished skimboarder. Do not get discouraged. Set realistic, attainable goals and practice often. One great ride usually makes up for hours of failed attempts.
• Use proper, durable equipment suitable for your skill level: Your first board should not be the cheapest (plywood, about $40) nor the most expensive you can find (carbon fiber, more than $450). Buy a quality beginner (hybrid of wood and fiberglass, $89) or moderate board (foam-core and fiberglass, $139) from a reputable surf shop, once you have determined you like the sport. Most legitimate skimboard manufacturers produce boards for various skill levels. Beginner boards are often more "forgiving" of improper technique and are designed for riding flat water. Intermediate and more advanced boards escalate in quality of materials and cost because they are designed for skimmers looking to ride waves. Stay away from plywood boards. They fall apart quickly and do not provide proper buoyancy.
• Be courteous of others: A skimboard can be a dangerous projectile in the hands of an irresponsible rider. It is important to respect everyone's right to access and enjoy the beach. Never skim too close to other people, especially small children and the elderly.
• Respect the environment: Litter on the beach can enter the ocean and kill fish, turtles and seabirds. Leave the beach cleaner than you found it. Reduce, reuse and recycle.
• Have fun: Do not put too much pressure on yourself to skim as well as more experienced riders. With a little practice, you will get the hang of it.