A mountain is predictable. A lake can be forgiving.
When it comes to testing Mother Nature's sporting boundaries, the sea stands alone for its vigor and capricious nature. One minute the water will lift you with a gentle caress, then, just as quickly, bend you over and spank you. Hard.
And though the ocean is all around us here in Florida, surfing is not something many people think about on the Gulf Coast. Look closely, though, and you'll find a sizable community of wave riders in and around Tampa Bay. The region gets good surf during cold fronts and hurricane season, and, with a few lessons and proper equipment, they say you can ride the waves of Florida like a pro.
My question was: Could I?
Joe Nuzzo just turned 65, and not a day goes by that he doesn't check the surf report.
The owner of Suncoast Surf Shop in Treasure Island, Nuzzo helped pioneer surfing in this area in the early 1960s. His recreational emporium of boards and wet suits, which he opened in 1966, is one of the state's oldest surfing retail outlets and has more than 500 boards in stock.
But as he tells it, surfers weren't always welcome on the gulf beaches.
"Believe it or not, surfing was illegal on St. Pete Beach when I arrived here," Nuzzo said. "The cops used to wait for us on the beach with their bullhorns and rifles. It's because we were different and we had long hair."
The law is a bit more understanding these days, but the surfing community still faces some hurdles. Most Gulf Coast contests are held on Venice Beach in Sarasota County because Pinellas County requires a 30-day notice for such an event — a tough requirement as it's nearly impossible to predict good waves three days out, let alone a month.
Still, anyone who says it's impossible to hone surf skills in the Sunshine State never heard of Cory and Shea Lopez. The brothers were getting their feet wet in Indian Rocks Beach from the time they were in diapers. Today, both are championship-caliber mainstays on surfing's World Championship Tournament tour.
"Florida is an amazing place to learn how to surf," said Cory, 31, who has been ranked among the world's top 10 surfers. "With the warm water and good waves we get on the east coast, it's perfect to learn the basic skills here, and then eventually you can travel and grow into bigger waves."
Greg Agerskov, owner of the Surf Shack in St. Pete Beach, was a semi-pro surfer in his 20s and now has two sons, Gregory, 16, and Christian, 11, competing in the Eastern Surfing Association, the largest amateur surfing association in the world.
Agerskov charges $40 an hour for lessons and guarantees that by the end of the first lesson, he'll have you standing. After learning a bit about surfing safety, Agerskov says, you will learn how to paddle, then how to read a set of waves and jump on one.
Experts recommend learning on a stand-up paddle board, basically an oversized surfboard you stand on, using a long plastic oar to help you balance and paddle onto a wave. Since the Gulf Coast isn't known for big swells, this technique is better suited for novices.
How long does it take until you're actually riding a wave? The learning curve varies; it can take anywhere from a couple of days to several months. "Getting down the line" — surfer slang for riding a wave from start to finish and knowing how to maneuver it — probably takes about a year.
But as Cory Lopez says: "That's the biggest draw of the sport for so many of us. You never really get to the point where you peak or master the sport. It's that feeling of always being able to ride a wave better, that uncertainty of what's coming and constantly trying to improve."
Have board, will travel
Passionate surfers don't wait for the waves to come to them. To become fully proficient, you'll need to make a pilgrimage or two across the state, to Cocoa Beach, Melbourne or Fort Pierce.
That's not to say this area doesn't get good surf.
"When people ask me if there are waves here, I laugh," Agerskov says, pointing to a mural of snapshots behind his register that show surfers in pipelines off St. Pete Beach. "I got tired of answering that question, so I put the photos up and point to them."
Agerskov says the Gulf Coast gets anywhere from 60 to 100 good surf days a year (Atlantic beaches can get a couple of hundred).
Ryan Clapper, a graduate of Brandon High who works for Eastern Surf magazine in Indialantic, suggests Web sites Gulfster.com, where the surf report is updated every morning, and ctr.usf.edu/surfclub, home of the University of South Florida Surf Club.
On my first surfing expedition to Cocoa Beach, I joined my surfing sherpa, Christian, and some of his friends. I expected a VW van and long-haired skinny dudes who spoke like Keanu Reeves. I got a bunch of guys piled in pickup trucks, like a construction crew.
Lesson one, they said, is humility. Simply paddling out to a set of waves is 99 percent of surfing, and it didn't take long to figure out what that meant. Lying facedown on a board that looked more like a coffee table (which is supposed to be easier for beginners), I was pounded relentlessly by the waves. Moving my arms as fast as I could, I would make progress, then a giant wave would come along and smack me in the face. Within seconds, I was right back where I began.
For a guy who went around an entire lake his first time on water skis and who was doing black diamonds his first time on snow skis, I was humbled by the surf. Before long, I found myself alone in the water, completely exhausted.
In four hours, I may have gotten to my knees three times and stood up once, for half a second, just long enough to rub the saltwater out of my eyes before face-planting again.
But as people who surf regularly will tell you, it's not about the destination, it's about the journey. And it's definitely a journey I'd like to take again.
Only next time, I'll know what to expect.
David Norrie is a Tampa freelance writer.
Surf schools abound all along Florida's east coast. Here are some to try.
Catalyst Surf Shop
Catalyst, where east coast locals hang out, is the kind of place where you can chill on the couch and watch surf movies or skate around when the waves are flat. 209 Ocean Ave., Melbourne. (321) 728-2960; www.mbcatalyst.com.
Ron Jon Surf School
Ron Jon, in Cocoa Beach, boasts Florida's largest and most respected surfing school. Private lessons begin at $60 per hour. Discounted rates apply for two or more (beginning at $45 per hour). Ron Jon also hosts a kids camp that runs several times through August, $325 a week. 150 E Columbia Lane, Cocoa Beach. (321) 868-1980; www.ronjonsurfschool.com.
Central Florida Surf School
Once named "one of the top 5 places to learn to surf in Florida" by Men's Health magazine, this is the oldest surf school on the east coast. Founded by surfing legend Lou Maresca, the 2006 Costa Rican National Masters Champion, it offers classes at
Fort Pierce Inlet. Classes begin
at $70 per 1 1/2 hours. Toll-free
NexGeneration Surf School
Owner/instructor Brian Gale has been surfing for 20 years and has 10 years of teaching experience. This Cocoa Beach school offers beginner and intermediate lessons beginning at $70 per hour. Group rates are available at $50 per hour, per person. Surf camps run through Aug. 22. One-day camp is $99; weeklong camp from 9 a.m. to noon is $200; weeklong camp from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. runs $400. The school is hosted by the Comfort Inn Cocoa Beach at 3901 N Atlantic Ave. (321) 591-9577; www.nexgensurf.com.
Ezride Surf School
With four full-time and several part-time instructors from Deerfield Beach to Cocoa Beach, Ezride travels the hot spots of the east coast teaching to all levels of experience. Top instructor Marcello Loureiro grew up in Brazil and has spent more than 20 years surfing South America's best waves. Private lessons are 2 1/2 hours and cost $140. (954) 803-7988; www.ezridesurfschool.com.
When surf's up, you can catch a wave in the bay area
A mountain is predictable. A lake can be forgiving.
Gearing up to catch some waves? Here are
some surf shops you'll want to check out.
The Surf Shack
This family-owned surf shop offers a dozen makes of surfboards, as well as skimboards and skating supplies. Owner Greg Agerskov is the district director for the West Florida chapter of the Eastern Surfing Association and offers private lessons, which begin at $40 per hour. 5210 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. (727) 367-9898.
Suncoast Surf Shop
One of West Florida's longest surf shops in operation has one of the largest inventories of surfboards and skimboards — more than 400. 9841 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island. (727) 367-2483; suncoastsurfshop.com.
Nekton Surf Shop
Pro surfer and owner Cory Lopez, who is sometimes on hand, and his dad, Pete, have more than a dozen brands of surfboards and occasionally show surf and skate movies on a 12-foot screen when the sun goes down. Nekton offers skimboard lessons by two of the best skimboarders on the Gulf Coast, 2002 Florida Amateur Champ Chris Splendore and Skim USA Tour Junior Champion Zach Hoag. Private lessons begin at $35 per hour. In June and July, the two host summer skim camps for ages 8-15; the cost is $150 per week. 1313 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach. (727) 593-8292; nektonsurf.com.
Lenny's Surf Shop
Lenny's has a great selection of new and used boards. This is also a great place to go if you've taken a spill and injured your board, as Lenny's has a full-service surfboard repair center. 7517 Blind Pass Road, St. Pete Beach. (727) 367-5001; lennyssurfshop.com.
Reno Beach Surf Shop
A classic surf shop located near downtown
St. Petersburg, Reno Beach has surfboards and great styles of sandals and clothing. 1031 Fourth St. N. (727) 896-7873; renobeach.com.
Quiet Flight Surf Shop
For city slickers who need a quick stop for surf gear before heading out, Quiet Flight is in the International Plaza mall. It doesn't have much in the way of boards, but the clothing and accessories by Roxy, Hurley, Oakley and Billabong will help you look like you know what you're doing. 2223 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa. (813) 353-1601; quietflight.com.
Adrenalina (coming soon)
This extreme sporting goods chain is expected to open in International Plaza by September. The highlight is a FlowRider wave machine, which allows users to simulate board surfing. adrenalinastore.com.
The great thing about surfing? All you really need is a board and water.
An entry-level surfboard, made from polyurethane foam or resin, goes for around $200. On the high end, a board with a label like Lost, Quicksilver or Billabong will cost upward of $1,000, but experts say you can get a quality board for $500. (Longer paddleboards can be a bit more expensive, averaging about $1,500.)
You'll also need a leash (a rubber cord that attaches to the rider's ankle and prevents the board from being swept away; most cost $17 to $25) and some wax (rubbed on the board for traction and to prevent your feet from sliding, typically a buck or two). Down the road, a wet suit ($99 to $400) for cold-water days and a car rack ($80 to $200) are investments worth considering.