Sand Key Park has never had the crowds like its neighbor to the north, Clearwater Beach. The 95-acre patch of beach paradise is quiet, laid-back and popular with locals looking for a little waterfront serenity.
But when the north wind blows and the sky turns gray, the sunbathers head home and "The Key" is transformed. Surfers — some young, some old — come from all over the Tampa Bay area to catch what many consider the finest waves on the west coast of Florida.
"It is usually cold and nasty when we are out there," said Steve Kepler, the 49-year-old father of two from Belleair who has been a Sand Key regular since it opened to surfers in the mid 1990s. "Golfers have the country club. Us surfers, we've got the Key."
Sand Key joined the Pinellas County park system in 1984. For about a decade, surfers would watch in awe as the near-perfect beach break rolled off the jetty at Clearwater Pass.
"For years nobody could surf out there," said Skip Maxwell, a former Clearwater Beach lifeguard who sat many a cold winter day at Sand Key. "As lifeguards, we would go out and train out in the surf on our paddleboards, catch a wave now and then, but for everybody else it was off limits."
On most beaches, officials try to keep swimmers and any hard-bodied object — be it a surfboard or skimboard — a far distance apart. But on Sand Key's best surfing days, the beach was usually deserted, except for the occasional shell collector or treasure hunter with a metal detector.
So Maxwell and some friends from the Suncoast Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation appealed the "no surfing" rule to the county. County officials agreed to lift the ban in the mid 1990s, and crowds of surfers soon followed.
"Whenever we have a strong cold front and the wind really blows, that wave just grinds off the jetty," said Maxwell, 39, who owns Double Barrel Surf Shop on Mandalay Avenue in Clearwater Beach. "You don't see it too often, but when the conditions are right, it is a real sweet little peak."
During the summer months, tropical storms bring hordes of weekend warriors to Sand Key hoping to catch a few waves. But only a dedicated few still paddle out when the temperature hovers just above freezing.
The key to catching a winter swell is keeping an eye on the weather report. A strong low-pressure system creates wind, and wind creates waves. Surfers can expect the average winter to produce 10 to 20 wind-driven cold fronts, and each one may kick up two to three days of waist- to sometimes-chest-high, ridable waves.
If the wind blows 20 to 30 mph for more than a few hours, waves start peeling around the jetty on the south side of Clearwater Pass and surfers head to Sand Key.
Unlike most of the other places locals surf — and there are dozens of "secret" surf spots from Anclote Key to Fort De Soto — Sand Key has no longshore current sweeping surfers down the beach.
"When you surf other spots, you always have to paddle to stay in place," said Brandon Fraley, 31, a team rider for Double Barrel. "You catch one ride then find yourself 100 yards down the beach."
The jetty at Sand Key effectively blocks the current that runs north to south, so surfers can literally line up and catch wave after wave.
Kids and crowds
But Sand Key's popularity could also be its downfall.
Donovan Burns, a 38-year-old Clearwater Beach lifeguard and former surfboard shaper, has been catching rides at Sand Key longer than most.
"My dad dropped me off there one winter day when I was 10, back before it was even a park," he said. "I surfed all day by myself. … It was kind of spooky."
Over the years, Burns has watched the crowds grow and, at times, has thought about abandoning his favorite winter surf spot.
"It has gotten downright dangerous," Burns said. "There are too many inexperienced surfers out there. They don't know the etiquette. They don't have any respect for the veterans. Sand Key isn't a place to learn to surf."
Fraley, one of the Key's standout surfers, echoed Burns' sentiments.
"If you are just starting out, go somewhere else," said Fraley, who also added, "The wave breaks close to the beach, so this is actually a good place to come watch surfers."
Double Barrel's Maxwell said he encourages young surfers to watch and learn from the veterans.
"Right now, everybody and their brother goes to Sand Key," he said. "But if you are a novice or intermediate, surf someplace a little less crowded. If you have to paddle out at Sand Key, stay off to the side, away from the peak. Be courteous and patient. You'll get a chance."