Wednesday, March 21, 2018
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Cocoa Beach surf school shares lessons on riding waves and life


The surf board was beneath me and all I had to do was stand up on both feet and ride a wave. I'd pushed aside my fear of sharks and sting rays. I'd forgotten that a few minutes earlier, I'd fallen in 3 inches of water and come away with a bloody knee.

I'd come with half a dozen other moms to learn surfing with our tween/teen daughters. The daughters were flying. The moms, well, we were trying.

I turned and noticed another mom and her 10-year-old daughter, both standing upright on their surf boards, riding about 8 feet apart, smiling at each other. The mom pumped her fist in the air. That was the mother-daughter surfing pinnacle right there.

And then it began to sprinkle.

Surf instructor Brian Walton squinted at the sooty clouds coming from the south.

"One more," he said. Everyone could ride one more wave before the thunderstorms arrived.

"Ready?" asked Brian, giving my surf board a giant shove onto a rolling swell. "Okay, here you go. POP UP. NOW!"

Surfing in Florida

Florida is not known for its killer waves, but if you're going to learn to surf here, Cocoa Beach is the place to go. One of the world's best surfers, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, who's surfed giant waves in Hawaii, California and Australia, hails from Cocoa Beach.

Florida's modest waves will never compete with those in the Pacific Ocean. But in the fall, surfers can see swells up to 3 or 4 feet, more if a nor'easter or hurricane stirs up the Atlantic. The best waves lap Florida's East Coast between October and February. Prime surf spots include New Smyrna Beach, Ponce Inlet, Sebastian, Jacksonville Beach and, of course, Cocoa Beach, home of the celebrated Ron Jon Surf Shop, which occupies an entire block. In New Smyrna Beach, the Red Dog Surf Shop serves as a home base for surfers.

The Florida State Surfing Championships will be held at Jacksonville Beach Oct. 10-13. Through Jan. 20, the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville features a surfing-related exhibition, "Surfing Florida: A Photographic History" and "Surf Science: Waves and Wildlife."

Here in Tampa Bay, the waves have all the oomph of a chocolate fondue fountain — unless a cold front or a hurricane threatens. If winds are out of the northwest, you might see a little surfing action in Sand Key. And if winds are out of the west-southwest, there's a spot at Sunset Beach that offers some light swells.

In the meantime, lots of Tampa Bay residents head to Cocoa Beach.

Surfing pipeline

You probably have someone in your life like Stephanie Massey. She went from barely exercising at all to paddle boarding, then running, then spinning, then swimming. Before long, she was posting pictures of herself on Facebook at the finish line of a half marathon. In January, she's planning to run a full marathon.

We met through our daughters. So when she invited me to go surfing, I thought she meant that my daughter would go surfing and I would sit on the beach and watch, maybe take a few pictures. But Stephanie had signed me up to surf for three hours.

Our surf instructors were 28-year-old twins, Brian and Brad Walton, and some of their expert surfing friends. Stephanie, 33, had learned of them from Joanna Braddock, manager of the Suncoast Surf Shop in Treasure Island. Brian had taught Joanna's three kids to surf and so she'd sent hundreds of Tampa Bay residents and visitors his way over the years.

"He was amazing with the kids, someone you want your daughter to bring to dinner," Braddock said.

Stephanie and her daughter, Madison, 14, surfed with the twins a year ago June. This past summer, they returned eight times with surfing novices in tow. By summer's end, they'd brought more than 80 people, most of them from Tampa Bay, for Brian's surf clinics.

The popup

I have never really yearned to surf. It just seemed . . . out of reach. Definitely not something you would tackle at 49.

But Stephanie was slightly insistent and I was slightly interested, so there I stood one Sunday morning in August in the powdery sand in front of the Lori Wilson Beach Park with a dozen other moms and daughters.

Brian, who runs the South Street Surf School, pointed toward the ocean.

I saw a giant tanker in the distance. Closer in, large glistening waves steamrollered toward us, crashing into pools of roiling foam.

Brian saw it all differently. He pointed out choppy waves rolling in diagonally, 1 to 2 feet in height, crashing into each other.

"They're disorganized and hard to read," he explained.

In other words, it was messy out there — not the best conditions for beginners.

But Cocoa Beach, he said, widely considered the East Coast surf capital, is one of the most ideal places for teaching someone to surf. Its sandy bottom descends gradually, allowing the waves to break farther out and giving beginners a "nice, long ride" to shore.

The twins and their helpers had laid out more than a dozen wide foam boards on the beach. (Board rental was included in the price.) They'd obtained our weights in advance and provided an appropriate board for each student.

Brian had us lie facedown on the boards with our feet dangling off the end. He instructed me to bring my right foot up to my left knee.

At his command, I used my right foot and my arms to push up in unison, simultaneously pushing my left foot forward. In theory, I was supposed to pop up — without using my knees at all — into a semilunge position.

"Put all your weight on your front foot," he said. "That's your tree trunk."

Soon we took to the surf, where I found it difficult in the choppy waves to hop up on the board. I quickly slipped off the side as I tried to lift myself up.

I dragged the board back through the crashing waves, hopped up again. Brian gave my board a shove, and this time, I got up but I rode the wave on my knees before losing my balance. And so it went, over and over. My strength was waning, and I realized that more than an hour had passed and I hadn't said a word to anyone.

We were all working in our own space, up and down, up and down, the sound of crashing waves all around us. No time to talk or laugh or pay attention to each other. Surfing is a solitary sport.

When we took a break, Lori Jerger, 36, of St. Petersburg, plopped her surf board down in the sand. She'd managed to catch some waves but acknowledged it hadn't been easy.

She was done. "I kind of just want to watch them," she said, nodding toward her daughters, Ellie, 7, and Ruthie, 13. Ellie leaped into her arms, a giant smile on her face. Lightweight with great balance, she'd caught on quicker than most.

Surfing. And life.

The final wave I rode was a doozy. It picked me up and somehow — I either kneeled first and then stood or some mixture of that — I got up to a standing position. But I did not have my weight on my front foot and I was not balanced. And so I rode the wave for three or four seconds and then I felt myself falling back.

Perhaps if I lifted weights, built up some arm strength, I could do this.

I emerged in time to see my 15-year-old daughter ride her final wave of the day.

The sky overhead was dark gray, the waves getting higher. She was about 15 feet away. She hopped up like she'd done it a hundred times. She rode that wave into the shore, forging her own path, tentative but secure.

Surfing, it seems, parallels life.

Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or [email protected]

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