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Ivan-generated swell siren song to surfers

Like many Floridians trying to make it through the most destructive hurricane season on record, I find myself hopelessly addicted to the Weather Channel.

Ten minutes before the hour, I turn on the television to get the most recent information on the latest threat to the Sunshine State.

But my interest goes beyond making sure I am taking the necessary steps to protect my family and property.

Take Ivan, for example. This time last week, I was busy gathering plywood and other hurricane supplies in case the storm took an easterly track. But by Monday, when it was clear it was heading toward the Panhandle, I switched gears.

Do I have wax for my surfboard? Where's my leash? What if the swell arrives before I finish the Friday Outdoors page?

Some of you, the nonsurfing majority, may consider it offensively shallow to be thinking of surfing when a Category 4 storm is bearing down on my brethren. And there are those who may think it insane to consider surfing hurricane-generated waves under any circumstance.

If so, consider yourselves lucky.

For surfing is without doubt an addiction. Once you have tried it, you will be hard-pressed to give it up.

In Caught Inside, the most insightful view into the psyche of surfing, author Daniel Duane encounters a man's son who has just caught his first real wave. The boy lets out a yell that comes deep from inside his primordial self.

"Forget it," another surfer tells the man. "He'll never be president."

True. No diehard surfer has been elected president of the United States. With that in mind, those betting on the upcoming election may want to remember that board sailor John Kerry recently added kite surfing to his waterman resume. As a result, will the Massachusetts senator be more interested in catching big air during then next nor'easter than sucking up to the fat cats who run things in Washington?

Local legend Pete "Style Daddy" Lopez, father of Pinellas County's only two professional surfers, said it best when he coined the "6 foot and glassy rule."

"It doesn't matter what is going on, a wedding, a kid's play, whatever," he said. "The waves are 6 foot and glassy, life gets put on hold."

That is exactly what happened last week on Florida's west coast. Doctors canceled appointments, lawyers rescheduled depositions and students called in sick when Ivan delivered three days of the best surfing since Hurricane Georges cut a similar path through the Gulf of Mexico in 1998.

Sunset Beach was surfing central, which will prove a boon to Treasure Island. The city's Police Department was vigilant in handing out parking tickets. But given the choice of leaving the lineup to feed the meter or staying to enjoy some tasty waves, most surfers would choose the latter.

Hurricane surfer is a right of passage. There were men, women and children ripping, shredding and walking the nose in Ivan's wake.

I made sure my 3-year-old, Kai (the name means "ocean" in Hawaiian) caught his first hurricane swell. Now before you get up in arms and report me to the Department of Children and Family Services, let me explain.

We were riding a 12-foot, soft-top tandem board with a rubber-coated fin. He wore his Scooby Doo life jacket, which was attached to my arm with a surf leash. We rode the foamies for a while until he pleaded to take him outside "with the big boys."

The wave was small by most standards, waist high at best, but to a 3-year-old it must have seemed like a mountain. We rode it to shore, and my son was greeted by cheers from the crowd gathered on the beach.

"Let's do it again," he said, not wanting to go.

We would, I assured him, knowing that as long as there are tropical storms, there will be surfers to ride their waves.