Southern Surf Towns
By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of Ryan Osmond and Surfers Healing
Finding the right wave can be easy when you learn to hang 10 at one of the South’s many surfing schools.
The quintessential ingredients for a beach day are sun, sand and surf. Sun’s easy – spread out your blanket, apply little sunscreen and lie down. Sand’s easy too – it’s all around you. Surf is a different story. Most of us wade and play, splash a little, maybe try our hand at riding a wave on a boogie board we bought three seasons ago or on a raft that requires 20 minutes of hyperventilation to inflate.
We’re doing it all wrong, and that means we’re leaving a lot – maybe a lifetime – of beach fun on the table, but that’s an easy thing to change.
Picture the beach. An expanse of sand dotted with umbrellas and blankets, gulls cry overhead, waves crash just a few yards away. Of all the people there, who’s having the most fun? Could be the toddler in slack jawed awe, finding wonder in each shell. Could be the kid finally old enough and bold enough to dive under the breakers and scream with delight as another wave crashes over him. But kids aside, the next group has to be surfers. And since there’s no way to restore adults to the joyful fearlessness of youth, surfing is where we must turn.
Surfers stand on the shore in a certain way, read the waves, make silent decisions. Their confident entry into the water and calm paddle out is the epitome of cool. Their nonchalance about harnessing the swell and thrust of the wave is as enviable today as it was when The Beach Boys exposed so many of us to the sport and lifestyle.
Think it’s out of reach to learn to surf? Don’t be a bummer – there’s time for adults to learn and time for kids to find a lifelong passion. After a few lessons with a qualified instructor, you’ll be ready to try a few waves on your own.
Along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico are surf camps, intense day-long lessons, and clinics designed to get you on the water for the first time or build on intermediate knowledge or prepare experienced surfers for competitions. There are camps for kids, women-only camps, one-on-one lessons with former pros, multi-board camps and too many to name.
And they all have a few things in common as they prepare you to ride your first wave.
You’ll start your lessons on the sand, learning the parts of the board, and the basics of paddling out and standing up on your board. After some practice and review, you’ll talk waves – how to read them, how to catch them, what to do when you’re standing up – and get in the water. From here, techniques vary by instructor. Their own surf styles, the way they teach and other factors determine the direction of your lessons. You may paddle out and ride in on your belly or knees to get the feel of the wave’s motion and energy, or you may start off attempting to get to your feet and ride right away.
Gene Gore, who, along with his wife, Rachel, runs South Padre Surf Company on South Padre Island, Texas, (which just happens to be the first surf school in the Lone Star State) has surfing in his blood. He and Rachel started teaching in 1995, were married on surfboards and have had their two kids – now teens – in the water their entire lives.
At South Padre Surf Company, they teach year-round, and Gore says, “We see people from all over the country and the world. We teach toddlers on tiny waves; we teach grandmothers and entire families.”
He adds, “[You’ll] learn to surf quickly, safely and easily here” thanks to waves in the 3-to-6-foot range and with water temperatures in the 80s.
Trip Forman of REAL Watersports in (aptly named) Waves, North Carolina, on Cape Hatteras in the famed Outer Banks, says they keep classes small, typically one-on-one or a very small group, so instructors can deliver personalized direction that helps beginners get up sooner and allows experienced surfers to focus on honing their skills for competition and personal satisfaction.
“There’s a lot to learn in surfing,” says Forman. “Reading waves, understanding how wind and weather affect the day, knowing proper etiquette in the lineup. We find that our individualized approach is very effective.”
The lineup, he explains, is the group of surfers bobbing on their boards waiting for a wave.
REAL started small but now includes a whole watersports campus where visitors will find a retail store and rental shop, a restaurant and accommodations – an entire watersports paradise. With their multi-board approach – they offer lessons and rentals for surfing, standup paddleboarding, the new sport of foiling (picture a surfboard-hydrofoil hybrid) and kiteboarding – they’re in the water no matter the conditions. Cape Hatteras, incidentally, is one of the best spots on earth to try kiteboarding.
On the Outer Banks there’re one of many places to learn to surf. Kitty Hawk Kites provides innumerable lessons throughout summer. OBX Surf School has expert instructors in the water daily. And a half dozen more camps and instructors line the shores.
Further down the North Carolina Coast, WB Surf School serves Wrightsville Beach visitors and locals who want to learn. Indo-Jax Surf School holds classes and camps at a number of area beaches. Tony Silvangi Surf School brings in Tony’s pro-circuit knowledge and skill sets to the waters off Carolina Beach. Then groups like Ocean Cure and Surfers Healing help get kids with physical and mental limitations into the sport at least for a day or two. In South Carolina, Warrior Surf Foundation continues the theme of good work by helping veterans heal and learn to love the ocean in one fell swoop.
Continue south to Georgia where Tybee Surf School gets scores of surfers on their first waves every year.
Surf schools are a dime a dozen in Florida, a state that is almost all coast. Surfin’ NSB (as in New Smyrna Beach) carries on the town’s long tradition of wave riding. In Panama City, Mr. Surf hold Mr. Surf’s Surf and Paddle Camp.
The Florida Surf Association has a one-day event – the Super Grom Surf Fest – that inspires the youngest kids to get on a board. They also work with Special Olympians and Silent Surfers, a clinic for deaf and blind youth. In addition to these clinics, they hold weeklong camps throughout summer.
Director Paul West says of their charity work, “How blessed are we to get to be in the ocean and do what we do? Of course we give back.”
Blessed indeed. And when you’re out in the lineup, bobbing in the waves, watching for the perfect one to come along – all because you decided this was the summer to learn to surf – you’ll feel that sense of awe too.