Surfing didn't become popular in the United States until the 1950s, when the very light fiberglass-covered foam boards were commercially produced. Before that, surfboards were extremely heavy wooden things that required a Charles Atlas-type physique to carry them to the water.
Surfing exploded into pop culture with the production of several silver screen movies that spread the “cool” factor of the surfing lifestyle to all corners of the nation, including Florida.
Surf shops popped up and the surfing culture was born on the islands and beaches of Florida. Teenagers who previously could not be dragged out of bed before 10 a.m. on weekends were up at dawn to check the surf.
Still, surfing was viewed as a sub-culture of youth who refused to conform and it wasn't readily legitimized in mainstream American culture. By the 1970s, when I got involved, surfing had begun to gain popularity as a competitive sport with champions who were promoted and immortalized by surfing magazines and traveling surf movies.
Competitors attracted sponsors, which led to product endorsements and commercialization of surfing. If you'd really like to get a fascinating look at the development of surfing in Florida, a stop at the Cocoa Beach Surf Museum is a must.
Ron Jon, the most famous surf shop in Florida, has helped make surfing more visible to everyone who comes to this state. With over 50,000 square feet of surfing equipment, beach gear and clothing, all open 24/7, you can't miss it as you drive down A1A through Cocoa Beach.
If you aren't near Ron Jon, no problem. Most beach towns have local shops, which are the best source of gear and information on local surf spots.
The Eastern Surfing Association is very active in promoting Florida surfing contests that bring surfers together from all over to compete, share ideas and promote surfing-related products. You might think that Florida's relatively small waves would not produce world-class surfers, but you'd be wrong.
Kelly Slater of Cocoa Beach, winner of multiple world championships, and Cory and Shea Lopez of Indian Rocks Beach on the Gulf coast, both winners of many international surfing championships, all honed their wave-ripping skills in the Florida surf. Not to be outdone by the guys, surfing ladies Frieda Zamba of Flagler Beach, and Lisa Andersen of Ormond Beach both hold multiple contest titles and are world surfing champions. And that's just to name a few.
Waves in Florida
In Florida, weather systems can produce swells that reach our coastline and provide excellent surf. Cold fronts and other wind-causing high or low-pressure weather systems also create surf. Understanding weather patterns is a must for serious surfers.
The vastness of the Atlantic Ocean results in more consistent surf and longer swells than is generally found on the relatively calm Gulf beaches. But don't underestimate the possibilities for finding good surf on the Gulf beaches, particularly in northwest and west central Florida.
You can find surf on most Florida beaches, but certain geographical features, both natural and man-made, create better-than-average waves for surfing. Piers and jetties are by far the most favored locations for surfing. The surf near these structures is usually larger and breaks in a manner more conducive to longer rides.
The top spots are best left to the experienced surfers. New and inexperienced surfers will not be accustomed to the powerful waves. Packs of wave-hungry surfers at the top spots sometimes have little patience with beginners, and that can be intimidating. Don’t worry if you are just starting out; there are plenty of spots and plenty of waves for everyone.
A few of the top spots around the state are:
- St. Andrews State Park Jetty
- Panama City Beach and Pier
- Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier
Advice for beginners: Don't get hung up on finding the “best” waves. Visit a local surf shop and ask for advice on the best places for beginners to practice.
If you are coming to Florida for a few days and are seriously interested in learning to surf, Cocoa Beach simply cannot be beat. It's a very friendly environment for beginners, and it's easy to rent a surfboard for a few hours, for the day, or for the week.
There are plenty of online surf reports with pictures and surf cams that bring images of the beach right into your home.
I learned to surf the hard way—trial and error. Today there are many more resources available for the newbie surfer than there were when I started. That's the good news.
Here's a reality check: You won't become a confident surfer in one day, or even in two days. Good surfing skills take lots of practice and patience. But with good instruction and the proper board, you can learn enough in a few hours to have a lot of fun in small waves.
Florida's Atlantic coast offers some outstanding opportunities to learn how to surf under the instruction of top professionals. Florida Surf Lessons offers surf camps and private instruction in most coastal cities from Cocoa Beach to Miami.
Lauren Tjaden, the VISITFLORIDA Beaches & Adventure Expert, published a great video of her experience learning to surf. Check it out!
In Daytona Beach, Tim Gilley of the Daytona Beach Surfing School offers private lessons and summer surf camps for kids at the Grand Seas Resort. I met Tim while shooting a video for VISITFLORIDA in Daytona Beach and I was impressed with his knowledge and professionalism.
Pick a Surfboard
Picking the right surfboard can be confusing. There are long boards, short boards, boards with multiple fins, soft surfboards, boards of hand-shaped foam and fiberglass, pop-outs (made in a mold) and so on. Generally, the larger the surfboard, the easier it will be to catch waves and to stand up and keep your balance.
Whether you rent or buy your board, talk to the owner of a surf shop in the area you'll be surfing. He or she will help you pick the right surfboard for your needs and budget.
Enough talk. You know you want to try surfing, so just do it! I'll see you out in the lineup.