Frustrating Fall

Often when we have big surf whipped up by strong local winds I tell people there are a lot of waves, just not a lot of good waves. The same could be said about Fall 2016 in Northeast Florida. If you happened to inquire about surf lessons this fall and we told you that “there’s a lot of wind in the forecast” and that conditions would not be fun, safe, or conducive for learning during your stay you weren’t alone. In fact, with a very uncertain forecast for Hurricane Hermine we cancelled all of our Labor Day weekend surf lessons. Before that we had the swell from Hurricane Gaston arrive simultaneously with persistent onshore wind that created less than optimal surface conditions. We had at least twice as many good teaching days last fall.

The forecast track for Hurricane Matthew was much more reliable but the storm was almost always going to come in too close to produce much in the way of good surf. We at Surf Asylum evacuated Amelia Island on Wednesday to avoid traffic in anticipation of Matthew’s approaching Amelia Island Friday night. The storm needed to be several hundred miles further out to sea to create anything like the surf we saw from last year’s Hurricane Joaquin. If there is a silver lining to this season it’s that even with the constant onshore winds and the close passage of Hurricane Matthew our surfing sandbars have remained remarkably similar and intact. When the swell arrived from Hurricane Nicole, another unfortunate mix of windswell and groundswell similar to Gaston, we were still surfing the same spots at the same tides as we were before Matthew’s 20 ft. seas took out sections of both our piers.

It has even been a struggle to schedule surfs with our more advanced students who have been surfing for a year or more. If there was a succinct way for Betsy to describe the 2016 Sisters of the Sea Surf Classic it would be “challenging.” Two of our Fall 2016 First Coast District – Eastern Surfing Association contests were also held in the large choppy surf that has come to typify this season. We start Surf League early because we know the Northeast winds are coming but they usually run on weekly cycles with a few days of calm or offshore winds in between. This fall it feels like onshore winds have been blowing for weeks on end. If you’ve been surfing for a year and you’re fit and confident you can paddle out in these conditions. However, you’ll be learning a lot more about surviving than surfing as you can expect your wave counts to be quite low. It takes about 3 years of being fairly committed to the sport before you start catching many waves in choppy wind swell. I often find myself having to wait anywhere from five to fifteen minutes for a good wave in these conditions.

Fall is still the time when you are most likely to get surfing conditions that match the conventional idea of “good.” On one of the very few decent days this fall a musician from Cape Town (who had been living in Nashville, TN for two years and was in town performing at the Ritz Carlton) paddled up to me and asked “Is Florida always this good!” I had to be honest, by South Africa’s standards the surf in Florida isn’t always this good. At this late juncture we’re looking at maybe two magic days which were glassy but a bit too powerful and steep for learning. During our best fall seasons we get at least a week’s worth of such days. If you’re dedicated to improving your surfing you have to supplement your water time with the windier more chaotic days. If you’re new to the sport our best advice is to take advantage of every available summer morning (before the sea breeze picks up) to build up the paddling strength, endurance, and quickness to your feet required to enjoy the Fernandina Fall surf.

Betsy gets a… shortboard?!

2016 is my ten year ‘Surfaversary’. What is a surfaverasary? Well it’s when you celebrate your relationship with surfing! I even gave myself a surfaversary present. I’ve spent my first decade pretty dedicated to longboarding, telling people who harass me about getting on a shorter board that I’ll move to a smaller board when I master my log. Then I follow that by explaining that I don’t think I’ll ever do such a thing as there is too much to learn and even when you think you have a decent grasp on it, the creativity you can bring into logging never ends. From lines to footwork, where you can go with your longboarding is limitless. Plus, I could talk all day about how beautiful, graceful, and timeless I think logging is.

All of that being said, three things happened over the last year that put a couple of fissures in my rock solid devotion to logging. The first was having some local girls come to Surf Camp, get super stoked on surfing and (mainly due to their stature and definitely NOT because longboarding isn’t the coolest thing around) promptly start riding short boards. Technically I suppose they’re mostly funshapes and midlengths, but still they’re all at least two feet shorter than anything I’ve ever tried to ride. Striving to be the best coach I can be, I wanted to be able to relate better to these girls and their experience in the water. It was easy to talk with them about looking for the peak and determining wave direction, but I couldn’t relate to their struggles with simply paddling into the wave. I would try to paddle with them in an attempt to set a paddling pace, but two strokes on my 9’2 and I was five yards ahead of them on their smaller boards. I started to paddle out on our 7 ft camp board in order to be closer in board size to the girls. And then, to my surprise, I started to have fun on it.

The second thing came about from that Surfaversary gift to surf with the lovely Leah Dawson in Puerto Rico. Leah spent most of her time on a singlefin shortboard, drawing the most beautiful lines and showing me that shortboarding doesn’t have to comply with what the surf media tells us it is. I thought of shortboarding as fast, tight turns with lots of ugly pumping in between sections. Leah showed me that with the right equipment, you can draw really smooth lines on shortboards and get just as creative with your surfing as you can on a longboard. As inspired as I was by Leah on her shortie, I came home and ordered a new, but very traditional longboard, still focused on improving my logging. I’m stoked on my new log, but I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the potential of a smaller board and all the days I could surf that aren’t conducive to longboarding (because we all know that I don’t surf enough already, right?!)

The third and final breakthrough was meeting Justin Laird. I met Justin, of Laird Surf Craft, in the water last year, right around the time that Surf Asylum Surf Camp decided to set up at Log Cabin, basically taking over the spot closest to his house (and shaping room). He was kind enough to let me try one of his displacement hull boards one time which piqued my curiosity about his shaping. I’d never ridden a hull and didn’t appreciate the differences between his longboard and mine until I paddled for a perfect wave, spun out on the take off and lost the board. What was this hull and how did it manage to toss me off on a glassy thigh-high peeler? Justin gave me a couple of pointers and I managed to hang on to a couple of speedy lines, but was more than happy to hand off the board, still trying to wrap my mind around how a board could be SO different than anything I’d ever ridden. Since that day we’ve always taken a few minutes to chat about waves and boards when we see each other out. I knew Justin was making his own boards and was really enthusiastic about the hulls, but recently I had noticed him and some other local surfers on other less traditional shapes, mainly fishes and weird, short, stubby looking things that he was making. That’s when it crossed my mind that Justin might be the guy to make my first shortboard. So I asked him if he was interested. Five minutes later we had a design plan.

A week later I was in his shaping bay, watching him bring my 6’6 Wayne Lynch inspired singlefin (You didn’t think I was going to get one of those potato chip thrusters did you?) to life. He told me before we got started that he believed in positive energy and vibrations and that he felt really good when he was cutting the initial outline of the board. I told him I believed in the same types of things  and watched, mesmerized, as Justin took a barely recognizable chunk of foam and turned it into a functional piece of art. It’s apparent in each stroke of the planer and brush of the sandpaper that Justin is not only really talented, but genuinely loves shaping. He had a smile on his face the whole time, pleased with the harmony between his movements and the resulting shape of the foam. I had a smile on mine reveling in how cool it is when being in the right place with the right people and being open to new experiences can bring about great things.

Justin’s gonna put a cool acid splash on the bottom and the board should be ready for the water soon. Stay tuned for more as I try to chronicle my attempts at learning to ride a (MUCH) smaller board. Deepest thanks to my students and Leah Dawson for the inspiration, to Justin for being genuinely excited to make this board and putting some heart and soul into it, and last, but never least to David for always encouraging and supporting me, wherever surfing take us.

Wetsuit Season Part 2

Once you’ve decided on and purchased a wetsuit you’re going to want to take good care of it so it keeps you warm for as long as possible. There are bargain prices for children’s wetsuits but if you’re a young adult or older you should expect to pay around $200+ for a decent suit. Throughout my two decades of surf wetsuit ownership I’ve learned a lot about what not to do and I can share some of that here:

1) I put my first wetsuit on like a pair of jeans pulling it from the waist or thighs until my feet popped through the leg. The problem with this was that I carved out a trench below the calf area of my wetsuit that eventually wore through into a gaping hole. I learned to push my feet through the legs as far as I could without forcing and then stretch the material over my heel so it wouldn’t dig into the material every time I put it on. (A wet wetsuit can be a lot harder to get into than a dry one).

2) If you change out of your wetsuit or rinse it in the shower don’t use piping hot water. Luke warm is usually okay. Glue and seam tape are just as important as stitching when it comes to how warm your suit is and generally glued and taped seams weren’t designed to hold up to hot water which can melt, crack, or break them down.

3) Unless you have a really broad shouldered hanger like one for a tailored suit or one that came with your wetsuit you shouldn’t hang your wetsuit by the shoulders. I’ve actually even noticed this with rashguards but most standard plastic or metal hangers will cut through the wetsuit material over time just like my heel did. Patagonia recommends doubling your suit over and hanging it at the waist and we’ve adopted this practice for all of Surf Asylum’s wetsuits.

There are a few other things like no direct sunlight or dryers (these cause cracking), don’t leave front zip wetsuits (or any wetsuit for that matter) balled up somewhere, and try to fasten any velcro back up to its proper place when stowing your suit so the hard side of the velcro doesn’t start softening and working away at the neoprene near it.

Creating tight, proper fitting wetsuits that can hold up to being peeled off and on your body on a daily basis is a significant design challenge for the manufacturers and it’s true that in climates where you wear your wetsuit year round you’ll be lucky to get two good years out of it. However, here in Fernandina Beach, FL where you usually only need a wetsuit for less than half of the year, if you surf regularly but take really good care of your wetsuit you might be able to get four years out of it. You might be hoping for a mild winter during that fourth year though.

Wetsuit Season Part 1

Fernandina Beach, FL has some of the most dramatic seasonal shifts in air and water temperatures that I know of. I’m not saying that it get’s particularly cold, just that temps vary widely. In Southern California there is a distinct summer and winter outside but the water temps seem to hover in the 60’s (Fahrenheit) occasionally dipping into the high 50’s or rising into the low 70’s. In a typical year on Amelia Island you can experience everything from water in the low 50’s to brief foray’s into the mid 80’s. This makes it hard to keep the right temperature rated surf wax on your board. It also means that the decision of whether or not you are going to surf through those first few winters becomes a decision about whether or not you want to invest in a decent wetsuit.

This is an even bigger problem for young kids who are still growing. Wetsuits aren’t something you want to “grow into.” A wetsuit that is even just a little too big can take on cold water faster than your body can warm it up, getting flushed everytime you duckdive for instance. A properly fitting wetsuit lets in and retains a small amount of water that is then warmed by your body heat. It will cycle small amounts of water at the neck and cuffs but this should never dramatically reduce the overall temperature of the water the suit has taken in. A little too tight is better than a little loose and kids who might be spending only one season in their suits might look to participate in a hand me down cycle to surf through those early winters.

After fit one of the most important considerations is thickness. Anyone who has been surfing for more than a decade has usually experienced some level of astonishment at how flexible and light neoprene has become. Today’s 4 mm is just as stretchy as yesterdays 3mm. A suit’s thickness is recorded with two numbers, 3:2 or 4:3 for example, where the numbers are thickness in millimeters. It’s a little different for each suit but the smaller number usually represents the panels of the wetsuit that need more flexibility like the ones used in paddling. Your traditional performance wetsuit is a 3:2. However, I’ve chosen to go a little thicker (4:3) in hopes of getting away without having to wear accessories like booties, gloves or a hood. I also hope to get an extra season or two out of my suit since it feels like a little too much for all but the coldest handful of days (or weeks during the harsher winters). I will say that my first session back in the 4:3 after putting it away for the summer is a tough one even with the advances in materials.

Everyone has different tolerance levels for cold water but my general comfort is as below (Fahrenheit):

High 70’s and above – I’m skinning it
Low to Mid 70’s – Skinning it if the weather is nice, springsuit if the weather is cool.
Mid to high 60’s – Springsuit if the weather is nice, fullsuit if the weather is cool.
Low 60’s and below – Fullsuit

These are for comfortable multi hour sessions. If I know I’ll only be out for an hour I can go a little lower on everything (skin it in the high 60’s for example). The closest to realtime estimate for our shoreline water temperatures can be found at the National Data Buoy Center’s Fernandina Buoy Station 41112.

Buying Local

Our 10'2 Rozo log can get anyone up and riding.

David and I do our best to place a priority on shopping local and starting our own business has brought that concept closer to us than ever before. We aren’t selling a locally crafted, handmade good to take home, but we are essentially trying to sell ‘local’ knowledge and greatly appreciate when people choose to use our services over the same service provided by outlets with little to no surfing experience or worse, no respect for the local surfing community.

As we were planning out our business, one of the biggest decisions was deciding what type of boards we would use for our lessons and camps. It seems that most camps use either cheap soft tops or epoxy boards, so we went to the internet to see what kind of prices we were looking at to round out our quiver. There was a little bit of sticker shock as some of these factory produced boards might be cheap to produce, but carried price tags almost equal to what we pay our respective shapers.

Local shapes ready for a day's work.

That quickly led to the realization that neither of us would ever recommend to a customer that they invest in one of these boards. Aside from their cheap construction, our concern for the environmental impact of long distance shipping and taking away work from local shapers, these boards are virtually functionless once someone has learned to pop up and ride straight into the beach. They are designed as one size fits all and therefore must simply be as buoyant as possible in order to float both children and adults. They have virtually no design elements other than length and girth. The rails are typically a flat, hard edge, essentially impossible to turn and the bottoms have no contour to speak of. (Eleven custom boards later, when I’m placing a personal order, Rozo and I spend more time talking about the bottom of my boards than any other feature.)

Surf Asylum is now proud to say that we use a mix of custom Rozo and Whisnant shapes for private surf lessons and summer camp. We know from experience with other camps and volunteer events that our boards are no less safe than soft tops or epoxy (if you’ve ever been hit with one of those boards you know what I’m talking about). We also feel that we are providing an experience to know what real surfboards, handcrafted for NE Florida conditions, feel like on a wave for our clients . We’re able to point out design features that customers might want to look for when shopping for their own board. We’re also able to let students experiment with a variety of boards in various shapes and sizes. Best of all, we built on our existing relationships by continuing to support talented local shapers and have a selection of boards filled with years of shaping experience, plus a little heart and soul.

Mac, taking one to the beach on a Whisnant funshape. Photo: Kari Kenner, GoWaxhead.com

Interested in having your own custom board shaped? Contact Rozo or Whisnant Surfboards and tell them Surf Asylum sent you.

Small Poems on Small Waves

Relaxing, NE Florida Surf

On one hand, the last two days weren’t much to talk about. The waves were small and the water still chilly. The sun was overhead though and it felt good to stretch out on my board, relaxed, taking in the reflection of the green ocean and the occasional glassy face of a wave. I was done with winter before it began and think of these days as little treasures, gifts conspired by the air and sea to remind us that spring is near. While the faces of larger waves are like giant canvases, begging for big and impressive strokes of genius,  small waves beg for something different. They ask for patience and creativity. They want you to slow down and get playful.

These small waves, big on beauty, inspired me to want to see how much meaning I could fit into the least amount of words.  Haiku’s seemed a perfect fit.

Casual. North Florida Surfing

sit up on my board
the horizon shimmers calm
stories in water

Chill. Northeast Florida Surfing.

unexpected peak
deep breath and determined strokes
feet dig into wax

Small wave. Northeast Florida Surfing.

right foot crosses left
the nose rises as toes wrap
dancing on water

Loose. Northeast Florida Surfing.

 

 

 

 

Foam Canvas

Stripes versus circles. Mint and grey versus teal and black.  Once I’ve got the dimensions (9’2, 18,23,15 for the curious) of a new board hammered out, my mind immediately goes into overdrive working on the graphics. One bonus of working with a local shaper (Have I ever mentioned how much I love Rozo?!) is the opportunity to put a personal touch on the board by painting it myself.

I see a lot of great art on boards that’s been applied over the glass with paint markers, but Rozo allows surfers the privilege of painting directly on the foam. I prefer this method as the work is protected underneath the glass and there is no way I would have the patience to paint a board that’s glassed and ready to surf!

I love adding such a personal touch to my boards.

I had been playing with the idea of a butterfly over the past couple of boards I’ve gotten, but was too worried about getting the scale right and happy enough with some other designs I came up with. This time, after sketching out five or six other ideas with no satisfaction, I knew it was time to go for the butterfly. David’s childhood butterfly collection came in handy for viewing a few different species up close.

Even after deciding on a design and having it fully sketched out on paper, I try to give myself a few days to commit  (it’s permanent afterall.)

Inspiration from David's childhood butterfly collection and my design sketch.

If I’m doing  something fairly abstract I’ll  usually freehand the design onto the board or, if I’m doing something like stripes, I’ll use painters tape to keep things exact. With this latest idea, I was still concerned about getting the scale right, so I went as far as to draw and cut out a stencil on posterboard.

The stencil made this design SO much easier to put on.

Rozo’s got dozens and dozens of bottles of cheap, acrylic craft paint at his shop, but I’m picky about colors so I pick up my own from Michaels, along with a few brushes and a paint marker.

I'm ready to get to work!

The simplest of designs can sometimes take a couple of hours and this one took me a little over three with David helping where he could. Rushing is where I’ll end up making a mistake, so I try to schedule the painting sessions for times when the shaping bay isn’t being used.

Even just a pencil mark on your bright white, freshly shaped board can be scary.

Foam is different than canvas, paper, wood and so on. It will grab the paint and soak it in, making it difficult to brush on with regular strokes. Saturating the brush with the paint makes it go on a little smoother.

Surfboard painting, though daunting, can also be therapeutic.

I use the larger brushes to get the bulk of the color on and go behind with the tip of the foam brushes to trim out the edges.

Trimming out the edges takes me awhile.

I finish a lot of my work by tracing the entire outline with a black paint marker. It’s a style and technique that I’ve sort of used to personalize my designs, but it also tightens up any slightly messy edges and, in my opinion, makes the piece “pop.”

That white line around the lower wing will disappear as I outline with the black marker.

One of the biggest challenges is staying aware. Resting an arm or a wrist down in wet paint or accidentally brushing myself along the rails  is easy if I’m not paying attention and usually leads to either smearing or getting paint somewhere it wasn’t intended.

I’ve made enough mistakes doing my boards to know not to panic if something goes wrong. If a slip of the hand results in a small mistake, let the area dry and paint over it. If paint gets on a part of the board it wasn’t intended, it can usually be covered up with bright white. Mistakes that seemingly can’t be fixed have to be shrugged off. The best part about painting a board is adding  character to it. What’s the worst that could happen? I always tell myself if something turns out really awful, I can always paint the whole thing black. Kidding!! ::knocks on wood::

I balanced out the boldness of the butterfly's color with some greys and greens coming up from the tail.

This lovey is finished and ready for glassing.

Ellie Jean, ready to fly over to the glassing room. What, you guys don’t name your surfboards?