Tag Archives: Surf Lessons

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.

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.

No Shortage of Female Surfing Role Models

Surf Asylum All Girls Surf Camp, Photo: Stephanie Nichols

While 6 young girls were refining their surfing at the 2015 Surf Asylum “Girls Week” here in Fernandina Beach the World Surf League’s top 17 women were pushing the limits of surfing at the Fiji Pro on the island of Namotu. Our girls showed up on day 1 to a swell that made the front page of surfline, learned to handle 9 – 10 foot surfboards, and contended with jellyfish stings. On the other side of the world Sally Fitzgibbons perforated her ear drum during a wipeout and continued on through three more rounds of the Women’s Fiji Pro to eventually be crowned champion. Watch the final day highlights here. (We borrowed the lunges and sumo squats for our camp’s morning stretch from a video of Sally’s pre-surf routine.)

There’s far too many to name or recognize in one blog post, but we compiled a shortlist of women surfers that we look up to both as incredible surfers and positive role models for young girls. These women represent the many ways in which any girl with enough determination can progress in the sport of surfing.

Rell Sunn – You can’t compile a list of surfing role models without mentioning Rell because women’s surfing wouldn’t be where it is without her influence. Her surfing was the epitome of grace and style, but she was also co-founder of the current women’s pro tour and spread the spirit of aloha everywhere she went.

Leah Dawson – The epitome of “girls just wanna have fun” amongst surf personalities. This video is from the perspective of her surfboard. If we’re not mistaken she’s going on her second summer (southern-hemisphere winter) in Indonesia this year. You can get a better idea of her approach to waves from this video (incredible old school bottom turn at :22)

Courtney Conlogue – Courtney is one of the hardest working, most committed competitive surfers of our time. The surfing above is some of the most playful we’ve seen from her as she’s usually the definition of power. Check out her ‘day in the life’ surfline feature here if you want to know more about her routine.

Paige Alms – You have to LOVE surfing to persevere to the point where you’re ready to attempt the recently pioneered, paddle-in tube rides at Maui’s infamous big wave surf break Jaws. The video above shows Paige’s genuine sense of accomplishment and pure joy.

Sophie Falzone – Sophie is a young, dedicated, competitive surfer from just down the road in Jacksonville. We wanted to share this fun video of one of her trips to Costa Rica so young girls learning to surf in Florida know what they can achieve in a few years if they put their minds to it. Follow along with her at sophiefalzone.com

Let’s Go Surfing!


Betsy at the Coastal Crusaders Beach Clean Up, Main Beach, Fernandina Beach, FL. Photo: Sarah Ashley

One of the moments that David and I have put a lot of energy into the last six months is here. Tomorrow is our first day of summer surf camp and I could not be more excited (with just a touch of nervousness)! Not only is it our first day of camp, but it is also one of two ALL GIRLS weeks of camp. I could not be happier or more proud that David and I have brought this to fruition. The response we have received over these two designated weeks has been overwhelming. I see all of our students as an honor and a privilege, but the opportunity to share surfing, something I credit as both being one of the best things that ever happened to me and a life changer, with young girls is something I will cherish forever. I haven’t even met them and I love them all.

Special Olympics Surf Camp, 2011, Photo Amanda Tapley

In a short essay for Women of Waves 2014, I wrote, “Surfing at once gives me a self confidence I’d always denied, a humbleness as vast as the ocean herself, joy that knows no boundaries and a gratitude for which there are not words.” Confidence, joy and gratitude. If I have one student leave camp at the end of the summer with these feelings, I will consider us a success.

Betsy, prepping for Surf Camp 2015. Photo: Eddie Pitts, 911SurfReport.com

Getting to this point has already brought us some of our own confidences, joys and gratitude. We owe a huge thank you to our friends and family, not one of whom so much as raised an eyebrow, what less crowed, “what are you thinking?!?” when I resigned from my very dependable and even somewhat enjoyable job last fall. The support everyone has shown us over the past eight months has itself boosted our confidence and we are eternally grateful for it. We’ve also gained confidence, and quite a bit of joy, by having the luxury to solely focus on this project. And focus we did. I think I speak for the both of us in saying that we’ve never been more committed to something.

Pools Beach, Puerto Rico, 2015.

We’ve spent months hashing out our camp program. We’ve read guides to surfing, watched innumerable online videos of everything from popping up to duckdiving, we’ve surfed as much as possible ourselves and critiqued our every move and talked about every aspect of surfing, almost every moment of the day. We want to provide the highest quality instruction possible and ensure that every camper has a great time. From the start we realized that we wouldn’t be satisfied simply pushing kids into waves. We are dedicated to creating confident surfers who will be able to assess conditions on their own, handle their own surfboard and select their own waves. We believe that through building their own confidences, students can then enjoy the ocean and ultimately, appreciate what a gift it is to spend time in it.

Now, Let’s Go Surfing!

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.

Looking Back – Puerto Rico

The first time I bought a plane ticket to Puerto Rico, I had only been surfing for a little over a year and my then boyfriend and local North Jetty ripper, Mike, told me I was crazy. He actually told me that over the phone, while he himself was in Puerto Rico with friends and I was home in Florida, wrapped up in sweaters and scarves and still experiencing a slight buzz of excitement over the progress I thought I had made with my surfing over the previous summer and fall.

He thought I was SO crazy and in over my head that he bought his own ticket and ended up being the guide, chauffeur, fish cleaner and board caddy. He was also severely outnumbered as me and three of my girlfriends embarked on a mission to prove ourselves (myself) in the crystal clear waves of Rincon.

Maria’s and Sandy Beach, to the dismay of surfers who have been surfing it for decades, is often crowded with beginners and surf schools and with not much more than a year of surfing behind me, I would have fit right in.

The first place Mike took us to paddle out was Middles. Anyone who’s been to PR or seen any media coverage of the place knows, no matter how confident she appears, Middles is NOT where you take your longboarding girfriend, who enjoyed the luxury of learning to surf on one of the mellowest waves in Florida. Middles is where Rip Curl held the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Search (where Kelly won his 10th World Title), it’s home to some of PR’s best high performance shortboarding and even when it’s small, it breaks fast, in shallow water, over sharp reef. See video evidence:

I didn’t know any better and was determined to prove I was worthy of the trip and to not get accosted by the reef I’d been overly warned about (fire coral?!) and so, jumped right on my board and paddled as fast and as hard as I knew how. There were no giant cold fronts moving off of Canada that week and in turn, no giant swell while we were down there. Instead my girlfriends and I traded waves in everything from knee to chest high conditions, really quite nice for my level at the time and our first introduction to reef breaks.

I found Puerto Rico to be the perfect break from North Florida winters, became enamored with reef breaks and ended up going back three years in a row afterward. Aside from escaping the cold, relishing time off of work and taking in the beauty of a tropical island, I found these trips to be tremendously helpful to my surfing. Not having the luxury of being able to go down on a moments notice and instead having to plan my trip out at least a month in advance, I never knew what type of waves I might be greeted with upon arrival and simply crossed my fingers and said a couple of prayers for something rideable.

I’ve been lucky so far and surfed everything from knee high ripples at Maria’s to overhead bombs at Wilderness and everything in between. There is more to surfing well than your performance on a wave and surfing unfamiliar spots with unfamiliar crowds improved my ability to read a line-up, forced me to learn to position myself better and insisted that I take off on some waves I just as well would have backed out of. I also learned to respect the surfers who call those waves home and how much could be learned through sitting back and watching, where they entered the line-up, their take off spot and the lines they drew. More than anything else, those previous trips to PR boosted my confidence. I was able to bring that back with me and apply it to my surfing at home, taking off deeper, attempting bigger turns and daring to begin my journey into noseriding.

It’s been four years since my last trip to PR, opting recently for California and Costa instead, but I’ll be heading back down next week and while I still have plenty of room for improvement, I think it’s safe to say that I’m a better surfer now than I was then. I’m looking forward to saying goodbye to winter and hello to the warm waters and tropical vibes of Isla del Encanto and I’m excited to see where this trip could take my surfing. I’ll be taking plenty of pictures and posting some recaps and highlights of my time there in the upcoming weeks. I know a lot of other Florida surfers head that way this time of year, so if you’re one of them, let me know. If you’ve got a favorite Puerto Rico story or memory, I’d love to hear that too! You can leave it in the comments below or email me at betsy@surf-asylum.com.

Wonder what the waves are doing in Puerto Rico? 

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