LOOKING WEST a story by Jeff Neely

For residents of Huntington Beach or the North Shore, surf culture is surely as pervasive as the sea air itself. But for Florida surfers living on the Gulf of Mexico, a real scene to call their own has been a long time lacking. Not only has mainstream surf industry largely overlooked the other side of the Sunshine State, but also local surfers themselves have for the most part been relegated to an underground scattering of ununified tribes. The influence of surfing on the Gulf coast has historically had such low impact that even many residents are unaware that people surf here. The common perception seems to be, "You mean there's waves on the Gulf?" Well, it's not exactly Indonesia, but Florida's Gulf coast does give enough of a taste of surf to keep local surfers hungry for more.

"We fly pretty low undercover here because there's not that many days of waves," says Indian Rocks Beach hometown professional hero Cory Lopez. "On the scummy days when we're out surfing I guess most people are sitting at home because it's cold and nasty out. We're out there stoked because there's a storm for us to surf."
Perhaps the defining drive of surfers on the Gulf coast is that they have made up their mind to do what it takes to surf. When there are waves at home they know they have to be on it. It doesn't matter if it's knee-high and wind-blown; waves have come to the Gulf and they're right down the street. Locals learn to milk these waves for all they're worth. And when the local beach break does come head-high and glassy, they know it's more than just good conditions - it's as good as it gets and the substance of Gulf coasters' dreams. This is perhaps why Cory and his brother Shea Lopez have been able to do so well in capturing contest points on the professional circuit. Trying to get three maneuvers out of a Gulf coast wave is a challenge and sometimes downright impossible. It certainly isn't going to be done with a passive approach and it's why many west Florida surfers have a rip and ask questions later attitude.

The idea of a groundswell on the Gulf is roughly equivalent to three cherries at the slots. Most surf for western Florida comes in the form of a chilly winter cold-front windswell with short, sloppy, choppy mushburgers; stiff on-shores and a formidable drift. Even then, you have to be on top of it to find anything ridable. Only a handful of beaches break - some only on a north swell and others only on a south swell. There might be waves to surf at sunrise, but if you wait until lunchtime the swell could be gone. Summers are generally flat - really flat. But when a tropical storm happens to form, or a hurricane makes its way in from the Caribbean, surf wax becomes worth its weight in gold and mainstream employers quickly find themselves short-handed.

"Some of the hurricanes will produce good waves and we get our fun days," says Lopez. "Actually our spots break really good for the sizes that they are. We get some nice powerful little waves that you can have good times on."

Near St. Pete Beach during Hurricane Ivan

If the reaction from local residents to surfers in their midst is surprise, then the attitude of the international surf community can only be described as astonishment. At least this used to be the case. When Cory and Shea first made it onto the ASP World Tour, a new light began to shine on the Gulf. "People were so amazed that we were able to do what we do coming from where we're from," says Cory. "There's only maybe two months of waves here a year, and those aren't really the highest quality days." With the Lopez brothers both being top-ranked tour contenders and the only siblings in surfing history to both win the U.S. Open of Surfing, the world's largest competitive surfing event, the industry has had to stand up and take notice that there's real potential in guys coming off the Gulf.

Cory and Shea's success has in no small part been due to their father, Pete Lopez - himself an avid surfer and pioneer of the sport on the Gulf. "It's a great place to learn to surf," says Cory. "Most of the year the water's warm and you get a lot of small days. When you're just a little kid, it's perfect to learn on and get the fundamentals going." Both brothers started surfing at a very young age because of their father's love for the sport. But neither of them would have made it so far had it not been for their countless hours traveling. Along with surf trips to the some of the best breaks in the world, almost every weekend Pete would drive his sons three hours across the state to surf the east coast.

Gulf coast surfers can't help but often envy their brothers on the other side of the state. Part of the experience of being a surfer on the Gulf is taking ritual journeys to the Atlantic. With a real ocean to send solid swell, Florida's east coast generally sees waves that are bigger, cleaner and more consistent than any average day back home. If a grom from the Gulf has dreams to get good, he'll arrive at his coming of age with a collection of memories from tired, red-eye, early-morning road-trips with his friends, and even more tired, sandy, surfed-out returns home. These are the experiences that identify a Gulf coast surfer as part of his tribe.

The notion of a cohesive surf scene on the Gulf is one that even local surfers themselves seem just now starting to recognize. In the past, the surf community was characterized by a collection of disconnected groups of surfers in different towns. There was a Clearwater crew, and Indian Rocks Beach crew, a St. Pete crew, a Sarasota crew, a Venice crew, but there was no scene.

"When I grew up we had no surf culture in the area whatsoever," says 36-year-old Greg Agerskov, veteran of gulf coast surfing and owner of the Surf Shack in St. Pete Beach. "There was nothing to bring everyone together." He says this is something he is trying to change. When Greg and his wife, Robyn opened the Surf Shack in February 2004, they wanted it to be more than just another surf shop. They wanted it to be a place where kids could come and hang out. "I wanted to do something for the groms and really make it a kid-friendly kind of shop," Greg says.

The idea seems to have caught on as most of their weekends are filled with local surf-stoked kids gathered on the back patio of the shop watching videos and scarfing down Mama Robyn's cooking. Outside in the parking lot, a skateboard ramp is an invitation for kids to stay occupied when the Gulf is flat and practice their skills to take back into water when the waves come. In the back room, still more local groms are surfing the web for reports, forecasts, and pictures to see if the east coast might be going off. If the Gulf happens to have some skim breaking on the beach, the crew will drop in and out between skimboarding sessions. The Surf Shack sponsors their own surf, skate and skim teams and gives them 20 percent off all merchandise in the store.

Along with supporting the kids, the Surf Shack staff also works to get local surfers involved in helping their community. They have spearheaded two volunteer beach cleanups and are quickly planning a third. They have rallied local businesses and national surf companies to donate merchandise for fundraising raffles. They raised close to $1,000 to support Red Cross relief efforts for victims of last year's hurricanes, and they have also gathered funds to contribute to SurfAid International's support of the tsunami victims. "It's just what we want to be about," says Surf Shack manager Barry Morse. "We're just trying to give back to the community in a positive way."

While Gulf coast surfers are ready to lend a helping hand, they're just as eager when it comes time to party. In addition to hosting showings of surf videos at the local theater, the Surf Shack has helped to sponsor events like the video premiere party of The Puerto Rico Files, a project by the local production company, Hatfield Enterprises. Characteristic of the scene on the Gulf, Hatfield grew out of a group of friends just surfing and having fun. Now they are throwing massive dodgeball parties at local nightclubs, making full-length videos and sponsoring professional riders like Timmy Reyes and Nick Guilarte. Hatfield video producer, Dustin Howard says he's starting to see the Gulf coast surf culture come into it's own. "It's kind of silent but it's getting woken up right now," says Dustin. "And it's starting to become really big." Dustin says he is enjoys surf videography because it provides a way to document the development of his local surf culture. "We've personified the surf community," says Dustin. "We've given it a face."

Cory Lopez and his girl friend hanging with Dustin Howard from Hatfield,
Mike Young and Jah Surf at Boomerz nightclub in Seminole

When Cory Lopez is home, he spends a lot of time with Dustin and the rest of the Hatfield family. One of their favorite places to chill is Pajano's Pizza on Gulf Boulevard in Indian Rocks Beach, where fellow surfer and friend Nick Faraone helps run the shop with his dad. Cory has on occasion been known to bring other pros like Kelly Slater by to say hello as well. When the Gulf is up, a day in the life of these locals might consist of traveling south to Bradenton in the morning to surf, coming back to Indian Rocks for lunch at Pajano's, an afternoon session across the street at Twelfth Avenue, and then heading to Boomer'z Boiler Room that night in Seminole to hear their friends' band, Crooked Edge, play.

While the growth of the Gulf coast surf culture has been essentially organic, there's no denying that a little high-tech help has contributed. With the advent of the Internet, two major websites, Aura Surf and Gulfster.com, have arisen to highlight surfing on the Gulf. These sites have provided a sort of cyber-meeting-place for local surfers. "It helps to get everybody excited and more stoked on surfing," Cory says. "They get to see they're pictures in there and see what spots were good because they're getting photos from different spots all over the Gulf."

Aura Surf founder Micah Weaver says the Internet made a genuine culture more accessible to surfers on the Gulf. His site provides daily surf reports and forecasts, as well as merchandise like cd's, videos, clothing and even custom shaped surfboards available to buy. In addition, Aura Surf posts extensive feature stories about expeditions to various international surf spots and detailed articles about local surfing in St. Petersburg. "I wanted people to know the Gulf coast had good waves and good surfers," says Micah. "Plus, I always wanted to be a weatherman."

Micah Weaver Aurasurf.com

Micah says one of the advantages of being a surfer on Florida's Gulf coast is that while waves at home might not always be world-class, you're located in a great spot for traveling to places where they are. Using the term loosely he says, "If one ocean's not working you can always go to the other ocean." Of course the Atlantic coast of Florida is the Gulf coast surfer's bread and butter, but with two international airports being less than an hour's drive away, surf vacations to Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Costa Rica and other spots in the Caribbean and South America can be an economic reality.

Pete and Matty Lopez at a Surfshack Beach cleanup

Matty launching the ramp outside of surfshack.

Many Gulf Coast surfers are following in the footsteps of the Lopez brothers and proving competitively that the Gulf coast deserves to be recognized. One of them is their younger brother Matty. In a family that helped to shape the sport of surfing locally and around the world, Matty is proving he certainly got the surfing standout gene as well. Another local standout is Kyle Applefield, who is not only tearing up the Eastern Surfing Association's West Florida District, but also winning competitions on the East Coast. Skip Beach, ESA's West Florida Director says there are a lot of kids coming up on the Gulf coast that are showing a lot of talent. He says the level of support from parents is also greater than he's ever seen before. " I've seen a real rise in the number of parents showing up and staying on the beach in freezing cold weather to watch their kids," says Skip. "That's pretty cool."




Stuff to keep you busy on the gulf when its flat.

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