Photos: DJ Struntz
By Chas Smith
We humans, we surfers, all carry with us many and varied prejudices. We carry them heavy like stones. We think that Newport’s 54th Street has been overrun by cheap, tattooed hipsters who are destroying the soul of surfing. Or we believe that riding a longboard is akin to getting fat and gross. Or we feel that SUPing is akin to admitting total failure in life. Our prejudices become fossilized and they alter where we surf, who we spend time with, the media we consume and how we move through the world. And yet all prejudices have a flip side. A set of beliefs that, equally heavy, prop up the opposing conclusion. That tattooed hipsters are surfing’s new, fresh soul, for instance. That riding a longboard shows the beautiful, lithe fluidity of man and wave becoming one. That SUPing is akin to admitting total failure in life (This is a simple fact, not a prejudice).
I carry my own prejudices and I have carried one, in particular, for as long as I have been aware of surf as its own culture. It is a large stone, with an art deco motif painted teal and orange. It is that Florida is horrible. That Florida is the bane of surfing culture.
I came to this conclusion growing up on the West Coast. California provided the parameters for what was cool. Florida seemed so far away and so weird. Its waves were small. Its pastimes, like fishing and hunting and maybe even being racist, did not match my own. I did not understand Florida and thus I came to loathe Florida.
And then one day, I thought, “OK. Enough. I will go and test my supposition that Florida is the worst state in our union and see if it is found wanting. I will go to the state I hate.” I landed in Orlando and rented a Fiat and I drove through 2,500 miles of swamp, seniors and Cuban expats. I drove through country music radio stations and meringue radio stations. I drove. And surfed. And spent time with real Floridians and experienced first hand the state that I hate. And at times the stone of my prejudice grew larger.
There were so many people in Florida that reinforced my disdain. The wild Cuban refugees in the south that bellow for an attack on an ancient man who lives off their shore. The gun-toting rednecks in the north that bellow for the return of the Confederacy. The grandmas and grandpas in the middle that can’t bellow, because they’ve lost their voices, but whisper for increased Medicare spending. And dispersed throughout this madness are naked men who eat other homeless men’s faces, 92-year-old women who shoot at their neighbors for refusing to kiss them and ice cream shops that use Ku Klux Klans men for mascots. Floridians are off their nuts in a way I have never experienced “crazy” before. It is as if God shook the United States of America and the worst of the weird fell into Florida.
But despite the degenerates, there were people I met in Florida who were as good as the face eaters are bad. People that caused the stone of my prejudice to slowly crack.
Southern hospitality is a cliche as old as drinking mint juleps dressed in seersucker, but my goodness if it ain’t real. Sterling Spencer is an exemplary model. I met Sterling in his hometown of Pensacola, deep in Florida’s Panhandle. The Panhandle, also known as “The Redneck Riviera,” or “Lower Alabama,” is exactly what one would expect.
Sterling met me on the beach as the sun slid down the sky, with an extra surfboard chosen just for me and a smile. I didn’t need his board. I had a fresh …Lost Bottom Feeder. But the thoughtfulness was delightful. Sterling paddled me out into the remnants of Hurricane Isaac and laughed me into some of the best waves of the evening. He introduced me to his friends in the lineup and they all shared with benevolence and stoke.
And beauty spread out all around us. I was shocked, in fact, by how beautiful Florida is. She is a stunner and awesomely swampy. Spanish moss dangles from broad-branched trees sinking their roots into shallow waters. Birds fly low and eat humping bugs called love bugs. I did not picture Florida, entirely, as a swamp, but I like that it is. I like picturing Ponce de León’s men dying of malaria.
After our surf, Sterling and his lovely wife took me out to experience “real cracker action.” They frequented neither of the ramshackle establishments we graced that night and, in fact, it was quite a hassle for them. Old friends still living a high school dream continuously approached them, spitting drunken nonsense into their faces, but they took it all and took it so I could feel genuine Panhandle fun. Later still, when the 3AM hour drew nigh, Sterling’s lovely wife refused to let me drive away and made me the most pleasant guest bed in their neat beach fron ttown house instead.
The following morning I drove off into a humid haze on the way to visit Shea Lopez. I have reason to believe that Shea is not the greatest of “Chas Smith” fans but he reached out, nonetheless, and invited me to the Lopez family reunion and go I did. And it was a real family reunion, too, featuring aunts, uncles, cousins and cousins. Kids bounced off the walls for hours upon hours. I was the only outlier, but I was treated like family. I was fed fried chicken straight from Cory Lopez’s grill. We stood in his backyard and gazed out and the sun, again, slid down the sky. Instagram has taught me to hate sunsets but Florida taught me to love them again. All the colors of the orange, red and yellow palette are employed with reckless abandon. The sky glows love. I was happy. And left happy to go further south still. To Miami. But along the way I stopped in CJ and Damo Hobgood’s hometown to meet Jamie Tworkowski.
Jamie founded the suicide prevention nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms, which also happens to be CJ Hobgood’s sponsor. How great is that? A nonprofit sponsoring a surfer? Maybe the greatest. He invited me to surf Sebastian Inlet with him, introducing me to a wave that used to be legendary as well as its crusty locals. I was accepted in their warm Southern embrace. I felt loved. The sand on the beach was the whitest I had ever seen and the ocean felt like a bathtub. The waves were not great, maybe two feet, but I realized that when the sand is the whitest and when the water is a bathtub, surfing feels like a dream. Even in two feet.
After sharing chicken-fried steak and a cold beer with Jamie, I drove to Miami. And thought about the people here. Sterling, Shea and Jamie represent the good. Open, honest, giving, kind, sincere. Model Southerners. Model human beings. They could each, also, be models. Handsome.
Florida is home to the best of the best. Home to people who, when the lunatics grow exhausting, are there to take you into their homes and families and hearts. The worst and the best. No lukewarm in Florida. No Ohio blandness. And, in really experiencing this lack of blandness, the stone of my prejudice became dust and blew away. Florida is no longer “The State I Hate.” It is now and forever, affectionately, “F–ked Up.”