Red and yellow blotches in the Gulf of Mexico animated radar images of a cold front forecast to blow strong wind and rain on Tampa between 3 AM and 10 AM Tuesday. It was Monday evening, and I busied myself with packing for a surf pilgrimage to the east coast, my first since returning to Florida. Earlier, I did some minor ding repair on my 9’4” longboard to keep it water-tight. A patch where the deck is beginning to delaminate would have to wait. One of these days it’s going to snap and my big, beloved “Goat House” board will become a wall hanger. But not yet, I hoped.
My friends Eric and Nick would be driving down from Jacksonville. Our original plan was an 8 AM rendezvous at Sebastian Inlet State Park, meaning I should leave Tampa before 5 AM. Feeling exhausted from a couple weeks of perpetual motion, I did not relish the idea of such an early start. I relayed the weather forecast to Eric, suggesting that the squally leading-edge would likely keep conditions rough throughout the morning as it pushed eastward across the state. “Let’s meet 11-ish, OK? I could really use the extra rest,” I wrote. He agreed and I set my alarm for 7 and went to bed, but did not sleep well.
Excited about the swell (5-7 feet at 14 seconds), I awoke several times during the night but avoided looking at the clock until what turned out to be a right around 5 AM. “How about that…” I muttered and set to making coffee and breakfast. As the water boiled, I filled my cooler with beer, last night’s batch of linguini, fresh fruit, and a “boosted” smoothie the color and texture of pureed broccoli.
Kona coffee beans that I brought back from Hawaii and roasted at home released their aroma as I turned the crank on an old hand-grinder. The kettle whistled a few seconds before I grabbed it and poured a cup into the French press, then filled a Thermos with the remainder for hot tea later. I smeared a thick pad of soft butter on day-old bread, drank strong coffee with cream and sugar, then stowed the last of my cargo in the truck and got underway.
Heading east out of Tampa on SR-60, I was grateful not to be part of the inbound morning rush that filled oncoming lanes with pairs of white headlights packed close together in the light rain. I remembered when the town of Brandon once marked the suburban fringe. Now there’s a Super Walmart where we used to stop and pick strawberries. Farther along, the headlights spread out and work trucks became more common than sedans and minivans.
The night’s darkness lingered longer in the early morning drizzle, but I could smell when I arrived in citrus country. East of Lake Wales, the scent of orange blossom was thick on the chilly breeze, intoxicating like that of a lover’s perfume. I filled my lungs and smiled, and continued deeper into the heart of Florida, where cattle and kestrel are more common than people.
Approaching the Kissimmee River, I was treated to a short glimpse of sunrise poking through a hole in the mountains of grey, backlighting a wall of trees that spanned the horizon. Years ago, my brother dubbed this transition “The Gateway to the East,” and it really does feel like passing into another realm.
A thin, reddish cloud hanging near the horizon was confirmed as smoke when I entered a stretch of pine and palmetto scrub. Wisps of blue hung in the air and mingled with the morning fog. Then, in the land of long vistas and distant cypress domes, I saw the purplish mass of clouds over my left shoulder. The wet and windy part of the front was crossing the state right behind me. Trees swayed and grasses bent as the approaching storm sucked air across the prairie from the south and east.
Nick and Eric arrived at “Sea Bass” (Sebastian Inlet) slightly ahead of me, and I slightly ahead of the front. A crew was there setting up to film the surf as part of a tourism piece for the Space Coast. The wind was already offshore. We suited up and hit the water for a late morning session, picking off waves as we drifted along sandbars into a punchy little bowl. The steep beach served to bounce wave energy back to sea, which collided with incoming swells in surprising ways.
I took off late on a shoulder-high wave. Just as I set my feet, the bottom dropped out while the lip lurched horizontally, with me on it—temporarily. The heavy board tumbled under and in front of me as I was propelled headfirst directly at it. In a moment that seemed to span a minute, I managed to bend my left arm in front of my face just in time to avoid a nose-to-nose collision. Instead, my forearm made impact as I plunged into the water and curled into a ball to avoid further entanglements.
When the ocean finished bouncing me around, I surfaced to check for dings and dangs. My arm throbbed beneath 3.2 millimeters of neoprene, but there was no blood. (No “dang” – a good thing since it’s shark migration season.) I was also surprised to find no obvious cracks or dents in the fiberglass. I must’ve just glanced the tip trimmed with cedar, mahogany and balsa wood. I paddled back out for another handful of waves before we decided to break for lunch. It was only in the shower that I noticed the gash a few inches below my elbow where bone and board had pinched through skin, but not wetsuit.
We found a great little burrito shack where A1A takes a jog through Melbourne Beach and got three of them filled with brisket that had slow-cooked in the smoker for 18 hours. Yellow rice, “slawsa,” and a fresh chipotle sauce rounded out my calorie replacement plan. Roburrito’s only accepts cash and we came up a few dollars short, but the woman behind the counter started our order anyway. Nick and Eric hit the bank nearby and I settled in to enjoy the gallery of random Floridiana that covered nearly every inch of the walls. An old TV played videos of bluesmen like B.B. King uninterrupted by advertisements, and at a volume perfect for conversation. Nothing satisfies like a little slice of heaven at lunchtime.
Afterwards, we headed back to Sea Bass and found the surf disappointing. I felt bad for the film crew, but laughed inside at the whimsy of mother nature: The most consistent surf break in Florida refused to show off for the encampment of camera jockeys. Cell-phones pressed to their faces added to the look of frustration. Meanwhile, we drove just a little ways north to find Spanish House barreling at low tide. Eric and Nick wisely grabbed smaller boards. I screwed on a couple of side fins and hoped for the best.
The paddle out was deceptively simple, thanks to the waist-deep sandbar. Sitting in the lineup, watching and listening, however, provided better perspective. When a big set showed itself on the horizon, everyone scrambled. Most clawed to get out of the impact zone, while a few intrepid surfers slid into position. As seen from behind, they disappeared on takeoff and it rained for a few seconds as the offshore wind blew a few inches off the crest.
Big close-outs didn’t break, they detonated. Wind, sea and sand combined to sound like a fast-burning fuse: SssssshhhhHHHH…BOOM! Hisssssssssss. Then came the rain, and a few beats later, the next wave of the set. Repeat.
On my first wave of the afternoon session, limited options were clearly and immediately presented: Get low, pull in tight, and hold on. As the face hollowed and pitched over top of me, I could feel the slurry of sand and saltwater polish the glossy finish on the bottom of my board. Sea-level dropped before my eyes. When the khaki-colored curtain finally came crashing down, I was kindly (if not gently) spit out the back.
Watching from the lineup, I saw Eric take off on a head-high peak. It began to unfurl like all the rest until he got backhanded by the outbound, refracted wave energy. As soon as his crouched figure disappeared below the lip, the section ahead of him suddenly jacked up nearly twice as high, and then the whole thing just imploded. The rain came and went, and whitewater carried him another 20 meters towards shore before I saw him poke through the froth and give the all clear sign, a clenched fist above wide eyes and an even wider grin on his face.
We took another break and scouted for a more agreeable wave farther south before running out of daylight and retreating to our campsite at the state park. We ate well by the fire-ring, and then slept hard. By morning, the wind was howling cold from the north. Sea Bass was blown out, so we sought cover from the eastward protrusion of Cape Canaveral. Unfortunately, it also blocked some of the swell, as we found while looking north toward Jetty Park.
There was still surf to be had, so we retraced our steps southward until it showed itself. Pulling on damp and cold wetsuits, we paddled out for a fun drift session all the way down to the Cocoa Beach Pier, which served to boost the waves a bit. It was a long walk back, and funny to see spring breakers sunning in bikinis next to locals shivering in sweaters. Less funny were the windblown plastic bags like tumbleweeds. Thinking about the sad phenomenon of garbage gyres worldwide, I set down my board a few times to chase them down.
We finished our day at Jetty Park. A couple of guys struggled to catch little waves on stand-up paddle boards, so we decided to picnic instead of surf. Off came the wetsuits and we bundled in warm clothes against the stiffening breeze, then lit the barbecue and gobbled up the rest of our groceries. I lay in the grass for a nap and woke up eye-to-eye with a curious Ibis, a signal which I interpreted as time to leave. Eric, Nick and I packed our gear and parted ways, stoked on two days of waves and looking forward the next treat from Mother Ocean.