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Wild waves

Have nothing on the hazards of wildlife

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 2002


SEBASTIAN INLET -- After three hours in a car, the boys couldn't wait to hit the water.

SEBASTIAN INLET -- After three hours in a car, the boys couldn't wait to hit the water.

"First peak," said Cody Chivas, 12.

"First peak," his 11-year-old brother, Kyle, agreed.

But the old man -- their driver, navigator and lifeguard -- couldn't seem to fit last year's wet suit over this year's belly.

"We'll meet you out there," Cody said. "We're missing all the good waves."

The boys, the vanguard of an eight-man surfin' safari and camping trip to the inlet, knew "Sea Bass." They had hit the legendary surf spot several times in the summer. But winter waves, with their cool water and long-shore drift, were nothing to be trifled with, even on a warm, sunny day.

"Remember the buddy system," I told the boys. "Keep an eye on each other."

Surfing is a solo sport, but nevertheless there is a certain camaraderie shared by all wave riders, young and old. The gang of two dozen or so surfers crowded at the inlet's best break, a fast little wave that rolls off the jetty known as "First Peak," fight for position in the lineup, and they yell and applaud a solid performance, regardless of age or gender.

"You are out there with the big boys, so be careful," I told them. "Cover your buddy's back."

Those who surf alone are sometimes called "soul surfers," but the best rides are those shared with a friend. This could mean a "party wave," ridden by multiple surfers, or simply catching a wave just right for a surfer's buddies to see.

Two minutes out of the parking lot, Cody caught the perfect wave and milked it for all it was worth.

"Way to start the day," an older surfer said. Twenty yards down the beach, at another break called "Second Peak," 13-year-old Ben Todd worked on his timing.

"Paddle, paddle, paddle," I yelled. "Don't stop paddling!"

But the boy tried to stand too early and fell back into the mush of a breaking wave. One bad experience, a trip "over the falls" of a breaking wave, had shaken his confidence.

"You have got to trust me," I told him."Forget about the wave. Just listen to me."

Another wave, the same result. Then another and another and another.

"Look, Ben," I said. "I've got your back. I won't tell you "take off' unless I think you'll make the wave."

The boy smiled and bit his lip. He looked down at his board and assumed the wave-catching position. This time, as the wave approached he abandoned all thoughts of self preservation.

"Paddle, paddle, paddle!" I screamed. "Not yet. ... Now stand up!"

Ben struggled to his knees, then to his feet and rode the wave into the beach.

That night, after feasting on beef stew cooked over a camp stove, we talked about the day's lessons.

"Teamwork ... that is what it takes," I told the boys. "Now let's see how well you guys can work together and wash these dishes."

Half an hour later they returned with some semiclean pots and pans and an undeniable hunger for marshmallows. But the day's events had taken a toll, so the boys headed to the tent and crawled into sleeping bags, leaving me to secure the campsite.

In raccoon country, it is essential to hide anything that resembles food. These pesky critters have been known to chew through a tent to get a Snickers bar, so all rations must be locked in a vehicle. But at 3 a.m., as the youngsters slept soundly, I heard something scurrying around the campsite. I grabbed a flashlight and stuck my head out of the tent to see two creatures the size of small children standing on the picnic table.

"Hey you," I hollered. "Get lost."

The raccoons scampered off, leaving half a dozen empty packets of hot chocolate. I cleaned up the mess and climbed back into the tent, my surfing buddies still sound asleep.

Fifteen minutes later, the animals were back. So once again, I grabbed the flashlight and locked the beam on the bigger of the two, a 50-pound mongrel that refused to give any ground. I looked around for a weapon, but all I could find was one of the boys' smelly tennis shoes.

I let the sneaker fly and it glanced off the coon's shoulder and landed in the woods. The second animal, obviously jacked up on Swiss Miss, started toward me, snarling. The little buggers were tag-teaming me.

"Guys, I need a little help here," I called to my surfmates, still safe within the tent.

My call for backup was met with snores. It looked like the buddy system would have to wait.

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