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Cold front a hot time for avid surfer


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001

UPHAM BEACH -- When the north wind blows and the mercury drops, most folks head indoors and crank up the heat.

Not Micah Weaver.

The 30-year-old St. Petersburg resident waits all year for the cold weather and the waves it brings.

"Surfing is all about desire," he explained. "You have got to want it. But once you get the bug, you can't get rid of it. All you want to do is surf."

The tropical storms of summer bring out hordes of surfers. But only a handful can be found still paddling out when the temperatures hover just above freezing.

"People look at you like you are crazy when you tell them that you are going surfing in weather like this," Weaver said. "But this is the season when we get our best waves."

The key to catching a winter swell is keeping an eye on the weather report. A strong low-pressure system creates wind, and wind creates waves. Surfers can expect the average winter to produce 10 to 20 wind-driven cold fronts, and each one may kick up two to three days of rideable waves.

"Some years we may have only one or two fronts a month," Weaver said. "But this year we have been averaging at least two fronts a week."

If the wind blows 20 to 30 miles per hour for more than a few hours, you will see waves rolling in on the beach.

Surfers like long lines of well-spaced waves because they are much easier to catch. Wind blows in gusts, and as a result, the waves form into "sets." The longer the distance ("fetch") the wind travels, the better formed ("cleaner") the waves will be.

In the winter, the water temperature usually ranges from 55 to 65 degrees, and during a cold front, the air temperature often is colder.

"Back in the old days, we used to surf all winter long without wet suits," said Joe Nuzzo, owner of Suncoast Surf Shop on Treasure Island. "But we were young and stupid, and didn't know any better."

Nuzzo, a pioneer of Gulf Coast surfing, started his shop in 1966, before inexpensive, quality wet suits became readily available. Today's surfers have it made in comparison.

You can pick up a new 3/2mm full suit for as little as $89.95. Buy a pair of neoprene booties for $34 and a hood for $20, and you'll be ready for a winter surf session.

A few shops rent surfboards, but if you really want to learn the sport, buy one. Boards come in all shapes and sizes, and what you ride is a matter of personal preference.

A short board (6-foot range) is better suited for storm surf. A fun shape (8-foot range) also will perform well in big waves. But if you are just getting started, a modern longboard (9- to 10-foot range) is perfect to ride the "foamies" near the beach.

Longboards are easier to paddle than short boards. They are faster, so it is easier to catch a wave. They are more stable, another plus when you are starting out. And they perform better in small surf, like the mush we often see on the Gulf Coast.

The Tampa Bay area has its share of solid surf shops: Suncoast Surf Shop on Treasure Island, Mad Beach Surf Shop in Madeira Beach, the Island Shop in Indian Rocks Beach, Mandalay Surf Company on Clearwater Beach and Florida Ocean Sports in St. Petersburg. All sell new and used boards.

Surfing isn't just a sport for kids anymore. Some surfers (including this writer) didn't take up the sport until they were well into their 30s.

If you want to learn, stop at one of the surf shops. Ask questions. You'll find plenty of people willing to help.

As you learn the craft, give the veterans some space. Find an area of the beach where there is less competition for waves. This will allow you to pass through the learning, or "kook," stage unmolested.

Being a surfer is a lot like being a member of a team. It takes a special person to get up before dawn, put on a cold wet suit and sit in the rain in the hope of catching a wave.

So treat your fellow surfers with respect. Don't fight for waves. If a good one comes along, give it away. There will be more.

If you end up sharing waves with somebody who's obviously "aggro" -a.k.a. who has a bad attitude -- give them plenty of space. You'll catch plenty of rides tomorrow, but they will still be idiots.

And remember, surfers always respect the ocean and the beach. Pack your trash and leave only footprints.

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