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Riding the storm

Longboards and waves from Tropical Storm Barry give a longtime surfboard shaper a swell west coast ride.

[Times photo: Jennifer Davis]
Juan Rodriguez holds a 9-foot, 6-inch surfboard he made. Bigger boards are better for the smaller waves of Florida's gulf coast.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 10, 2001


SARASOTA -- The weather stunk. The wind had been blowing nonstop for three days straight. And to make matters worse, Juan Rodriguez felt one of those nasty summer colds coming on.

"I figured that if I was going to feel bad at work I might as well feel bad surfing," said Rodriguez who shapes One World custom surfboards. "Water has a way of clearing your head."

So Rodriguez grabbed his board, tossed it in the back of his El Camino and headed to the Venice Pier, where he was "stoked" at what he found.

"There were these beautiful waves and nobody out," Rodriguez said. "They weren't big, but they were close to perfect. And people say you can't surf on the west coast of Florida. All you need is the right equipment."

Big boards for little waves.

"That is what it is all about," said Rodriguez, who has shaped thousands of surfboards the past 30 years. "You take a classic '60s outline, add some new technology and you have a perfect board for gulf coast surfing."

When a weather system such as Tropical Storm Barry rolls through, local surf shops can't keep enough longboards in stock. It is the ideal tool for those knee- to waist-high summer swells. And among big board enthusiasts, One World is the stick of choice.

In the old days, all boards were big. Turn-of-the-century models were made from solid redwood planks measuring 14-18 feet and weighing 150 pounds.

Legendary waterman Tom Blake invented the "hollow" board in the 1920s, cutting the weight nearly in half. Blake also introduced the fin, or skeg, which made it easier to turn the lumbering craft.

Lightweight balsa boards took the sport to a new level in the '40s, while polyurethane made it available to the masses in the 1950s.

Rodriguez started riding waves locally in surfing's golden age -- the 1960s. But like many surfers who suffer through the gulf's seemingly endless flat spells, Rodriguez hit the road in search of waves.

"That is when I saw that it doesn't matter where you go, California or Florida's east coast, the waves are usually small and not that good," he said. "If you want to surf, you need the right equipment."

The modern longboard, the staple of the '60s, measures from 8 1/2 to 10 feet in length and weighs about 13 pounds.

They paddle easier than shortboards. They are faster, so it is easier to catch a wave.

"That is the key," Rodriguez said. "You need to get on a plane quickly."

They are more stable, another plus when you are just starting out. And they perform better in small surf, like the mush we often see here on the gulf coast.

Rodriguez has shipped boards all around the world, and counts celebrity surfers, including Hulk Hogan, among his customers. He has a waiting list for his custom boards, and a large part of his business in recent years has been devoted to classic wooden shapes.

"You have to be pretty driven to surf on this coast," he said. "But if you can excel here in these less-than-favorable conditions, you will do well whereever you go."

Rodriguez points to Shea and Cory Lopez of Indian Rocks Beach, brothers ranked in the top 44 of the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour.

"But you have to be dedicated," he said. "You can't just sit around and say maybe I'll go surfing tomorrow."

When the wind starts blowing, Rodriguez said, you have drop what you are doing.

"There is no rolling the dice," he said. "You gotta go."

More storms

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday changed its forecast for this hurricane season, increasing the number of predicted tropical storms to 9-12, of which 6-8 might become hurricanes and 2-4 might become major hurricanes. NOAA had predicted this would be a normal season, but the new prediction calls for slightly more tropical storms than average, with two or three hurricanes landing in the United States. Hurricane season runs through Nov. 30.

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