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Beginner's Break - Florida Surf Museum

Beginner’s Break

Photo by Dan Mahoney

Article written by Dan Reiter

In the summer of 2001, I was couch crashing up in Topanga Canyon with a crew of lunatics and musicians who’d set up a commune under the pretense of a dog-sitting job for the screenwriter of Space Cowboys. We were young and wild and unstrapped, and figured we could clean it all up before we left. So we slept anywhere, played songs noon through night, and generally took our time about things like dishes and doors.

One of the regulars at the Topanga commune was a guy by the name of Phil Salick, who lived in a clapboard shack up in the oaks with his girlfriend. Phil was a surfer––I would find out years later that his father, Rich Salick, and uncle (also named Phil) were legendary watermen on the East Coast, and founders of Salick Surfboards and the NKF Pro-Am Surf Festival––and we used to go, all of us, down the winding canyon drive to surf the rocks at the end of Sunset Boulevard. LA’s Sunset is a soft, forgiving break, and perfect for a crew like us (read: kooks) to learn the basics of wave riding. I remember the moment when the surf hook was set… my first long, glassy ride was a four-foot wave at Sunset Boulevard, a right that carried me from the rocks all the way to the lifeguard tower.

A year later, I was living in a one-bedroom sand-catcher in south Cocoa Beach with a leaky AC window unit and a grievous palmetto bug problem. It wasn’t modern luxury… none of the appliances worked… but I was able to surf every day. When you surf every day, the world carries a sheen like hammered gold, and you tend to overlook minor troubles that might otherwise bother you.

Back then, the sandbars hadn’t been wrecked by hurricanes, storm surges or dredge hoppers. The south streets were still manufacturing A-frame waves that peeled from the outer bar to the beach, through high tide or low. Some of the mid-break swims were rough, some days I got denied, pounded, beaten… but I kept paddling out, day after day, and I kept learning.

I learned early on the rules of surf etiquette… but awareness does not always guarantee competence. One day I drifted closer than I should have to a pack of stylish longboarders. Oblivious to a white-bearded, leashless character who had caught one of the set waves and was already up and going, I dropped in on him, flailed, and ended up in the whitewater with him. I was mortified––I had seen him too late––and I paddled over to apologize.

“For what?” the old-timer said.

“For ruining your wave.”

He looked at me incredulously, knee paddled onward, and shouted one of the most charitable phrases I’ve ever heard in the ocean: “Forget it, there’s thousands of waves!”

Thanks to people like Phil and Tom (the white-bearded Freebird of 13th-street fame), I’ve been lucky enough to find my place in the Cocoa Beach lineup. And I’ve come to understand that learning to surf is not always about the motion of your body and board. Sometimes it is about community, or philosophy, or ecology. Sometimes surfing is history, or literature, or kinematic wave hydrology, or film, or culture. And sometimes surfing is something else entirely.

Since 2010, I’ve been a member of the Florida Surf Museum, and have had the pleasure of learning about surfing through some of the world’s finest watermen, artists, and historians.

If you’re a lifetime surfer, a kook, a water lover, a barefoot metaphysicist, or just someone who wants to remember the way it was… The Florida Surf Museum is right across the parking lot from Ron Jon’s, waiting for seekers of insight. Sign up for a membership, if you can. It’s a good beginner’s break.

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