Dispatch from the Gulf

Monday morning I attended a conference on renewable energy in the Florida state capital building. The room normally filled with legislators was filled with interested citizens, academics, and lobbyists. The idea was to get Florida on a path toward running on renewable energy. It was an interesting scene because this conference could have happened any time in the last decade, but because it was occurring during the months-long BP oil spill, there was urgency to it.

I met a legislator from Cocoa Beach named Frank Sasso. He's a surfer, member of Surfrider and a co-organizer of the national Hands Across the Sands demonstration held Sunday. He told me that he faced some obvious "surfer" stereotypes when he first came to the capital. And at first it seemed odd to be a surf journalist attending this event. The only other journalist attending was a business reporter from the local paper. Annie Lopez, mother of Shea and Cory, was the person who urged me to attend. When she stood up and introduced herself to the other attendees as a businesswoman and mother of two world-class surfers from the Gulf Coast, it became even more poignant, that among all of the possibilities of water-related activities, surfers are making themselves visible in this disaster.

It rained in a torrent as I left Tallahassee just after noon. Tropical storm Alex was already pushing swell into Pensacola. The swell was head-high, but Alex threatened to become a hurricane as it hit the Gulf. I spoke with Yancy Spencer III—East Coast hall-of-famer and local surf patriarch—and he told me that the swell would be even bigger the next day, but also that this may be the last swell Gulf Coasters can surf without oil on every beach. As it was, local surfers were avoiding the beaches soiled with the tar balls.

oilkimball

I was shocked when I actually found them on Casino Beach. They were like pancakes of under-baked brownies. You could roll them in the sand and they would form into something like horse turds. The water didn't look too bad though. Local ripper Mikey Peyton told me that the real oil arrived last Wednesday; it looked like a black tar highway extending out to sea.

I ended up surfing Navarre Beach with Yancy III in the evening. The water was beautiful, and warm and tropical. The waves broke off of a classic pier sandbar setup. Yancy is surprisingly stylish and smooth, even compared too much younger surfers. I suddenly realized how much I liked this place. But learning this at what might be the eleventh hour for this surf zone, was uniquely unsettling.

I just spoke with Sterling Spencer. He has a friend working on the clean-up. The friend told him that us land lubbers have no idea how much oil is out there. Hurricane Alex might let us know.