Tuesday, March 13
On a haphazardly built dock in Mayport, Florida, Encinitas’ Ryan Burch and Narabeen’s Ozzie Wright are inspecting about a half dozen, pint-sized finger mullets in a small bucket and receiving a lesson on how to properly bait a hook from Volcom East Coast Marketing Manager and North Florida native Dane Jefferys. Hooks set, Wright and Burch cast their lines in opposite directions. To the group’s surprise, Burch’s fish-no longer affixed to a hook-goes somersaulting through the air, flipping end over end before plunking into the brackish sweet tea colored water and swimming away. Undeterred and amused, Burch laughs, takes a sip from a can of Busch Beer, and grabs another wiggling baitfish, asking Jefferys to rehash the hook-setting demo. “This’ll be the second fish I’ve ever caught,” Burch says.
Renowned for his smooth surfing on all kinds of experimental and retro boards, Burch is much better known for his shaping of and surfing on fish than catching them. Which is mainly why he’s standing on this precariously stable structure jutting out into an estuary of the Intracoastal Waterway in the Sunshine State.
I’ve joined up with Wright, Burch, and the Volcom crew for a tour of the East Coast of Florida dubbed The Road Rager Surf Tour 2018. The plan is to head south on Volcom’s somewhat reliable 1983 Wanderlodge Tour Bus, surf, and throw a party in surf towns on the Atlantic Coast of the state. Miami’s Degreaser, a riff-heavy party rocker band lead by Ben Katsman, and my band, The Mother Gooses, are tagging along to provide the soundtrack to each evening’s shenanigans. Ozzie will be surfing, painting on everything, and (hopefully) joining in on some tunes. Meanwhile, Burch has brought a dozen or so surf crafts of his own making, including a familiar looking rainbow-emblazoned twin fish, which any Floridian who wishes to channel Burch’s now legendary Psychic Migrations performance can sample.
Though Florida’s vibrant surf communities are collectively known more for the absurd amount of touring surf professionals they’ve produced over the decades-Frieda Zamba, Lisa Anderson, a couple Hobgoods, some Lopezes and Geiselmans, King Kelly and more-they’ve have also cultivated their fair share of creative characters-from Dick Catri to Sterling Spencer and Warren Smith, even Tin Ojeda’s from Cocoa.
I imagine Burch and Wright, two of the most creative, multifaceted talents in surfing today, will be embraced with open arms. While both have been to Florida a few times-mostly brief trips in and out of Orlando’s MCO, with quick jaunts to Sebastian Inlet for a contest-it’s clear from the scene on the dock, that both are keen to make this tour their first authentically Florida experience. They’re veritably excited when photographer Nate Leal points out an Osprey perched in one of the Spanish moss-draped trees above our heads. And both seem to firmly believe that to not see an alligator would render the trip incomplete.
Meanwhile, the water is rising underneath us, threatening to consume this portion of the dock. It’s a reminder that we’ll soon need to leave for a high tide session and board demo at a noted local spot called The Poles.
“Set it and forget it,” Jefferys instructs-an assurance to Ozzie and Burch that leaving lines in the water is not just normal protocol when fishing in this part of the world, it can often be the key to snagging a keeper.
Fishing poles. Busch Beer. An unstable dock. And mullets. Lots of mullets. Whether they catch a fish or not, it’s clear this is the most Florida thing they’ve ever done. Yet.
Wednesday, March 14
There’re already about hundred or so people inside the courtyard of The Hotel Palms, a recently renovated, beach-chic boutique hotel serving as tonight’s Road Rager venue. Outside the courtyard, Ozzie Wright is painting a mural on the establishment’s north-facing wall. Multiple cars have already stopped in the middle of the busy thoroughfare adjacent to the hotel to take in Wright’s piece-a wildly colorful mural featuring a half dozen extraterrestrials kissing, whilst riding atop a unicorn. Wright takes a break from adding black outlines to sign a copy of 2006’s “Computer Body” a local surfer’s handed him.
It’s of very little surprise that the Northeast Florida surf community has turned out for tonight’s event. And even less surprising that many came to meet Wright. Clips and movie parts featuring the Australian’s aerial antics and idiosyncratic style have inspired at least two decades of surfers in Jacksonville, a place that’s long been a bastion of high performance surfing on the East Coast.
The surf craze here kicked off in earnest during the mid-60s longboard days, when cats like Bruce Clelland and Larry Miniard were seemingly plucked from obscurity to ride for the big brands of the day and invited to compete in world championship contests. And the region’s been a high performance surfing incubator since shortly after Simon Anderson introduced the thruster, churning out one international standout after another, from Sean Mattison in the late-80s to Ryan Briggs in the late-90s to the current crop led by the Thompson tribe (Cody, Evan, and Tristan).
But although Jax continues to roll out kids who get all three fins loose, the region’s surf community is becoming more eclectic. Proof of the new era to come came during the two sessions we had at The Poles over the last 24 hours. With Burch rolling out roughly a dozen of his own shapes (twin fishes ranging in size from 5’3 to 6’4, an asymm, and a recently purchased foamie) and both kids and adults from the local surf community bringing their own alternative shapes, there was nary a thruster to be found in Mayport, FL.
Two days in a row, the small, lingering groundswell and light winds produced waist to chest high rollers-a more than decent testing ground for the batch of flat, wide, thick twin-fin designs. Burch looked as silky whipping through full-rail cutbacks on the 5’6, blue twin as he did twirling into a steep re-entry on the seven-foot, blue soft-top. Ozzy, meanwhile, riding the orange twin, made the shifty beachbreak look like a proper point, linking together sections with floater after floater, before taking flight on the inside. In between sessions, conversations on the beach focused on the finer points of twin-fish design. It was an alternative surf crash course, in a way, with visiting professors Wright and Burch, in charge of the syllabus. With a plan to either auction off or donate a majority of Burch’s boards as we make our way down the coast, the fish isn’t likely to fall out of fashion in Florida for some time.
Meanwhile, here at the hotel in AB, as a face-melting metal-riff from Ben Katzman’s guitar fills the night air, Ozzie signs his name on the bottom right of the roughly 200 square foot mural. Another car pulls up and stops. The windows roll down to reveal a mother and several kids admiring Ozzy’s work. “That’s so cool,” the woman says.
“I want to paint on our walls!” one of the kids shouts from inside the car.
It’s clear that over the next few days, it’ll be more than the fish that resonate on this trip.
Thursday, March 15
St. Augustine, Florida
We’re standing outside The Ice Plant in St. Augustine’s historic Lincolnville, debating whether or not to put a nightcap on our already busy, revelry filled day. Local photographer Kelly Conway and local artist Ty Williams have joined us for dinner and have intrigued the group with tales of a nearby dive bar called the Giggling Gator, where area fisherman frequently partake in some kind of idiomatic compound known as either “Shrimp Dust” or “Swamp Dust.”
“You reckon it keeps them young?” Wright asks.
No one can vouch for the effects of the substance, but from the looks of those entering the bar in which it’s consumed, there doesn’t appear to be much interest in temperance at the Giggling Gator.
It’s a tough call, however. We got a late start on our southbound journey, due in part to Ozzy, at about 10AM, deciding to paint what might be the world’s largest Anti-Bad Vibes Shield on the exterior wall of Jacksonville Beach’s Sunrise Surf Shop. After a stop at St. Augustine’s Surf-Station, we realized we had very little time left for any of the activities we had tentatively planned the day prior. The Alligator Farm, a North Florida institution, which offers visitors the unique opportunity to ride a zip line over a pit of alligators, was high on our list of possible excursions. And after learning that The Fountain of Youth was not only “discovered” in the nation’s Oldest City, but currently maintained as a tourist trap that sells expensive bottled-water from the alleged fountain, Ozzy was keen on taking a dip.
Alas, both were closed. So, with a fading swell, and relatively light winds we settled on a surf session on the north side of the Vilano Inlet, where Ozzy was surprisingly stoked enough on the shifty, less than two-foot wedges, that he surfed for nearly two hours, boosting airs and riding waves to the sand, right up until dark.
It seems Ozzy doesn’t need a rinse in the fountain of youth, he’s already discovered eternal stoke. Whether painting, playing music, surfing premier waves, or making the most of onshore slop in Florida, he knows how to enjoy himself.
So, when Wright says he’s up for at least one drink at the Giggling Gator, our crew is easily swayed. Wright’s clearly holding the keys to eternal youth, we’d be foolish not to let him drive* our caravan for a minute.
Friday, March 16
New Smyrna Beach
You Should Have Been Here Last Week
As you follow the Intracoastal Waterway beyond St. Augustine, the scenery gradually gets more tropical. The water goes from sweet tea brown to Kool-Aid blue. The palm trees actually bear fruit. And the temperature rises.
And once you hit Volusia County-which encompasses spots like Ponce and New Smyrna Inlet-the potential for quality, consistent surf also spikes. Unfortunately, the stubborn groundswell that brought us fun-sized surf for the first part of our road trip had all but dissipated by the time we reached the inlet at New Smyrna.
With no new swell to relieve it, Smyrna-one of the most reliable wave zones on the whole east coast-did its best to muster some one-to-two foot lumps, which were enough to draw out the frothiest Smyrnians for a demo of Burch’s eccentric quiver. Some who came felt obliged to tell us about better days.
“You should have been here last week,” we heard again and again, a reference to the previous week’s swell, compliments of Winter Storm Riley, which brought overhead or larger surf to nearly every beach town on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Of course, we’d heard this before-at every stop thus far. We’d started counting somewhere between Jax and St. Augustine and by midday in NSB, we’d already heard the refrain nearly two dozen times. Now with a hundred or so of Volusia County’s finest filling the cavernous New Smyrna Beach Women’s Center for this evening’s event, we’ve lost count.
It wasn’t deflating. Especially since the NSB locals seem to be operating on some residual stoke from the previously referenced swell.
Burch, for his part, doesn’t seem bummed about the diminishing surf conditions (He never really seems bummed about anything, really). Stepping off the Wanderlodge, beer in hand, he pauses before walking into the venue. “I guess I’m gonna go talk about boards and draw,” he says with insincere angst. “I hate my job.”
Saturday, March 17
We’re standing outside Surfer Blood drummer, Mike McCleary’s new and well-apportioned music studio where various members of our group just finished laying down a song called “F*** Computers,” written by Wright in the Uber ride to the studio roughly two and half hours ago.
Was it the best song ever recorded in Boynton Beach, FL? The best song ever recorded period? We won’t be sure until we hear the final mix. But it’s certain-at least with the impending hangover we’re all due-that we’ll be remembering this night for sometime.
But for now our group is anxiously waiting on a ride back to the little beach bungalow in which we’re staying behind famed south Florida surf shop Nomad’s, the location of the third event of our tour that took place the night before.
Nomad’s is run by surfer-shaper, Ryan Heavyside and his brother Ronnie. The Heavyside’s father, Ron, opened the shop in 1968. With vintage 70s shop-label single-fins hanging from the rafters out front, shaping and glassing bays in the back, and a dedicated crew of hardcore and/or eccentric locals hanging about at all hours, it’s as core a surf shop as you’ll find anywhere in the world. And the shop’s community minded aesthetic would be recognizable to anyone who’s ever felt the embrace of authentic surf shop culture.
And perhaps things felt a little too comfortable, because things got a little loose. Beginning with an impromptu open jam at the end of The Mother Gooses’ set-which at one point featured Volcom employees Daniel Terry, Remy Stratton, and Dane Jefferys rotating through instruments, while Wright played guitar and sang an array of covers, like Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi”-the music went late into the night, with talented Boynton Beach musicians joining in on everything from drums and bass to recorder (yes, a recorder!).
And the creative energy spread from the front of the compound to the shaping bay with Ryan Heavyside banging out a sweet little twin fish (which Wright made sure to paint all over before it was sent to be glassed), and Burch going to town on another blank, which under the hands of the Southern California shaping prodigy, became a fork-nosed, asym with concave entry rocker faster than anyone could say “Asymmetrical.”
With one more show to go and Wright scheduled to depart in less than a dozen hours, at this ungodly hour, it’s encouraging to know our next event will take a place just a short drive down A1A in Ft. Lauderdale. Especially considering Jefferys just received a text informing the group that the Uber driver is apparently lost, and our ETA to Nomad’s has been pushed back further. Our group considers walking the roughly one mile, but ultimately decides the idea more inconvenient than waiting for our ride.
F*** Computers, indeed.
Sunday, March 18
Kool is the Rool
The sun is setting on a hot and humid evening in the courtyard of the very punk bar, Laser Wolf, in South Florida. Ben Katzman is engaging the crowd with some of his renowned banter, providing the origin story for a track from his band’s 2015 album Venus in Pisces called “Kool is the Rool.”
“Anybody ever walked into a party where you don’t really know anyone, but everybody is just acting too cool and your scared to talk to them?” Katzman asks the crowd, rhetorically.
The Degreasers are turned up to eleven at all hours of the day. The band’s sets, which feature cheeky, riff-filled, and heavily Kiss-inspired anthems like “I’m too old for Retail” and “You Shred (But You’re Really Playing me) Baby” added endless energy to each evening’s event. By the time we’d reached Ft. Lauderdale, the refrain from “Kool is the Rool.” had become something of a mantra for our road trip. No matter how sunburned, worn-out, or generally disinterested any of us may have felt prior to each event-even after the Atlantic Ocean went flat-we consistently found energy and inspiration in the Floridians who showed up at each stop. Their enthusiasm for art, music, alternative surf designs, and an old fashioned good time added fuel to our fire. Everyone was being cool (but not too cool).
Wright’s now painted dozens of canvasses, several guitars and Ukuleles, and stoked out countless groms, improvising spray painted messages onto the bottom of their sticks. Burch has painted his own share of canvasses and bequeathed a large number of his highly sought after handshapes to surf communities all over the east coast of Florida. By raffling off the art, surfboards and instruments, the tour raised more than $4,000 for With Love Charity, a Jax-based non-profit that supports children with cancer through events and toy donations. And though the surf didn’t line up with the last two days of our tour, the fun sessions were icing on the cake, considering all the fun we’ve had.
When the Degreasers finish their set, we’ll start the process of breaking everything down. Those who are flying back to California or Australia tonight will head to the airport. Others will head out early in the morning. None of that sounds all that fun, or cool.
As the crowd dances to the Degreasers, a few of them imitate Katzman’s sartorial high-kicks. Meanwhile, Burch pulls out a box of permanent markers to start in on, yet another canvass. For now, Kool remains the Rool.