Surfer Culture

Growing Up a VB Surfer

Whenever I’m away, people always ask me what I like best about my hometown, Virginia Beach. I always answer that I’m grateful to have grown up near the ocean. And to have learned to surf.

I have been playing in the waves for as long as I can remember. My whole childhood was divided into phases determined by my beach privileges. At first, I played with adults, mom or dad or an aunt or uncle holding me in the surf. Then I was allowed to go in the water by myself — I would stand there kicking and punching the incoming waves as if I were fighting an all-important battle against the ocean. Soon, I had a boogie-board, which I rode incessantly and maniacally. Around fourth grade I was allowed to go to the beach unsupervised — every day of the summer my friends and I would ride bikes to 47th Street, our bodyboards tucked under our tanned arms. Then, finally, for my sixth grade birthday, I was given my first surfboard.

I remember how days at the beach were always happy days. Nobody ever cried at the beach — except perhaps if they were stung by jellyfish — and the only time the grown-ups yelled was when you kicked sand up as you ran by their beach chairs. But they were drinking beer and not about to get up, so it wasn’t a real yell.

Yes, we built sandcastles, played beach football, and dug big holes, but the best thing about the beach was always playing in the water. I remember standing — no hands — on my dad’s shoulders, laughing uncontrollably, then diving into the cool, crisp ocean. I remember, before I could swim, clinging to my mother’s neck as she took me out to the sandbar. When I got older, on days when the ocean was clear, I remember swimming underwater with my eyes open, searching the sandy bottom for shells. And I remember the best days, days when the sun was shining but the ocean was rough. All the neighborhood kids would be out in the waves on their yellow and orange Mach 7.7 Morey bodyboards.

By the time I got my first surfboard I was serious about bodyboarding — I rode drop-knee style and had even entered the East Coast Surfing Competition. It took me a while to switch to surfing. But then one day I took my board out in some pretty big waves and I caught a racer. Suddenly, there I was — standing up, riding backside, speeding down the line right in the curl. I turned off the top and the wave broke behind me and the ride was over. Boy, was I stoked.

I paddled back out and tried to tell my friends about my wave, but they didn’t understand — they were still riding boogie-boards. I drifted a little bit away from them and surfed by myself.

From that day on, surfing has been my favorite thing to do. It has taken me away from Virginia Beach in search of better waves. After high school graduation I went to Europe on my first surf trip. That was so much fun I decided to study abroad during college — I spent one semester in Chile and another in Spain. After university, when I went to Central America, my friends and family started to ask me when I was going to stop taking surf trips. I told them never, and they looked at me like I needed to get “a real job.”

But I didn’t want “a real job” — I wanted to go surfing. After five months in Central America, I saved up some money waiting tables and went to Asia, where I surfed one of the best breaks in the world. Then, after another year in Central America, I hit a bad stretch. I moved to Sweden, then New York, then Alabama.

Unfortunately, you won’t find many waves in the Baltic Sea, the Hudson River, or the Gulf of Mexico. By last fall, I was in a bad way — I’d only surfed a couple of times in the past year, and I felt discontent. I decided to go to Portugal.

There are enough waves in Portugal to fix anybody’s surf withdrawal. I was in heaven. I remember sitting on my hotel room balcony. I had Miles Davis on my Discman, a bottle of red wine and a view of the ocean. I had just eaten a steak dinner after one of the best surf sessions of my life — I was so thrilled I wanted to buy property in Portugal. “This is God’s country,” I kept saying to myself. But after a month in Portugal, I was thinking about home. It was raining every day, and I was lonely. I’d been away from Virginia Beach for most of the last eight years.

So now I’ve been home for six months, and I am happy. I ride my bike in Seashore State Park and I walk on The Boardwalk and I play in the ocean. I see my family leisurely, instead of during rushed holidays.

It’s good to be from Virginia Beach. Not only because it’s a nice town to grow up in, but also because it’s a nice place to come home to. The seasons have changed, through a long winter and a cold spring, and now it is summer. My face is tan and the sun has bleached my arm hairs blonde. The sky is blue and the sun is shining. I’m going to the beach.

(Originally published in the August 2003 issue)

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