Florida now the dominant surfing state
By BOB PUTNAM, Times Staff WriterPublished July 12, 2006
In May, Damien Hobgood of Satellite Beach won the Globe WCT Fiji, the fourth stop on the ASP World Championship Tour. Seven years ago, the surfers got on their boards, ready to ride one of the scariest waves on the planet. Teahupoo (pronounced Choe-poo) is a Tahitian break that unleashes a moving mountain of water over a razor-sharp coral bed. It is insane to surf. Boards break. Bodies are battered.
Cory Lopez didn't care. The Indian Rocks Beach resident paddled into uncharted territory. A punishing 20-foot wave was coming his way. Lopez pushed his slender frame up from his custom-made board. Then, he dropped swiftly into the wave. Before he knew it, Lopez was flying through the white water like a sock through a washing machine.He didn't win the contest.
But he did gain admiration.
"Florida surfers were always looked down upon," Lopez said. "We used to have to do things a little bit bigger and better to get everyone's attention."
Florida, once considered a surfing nowhereland, is now king of the waves. Cocoa Beach's Kelly Slater, a surfing icon, is a seven-time world champion. C.J. Hobgood, a rising star from Satellite Beach, won a world title in 2001. Damien Hobgood, C.J's twin brother, is ranked in the top 20. So is Lopez. His older brother, Shea Lopez, has won numerous contests on the pro circuit.
When these five surfers join forces for X Games competitions, they're unstoppable, helping the East Coast team beat the West Coast team for three straight years. The streak was snapped this year, due mostly to Slater and the Hobgoods deciding not to attend.
"We're no longer on the verge of becoming a dominant state," said Mitch Varnes, a Florida-based agent who represents the Hobgoods and former women's surfing champion Lisa Andersen. "We are the dominant state."
All of this is hard for California and Hawaii surfers to fathom. The West Coast has always had a strong foothold in the surfing world. That was where the sport thrived at some strategic beaches, including Huntington and Malibu. Florida, meanwhile, had relatively gentle surf.
There were some waves in Cocoa Beach, where many East Coast riders learned the sport. The Gulf of Mexico was even more tame. "Other surfers called it the Lake of Mexico," Cory Lopez said. Competition was intense, with many surfers vying for scarce waves that come only during cold fronts and hurricanes.
"We were all hungry," said Pete Lopez, Cory and Shea's father. "Imagine not eating for days, sometimes weeks. When food is put in front of you, you're going to devour it. Same thing with waves." It made everyone here better. Still, it was assumed that anyone from the land of thigh-surf would be clueless in big waves.
Then, along came Slater.
The so-so waves off the Atlantic Coast were the perfect training ground for Slater and many other young Florida surfers. "I think growing up in small waves made us see the wave in a different light," Slater said via e-mail. "That is easier to translate to big surf than the other way around." Slater soon discovered he could do things on a surfboard that no one else could. In 1982, he won the first of six East Coast surfing titles. In 1992, at age 20, he became the youngest surfer to win a world title.
"Kelly set the bar for everyone," C.J. Hobgood said. "He definitely made it easier for the rest of us to break the mold, to show that Florida guys are gnarly." Slater, though, never considered himself a pioneer. "I feel like I was on the tree like anyone else," Slater said. "I guess I have more accolades on paper, but it takes everyone that has made the change that has happened."
In April, Slater won the Rip Curl Pro tournament at Bells Beach in Australia. Rip Curl Pro is the second event of the Foster's ASP World Championship Tour, which consists of 11 total tournaments. He also won the Quiksilver Pro, the first event of the tour, in March. Slater's success was matched on the women's circuit by Andersen, who won four consecutive world titles from 1994 to 1997.
"Florida surfers automatically have to prove themselves because we come from a small wave spot," Andersen said via e-mail. "We were born with pressure. But I was tough and determined to be the best. The guys I grew up with pushed me to be that." Perhaps the most eye-opening stat came last year when Slater, Lopez and both Hobgoods finished among the top 11 on the Association of Surfing Professionals world tour. Only two of the top 11 hailed from Hawaii, and none were from California.
"I think in previous years, we were still viewed in some extent as stepchildren in the world of surf," Varnes said. "People are now seeing Florida has some advantages. The smaller waves and warmer water are a good starter's kit for beginners. That's not the same in California or Hawaii. The waves are more intimidating.
"We get a head start."
Florida is now making its own waves.
The Hobgoods recently opened a surf shop on Florida's East Coast. Lopez is opening one this week in Indian Rocks Beach. There also is a local Web site (www. gulfster.com) that provides daily surf reports on the Gulf Coast. In November, the Ron-Jon Surf Park will open, a man-made surfer's paradise in Orlando. "It's becoming a pretty good scene," Cory Lopez said. "We've come a long way."
Points leaders through 5 of 11 events of the Association of Surfing Professionals:
1. Kelly Slater, Cocoa Beach 4,233
2. Andy Irons, Hawaii 4,140
3. Bobby Martinez, California 4,008
4. Taj Burrow, Australia 3,650
4. Taylor Knox, California 3,650
6. Damien Hobgood, Sat. Beach 3,542
7. Joel Parkinson, Australia 3,052
8. C.J. Hobgood, Sat. Beach 2,896
9. Bruce Irons, Hawaii 2,884
10. Tim Reyes, California 2,843
11. Dean Morrison, Australia 2,694
12. Sean Cansdell, Australia 2,624
13. Tom Whitaker, Australia 2,567
14. Luke Stedman, Australia 2,521
15. Bede Durbidge, Australia 2,514
16. Cory Lopez, Ind. Rocks Beach 2,430
16. Daniel Wills, Australia 2,430
16. Greg Emslie, South Africa 2,430
19. Mick Fanning, Australia 2,377
20. Mark Occhilupo, Australia 2,331