When it comes to the best surfing in Florida, your mind likely goes to the East Coast stretch of the state. That’s not the case for waterman Juan Rodriguez, who, despite having surf all over the world, has always been partial to the surf scene of Sarasota.
In 1964, at 13 years old, Juan Rodriguez stood atop a surfboard for the first time and caught a wave at Lido Beach, located on Lido Key, a barrier island off the coast of Sarasota. Over the next 55 years, the 68-year-old Sarasota native turned a sideline in ding repair into a vocation as a surfboard shaper, working overtime at his shop – One World Surf Designs – to finance trips to the homes of hallowed breaks: Maui, Costa Rica, and the whole coast of California. When it comes to the best surfing in Florida, your mind likely goes to the East Coast stretch of the state. But no matter how fickle the waves or cold the breeze, Florida’s Gulf coast, and Sarasota, in particular, has a special place in Rodriguez’s heart – and enough storm-spun surprises to satisfy an opportune visitor.
You’ve spent time surfing all the usual hotspots all over the world. What’s different about surfing the Gulf coast of Florida?
Sarasota is such a beautiful place, and there are some magical days on the Gulf. But to surf in Sarasota consistently, you have to be willing to drop whatever you’re doing when the waves are good. I did that for years: I’d plan my day or week around the next cold front or the next tropical storm and I’d knock off work.
Obviously, in the Gulf of Mexico, you don’t have wide-open ocean for swells to gather momentum, so how do you make the most of it? When’s the best season for surfing?
The Gulf is the only place I’ve ever surfed where people will measure waves calf-high, knee-high, thigh-high, waist-high – it’s like increments of three inches. The bottom is so shallow, which diminishes the power of the swells. In the winter, the swells coming out of the north can be fast and long, but they don’t have the thickness, the mass, that a hurricane swell pushing up from a trench in the Caribbean into the Gulf does. The tropical storm waves coming out of the south are the best waves we get. Really, prime season is September through April.
Tell us more about surfing Lido Beach – what’s important to know before you go?
The jetty on the south end of the public beach is where people surf on a north swell during a cold front. On the south side of that jetty, the beach is gouged out a little, so a wave will peel and run down the beach. Usually, the waves are about shoulder-high peeling down to about waist-high and the rides can be about 100 yards. The secret to making a wave at Lido is to take off at an angle: if you drop straight in and try bottom-turning, it’s too late.
How big is the local surf scene at Lido?
There are probably 40 to 60 hardcore guys who are out all the time year-round. But when a tropical storm or a hurricane comes through as advertised, you’ll see guys that surfed when they were 15; now they’re 40, and they still have the same board. They’ll be out there just clogging the place up. It gets up to double-overhead during a hurricane and it can get wild. But it’s a cool scene when there’s a big swell and all these people are out. It’s a kind of tribal gathering.
If you’re surfing in the winter, I’m assuming a rash guard and board shorts won’t cut it even in Florida. How do you gear up?
Here, it’s a 3/2mm long wetsuit in winter. The water can drop down into the high 40s and when we have cold front waves the wind is usually blowing, so sometimes you might need boots and hood and gloves.
What’s the most memorable wave you’ve caught on the west coast of Florida?
In 1967, I was surfing Siesta Public Beach (in Sarasota), I took off on a wave in front of the pavilion, walked up to the nose, and I was hanging five the whole way for about a 200-yard ride. There were cars in the parking lot honking their horns, all the girls on the beach were cheering me on, or so I imagined. Once, during a hurricane at Bradenton Beach, I pulled into a barrel – a legitimate barrel, where you see it pitching in front of you and you come out – and kicked out about five feet from this big cement pier. A photographer on the pier took a shot right into the barrel, and I gave him $5 for the picture. Of course, now, I can’t find the picture.