Catch a Wave...If You Can

South Beach surfing has its ups and downs -- mostly downs -- but for a dedicated posse of locals it still can be swell

"Like once every five years we get good surf photos from Miami," reports Surfer magazine senior editor Ben Marcus, speaking over the phone from his office in Dana Point, California. "I don't know anything about Miami but I know they must get some surf down there sometimes. I've seen the pictures."

"Good morning, this is the Saturday, December 10, X-isle surf report for 11:00 a.m. It's looking like a really beautiful day at the beach right now, so if you're coming out, stop by. We've got a lot of longboards right now, Robert August, and some new Rusty boards in A they look unreal, from six to nine feet. As far as the wind and waves, there's a south and southwest wind blowing. There's a cold front coming in, just offshore waves right now. It's a clean, nice sunny day right now. For upcoast information, call 976-TUBE. We'll be seeing ya."

As is the case on most winter days, a small crowd stands on the wooden staircase that leads to the beach at First Street. They're staring at the ocean, where about three dozen male surfers sit on their boards in the water. The surfers also look out toward the horizon, pivoting their boards in the direction of the beach in preparation for the possibility of a wave, then pivoting back again. Most of them remain in that sitting position, straining their eyes in an effort to distinguish a wave from the predominant ripples. Every couple of minutes, one of them starts paddling and manages to stand up for a short ride. Even though the waves are only about knee-high, a couple surfers are aggressive enough to catch the swells anyway. One hangs five on a two-foot wave.

"It's not only the size and condition of the wave, it's your state of mind," philosophizes Mark "Rat" Rosen over a breakfast special at Rolo's. "You're going to see half a dozen guys out waiting for the waves even when it's knee-high, because their desire for surf is greater than the actual reality of it. When they see any white water, they see the possibility of a ride."

Rosen, a short, young-looking 38-year-old from South Miami, has been surfing on South Beach since his teens. He owns a landscape maintenance company, an occupation that allows him the freedom to head to the beach when the surf calls. "You can have waves here for 45 minutes, where you hit 12:45 and surf until 1:00 and it's the most incredible surf, compared to any surf. But after that there's nothing," he explains. "That's how the surf is here. It's fickle, and you have to be in tune with it. And in order to be in tune with it, I have friends who I rely on to call me. I have four or five dependable people, and one of those four or five dependable people will see that wave come in at 12:45, and tell me, 'Hey, it's here.' I don't know where it came from. I don't know where it's going. Now it's up to me to make a decision and get in my car, knowing that by the time I get there it could be gone. Or I could get there and I could catch just part of it. And I'm committed, so I'll do that."

James York, who friends sometimes refer to as "the spiritual father of South Beach," has joined Rosen for breakfast at a center table in the small restaurant; they face the counter, where a television is tuned to MTV. A teenage surfer rushes in, greets York, and tosses his car keys to "Rolo" (a quiet Canary Islander whose real name is Atilio Rodriguez), who hangs them on a hook behind the register.

"In my opinion this is one of the best places in the world to learn to surf," York says, taking a sip of orange juice. Also from South Miami, York is an all-around athlete who learned sailing and free-diving from his stepfather. Now 31 years old, he started surfing when he was thirteen as a way of spending time in the ocean on winter days when it was too rough to dive. "Not in terms of the opportunity to be there every single day," York continues, "but because of the fact that the majority of the time the waves are very forgiving. They're very gentle. They're very rolling and it's inviting. It's tropical. The water's warm, it's a sand bottom, it has all the things that are inviting about getting involved in surfing in the first place.

"Once you get to a certain level, it can be frustrating, because then all of a sudden you want more powerful waves, you want a roll that has a bit of teeth to it that's going to give you that kind of adrenaline. So when that time comes, then it's time to move on. But that's really hard if your whole support system is here, your family, your friends.... You just up and leave. And a lot of people do it for a couple of years, and some come back ten years later. Some come back every once in a while for the holidays. Some decide they want to live here and just travel for surf."

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