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

York, who has a college degree in English and education, has held various surf-friendly jobs, including free-lance photographer and substitute teacher; he now works as a safety diver on marine research expeditions, frequently leaving Miami for extended periods of time, often in search of superior surfing. Comparing his experiences, he's found Miami to be one of the few places where surfing remains an inescapably urban experience.

"In places like Australia or Northern California, surfing is just an extension of the scenic beauty of the place," theorizes York. "Here it's more of a departure from what visually surrounds you all the time. Once you paddle out and you're facing the horizon to look for waves, you can be in any ocean in the world. Then when you look back and you see this ribbon of cement marching northward A that's a very powerful image, and you are very quickly reminded of exactly where you are."

Across the street from Rolo's, a pit bull chases a ball in the parking lot of Penrod's Beach Club. Nearby a group of surfers from the neighborhood sits on somebody's car. An amateur-competition surfer named Mike Watson strides up from the beach, puts down his surfboard, takes a seat on the curb, and laughs as he watches his friend Neil accidently back his car over his own board.

Watson, age 21, with short white-blond hair, lives on Meridian at Second Street with his grandmother. He moved to Miami from Atlanta when he was fourteen and started surfing with a borrowed board. Soon he was cutting his classes at Miami High. "I'd pretend I was going to school, but I'd just hide around the corner," he remembers. "When I saw my grandmother leave for work, I'd go to the beach. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the family got together, I'd call and say I was stuck in traffic. I was really surfing."

When Watson wasn't in the water, he hung out in the neighborhood. He says now that surfing was about the only thing that kept him out of real trouble, and credits an older surfer who grew up in the projects with helping him in that regard. "There were guys from the projects who used to rip. Then they got messed up on drugs and stuff. You don't see them any more," Watson says quietly.

Although Watson eventually earned his GED, his goal is to become a professional surfer. He's already surfed in Baja, Puerto Rico, and Northern California; next year he plans to move to California to continue competing on the amateur circuit, after which he wants to turn pro, then go back to school to study marine biology. Presently sponsored by Rusty surfboards and Black Fly sunglasses, he regularly travels to surf contests upcoast.

"I go to the contests [by] myself," he says. "Nobody from here ever goes. It's kind of like they see surfing as a hobby or something.... Sometimes when you go somewhere else, you're even embarrassed to say you're from Miami."

Essentially a solo activity, surfing traditionally has been a guy thing, a competitive aquatic male-bonding session that, like other sporting pursuits, gradually has opened up to women. More women surf now than ever before, earning their rightful place in the lineup and a grudging respect from most of their male peers. Susan Short, 26 years old, a tall, Crandon Beach lifeguard, and Lee Bailly, an athletic-looking 28-year-old who used to windsurf, are among the few female surfers who frequent the First Street beach. Bailly used to manage the Tropical surf shop in Coconut Grove. When the store went out of business, she phoned up the owner of a used board that had been left on consignment and bought it. Short first surfed with her boyfriend.

The two women met and started surfing together three years ago. They were roommates for a while, living in a house in Perrine. Rent was cheap, and both were taking art classes at Florida International University. Neither was working, and they drove over to South Beach almost every day. Now Bailly works at the News Cafe on Ocean Drive five days a week. But she and Short surf on most of their days off, and they're as good as most of the guys out there.

"If we didn't have each other plus our guy friends, we probably wouldn't have learned to surf," says Bailly. "Because it's intimidating. There's like five women maximum on any given day in the water. There's an advantage to being a woman out there when guys are mature and polite and you want to catch as many waves as them and they encourage you," she points out. "But there's also a disadvantage when you have these little punks and they want to snake the waves from you."

"Because it was so intimidating at first, sometimes it's hard to believe that now I actually enjoy coming out here," adds Short. "Some days it's like South Beach, yucch, but there's so many times I've come out here and it's like, this is my beach."

And they've mellowed considerably since they first got into surfing. "I have all these memories of sitting out on South Beach, and no waves were coming in, and you'd sit there, all day long, thinking, 'Well, maybe when the tide changes...,'" says Short. "For me [this obsession with the waves] started hurting my enjoyment of surfing. One day a lifeguard friend of mine took me aside and said, 'You've really got to mellow out about this. You're getting really uptight about surfing.' And it was true. You've heard the story: If you're not on it, you miss it."

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