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

"Good morning, thanks for calling the X-isle surf report for Tuesday, December 13. Come by the shop, we're open from ten to six today. We have an offer on surfboards this weekend: Buy a new surfboard and we give you a T-shirt and a leash with that. As far as wind and waves go, there's not much going up. There was a little swell last night but it died out. Maybe with the incoming tide we'll update the report [yawn]. For upcoastal information, call 976-tube."

It's been an average morning at the X-isle Surf Shop on Fifth Street. The first customers were some nonsurfing South American tourists, who bought a few T-shirts emblazoned with surfboard company logos. Next a couple of local surfers stopped by to check out the new shipment of boards. Around noon a production crew rushed in to buy a wet suit for a fashion shoot on the beach.

"Didn't care what kind of a wet suit it was," shrugs X-isle manager Bobby Whelan. "Just had to look good, so that was pretty easy." Whelan, dressed in a flannel shirt, baggy jeans, and boots, is leaning against the cash register. Close by, one of the shop's walls has been covered with pictures of surfers riding huge waves; the photos have been marked with the date they were taken and the location. "Yes, this IS South Beach!" is written under one shot of a California-size tube.

Whelan gives a tour of the store, which is crowded with racks of Reef sandals, T-shirts, wet suits, and sneakers. Surfing magazines are displayed in one corner; videos are stacked up behind the counter. In the back of the store, behind all the clothes, surfboards are lined up in row. A surf video from some exotic locale plays on a monitor hung from the ceiling.

"In the Sixties, they thought that surfing was just a fad," notes Whelan. "Now it's more of a lifestyle." But while acknowledging that tourists, models, and local wanna-be's attracted to surf fashion account for some sales, he contends that there are enough real surfers in town to support business. "Most people who come in here are regulars -- seasonal people or locals -- who are into surfing," he emphasizes. "We don't get too many people who just walk in off the street and buy this stuff because it's cool." Whelan goes on to explain that South Americans and Europeans shop for surf gear in Miami while en route to surfing vacations elsewhere because boards and baggies are more expensive -- or unavailable -- in their home countries.

X-isle owner Cheryl Rowars has set out to make the store an exemplar of community responsibility. Her shop features an "X-isle honor roll," which gives young surfers 25 percent off merchandise if they bring in a straight-A report card. (A C-average earns ten percent off.) The store sponsors beach cleanups, and sales from T-shirts benefit environmental organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation. The surf line -- 534-SURF -- not only plugs store merchandise but provides a daily report about ocean conditions.

X-isle moved to its current location from Washington Avenue and 10th Street in 1992; it's the surf shop closest to the South Pointe surfing area, and the largest on South Beach. Established surf stores also can be found all over greater Miami, including Bird's on Sunny Isles Boulevard, Upwind Surfing downtown, and Island Water Sports on South Dixie Highway. Nevertheless, somewhat dryly Whelan observes, "There's not as many as in a town where there's waves."

"Good morning, this is the X-isle surf report for Wednesday, December 14. Lots of cool things happening. Rusty ski caps, Rusty cool T-shirts, also we've got a full supply of Rusty new longboards and shortboards. As far as the wind and waves, about knee-high, a slight little northern swell is starting to show. It could get better during the day. For upcoast information, call 976-TUBE."

In 1963 there were four surf shops operating in the area between Fifth and First streets: Fox's Surf Shop, East Coast West, Buddy Gardner's, and Surf Jet. Additionally there were several places to rent boards out on the beach. If you weren't a dork, you wore flowered Jams and a Hang Ten T-shirt, and you drove a VW or a wood-paneled station wagon commonly called a woody. Surfing was a major-league scene here in Miami and all over the country -- even landlocked areas teemed with kids soaking up surf culture.

"That was the craze, with the Beach Boys and the beach movies, and everyone here was getting into surfing," remembers Mike Bellizzi, who stands at the entrance to the beach waiting for his fifteen-year-old son, Michael, to finish surfing. "South Beach was always the place to surf." Bellizzi, now a fit 43-year-old real estate broker, grew up south of Miami International Airport. He started surfing on South Beach in '63, catching rides to the beach on weekends with his mom. Soon he was skipping school regularly with a bunch of friends from Coral Park High, driving down to the beach in a van. "Route 836 didn't exist then," recalls Bellizzi. "It was a long haul, and it was like we were on a mission to get here as fast as we could. We had all the lights timed all the way down Northwest Seventh Street."

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