A wet, skinny preteen with a nine-foot longboard under his arm paces anxiously outside the open door of Rolo's Restaurant on Ocean Drive at First Street. Seawater drips from the calf-length hems of his soaked black hipsters as he pivots on the sidewalk, waiting for an order of fries.
"It's head-high!" the kid yells excitedly over to where a guy who resembles an MTV-style gangsta is down on the pavement gleefully waxing his board. The gangsta wears a silver neck chain thick enough to choke a Doberman.
"Says the waves are head-high," the gangsta shouts to a third surfer, this one in his late 30s, who's sitting at the restaurant counter in a pair of old baggies buttoned just below his bare beer belly.
"Yeah," the old-timer calls back. "But that kid's only about three feet tall."
Surfing is a very subjective thing. Unlike a lot of sports with consistent conditions and hard-and-fast playing rules, surfing -- which most surfers don't consider a sport at all, but rather a way of life -- is relative.
Wave measurement is one example of surfing's subjective nature. In Hawaii, for instance, surfers size up a wave from its back, while on the East coast (Maine to the Keys) the size of the face of a wave usually determines its height. Since the back of a wave is approximately half as high as its face, a wave that measures six feet on the East coast would be considered only three feet high in the South Pacific. California calculations fall somewhere in-between, meaning that a similar-size wave off a California beach would be estimated at slightly higher than four feet.
Here in Miami, surfers are more likely to measure waves in body parts than feet, rating them knee-high, thigh-high, waist-high, head-high, and, if it's really pounding, like during a tropical storm, double-overhead. When the waves are ankle-high or less, it's called flat. On a lot of days, the stretch of ocean off South Beach between First Street and the jetty at Government Cut is flat. So many days, in fact, that some people assume there's no surfing in Miami at all:
"Hello, Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. This is visitors' services. May I help you?"
"Yes, I'd like some information about surfing in Miami."
"There is no surfing in Miami. You must mean windsurfing."
"No, I mean surfing. Surfing in Miami Beach."
"We don't have surfing in Miami Beach. There're a few people with those boogie boards sometimes, but that's it."
"I don't mean to argue with you, but I've heard that people surf, on surfboards, in Miami..."
Surfing still may not rank as a tourist attraction here, but serious surfing has existed in Miami for over 30 years. And not just during a hurricane.
"It's pretty much the same here as anywhere as far as the spirit," says Dave Hahn, who along with his father, Carl "Bird" Hahn, has been running Bird's Surf Shop in North Miami Beach for 26 years. "Everyone's just as excited about it here as people in Hawaii. We just don't get a lot of waves here, so we're a lot hungrier."
At First Street on South Beach (which rivals Haulover Park as the city's best surfing spot), the surfers' presence has been one of the few constants in a neighborhood that has undergone dramatic transformations during the past three decades. Surfers have been there to see the area rot with urban decay and have watched as it became a victim of misguided renewal and a certain developer's greed. While one group of surfer wanna-be's has come and gone, and another recently has plopped itself down in the area, a particular breed of urban surfer has endured. That group includes "Rat," "Fat," "Ham," "Red," "Bill Goon," "Skeletor," "Phil the Drill," "Bam-Bam," and the rest of the guys who've skipped school, bummed rides, and, as they've grown older, found some way to make a living and still be able to celebrate the arrival of a "north swell."
If it weren't for the Bahamas, Miami could be the Maui of Florida. As it is, beaches farther north, such as Sebastian Inlet and New Smyrna ("the wave magnet"), deserve that distinction A if one ventures to compare the East and West coasts at all. But the Bahamas keep a lot of ripping weather systems from hitting our shore. Mercifully for surfers, a north swell -- a low-pressure system accompanied by a cold front and high winds -- can slip through the narrow slot of northern exposure between the Bahamas and the South Florida coast, slapping Miami with varying degrees of intensity and creating as many as a dozen good surfing days in a row. On average, though, there are only four to six days a year when the surfing's as good here as anyplace else in the world. That's when people haul out their cameras and snap pictures of locals riding some fairly huge peaks.