Tommy Days

The Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic has grown annually in its decade-long history, becoming a reputable event in the southeast surfing community.  With the addition of numerous sponsorships, media attention, night-time surfing, and a jet-ski powered aerial competition, this year’s contest potentially marked a step beyond regional recognition.

Flagler once received significant surfing notoriety during Frieda Zamba’s string of Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world title wins in the late 1980s.  In those days, Tommy and I and a whole gang of us were just learning to surf.  We quickly became obsessed with the sport, our lives subsumed by it.

We learned the talk.

“Did you see that rail grab air that Virginiak did yesterday?”

“Shit yeah, it was rad! … did you see mine?”

We donned the gear .

“Hey Ben, I just got picked up by Instinct… yeah, Hawk brought over a box of new tee’s and trunks and stuff. Where’s yours?  Oh yeah, forgot, you’re not sponsored.“

We plastered magazine posters on our walls and slowmo’d VHS videos of surf idols.

“Man, Wess, I don’t care what you say. Occy will beat down Curren any day of the week.”

“Look at his backside off-the-top at Jeffrey’s.”

We pitted ourselves against one another in ESA contests.

“Man, I knew you had me in that last heat.  But you know I hurt my knee skating last week…..uh huh, not at full strength really.”

A competitive streak dwelled among us, but it was low-key.  Mostly, we just wanted to surf the Flagler Beach pier, together.

A hierarchy existed at the pier back then with Flea Shaw, Frieda Zamba and a few others perched on top, catching the majority of set waves. I recall several of the older guys who regulated the peak, their colorful names like Scram, Doc, Marco, Dennis, Hawk, Merv the Perv, and Merle, to name a few.  They were a territorial bunch, tough and ready to scrap any out-of-towner who tried muscling into waves. They drank their beers in the morning and barrels and carving cutbacks by noon.  They egged vehicles, jumped on hoods, slashed tires, broke windows—anything to keep the crowds thin and non-locals out. And afterward, when the police came asking questions, the only report was a chuckle and a sigh: “You’ll never catch Scrambo.”

We, the grommets, were near the bottom of the heap, not far above other kooks and non-locals.    The older crew called us “skillet lickers” or “mullet stompers” for the way we surfed: choppy and erratic.  Eventually, through dedication, some of us got our own name and a place in the lineup.  The whole process felt like something. Tommy grew up a part of that scene, along with the mullet haircuts and neon board shorts.

The mass of spectators, progressive surfing, and nighttime tow-AT competition at this year’s contest highlighted so many changes in the sport since Tommy’s day.  Beyond the contest, day-to-day freesurfing in Flagler Beach has changed plenty as well.

Frieda, Flea, and a few timeless others (Quin and Bob) still stand atop a fractured, at times imperceptible, lineup at the pier.  Some days I paddle out into crowds of 30 or so people and don’t see one recognizable face.  The colorful names of our youth have largely been replaced by ordinary ones—Jimmy, Pete, Chris, Chad, Eric, Sean. And yes, Ben too. Our crew grew up in surfing contests, which left us technically more proficient at surfing, but we lack the enforcement and fighting skills of the previous generation.  Unwittingly, we’ve created space for large numbers of beginners and out-of-towners unhampered by localism.

Though there are sometimes complaints about crowds and parking on weekends, the small town atmosphere remains. Flagler Beach is one of the few towns along Florida’s coastline with a legitimate foothold in the burgeoning industry of the quaint—no McDonald’s, no high-rise condos, no strip malls, and no metered parking (except for that brief spell). What was once a one-stoplight town now has two, along the road to A1A.  Coffee, guitar, art and souvenir shops have sprouted around the old Farmer’s Market.  It’s a miniature town center.  There’s even a taco shop behind Z-wave Surf Shop, in the little shack where we once stored our surfboards as kids.

The weekend crowds began to fill Flagler Beach, as predicted, following the replacement of the old draw bridge.   Several of the dilapidated bars were remodeled into near-presentable beach pubs where a strange mix of college students, Hammockian yuppies, and Daytona bikers congregate over beer, wine and whiskey.  On sunny days, inland beachgoers bearing “Salt Life” stickers on their vehicles come down to sunbath and stroll Flagler’s dune walks.

With people come rules: There are plenty of over-caffeinated police whizzing through town intent on enforcing them.   Exceeding the speed limit beyond 5 MPH along A1A is a major transgression.  We have leash laws for dogs and surfers. But while dogs aren’t allowed within 10 blocks north or south of the pier, the surfers can come to within 150 yards of it.  Be damned if you cross the lines.

Though we must bag dog poop along the same beaches we once rode on horseback as kids, many signs of an over-marketed “Salt Life” still have not come to pass—the onslaught of parking meters, cross walks, year-around lifeguards and bicycle cops.  In recent years, our relations with the lifeguards have improved. They seem to focus more on saving lives than antagonizing surfers as in the days of Robo-Walt.  I think we relate better with the police as well. Sometimes they stand on the dune walk and chat with us between sessions.

On balance, surfing Flagler is still a pleasure and privilege.  The grommets are every bit as stoked as years past, and I like watching them progress from a different vantage.  These days they come out of surf camps such as Jimmy B’s camp north of town.  A highly trained troop already know wave positioning tactics and post up contest results in new age divisions such as the “tadpole” and the “micromenehune.”  Skillet lickers for now, they will be marching into the lineup to take over the pier in just a few short years.

When Tommy lived here, it seemed we knew everyone in town. Not so anymore. But there are enough who lingered around that it still feels like home. I do wish he was here to enjoy and endure through the changes with the rest of us.

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