Surf's Up! Sometimes, Sort Of...
Author: Craig Hysell
The beautiful spit of rock known as Hilton Head Island is dubbed many things by many people. Golfers might consider it a paradise; tourists might call the Island’s beaches or tennis courts home for a week; and locals might whisper of The Rock as the most pleasant insane asylum they have ever known… and the reason why they love living here.
What Hilton Head Island is not, as anyone who partakes knows, is a surfing destination. On the list of places in the world one might travel to surf, Hilton Head Island doesn’t even make the list. But that doesn’t mean pure joy doesn’t lie just beyond the beach on a waxed up stick of foam and fiberglass (or slice of Surftech if you’ve journeyed into the next progression of surfboard manufacturing) for those who practice the pleasure of paddling into adventure.
As a surfer, it is hard to describe surfing to someone who doesn’t go out into the waves, hover nonchalantly over whatever creatures might be swimming underneath them and turn their cares away from land, pointing them instead to a realm where most of land’s rules hold no meaning. “That’s a tough one,” said Dante Liska, a surfer for 25 years who owns and operates Island Sessions Wakeboard and Waterski on Hilton Head. “I don’t know if you can do it.”
It’s difficult to use terms like “mystical” and “spiritual” without sounding like a kooky dime-store palm reader or describe events on levels of “stoke” and “gnarliness” without coming off as Spicoli-esque to those who do not surf. No videographer, photographer or writer can properly show their viewers or tell their readers what it’s like to come down the face of earth’s oldest life-giving force on nothing more than a shaped stick and a couple of well-timed paddles. You have to do it to understand it and once you understand it—truly understand it—you won’t ever want to let it go. It becomes another necessity, like breathing. (See what I mean? Sounds pretty kooky.)
But, that’s the beauty of surfing—even on Hilton Head. When there are waves, there are moments to get completely lost in. And everything is good.
Barring earthquakes, wind is mainly the benefactor of waves. The more condensed a storm is and the longer it lasts means the higher waves get and the longer the interval between each successive wave—all good things to the avid surfer. This may explain why most surfers are amateur weather forecasters. While the devastating effects of landfall hurricanes are certainly nothing to celebrate, the arrival of hurricane season is. More and bigger storms mean bigger and steadier swells more often. Surfers live and die by the swell. No swell means no waves. No waves means a hole in soul.
One of the major attractions to living on Hilton Head Island is its relative safety from Mother Nature’s fury. The island’s geographic location forms a natural bay of sorts between Florida and North Carolina, an inland curve most hurricanes find it difficult to maneuver into—great for safety, but misery for surf-churning wind swells. Hurricanes usually crash into Florida and blow themselves out or pass by The Rock’s coast too far away to produce anything worth noting.
Bathymetry and wind direction from shore also play a major role in determining size and strength of a wave. Hilton Head is mostly beachbreak, producing a gradual inclination to shore. Waves on Hilton Head do not wrap around points to gather speed and size, as they do along the West Coast of Mexico, or come racing out of the deep into shallow reefs like they do on Hawaii’s north shore. Add a couple of sandbars just offshore to break up a wave’s speed, as well as mostly onshore winds, and Hilton Head resembles the absolute misery of surfing—thigh- to rib-high choppy waves instead of overhead barrels and smooth faces. But it’s not all bad. And when it’s good it’s epic for the people who live here.
Most surfers who call Hilton Head home have to travel to see any kind of decent wave. Whether it’s strapping the boards on the truck and heading down into Florida or cruising up to Folly Beach before making it to the Outer Banks, the surf trip is a way of life for people here. And while surf excursions can quickly become legendary, hilarious, life-loving memories, staying home to catch a good wave is always much nicer. And cheaper…
Shane Gould, owner of Fuel Clothing Co., has traveled all over the world for the past 15 years, promoting his line of apparel and sponsoring the athletes who represent his business. Like Liska, Gould has been surfing for 25 years, hitting spots from California to Japan, Mexico to Bali and many in between. “We have some very good surfers for living where we do, but all of them have been well-traveled to get that way,” he said, adding quickly, however, that it doesn’t make much of a difference. “Nobody from Hilton Head is on the WCT—surfing’s pro tour. It’s all about having a good time with your friends.”
And that’s the magic of Hilton Head. Everybody out in the line-up is friendly. There are no aggressive guys who will punch you out when you’re just trying to learn. You might be corrected with a talking to, but most of the time even that is all positive.
From the most agreeable, accommodating and relaxed surf shop staff in perhaps the world at Sunny Daze Surf Factory (just off Hwy. 278 before the Cross Island Parkway coming onto Hilton Head) to beginner lessons at the Hilton Head Rec Center all summer long, everything is chill; everything is helpful. There might be more aloha spirit in these waves than one could ever find along the shores of Hawaii today. “It’s one of the best vibes you’ll find anywhere in the world,” said Liska.
Of course, unless you were a surfer along these pitiful shores in these scrappy little waves and onshore winds, you would never know…