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Anna Maria: a surfer's paradise

Surf’s up? On Anna Maria?

Not quite yet.

While the island may not scream “Surf City USA” to some people, longtime local surfers love it when the water gets active here. That usually happens late in the hurricane season when the big storms pop up in the Gulf — that is if the ongoing BP oil spill doesn’t spoil the fun first.

When it comes to gnarly surfing areas in Florida, Anna Maria Island is one of the best, according to Jim Brady, owner of West Coast Surf Shop on Holmes Beach.

“This island is definitely a destination for a lot of people when the storms come through, when the surf’s good,” said Brady, whose 46-year-old shop sits footsteps away from the Gulf. “When hurricane season starts, it just depends on how many storms come through and how close they come. A lot of people wait for the hurricane swells here.”

Imagine storm chasers on a surf board. Dangerous, perhaps, yet still a thrill ride.

But whether there’s a storm around or not, there’s just something about riding on the roaring waves that keeps surfers coming back for more.

“It’s you and the water,” said Brady, 62. “You kind of just forget everything when you are out there.”

Surfing in the area

Brady has been an avid surfer since 1963, though he hasn’t been out on the water in the last few years. He became interested in surfing after seeing island lifeguards like Dan Miller with a board.

When Brady, a native Texan, got started, there were less than 10 surfers in the area.

Now, everybody’s doing it. As the area’s Big Kahuna of surfing, Brady has seen local surfing grow wave after wave through the decades.

They start as young as 3-year-old, Brady said.

“You push them in, of course, until they have the ability to paddle themselves,” he said. “This is an old surfing area, so there’s a lot of surfing families out here and around Bradenton — from the children to the adults. It encompasses everybody. There’s attorneys. There’s lawyers. There’s not any one group anymore. It’s like a family sport.”

Many longtime surfers have Brady to thank for starting Anna Maria’s surfing culture, said Joe Webb, a 54-year-old Bradenton native. It was Brady’s love of surfing that motivated him to open West Coast Surf Shop at the age 16 with a friend. The shop is one of the oldest of its kind in Florida, Webb said.

“Brady was way ahead of his time,” Webb said. “He brought the best and latest (surf) goods from California. He always had the best. That’s what made us better.”

A surfer’s paradise

The best surf gear combined with the awesome waves of area beaches has made surfing a fun and exciting sport during its peak season in the winter and spring.

Anna Maria Island’s location is the farthest point west on the Gulf coast, which allows it to catch great swells for surfing. By late summer, surfers will be out in larger numbers looking for hurricane swells should a storm pop up in the Gulf, Brady said.

Unlike other places along the central west coast, the island catches everything from a strong southeast swell to a northerly swell, making it what Brady calls “a premiere surf spot on the Gulf coast.”

That puts our area right up there with Cocoa Beach, which is known as the surf center of Florida and is just three and half hours away on the opposite coast, said Brady.

For island natives like Webb, though, nothing beats Anna Maria.

“The waves were always the best on Anna Maria,” said Webb, who has been surfing for 47 years.

The national award-winning surfer hopes the oil spill doesn’t ruin surfing here. Spin-off from the gulf stream, called eddies, have the potential to pull some of the oil to our area, he said.

“The spin is what to worry about,” he said.

Webb is one of the original surfers of Anna Maria Island. He was 8 years old when he picked up his first surf board. One of the lifeguards let him use the 10-foot rescue boards at the lifeguard station. It didn’t take long for him to catch the surfing bug, he said.

“I had it so bad, so bad, I’d wear my wet suit to Anna Maria Elementary School,” said Webb, 54.

Webb surfed with Joe Hutchinson, whose father, Fred, was the Cincinnati Reds manager.

“Some of the best surfers came out of the area,” he said, mentioning the epic award-winning surfing twins Richard and Phil Salick and Sam Smith. “Sam was the most stylistic. It was a beautiful thing to watch him because he was so smooth on the water.”

Surfing influences

Surfing can be credited with the creation of snowboarding and skateboarding, plus favorite Florida water hobbies such as body boarding, kite surfing, wind surfing, stand-up paddle boarding and believe it or not, horse surfing — when a person stands up on a horse while it’s in the water.

Sound insane? The idea started out as a joke at first, said Tim Mattox, who runs Great World Nature Tours/BeachHorse.com.

Specializing in horseback riding on the beach, Mattox would take photos of his clients as a keepsake for them. So one day, just to make it interesting, he asked if a client would stand up on a horse while it swims in the water.

A year later, horse surfing has definitely taken off for the year-old company, who brings clients out to the Palma Sola Causeway every week to spend time with the horses on the beach — riding, swimming and surfing for an hour for $85. People have come as far as Miami.

Mattox can’t believe how people have flocked to horse surfing.

“Every who comes out are completely blown away from being on a horse in the water,” he said.

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