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Louisiana surfers ride out the gulf oil disaster — but will surfing survive when beaches reopen, or has it reached its breaking point?



A loha" can be a hello or a goodbye. Tonight, it's both. Customers are coming and going, saying goodbye to the N.O. Surf Shop — the last surfing store in Louisiana — and wishing owners Rob and Mary Carol Owen well for whatever they do next. The group is also parting with the coast and hoping for its eventual revival.

  Colorful prayer flags fly overhead next to a sign reading "Mahalo! Aloha!" in the surf shop Uptown on Maple Street. A few surfers huddled close to a wall of flip-flops and Brazilian footwear — all marked 50 percent to 75 percent off — reminisce about trips to Mexico and a Russian who surfed in shark-infested waters. Lauren McCabe, who recently moved back to New Orleans from New York, used to drag her surfboard on the subway to Rockaway Beach. Now she's waiting for the weather to cool down and make it an ideal time to surf Lake Ponchartrain. Chris Liuzza, wearing a ball cap, glasses and a scruffy dark beard, will be there, too. ("Wait for the north winds, 20 knots," he says.)

  Justin Borden says he has pretty much written off surfing in Louisiana this year, and maybe the next. Grand Isle and Port Fourchon beaches are closed due to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, as are other surf spots like Holly Beach.

  Outside the shop, a drawing posted on the window shows a downtrodden, bearded surfer holding a sign reading "The End is Near! Aug. 31st," with the date scratched out to read Aug. 28 — N.O. Surf Shop's last day in business. Inside, the mother of a college freshman asks if a few irreplaceable items are for sale — a small longboard skateboard and a wooden sign, both bearing the N.O. Surf Shop name.

Surfing in Louisiana took off in the 1970s, when surfers from Houma and surrounding parishes hit beaches along the coast as far west as Holly Beach in Cameron Parish, to Grand Isle, which Dirty Coast honored with a T-shirt lovingly poking fun at the peculiarity of Louisiana surfing: "Surf Grand Isle / Silt is better than sand," it reads. Surfers also could hit the Chandeleur Islands, accessible only by boat or plane, and catch breaks along sand bars stretching along the 50-mile chain, which is now off-limits.

  Unlike the Golden Coast and stock images of exotic locales in Hawaii and Fiji, with a surfer carving through the glassy tube of a crashing wave, Louisiana has its muggy beaches sitting just yards from wetlands and swamps. Gulf surfers belong to a small but dedicated group that's used to being the laughingstock of a surfing community blessed with glamorous, impressive surf and picturesque beaches. In Louisiana, there's no consistent surf, so surfers check weather, tide and wave reports frequently, and when conditions suggest anything resembling surf activity, the lineup forms along the beach and they ride the surf until it dies.

  When the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet was open, surfers could trail barges and catch waves left in the vessels' wakes. Wakesurfing is practiced throughout the state's waterways and in Mississippi. When Louisiana's coast isn't producing waves, surfers head to Pensacola, Fla., or St. Augustine, Fla., where the sport thrives and the surf is good.

  Then there's Port Fourchon, Louisiana's southernmost port, which specializes in petroleum traffic and oil rigs and is an ideal surf spot for locals. Kent Hornbacker of Fourchon, who has surfed its waters for 22 years, told SURFER magazine's blog, "It's all gone." Another Fourchon resident, Randy Coffman, a surfer for 27 years, told The Huffington Post, "I really don't know if in my lifetime I'll ever be able to surf a Gulf Coast beach again."

  Waves along Fourchon crash a few miles from offshore oil rigs looming on the horizon. The BP oil disaster has closed beaches there. There is no surf. Tell that to Rob Owen.

  "You're not going to keep people who want to surf out of the water," he says. "The water has always been pretty funky. That's never stopped me. Just bring some gallons of water and rinse off."

  Bring a wetsuit? "I don't think that'll help. That would probably mess up your wetsuit," he says, laughing.

N.O. Surf Shop's Rob Owen hopes surfing continues in Louisiana once its beaches reopen. He closed his Uptown store in late August. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • N.O. Surf Shop's Rob Owen hopes surfing continues in Louisiana once its beaches reopen. He closed his Uptown store in late August.

  Most beaches in Louisiana are under an advisory from the state's Department of Health and Hospitals' (DHH) Beach Monitoring Program, but "Louisiana has always had a standing 'swim at your own risk' advisory," says Ken Pastorick, DHH oil spill resources public information officer. "(That) means the water may be safe to swim in and may not be safe to swim in." Pastorick says he was unaware of a surfing community in Louisiana ("I'd love to see that," he says). DHH routinely tests for bacterial contamination in the water. If a site tests positive, DHH posts an advisory — not a closure. Local governments and the Louisiana Office of State Parks handle the beach openings and closings, and beaches are closed as oil cleanup continues. Surfers in Louisiana are accustomed to these conditions.

  "If you've lived in Louisiana all your life, when you swam in Pontchartrain or Grand Isle, chances are you swam in those waters (when) they were under an advisory," Pastorick says.

  Lake Pontchartrain, however, is open — but not the area known as Pontchartrain Beach, a strip policed by the New Orleans Levee Board and NOPD. That won't stop McCabe, who plans to surf the lake once cooler weather and northern winds provide a decent surf. ("I don't think it's going to be so bad. It had a few tar balls wash up, but it's still surfable," she says.)

  "Surfers are resilient. They'll surf in shallow reef breaks where if they fall they'll be skinned alive," she says. "Surfers who are passionate are going to be out there if the water is even remotely clean."

The Owens first opened N.O. Surf Shop in 2004 on Magazine Street close to Audubon Park. Following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in 2005, the couple moved the shop to 7722 Maple St., tucked next door to a Laundromat and a Middle Eastern restaurant. The store was frequented by curious college kids and served as the default hub for bayou surfers.

  "I had a guy tell me, 'Man, don't open your surf shop. Don't do it. You'll never get to surf,'" Rob says. "That's one of the ironies of having a shop. You have a tendency to surf less."

  Now, he says, he'll have more time for his passion. The shop will remain online, where Rob will sell art, like his signature "Spy Boy" line of skateboard designs and T-shirts, as well as other surfing-related artworks. He plans to keep Louisiana surfing alive through social networking and to build and connect the state's scattered community, but he says closing the store is bittersweet. You can't tell, though, as he punctuates his hellos, goodbyes and well wishes with a smile and the "shaka" sign: a fist with thumb and pinky extended. He planned a couple of shop parties — what used to be regular after-hours Tiki shindigs — to sell what's left in the store and say goodbye.

  "My wife and I created this place," he says. "We put a lot of energy into it. We're proud of it. We've been doing it for a while, so we're kind of excited about a new chapter."

  With tourism suffering across the coast, surf shops are taking two hits — from fewer tourists looking for something quirky, and from fewer surfers, who can't hit their homebreak.

  "People stayed away from coming down to vacation in the gulf, on top of an already hard year last year," says the Surfrider Foundation marketing director Matt McClain, who visited the Gulf Coast for the foundation to assess economic and environmental damages in the wake of the oil disaster. "It's sad to see a lot of businesses that were down, or kind of down — if they don't get some kind of assistance from BP, some might not make it through winter."

Surfer Kenny Keru rides a wave onto Pontchartrain Beach in New Orleans. - PHOTO BY LAUREN MCCABE (WWW.MERMAIDCHRONICLES.COM)

  McClain says Louisiana's surfers have a rougher scenario. "It's a smaller community to start with. ... And trying to recover from Katrina, then this (the oil disaster) on top of it. That's super heartbreaking," he says. "The Gulf is renowned for its water. Everybody loves to go down there. Warm, clear water — that's your cornerstone. That's the expectations. White beaches and warm, clear water."

  Business is down across the Gulf Coast. Aqua Surf Shop in Miramar Beach, Fla., saw an 80 percent drop in sales from 2009, and Fluid Surf Shop in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., saw a 36 percent drop.

  "You have to take into consideration the economy of coastal communities — that's what keeps that community healthy," McClain says. "When you have fishermen whose livelihoods are being taken away and retailers like these small surf shop owners — these are seasonal businesses that run on really small margins, and if they don't get their money from Memorial Day to Labor Day, they're screwed. That's killed them this year."

  What separates Louisiana from the rest of the surfing pack is much like the seafood industry's — and the state's — relationship to Big Oil. Oil rigs sit on the Port Fourchon horizon, and surfers along the coast are employees of or neighbors to oil and gas. So surfers calling to continue a deepwater drilling moratorium and halt offshore drilling don't echo their Louisiana neighbors. Owen says Louisiana and its surfers need the oil industry, at least for now.

  The surfer-conservationists at the Surfrider Foundation campaign to protect coastal environments, beaches and wildlife — which means a call to end offshore drilling. McClain says the organization was going to implement its call on a state-by-state basis in late April, but then the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, causing the deaths of 11 rig workers and an oil gusher that spewed millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico before it was capped July 15.

  "We understand there is a real need for oil and we have existing offshore activity that is going to continue," McClain says. "What we'd like to see is pieces of law put back in place to prohibit new offshore drilling and to take efforts that would go into new offshore drilling and put that into alternative energies. There's going to be some growing pains, but if we start scaling back — we're not looking to close down wells open today — long-term would we like to see those wells out of the water? Absolutely. But that's not going to happen overnight. For those worried about losing their jobs, I'd say, 'Well, were you worried about it three years ago?'

  "Those growing pains are going to be less expensive and less impactful than continuing our course now. What we're seeing are offshore oil spills that affect fisheries, tourism — oil's a big economic contributor to the Gulf, but it can't hold a candle to fisheries and tourism. You can't have it all. Eventually stuff is going to happen. It's not worth that tradeoff."

  The surfer McCabe says she hopes the oil disaster will at least rally surfers around their environment as a call to action.

  She also realizes another contradiction unique to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast — the threat of a hurricane in the Gulf is sometimes more an opportunity for surfing than a threat. It means bigger waves.

  "I don't want a hurricane to come into the Gulf and hit anyone," McCabe says. "But when they do come into the Gulf, it's kind of a catch 22. It's really interesting as a surfer in the Gulf — there's a paradox in wanting these storms and not. In some ways we like having these storms around."

Days before the shop's final farewell party, Rob closes at 5:30 p.m. and flips through the register's cash. Kill Bill Vol. 1 plays on a small TV above a rack of flip-flops and Panama hats. The end credits roll, Rob hits stop, and plays it again. ("It's movie day," he says.) In these last few days, sales have been good. "It's been cool. I've met some great people," he says of operating the shop.

  Rob's stencil designs — a pelican grabbing a banner with the words "Union, Justice, Confidence," a Mardi Gras Indian Spy Boy, an "endless parking lot" — are pinned to a wall above a few remaining skimboards, a more popular approach to surfing for coastal beach goers.

  "It's going to grow," he says of surfing. "We've got some good spots, and as word gets out, people are going to want to be a part of it.

  "One of the best things you can do about the nature of Louisiana is to get out in it. Be a part of it. We can get a little urban in New Orleans, but it's all right outside. I'm jonesing to go to (Lake) Pontchartrain and just jump in."


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