Surfing VB 101: Wonder on the Waves

Virginia Beach surfer Photo By John Wright

Want to stay forever young? Try surfing, says Virginia Beach’s own Jason Borte, East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame inductee, author and teacher.

By Jason Borte | Photos By John Wright and Ed Obermeyer

The existence of a genuine fountain of youth has long been debunked, but maybe the problem was user error. All who gulped down those mythical waters or dipped a toe into what they believed to be an eternal elixir remained every bit their biological age. If those in search of juvenile vigor and a long life had instead hopped atop a surfboard and paddled into the Atlantic, the results could’ve been different. 

Surfers, it turns out, are onto something. The pursuit bestows upon practitioners boosted health and a child’s zeal for life. The secret to turning back the clock, it seems, awaits us at our local beaches.

I fell—literally—into riding waves in 1982. Since then, I’ve done so, religiously and extensively, predominantly here in Virginia Beach. From inland kook to determined up-and-comer to East Coast pro champ to regular working stiff jonesing for my surf fix, I’ve inhabited every phase of the spectrum. 

Photo By Ed Obermeyer

Having traversed much of the globe, my experience is that people are always surprised to hear of my hometown. “There’s an ocean there?” is a standard response. Despite not being known for great waves, we have a rich history in the sport dating back more than 100 years and a thriving community of waveriders today. 

Peek into a random garage in any local neighborhood, and you’re as likely as not to spy a surfboard inside. We’re a hub for the industry and still manage to nurture our share of accomplished competitors on the world stage. 

Photo By John Wright

If you aren’t yet on board, so to speak, it’s never too late to join the party. Summoned from more than four decades of intense research, here’s a list of tips, based on some of the most commonly asked questions about surfing locally, to help you get the most out of your sessions this summer and beyond.

Summer Surf Guide: How to Get the Most out of Surfing the VA Coast

What type of board should I ride? 

Our standard, gentle summer surf proves ideal for beginners and intermediates, but it can leave something to be desired for more advanced waveriders. That being said, when your surfing itch flares up, the area usually provides the medium with which to scratch it. 

Legendary surf pioneer Mickey Muñoz famously said, “There are no bad waves, only a poor choice of equipment and a lousy attitude.” 

As one who enjoys riding a veritable plethora of boards, ranging in size from a mere five feet to more than 11 feet, I can attest that Muñoz is spot on. Shortboards offer maneuverability but require some push from the ocean to get going. The bigger the board, the easier it is to catch waves and achieve that gliding feeling that hooks us into surfing in the first place. 

Choosing the appropriate equipment for the conditions means the difference between surfing and sinking.

What’s the best time of day to surf?

If I had to pick the time when the best waves generally arrive, it’s morning. The earlier the better, and I’ve found no more invigorating start to a day than immersing myself in the surf. It’s scenic, Zenlike, and I love the feeling of salt caked on my neck as I stroll into a meeting to face people who’ve dressed and rolled into work. 

Photo By Ed Obermeyer

However, there’s also plenty to be said for breaking up the day with a sneaky midday session. The conditions may not be as pristine, and the sand is scorching hot, but the water is always refreshing. And in the evening, as the heat and wind die and tourists flee to their rooms, a few waves provide much-needed relief from a stressful day. In other words, any time is the right time.

Where should I surf in Virginia Beach? 

Surfing is, as much as anything, about getting away from the endless grind of dry land. The last thing you want, when you’re looking for an escape, is to dive into an aggressive crowd fighting for limited waves. 

The 1st Street Jetty and Camp Pendleton are the go-to spots for area surfers, but they’re far from the only options. Sandbars come and go, so it’s worth scoping the beach for a spot away from the masses. 

On the right tide, there could be empty waves peeling up and down the entire seven-mile stretch from Fort Story through to Pendleton, not to mention Sandbridge and beyond. Sometimes, 1st Street is simply the only surfable place in town, but it often pays to look outside the box.

What conditions am I looking for? 

Surfers, by default, become amateur meteorologists and oceanographers. We want waves, so we learn to understand what creates them, and try to predict when they’ll arrive. 

Nowadays, apps and websites (Surfline, Magic Seaweed, Surfchex) do much of the legwork for us. One click onto the cam, and we see what’s happening in real time. Still, it pays to understand the basics that determine what we’re riding. 

Any substantial wind from the East (including Northeast and Southeast) is considered “onshore,” which builds choppy, disorganized surf. “Offshore” winds (from the West or Southwest) create clean conditions that gradually dwindle in size. “Sideshore” winds (out of the North or South) mostly just make a mess of things. Most surfers pray for offshore winds, as that equates to longer, peeling waves and, thus, longer rides. 

Personally, I love the challenging nature of choppy surf, the sort of victory-at-sea situation that leads most people running for the hills, but it’s not for the inexperienced. An added bonus of onshore conditions is that our lifeguards fly their red “dangerous surf” flags when the waves build beyond waist-high, canceling all surf restrictions until things calm down.

What about the tides, low or high? 

While I may never grasp where the water goes when the tide recedes, I’m as aware of what time high and low tide occur on any given day as I am of my wedding anniversary. 

Usually, low tide is better for surfing, at least within a couple hours before or after peak low. At higher tides, the water is deeper, so the waves are less likely to break. A fun window of low tide surf can transform into a lake within hours. 

There’s approximately six hours between each low and high, so we experience two lows and two highs each day. You can easily find tide charts online, but make sure you’re looking at the times for the Virginia Beach Oceanfront as opposed to elsewhere.

Photo By Ed Obermeyer

Are there competitions around here? 

Practically every weekend during summer, there is a surfing competition taking place somewhere nearby. Contests can be fun gatherings of our tribe as well as a way to prompt our progression in the sport. 

The Eastern Surfing Association, an amateur organization that’s been around since the late 1960s, holds small district events monthly. These ragtag happenings offer an introduction to contest surfing and a means of qualifying for higher levels of competition. 

The East Coast has finally joined the rest of the surfing world in the creation of boardriders clubs that compete against neighboring towns for bragging rights and to qualify for an annual national championship in California. Virginia Boardriders recently joined the mix, aiming to bring local surfers together for contests and events to benefit the community. 

By far the largest affair in town is the East Coast Surfing Championships, the longest continually run surf contest on the planet. Taking place near the end of August (Aug. 18-24 this year), it draws hundreds of competitors from near and far.

Is it better to go alone or with a group? 

Given a choice between riding epic waves by myself for the rest of my life versus horrible waves with my friends, I’d choose my friends and knee-high ripples. The most fun and memorable parts of going surfing often arise during the “going” part as opposed to the surfing. 

Surfers abhor crowded lineups, yet we’re always quick to text a bunch of our pals to join us. The camaraderie of sharing the experience makes up the best moments of my 40-plus years around the water. 

Many of my comrades have hung up their trunks, moved away, or passed on, making those who remain all the more special. Whenever my surf hotline blings, and the name of one of my peeps lights up on the screen, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing: I’m going surfing.

Photo By Ed Obermeyer

Are there any rules I should follow?

For nine months of the year, surfing access is unrestricted in Virginia Beach. In the summer (May 1-Sept. 30), our access to waves is somewhat curtailed. After all, it wouldn’t be good for our tourism industry if vacationing swimmers became speed bumps for surfers. 

There are designated surf zones at 1st Street (which is really 2nd Street if you’re looking for it), 5th Street, Croatan Jetty and Camp Pendleton. For the rest of the resort area, boardriding is prohibited between 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on weekends. North of the tourist zone, on Fridays, weekends and holidays, there’s no surfing from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. In addition, leashes are always a requirement. 

Parking is at a premium during summer, so plan accordingly. Metered spots are free around Rudee Loop before 10 a.m., as is the entire Camp Pendleton lot. North End parking is also free, as are the limited on-street spaces in Croatan (off limits in the early morning). 

Surfing has no official rules, but there’s an understood etiquette. Try not to get in anyone’s way while they’re on a wave, and don’t paddle into one when there’s already another surfer on it. Basically, just be cool.

Where can I go to learn or improve? 

Whether you’re a landlubber yearning for your first surfing experience, a lifelong waterman wishing you could rip like your favorite pro, or anything in between, help is a mere click away. 

The area is home to several surf schools with lots of able instructors standing by to escort you to surfing nirvana. Schedule a lesson, register for a camp, hire a coach, or, if human interaction isn’t your thing, at least read a book. The Kook’s Guide to Surfing is particularly helpful, and I’m not just saying that because I wrote it. 

Having learned way back in the era before surf schools, I’m a fan of finding a board and going DIY, but delayed gratification seems a thing of the past. I’ve been in the surf school biz for several decades, and I’m still amazed seeing kids learn in one week what took me more than a year of trial and error. As a bonus, time spent at surf camp is time away from screens.

How can I volunteer to help others? 

If you’re among the miniscule percentage of humans who have experienced the joys of riding waves, you likely realize just how lucky we are. I’ve found that helping those less fortunate to “walk on water” provides at least as much satisfaction as doing it myself. 

Virginia offers a bevy of options for anyone looking to volunteer to help others into the surf. There’s Surfer’s Healing (for children with autism), They Will Surf Again (for people of all ages with disabilities), and Get on the Board (formerly Stoke-a-thon, for local children from low-income families). 

Nothing transports me back to my initial rides like seeing others experience the same sense of wonder.

Jason Borte
Jason Borte

Jason Borte (pictured with his wife Feeling Chery Borte) is a pro champion, author, teacher and East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame inductee. He and his family live a few blocks from his favorite surf spot. For a lesson, camp, coaching or answers to your surf questions, go to thesurfschool.com.

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