Tybee might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of hanging ten, but a lively community of surfers and skimboarders helps J. Cindy Hill-Williams hit the island’s sweet spots.
Photography by Leeann Ritch
A tropical storm sits just offshore, which means surf’s up at Tybee Island. Ecology campers quietly comb North Beach as 4- and 5-foot waves crest and roll happy surfers into the shallows.
One of those surfers, Dave Britt, tells me he caught the wave bug from a different vantage point. “I was on a tour of the lighthouse, and I saw the break out here,” he says, saltwater still dripping from his last ride. He had come to Savannah from his native California, courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard. Now he’s a bona fide member of Tybee’s surf set, along with colleague Matt Seel.
Surveying the horizon, Seel concedes, “The waves are small sometimes.” Ankle busters, especially compared to Maine’s Nor’easter-induced curls, where Seel learned to ride.
“You’ve gotta come out here on the north end at low tide,” says Cathy Wu, who grew up surfing in southern California and Hawaii. “That’s when it’s good.”
On this scorching early summer day, the waves are really good and bring out the die-hard water sports enthusiasts.
“There’s always a current here,” explains Ed Furia of the spot where the Savannah River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Five years ago, the data network engineer and his wife moved to Savannah from the Midwest and both dove into the “excellent” sea kayaking scene. Then, about a year ago, a friend suggested that Furia try longboard surfing. One ride and he was hooked.
“This is the one time I don’t think about work,” the 54-year-old muses, gazing out at the beckoning white caps.
Wu agrees. “Just catching one wave, I’m happy.”
The ease with which this crew shares their passion, I assume they’ve all known each other for years, having met along the shore. But, no.
“That’s kind of the nice thing about surfing here,” Furia says. “You know everybody in the lineup and everybody’s friends. And new people become friends pretty quickly.”
Tybee’s surf community is a study in diversity—multigenerational, socioeconomically random, no singular stereotypes like Point Break “aggros” or Jeff Spicoli stoner-surfer dudes. I’m struck by the families, both natural and chosen.
“The surfing conditions here aren’t great,” Furia explains. “But because of that, the kids that grew up surfing here get to be really good.”
Surfers Josh Richardson and Georgia Cook and skimboarder Austin Keen all grew up in these waters, and each has earned national championship titles in their sports. They’re also inspiring a new generation.
“I started skimboarding and surfing because my brother was, and I wanted to be better than him at something,” says 12-year-old Alex DuBois with a shy smile. What began as sibling rivalry spurred Alex to become one of the top-ranked skimboarders for his age group.
As we talk, he quietly studies the surf from the shore, aware of wind direction and various physics principles that all converge to produce the wake he’s been waiting for. Then, in an instant, he commits. With the grace of a dancer he runs, bends to launch his skimboard into the water, jumps on, rides into the whitewash, goes airborne and improbably lands back on the small, moving board.
“If there’s a huge, huge wave and everyone is paddling away from it, Alex is going for it,” says his mother Michelle DuBois, a Tybee native. “I grew up here, and nobody surfed or skimmed or did anything like that.”
A moment later, Alex is back on shore. Jackson Bloess, 10, approaches him. “Hey Alex, can I try your board?”
Alex smiles kindly. “Sure.”
“The surf community is very family-oriented,” explains Steven DuBois, Alex’s 17-year-old brother and an accomplished surfer. “Each parent knows each other … and it’s just like a really close, small community.”
Lauren Bloess, 18, nods in agreement. “We come out here as a family all the time. We’ll get woken up at like 7:30 in the morning. Dad’s saying, ‘Get up! There are waves!’”
Dad John Bloess learned to surf in the Gulf of Mexico, which is also a challenging place to ride. Now, he and his children are constants in the waves of Tybee.
“It’s probably one of the best feelings as a father to be out here with your kids,” he says, “until they steal my wave.”
The one most likely to snake her dad is Anna, 14, who, earlier this summer, won numerous awards at the Folly Beach Wahine Classic in South Carolina. Anna literally dances back and forth on the waves, steering in and out of swells as we watch.
Although she doesn’t surf, Lori Bloess, Anna’s mom, credits the sport with keeping her kids well-grounded and close-knit. She also says that’s part of why she and John chose to move to Tybee 23 years ago. “I think it produces a more laid-back lifestyle. When you cross the bridges, it’s a different world out here and we appreciate that.”
The patriarch of Tybee’s surf community may well be Jimmy Manning—“Unkle,” as everyone calls him. The lean, tan 66-year-old recalls summers as a kid when he and friends would hitchhike to the island from the mainland.
“We learned to surf on the big canvas floats they used to rent here,” Unkle reminisces. “You’d ride them in on your stomach, but, of course, we’d try to get on our knees and then stand on our feet.”
The U.S. Air Force stationed him in Hawaii for three years, which is where he honed his knowledge of bodysurfing and took to the waves. Manning returned to Savannah, where his daughter and granddaughters now live. Ten years ago he opened Tybee Surf School, the first one on the island. He wanted to share his love and knowledge of the sport with others. He earned his nickname from the first group of students, who called him “Unkle” after the Hawaiian tradition of addressing male elders that way.
“The main thing I get out of teaching others is the joy I can see it brings to them their first wave, when they ride it in successfully, the way I’ve instructed them to,” Unkle says from his beach chair overlooking the surf. “They look at me like, ‘Unkle, I did it! I did it!’ That’s it for me right there.”
Unkle gives me a lesson on his 9-foot longboard. After learning the basics of how to paddle, pop up and stand on land, I get onto my feet in the water by the third wave. I ride it all the way in, all the while hearing Unkle’s patient, sage advice to help me steer clear of the jetty. True to his legend, everyone on the beach knows him, and he shouts encouraging words to his fellow riders.
There is a lot of waiting involved in surfing: waiting for a good wave, waiting for your turn (whoever is closest to the break point of the wave is the one who gets to take it), so there is time to talk and watch and learn from others.
“It’s just like in a relationship with anything,” Unkle explains. “It usually takes a while for you to get used to each other. You have to get used to the ocean and learn how to read her, read the different swells, where they’re coming from, how they’re coming, their frequency.
“I don’t try to rip a wave up,” he adds. “I usually say, ‘Hey baby, you want to go for a ride? Take me with you. Let’s go have some fun.’ That’s my attitude toward surfing a great wave. And with that attitude, a lot of times I get some of the best waves.”
The best waves usually presage bad weather. “We pray for offshore tropical storms and hurricanes that don’t cause any damage to anybody,” Unkle says sheepishly. “This year is La Niña, so we’re supposed to be getting a ton of storms this year and we surfers are looking forward to it!”
Watching the tide turn and the waves pick up, I catch a glint in Unkle’s eye. “And when the surf gets good here, it gets really good.”
Ready to get your feet wet? No matter your age or abilities, your board awaits:
Gear and Clothing
High Tide Surf Shop
406 Highway 80, Tybee Island, 786-6556, hightidesurfshop.com
Hot Sushi’s Happy Surf Camp
Tybee Surf Lessons
Tybee Surf School