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Chasing Hurricanes – Surfing in the Virgin Islands

Chasing Hurricanes – Surfing in the Virgin Islands

Surfing Virgin Islands
Photo by Carolyn Roust

The story of surfing in the Virgin Islands is an exciting one. This might be hard to believe if you’ve spent any time on one of the VI’s world-famous beaches. The gentle ripples on tranquil turquoise bays don’t bring to mind the incredible thrill of cutting down the face of a ten-foot wave. However, those thrills do exist in the VI for the dedicated surfer.

Blending myth with reality, we hold the surfer, those who pursue the lifestyle with 100% conviction, as a mixture of hero and maverick. The path of the endless summer is admired by those who value freedom and nonconformity. So pervasive is surfing in modern culture that our language (awesome, bitchin, gnarly, dude), our fashion (board shorts, rash guards), and our entertainment are filled with the surfing idiom.

My Surf Mecca

My personal relationship with surfing started early. I associate with the cult of the wave because I grew up in one of the world’s epicenters of surfing – Santa Cruz, CA. Think the O’Neill family or many of the world’s most famous surfers and surf competitions. From the bedroom window of my childhood home, I watched dozens of surfers duke it out over six-foot rollers every day of the week. I tried surfing as a kid (heck, the only sports team my high school had was a surfing team), but I never caught the bug.

Teach Them When They’re Young

Buckaroo St. John First WaveHowever, when my homeschool group decided to start surfing lessons, I jumped at the chance to enroll my six-year-old son. (My son’s name is Buckaroo St. John – A pro-surfer name if I ever heard one.) The homeschoolers met at the top of a steep, rope-lined trail to wait for our instructor, Surfer Gary. I’ve known Gary for years, and I had been down to the bay before, but this was a first for the kids, and they were fit to burst. Gary rolled up in his island car topped with stacks of surfboards with a laid-back, “What’s up?” He led us down the ropes with the adults carrying the boards.

This bay (which I’m forbidden to reveal the name of) is ideal for beginners. At the waterline, little one to two-foot waves in perfectly spaced sets washed over our toes. Gary laid a board in the sand and demonstrated how to paddle out and how to stand, then waded out to chest deep water about fifty feet from shore. A catcher near the shore loaded a kid onto the board, whispered a refresher on paddling out, and pushed the board to Gary.

Six kids entered and six kids stood up like pros, grinning ear to ear with the triumph of riding their first wave – something they will remember for the rest of their lives! Gary’s easy going instruction makes the complex physical combination of balance, strength, and coordination seem effortless. He has all the best qualities of a master teacher.

Surfer Gary

As we sat eating quinoa salad during lunch break, I asked Gary, “How old were you when you started surfing?”

“I learned here in the VI when I was in my 30’s,” he said. “A friend saw me on a skateboard in Cruz Bay and asked me if I surfed. I told him, “no man,” so he took me out to Cinnamon Bay and that was it. I was hooked.”

This surprised me. I realized that I had known Gary for nearly a decade and I didn’t really know much about him. I knew he had the odd collection of jobs that allowed him to follow his bliss – he taught taekwondo, kept bees, was an inventor and taught surfing.

So I asked him about the surfing scene in the Virgin Islands. What he told me blew my mind.

Surfing in the VI is challenging. It’s not like Hawaii where you can pull off at any one of a hundred beaches and find perfect conditions. Here, you have to work for it. The conditions for decent waves don’t happen every day. In fact, they are rare, so surfers have to check the surf reports daily, if not several times a day. In the winter, the swell is from the north and the best surfing can be found in the BVI at places like Cane Garden Bay. In the summer months, there is a south swell, so surfers trek down to the remote south side beaches.

Surfing Hurricanes

Here’s what I didn’t know. The small and dedicated community of surfers here chase hurricanes!! While the rest of the Virgin Islands are boarding up windows and securing boats in a spider’s web of lines and anchors, surfers like Gary are headed for the surf breaks. Gary told me, “That’s it, that’s when you feel alive, riding huge waves in a force 4 hurricane!”

Gary told me that he had surfed Luis, Marilyn, Bertha, and Frederic to name a few storms. One of his life’s regrets is that he missed Hugo (which became a category 5) because he was in the middle of the Atlantic on a boat delivery.

To me, this was incredible. I had to find out more. I asked Gary who I should talk to and he steered me in the direction of Galen and his wife Sherri. Luckily, I also know Sherri and Galen well, so I called them up and scheduled an interview.

Galen & Sherri

Galen Surf Virgin IslandsAsk people in the know who the VI’s best surfer is, many of them will tell you, Galen. A true prodigy, Galen rode his first wave at the age of six. His family moved from Washington DC to St. John when Galen was four. Like me, his childhood room overlooked the break at Fish Bay. He saw the kids down below riding waves, so he found an old foam board in a pile of jetsam and paddled out to give it a try. It was obvious that Galen had talent, so the older kids took him under their wings and Galen never turned back.

Galen never went professional, even though arguably, he could of. He surfs for the love of it and feels like there are two paths for a surfer – the path of career and sponsorship or the lifestyle of unadulterated unity with the elements. He assured me that he respected both paths equally and was excited by all the opportunities youths have in competition surfing not to mention that surfing will become an Olympic sport in 2020, but he chose family and surfing for the love of it.

Sherri Surf VIGalen’s wife Sherri also figures prominently on the VI surf scene. Her story is a romantic one. She secretly hired Surfer Gary to teach her how to surf because she wanted to surprise Galen. (Gary tells me he prefers teaching women and children. “Less ego,” he says.) She wanted to join the love of her life on the waves. She wasn’t content to watch him from a beach towel. Their love was a trinity – Galen, Sherri, and the sea. Then came a fourth, their daughter Violet.

Sherri turned out to be as talented as Galen and soon had an all-women surf posse of her own. Her group (although for family reasons, she had to back out) represented the USVI at the International Surfing Association World Surfing Competition in Nicaragua in 2015. Sherri hopes to compete at the ISA in 2017.

Sherri and Galen maintained what Gary told me. They also live for hurricanes. They have surfed dozens between the two of them.

Where to Surf in the VI

Do you want to go surfing in the VI? When I conceived of this article, I thought that I would list some great surf spots and give you a little surfing history. For better or for worse, the story turned out to be much more than that. On the downside, every surfer I spoke to forbade me to give out the locations of the best surfing spots. (Although, I’m personally privy now!) Surfing in the VI has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, which equals crowded conditions, no parking, and trespassing. If you want to surf here, you have to really work for it. Find surfers and talk to them the way I did. As you earn the right, the secrets will be revealed to you. In the meantime, you can live by Gary’s words of wisdom, “Surf first, work later. Yeehaw!”

To contact Gary about lessons, go to Surfer Gary


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Catherine Turner
Catherine TurnerCatherine Turner is a freelance writer and editor formerly based in the Virgin Islands. Her contributions have appeared in many publications including the St. John Tradewinds, Caribbean Travel and Life, Onboard Online Magazine, and the Elephant Journal. In a former incarnation, Catherine was a nightclub owner and a resort showgirl. A lifetime ago, she spent a decade chained to a desk as a computer programmer/data analyst. Catherine recently completed her first novel Carnival Carib. See more of her work at catherineturner.media
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