It was 1963.
Thirteen-year-old Juan Rodriguez and a friend developed a system to rig a coin-flipping game against his classmates, and in a few months, he had raised $45 to buy his first surfboard.
“I started surfing because it was cool, underground and sketchy,” he says. “It was not the accepted lifestyle.”
Four years later, cars in the Siesta Key Beach public parking lot honked when he hung five, and 10, on the shores of the island — a place where surfing and skateboarding scenes writhed underground until the mainstream finally embraced the extreme-sports market.
The first board Rodriguez bought sparked a life of making custom boards of all types. He has witnessed the ebb and flow of a surf scene in a place that now rarely sees waves taller than four feet.
“He was the guru of surfing in Sarasota,” says Jim Judsen, a 53-year-old kitchen designer and carpenter. Judsen was part of the second of three eras of misfits, outsiders and teenage exiles that shredded the asphalt of Davidson Drugs to train for state skateboarding competitions.
When a cold front, tropical storm or hurricane blew through the Gulf of Mexico, they would grab their surfboards and assemble down the road from the drug store at “The Wall,” an iconic mass of poured concrete and construction scrap that once protected a big pink house from sea spray.
It was a place where reputations rose and fell for Siesta surfers, and youngsters were baptized into a scene that varied from 20 to 50 people over the years, according to estimates from Judsen and Rodriguez.
“If you surfed, you felt you were chosen to surf,” Rodriguez says. “And if you really got into it, you felt special.”
Bulldozers have since ripped The Wall from Siesta, and tides have shuffled into place with wide sand bars, which are basically speed bumps for waves. Tropical Storm Debby and Hurricane Isaac this year brought some big-breaking waves, stumpy compared with the break that cold fronts created in the 1970s, Judsen says.
“You’re going to make fun of me,” Judsen says in the living room of his house, which is on the mainland, just blocks from the Siesta Key north bridge.
He speaks with a cadence still dripping with surfer lingo and casual expletives and wears a grin as he thumbs through old photographs on his iPad. One is of the entrance to a cave in the Bahamas, where he lived for a little while. Another shows a shirtless young Judsen, with blond hair falling down to his chest.
He grew up on island and spent his youth immersed in the saltwater, creating artwork for surfboards, playing drums and skateboarding. He opens the door to his son’s room to show off a trophy for winning the 1975 city of Sarasota skateboard competition. His son is in school in Tallahassee, of which Judsen has more to say about a concrete skate park than the college football atmosphere.
Judsen, at times, lived on Canal Road, Avenida De Mayo and Beach Road, the street that once led surfers to the Siesta scene’s place of worship — “The Wall.” It was just a massive concrete structure, but it created a vertical sandbar in front of it that forced the waves to vortex each way — much larger than along the rest of the coast, Judsen recalls.
“It was a kind of magnetic spot that that attracted everybody because it had power in its definition,” Rodriguez says. “It was The Wall, man.”
Ancient Hawaiian priests, or “kahunas,” would lead spiritual ceremonies before surfers went into the ocean, praying for strength and guidance — or for bigger waves. Rodriguez says some Siesta surfers had their own unofficial ceremony before they paddled out in front of The Wall, which included chatting with people on the shore and sitting on The Wall, analyzing the surf and judging the guys already in the water — there were only a few girls who surfed back then.
“It wasn’t just about surfing, it was the tribal interaction,” Rodriguez says.
Some surfers leapt out of their cars, dashed down to the shore and jumped in. Others just came to check out the girls hanging near The Wall.
Surfers staked their reputation on a run in front of The Wall, Rodriguez says.
“It was like you had this peanut gallery critiquing every ride,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure, but it was a lot of fun.”
Sarasota County Parks and Recreation has placed shaded picnic tables just north of where The Wall stood until the early 1980s, on the north end of the public beach. Sand dunes and vegetation spread over a row of rocks that used to stretch southward of The Wall, and the world-famous Siesta sand reaches several hundred feet down to the shoreline.
“You need a camel to get out there,” Rodriguez says. “You feel like Lawrence of Arabia trying to get down to the water.”
The county is currently seeking a contractor for Turtle Beach renourishment scheduled for 2014; renourishment is something both surfers say contributed to the decline of good surf swells.
When Manatee or Sarasota County funnels sand to Lido Key, the grains will naturally drift south to Siesta, and Turtle Beach’s new sand shuffles to Casey Key. Some of the fill remains near the shoreline, and sandbars are born.
“The public beach used to be a big surf spot,” Judsen says. “But sandbars just choked the waves.”
The board guru
It’s 4:15 p.m. on a Friday and Rodriguez emerges after a shower at his business’ workshop, where he spends seven days a week making and repairing boards.
“Some days I shower two or three times,” he says of his work ethic.
Rodriguez takes a more pragmatic look at the comparison between Siesta surf in the ’60s and ’70s and today.
Certainly a 5-foot wave looks a lot bigger to an 8-year-old than it does to someone in their 60s.
“We were all a little young and all a little inexperienced,” he says. “Was it really better, or do we think it was better?”
The 61-year-old has thick white hair and wears octagonal glasses, which he removes while flipping through a photo album filled with pictures of a tan, slim version of himself wearing a thick mustache. He points out members of his surf tribe, including one of his idols, Jim Drawdy, who have died — some because of the lifestyle of relentless travel and partying.
He fully embraced that lifestyle, starting from when he graduated from Riverview High School and hitchhiked to Encinitas, Calif. He moved back to Florida and enrolled at Brevard Community College, after some legal trouble.
“I got a degree in skipping class and surfing,” Rodriguez said. “Why do you think I went to that college?”
He got married and had a daughter by 20 years old and eventually moved to Maui, Hawaii, where he shaped boards and worked for a bathtub manufacturer — a growing business during a housing boom, he said. All those experiences funneled into his work when he returned to Sarasota.
As a “board shaper,” Rodriguez was a pusher who helped fuel the resurgence of surfing on Siesta Key and Sarasota. He did the same for skateboarding in the 1970s by loading his 1950 wood-paneled station wagon with decks, grip tape, bearings, wheels and other skate-swag and posting near Blue Heron Drive, where skaters would fly down one of the only paved hills in the area. His daughter, Roxanne, named after the John Mayall song, would ride her Big Wheel nearby.
Now, Rodriguez is immersed in his business, One World Designs, which has grown to supply hundreds of surf shops — which were a rarity in his youth — with boards. His first real job was shaping boards at Economy Tackle.
Though the number of surf shops has grown in the U.S. since the 1970s, the number has fallen on Siesta Key, a place Rodriguez and Judsen say they rarely visit to surf these days. And the underground scene that shaped the sport has emerged in the modern world to be featured in movies and commercials.
“It’s a shame, because the reason we all started surfing was because it was an anti-establishment sport,” Rodriguez says. “If I grew up in this era, I don’t know if I would be a surfer again.”