The ideal South Carolina surfing wave begins, like most good surfing waves do, in storm swell far out in the Atlantic. It travels hundreds of miles until it reaches the shallows off Charleston’s Folly Beach, where it rises to chest high heights, gets cleaned up by an offshore wind, and then breaks glassy and smooth on the sand.
It takes about six seconds for the wall of water to pass through the surf zone—just long enough for thrill-seeking riders to carve the face of the wave, hit the lip, spin a 360 or catch a barrel in a frenzied, core shredding, bliss-inducing burst of athleticism.
Six addictive seconds that have made the sleepy village of Folly Beach one of the east coast’s top surfing communities.
Learn to surf
Of all the items on my “bucket list,” I never thought I’d cross this one off right here in South Carolina. But in February of this year, I found myself standing on the shore of Folly Beach, long board tucked under my arm, about to make my first attempt at riding a wave.
Surf culture pervades the town of Folly Beach, where the conversation in shops, bars and restaurants often revolves around the possibility of good waves.
I was inspired to give surfing a try after watching the Icebox Open, a pre-season surfing competition organized by Ocean Surf Shop. It was cold and overcast the day of the event, with air and water temperatures just above 50 degrees, but the competition drew some of the state’s top riders, including local stars Kyle Busey and Grace Muckenfuss, who dazzled the spectators and judges with jaw-dropping, gravity defying maneuvers. They made surfing look so effortless and fun that I signed up for a lesson the following weekend.
The morning of my lesson, I ate a large breakfast of shrimp and grits at the Folly Beach Shrimp Company, and walked a block over to the shop, where General Manager Bates Hagood set me up with a long board, a wet suit and a patient and knowledgeable instructor named J. Demeranville.
Demeranville took me to a beginner-friendly section of the beach known as Six Block, aka 6th Street East, where we shimmied into our wetsuits and began the morning by analyzing the surf. The waves were waist-high and choppy—a swell coming in from the northeast. The current and wind were strong, but the surf was rideable.
Demeranville instructed me on some of the finer points of the sport while I waxed the board in counter clockwise circles.
Despite the laissez-faire image, there is a strict etiquette in surfing. If you are a beginner, don’t try to surf with those who are experienced, especially when the waves are big. No one wants to be called a "kook"—the derogatory name for a newbie who gets in the way.
Kent Webb, of North Charleston, hopes for bigger waves at the Edwin S. Taylor Folly Beach Fishing Pier. Webb said he tries to get down to Folly three days a week to surf. "It's an addiction," he said.
He sketched a wave in the sand with a seashell and explained that the surfer nearest the peak of the wave has priority. It was also important to be aware of riptides, which you should let take you out, rather than swimming against them. And it is especially important to stay hydrated and loose, for surfing really works your core muscles—something I would comprehend fully the following day.
Only then did we work on technique. On the beach he had me lie down on the sand, belly first, and practice popping up and getting into the stance, with my left leg out in front, balancing most of the weight. It seemed easy enough on solid ground.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you rule one,” Demeranville said. “Have fun.”
While surfers can find rideable waves along all 6 miles of the island’s Atlantic shoreline, the site that made Folly Beach famous with East Coast surfers is The Washout—its bigger, stronger waves allow experienced surfers to really strut their stuff.
The Washout, considered the best East Coast break between Jacksonville, Fla., and Wilmington, N.C., is “the” spot because it’s located at the apex of a bend in the beach, like the point of a crooked elbow, which causes it to be closer to deep water and provides greater exposure to swells. Adding to the site’s appeal is a wide swath of easy, public access, created when Hurricane Hugo ripped ashore in 1989 and took out several beachfront houses. Today, surfers can pull off East Ashley Avenue right next to a public gazebo that marks the site.
Whether you’re ready to ride the waves or just want to watch some of the state’s top surfers in action, here are the most popular Folly Beach surf sites. Sites generally get more advanced as you head to the northeast tip of the island. Local surf instructors recommend beginners start at Six Block and move up one site every summer as they gain skills and experience.
“It wasn’t originally the best break,” said local surf veteran Norman Godley, a Charleston native who has been surfing the South Carolina coast for nearly all of his 47 years. He can remember hitchhiking to go surfing at Folly Beach when he was 10 years old. “But ever since Hugo—and the sand shift and the angle of the road—it has made for a unique break.”
Accessibility to big waves is the main reason that the Southern South Carolina District, a division of the Eastern Surfing Association, holds most of its contests at The Washout, including the Governor’s Cup—an annual surfing competition in August that determines the state surfing champion.
Throughout the spring and summer surf season, serious local competitors like Kyle Busey, Grace Muckenfuss, Blue Spivey and Anthony Osment compete for the chance to earn points and be invited to the Eastern Surfing Championships in the Outer Banks. There they can earn sponsorships and the opportunity to surf around the world.
But for most Folly Beach surfers, it’s not about the competition. It’s about the joy of riding every chance they can get.
“You are constantly being challenged by Mother Nature and the waves. And each wave is different,” Godley said. “It’s relaxing and refreshing after a long day of work. It’s free. It’s safe. And it’s mind-cleansing.”
Instructor J. Demeranville provides encouragement to our intrepid author, Hastings Hensel, during his first surfing lesson.
The talk around Folly Beach is almost always about forecasting waves—when they will arrive, how big they will be, and how long they will last. Some of the true die-hard surfers choose to work as contractors, scheduling jobs when the surf is flat. But when the swell is high, you’ll see a long line of painting vans and carpentry trucks parked at The Washout, where sometimes hundreds of surfers are paddling out on their boards, waiting for the good sets to roll in.
Godley, for one, always keeps a board in his work van, just in case the waves get good and he has to drop everything to go surfing. Yes, the thrills of surfing can be that contagious. And in many cases they can be life defining— the difference between working as a promoter in the music industry, as Hagood did right out of college, to managing a surf shop, as he does now.
“You either catch the bug, or you don’t,” he said.
Surfing may be bliss for those who have mastered the sport, but it can be incredibly frustrating to learn. The variables in surfing are much more unpredictable than in its closest cousins—snowboarding and skateboarding. You are at the whims of the wave, and almost no one gets it on the first try.
DON'T BE A KOOK
Ready to catch the surfing bug at Folly Beach this summer? These shops offer lessons.
Ocean Surf Shop • 31 Center Street (843) 588-9175 • oceansurfshop.com
Private lessons are $75 for approximately two hours. The rate goes down for group lessons of up to 4 people. Boards rent for $30 per day, $60 for three days, or $100 for a week.
McKevlin’s Surf Shop • 8 Center Street (843) 588-2247 • mckevlins.com
Individual lessons are $40 per hour. To schedule a lesson, call (843) 442-2782 or visit follybeachsurflessons.com/index.php. Surfboards rent for $7 an hour, $30 for 24 hours, and $75 per week.
Shaka Surf School • P.O. Box 720 (843) 607-9911 • email@example.com
One-on-one private lessons are $60 per hour. A semi-private lesson is $50 per hour, and group lessons are $45 per hour ($40/hour for 6+). In the summer, the school offers weeklong surf camps for kids ages 9–12. Price: $300 per week.
Demeranville and I walked out past the break, into about four feet of water, floating the board between us. I wobbled on and positioned myself lying down, the board pointed at the beach. He stood behind me and looked out at the ocean seeking a good wave.
"Normally, you’d be sitting on top of your board and facing the waves,” he said, but for now he would be my eyes and tell me when to go. It didn’t take long.
“Paddle hard! Paddle hard,” he barked. “Paddle as hard as you can!”
Belly down on the board, arms windmilling for all I was worth, I felt Demeranville give the board a mighty shove to propel me into the growing swell. The board began to rise on the wave as it gained force.
“Pop up!” I heard him yell through the roar of water, and I could feel what he had described to me on shore—that moment when the wave suddenly increases in strength, reaches its maximum force and begins to curl.
I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but before I could make it to my feet, I fell headlong into the surf.
I walked the board back out, and we tried it again and again. For the first few tries, I didn’t pop up so much as crawl up, and I fell every time.
But on my sixth try, I gained a little balance and popped up with my knees bent. The difference in the point of view—from looking down to see where I might crash, to looking out to where I might surf—changed everything.
I was catching the wave.
In that moment, a part of me was already imagining moving onto short boards and contests and surfing trips to exotic locales. It was thrilling, but short-lived.
After about a second, the board shot out from beneath my feet and I barely remembered to cover my head in case the board came crashing down on top of me.
Folly Beach 2012 surf competitions
Folly Beach hosts several surf contests throughout the spring and summer, including competitions sanctioned by the Southern South Carolina (SSC) division of the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA). In SSC-sanctioned meets, riders can accumulate points and earn an invitation to the ESA’s Regional Surfing Championships held in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And the surfer who wins the Governor’s Cup is crowned the South Carolina state surfing champion.
For more information, visit ssc.surfesa.org.
April 21–22 - Earth Day Challenge* - The Washout
June 9–10 - Folly Beach Wahine Classic - The Washout
June 23–24 - Summer of Surf Contest* - The Washout
July 21 - McKevlin’s Gromfest - (for surfers 18 and under) - The Washout
July 22 - John Kalagian Team Challenge/Liquid Shredder Open - The Washout
August 11–12 - S.C. Governor’s Cup of Surfing* - The Washout
And so it went for the rest of my morning lesson. During each half-second, knee-bent, wobbling attempt, I chased the bug—that feeling of elation that only surfers can know. It was frustrating at times, but the ceaseless repetition of the waves made it easy to forget the last failed try and move onto the next attempt.
I was completely focused on the process of catching a wave—finding a good set, paddling hard, keeping my body in the center of the board, popping up, keeping my knees bent—and I recalled what Anthony Osment, a 2009 winner of the Governor’s Cup, had told me about surfing: “There’s nothing else like it. Especially when the waves are good. You can let go of everything.”
I looked around and saw that we had drifted down the beach. We got out and trudged back to Six Block. My first lesson was officially over. I knew the mechanics, and now what I needed was enough practice to move fluidly, without too much thought, just like the pros.
Demeranville told me not to give up, and as we parted he offered one last piece of instruction.
“It’s not all about catching the biggest wave,” he said, reminding me about rule one. “It’s just about being out there and having fun.”