Nobody Knows: Inside the Other Inlet
By Matt Pruett
The surf energy in Clancy's Cantina is as thick as its famous house salsa. Owned and operated for 19 years by the Michelbrink family, Clancy's is the spot where locals come to grab a burrito, skull a beer, and talk about what the day brought -- that surprise dredging lil' barrel, a ticket from a lifeguard for speeding on the sand, maybe a nip from a spinner shark -- all everyday occurrences for a surfer living in New Smyrna Beach, FL.
The boys sitting at our table shuffle around in their chairs and pull up the hoods on their sweatshirts, somewhat suspicious of the photographer's flash and the writer's tape recorder. Sure, they're stoked on the free meal and the publicity, but they seem unsure with how sitting here -- here at Clancy's while the sun hasn't set completely-- is going to help any of them get better at riding waves. Because any other day at this time, they'd be out at the Inlet trying to outdo each other, putting their own finishing strokes on that one last session before nightfall. It would be a session that could hold a candle to any of the most performance-positive lineups in the world. But with 40 mph north winds stirring up mini-cyclones of sand along Flagler Avenue, even the Inlet, the most consistent spot in Florida if not the entire Southeast, is a no-go.
Finally and thankfully, the unofficial spokesperson of the group, Jeremy Johnston, breaks the awkward silence. "You asked what 'NBK' stands for," he chimes. I nod to him, already knowing full-well what the acronym means. "It can mean a lot of things, but most of all, it's 'NoBody Knows'..."
The rest of the boys immediately reply, like automatons, "NoBody Knows. NoBody Cares."
I'd seen that phrase printed in a ...Lost advertisement years earlier and blew it off as some innocuous, inside joke. But now, seated here with New Smyrna Beach's most promising young surfers in their hometown grub joint, it made complete sense. Consistently overshadowed throughout the years by the East Coast surf industry haven of Brevard County, at one time it might've seemed like "nobody knew" what was going on in New Smyrna. I sure as hell didn't. But here I sat with Jeremy Johnston. A former posterboy for the amateur-to-pro wheel of fortune, JJ is a three-time NSSA National champ who, after receiving that dreaded wake-up call from his main sponsor giving him the snips, thrashed some of the best pros in the state to win the historically tough Quiksilver King of the Peak this November.
JJ's brother, Caleb Johnston, is here, too. Another former NSSA National champ, Caleb's been on the winner's stand at a Junior Pro or two himself and even managed to squeeze into Surfer Magazine's "Hot 100" this year. The remaining groms sitting with us, Devon Tresher and Nils Schweizer, compensated for their comparatively less-than-stellar amateur careers with striking big-wave performances in Hawaii and Mexico, and both look destined for their own gigs as ultra-photogenic, freesurfing pros. These kids in particular (along with Eric and Evan Geiselman, who couldn't make the dinner meeting due to prior commitments) are the undisputed future of New Smyrna Beach, and perhaps East Coast pro surfing in general, all sitting pretty in the top-58 of the ASP North America Junior Pro ratings, with Eric in the #1 spot.
That's why ESM is here this afternoon. The question for us and the rest of the surf media is -- what took so long? "The main reason it took so long for us to get recognition is we're kind of a backwoods town," admits Devon. "Everyone's low-key here, and we like it that way. We like being the guys who show up at the contests and blow up when nobody's expecting anything from us. We thrive on that, being the underdogs and coming out on top."
Every crew is defined by their main hometown break. And when there's basically only one game in town, it becomes the singular life-force by which everything else is measured. For this crew, and the two generations of surfers that came before them, everything begins and ends with New Smyrna Inlet. Though officially named "Ponce De Leon Inlet," southside locals make a point never to call it that. "That inlet might as well be a brick freakin' wall," insists young JJ. "We will never let ourselves be lumped in with Daytona." To which near-decade-long ...Lost rep and former NSB pro Joe Surbaugh elaborates, "It's not a bad thing. Ponce guys and Daytona guys want their own identity just like we always wanted ours from Brevard."
At 52 years old, Jimmy Johnston and his brother Leon were among the first generation of New Smyrna Inlet surfers, and Jimmy speaks about those golden days with the expected mixture of nostalgia and sadness. "To many of us older locals, a lot is gone," he laments. "For one thing, the Inlet's changed. It's still a great break, but it was just fantastic back when it used to break out at Shark Shallows all the time. I once saw Bobby Owens ride a wave for half-a-mile out there. But all the rules have changed, too. If the tide comes in, everybody has to move down the beach. If it comes up too high, the lifeguards move everybody off the beach. That's the main reason why you don't see contests anymore. They used to have a lot of big events here, like the Aloe Up Cup. And when the Bronzed Aussies came here in the early '80s, it was September, and the swell was incredible. We had people come from all over the world and say the Inlet was as good as anywhere they'd been. That may be a bold statement, but it's true."
All too true. While he's nearly half Jimmy's age, Shannon "Hopper" Eichstaedt has already seen and surfed more of the world than most Floridian pros could plan to do in a lifetime. His well-documented exploits in Hawaii and Mainland Mexico have earned Hopper a reputation as a borderline-psychotic charger (what his shaper Matt Biolos refers to as, "no brains, no headaches"), a reputation that's placed him in some heavy company. "When I traveled with Andy Irons through Australia in 2002," remembers Hopper, "I was hanging with Sunny Garcia, and he told me the Aloe Up was the best event he had ever been to in his entire life -- driving around in a Corvette with Martin Potter, seeing chicks, stoked on the waves -- he loved it all! To hear that from a top guy like Sunny just blew me away."
It would be one of the last times pros like Garcia and Potter would show their faces in Volusia County. New Smyrna Beach hasn't hosted a professional surfing competition in almost 13 years (the last one was the Samuel Adams Smyrna Pro, a WQS 1-star won by Puerto Rico's Juan Ashton). "At one time there were too many contests," explains Jimmy. It got to the point where there was almost no freesurfing because every weekend there was some kind of competition. You can't stop growth, I know, the sport's so much more populated now. But they sure found a way to stop the contests."
Which not everyone sees as a good thing. As a 35-year resident of NSB, longtime boardbuilder and City Commissioner Randy Richenberg has been fighting for surfers' rights here longer and more vehemently than anyone. In fact, Joe Surbaugh calls Richenberg "the gnarliest guy in town." In other words, when Randy talks, people listen. And the 50-year-old thinks it's time for the ASP to start looking at New Smyrna once again as a potential venue. "I would hope that at some time one of the major companies would consider having Smyrna as one of the WQS stops," he says. "Because of our unique ability to have people park on the beach, it would be a great venue for spectators. And well, chances are you're gonna get waves."
Certainly, the consistency of New Smyrna Inlet is no secret. The place is regularly applauded as the most likely beach along Florida's entire 1350 miles of coastline to find and catch a rideable wave, even if it's flat everywhere else. It's that consistency which serves as the generator from which every local ripper is spawned -- from '90s ASP-East standout Steve Anest to aerialist superstar Aaron Cormican to mini-teen prodigy Evan Geiselman.
"There are no exits from the Inlet," says Cormican, almost gleefully. "Everything just stops right there. The roads ends and the jetty just sticks out there. It's real peaky, breaks on all swells, and is bowlier than you might think. Kelly Slater used to say how it's a good spot for getting your timing down and setting yourself up for all maneuvers -- airs, barrels, turns."
"You got Ponce on the other side of the Inlet for south swells, and this side pretty much picks up all swells, so there's no need to really leave the area," says Orion Surfboards owner/ shaper Greg Geiselman. "That's both a good and bad thing, though. In the past, the media was always down south in Brevard, so you'd never hear about the guys up here. There have always been good surfers in New Smyrna, but they never wanted to put in the effort to chase down the photographers, because it was better here most of the time. That's obviously changing now with Cormican and the boys going out on the road to prove themselves. But basically, there are two trains of thought here in town. There's that side where our younger kids are doing well so a contest here would be a good thing. Then you have others who want to keep this a tight-knit town and don't want a contest here. I myself can see both sides. When I first moved here from the Bahamas, it was tough getting into the community. There was Mike Luke and that crew that didn't accept outsiders. You had to earn your way in, and respect your elders. And it's still like that. The shapers here, like Richenberg and Charley Baldwin, still surf really well, and there's a certain respect they've earned. Hopefully, we can pass that on to the younger guys coming up, while still trying to help the town in a positive way."
"I used to go down to the Inlet and see Tom Curren and Tom Carroll," affirms Cormican, "and it meant so much to me as a grom. We're missing that now. To pay respect to this place's pioneers -- like Ross Pell, Terry Presley, and Jimmy Johnston -- the guys who opened the doors for people like me to be able to do this and make the name 'New Smyrna' mean something... yeah, it makes sense to have a pro contest here again."
The deterioration of the ASP-East in the early '90s left a lot of Florida pros wandering the coast like refugees looking for any options available, of which there were few. But let's not forget that New Smyrna Beach is the shark attack capital of the world. And just like the toothy predators that regularly patrol the Inlet trying to meet their quota, the second wave of pro surfers here, while not necessarily business-savvy, have always known what to do to make ends meet (be it a semi-legitimate contest, an illegitimate paycheck, or a legitimate job) when they smell blood. "Clay Lyles, Jimmy Lane, Jimmy Johnston," says 39-year-old Joe Surbaugh, "all those guys opened the doors for guys like me, Ron Hope, and Steve Anest to be able to stay involved in the industry through repping or shaping. Now these kids see that surfing can really take care of you. Maybe the boys and I helped it along a bit, but I have to say, the biggest influence in this town has been Gorkin (Aaron Cormican). He's the most exciting surfer to come from New Smyrna Beach, ever. Once the ...Lost videos started giving him the recognition, he stepped it up and motivated everybody. He opened up everyone's eyes to what was possible for a surfer coming from here."
From before the time he stuck the first-ever "Gorkin Flip," Aaron Cormican was on a roll, no pun intended. He put New Smyrna Beach in the international spotlight in a frighteningly quick way -- $10,000 Progression Five-Air Challenge winner, Vans/ SMAS Airshow World Champ, X Games Gold Medalist and East Coast Team MVP, winner of pro comps everywhere from New Jersey to Virginia Beach to North Carolina, the subject of full-blown feature articles in Surfing Magazine, interviews in Transworld Surf, ad spreads... Almost as soon as he accepted his unlikely destiny, Cormican immediately made pro surfing his bitch. But he didn't do it alone. An indignantly self-deprecating busboy, Cormican was nothing more than the blue-collar bi-product of a freakish celluloid experiment concocted by ...Lost visionaries Mike Reola and Matt Biolas and hometown filmers Casey Collins, Pat Eichstaedt, and of course, Cormican's best friend, John Perkins. Today, he remains one of the most enigmatic, outspoken, and distinctly proud "Eastern" surfers in the sport, yet he's equally quick to note his predecessors' role in his newfound fame and fortune. "Dave Chambers was a major influence on my surfing," says Cormican. "More than anyone, he was the guy who showed me the way to becoming a professional surfer. Plus, he was basically the guy who helped me get in with all the ...Lost guys."
"We owe so much of our success to Mike and Matt at ...Lost," admits 32-year-old local filmer/ photographer Pat Eichstaedt. "Whether it was board deals, free tickets, or trips, they've kept faith in all of us. When we were running up tabs and borrowing money that they had to pay back, they've had all the Smyrna guys' backs. Plus, the Lopez brothers have shown us so much love. What they've done for Hopper, Aaron, Dave, Casey Collins, John Perkins, and I... it's mind-blowing. One year, Cory spent 12 grand for the whole NSB crew to stay for almost two months in Jack Johnson's place at Log Cabins. We just posted up there and worked every day getting clips. Cory and Shea and all those ...Lost guys merely reflected the respect that was given to them throughout the years by all the New Smyrna locals."
"Part of the strength of that area," says ...Lost owner/ founder Mike Reola, "is that all the guys everyone looks up to there -- from Charley Baldwin to Greg Geiselman to Terry Presley -- all the old Inlet guys, they never left. Down in Brevard, all their guys are gone. Johnny Futch, Charlie Kuhn, Jeff Crawford, Kelly Slater's never around, the Hobgoods are on tour... Day in and day out, you're hardly ever surfing with the older guys. The young kids are the best guys in the water. But up in Smyrna, you have three generations of guys surfing together, and there's that old pecking order with Reese Lewis, Ronnie Hope, Joe Surbaugh, and Steve Anest still running things. That's why the amount of really good kids coming out of there is so on right now. It's the same way as the Gold Coast, with Fanning, Dingo, and Parko pushing each other. It's kinda like that when Cormican, JJ, Eric, Evan, Nils, Hopper, Devon, and those guys are out. If you put guys who are just average surfers in an environment like this, they will become really good surfers."
"Terry Presley, Ross Pell, and all these guys way before me were super competitive and ripped hard," says Greg Geiselman. "Then it went through a little down-time for awhile, and now it's come back. With such emphasis on the amateur ranks, and JJ and my sons doing well, the sponsors are taking notice of this area. That's driving this new crew to want to travel and get out of here to make a name for themselves, where as before it was kinda like fighting a system you didn't feel like you could beat."
"As surfboard shapers, we know these kids better than their sponsors," says Mark Wooster, who at 40 years old and only having shaped for 12 years is one of the younger craftsmen in the area, but his business and his reputation are growing exponentially, helped along no doubt by teamriders Johnston, Cormican, and Kyle Garson. "I believe in these kids even if the mass industry doesn't at that particular time. It goes back to us being friends first. I've known their mothers and fathers before these kids even surfed, so there's a lot of mutual respect there. If all shapers knew the caliber of surfers I knew, they'd be getting the attention I've been getting lately."
Wooster's boards seemed to be the sticks of choice at the aforementioned Quiksilver King of the Peak contest. And JJ won that event without once putting on a leash, evidence of how dialed in he is with Wooster's equipment. And the fact that he did it without a sponsor is a testament to Wooster's loyalty to kids like JJ, who are not necessarily defined by their slumps. "No one wants to say it, but we're so competitive with ourselves," admits JJ, "we try to hurt ourselves to make ourselves better. Pain makes you stronger. So in that aspect, maybe me laying tile all day right now is a good thing. Winning the King of the Peak, as much as I'm stoked I did it, is still not enough. Now I'm looking at the whole WQS, because you get one job done, you move on to the next, just like laying tile. You can't ever get content. That's the way we are in this town."
On the other hand, while JJ was laying tile this year, rival badass Eric Geiselman was laying out competitors on the ASP North America Junior Pro circuit, and he sites his family as being his chief influence. "New Smyrna is such a great place, and there's waves everyday, so it's easy to get stuck in the town," he says. "Lack of motivation and drive can hold a lot of guys back. Luckily, being born into a surfing family and having my dad as my shaper gives me that moral support. Same with Evan. But [laughs], he definitely doesn't need any additional motivation."
It should be said here that of all the surfers we speak with at Clancy's this night, everyone agrees that Evan is the most likely kid from New Smyrna to make a big mark in the pro ranks. "When you watch the kid surf, you can tell he's just got it," testifies Nils Schweizer. "Evan's got the sickest style, and at 13, he's already a role model inspiring younger groms below him. My brother Noah is 11 now and ripping, mostly from just watching Evan."
"Yeah, there's a little bit of pressure to do well," admits Evan, "but it's not that bad. I think that has to do with the guys at the Inlet keeping you straight. The Inlet's changing, too. This past year I've seen more photographers down there than ever before. And when it's good, it's hard to get waves because you have a lot of people coming from Orlando who don't know what they're doing. Sometimes fights break out in the lineup, because that place is everything to the locals."
"There's still a pecking order here, and there's not many places I know that still have that," says 56-year-old shaper and former U.S. champ and East Coast champ Charley Baldwin. "If you drop in on somebody, trust me, [laughs]... one way or another, you will pay. But it's still a family atmosphere. There'll be 10-year-old kids on the peak right next to people my age."
"When I ride down to the Inlet," explains Pat Eichstaedt, "even if it's the summer season with the Orlando people, or the winter season with the snowbirds, I still get that great feeling. Yeah, we get our high-rises showing up, but the Inlet is still the same thing it's always been, with that same tight crew keeping it local."
"Next year, I'll have surfed for 40 years," adds Richenberg, "and surfing with the kids keeps me fired up and progressing. I think they see that as time goes on, they come from a well-grounded base. I'm really proud to be part of the community here and having set my roots. My wife has been on the fire department for 25 years as a lieutenant. And being in the position I'm in with the city as a commissioner, you recognize that people want to retain that feeling of New Smyrna being a small beach town, although you got homes selling for $5 million, and developers that would like to pave it with condos and put in subdivisions every ten feet. But the people here feel very strongly about the identity of their town, and they want to retain that. Surfers are maturing and becoming much more a fabric of the community as attorneys, doctors, business owners, and those involved with politics and activism. There's been kind of a bleed-off between the regular residents and the surfers, which is great."
"Hopefully the property values don't keep going up too much so we get wedged out of here," laughs Wooster. "But you know, there's only one real break in this area, so we all grew up surfing together like family. Randy's been like a father figure to me. I've worked with him in his factory since I started. I've never really been anywhere else. And even though there's different labels in town, we all help each other out with supplies. If a guy needs fin plugs or glass, he can borrow it from one of us. And that friendly, slower pace translates to daily life. I'll go to the grocery store and see 20 people I know and it ends up being more of a conversation than shopping. That's a nice thing to have in this day and age of mass cities and industrialization. We don't even have a traffic problem here. It's only five minutes across town. New Smyrna is beautiful place with a lot of natural beauty as far as the Inlet Park, Bethune, the National Seashore, and the shuttle. I mean, why wouldn't you want to live here?"
"To get on the map nowadays," finishes John Perkins, "you gotta have a world champion or some guy on the WCT. But as long as we got kids like Cormican, Hopper, the Geiselmans, the Johnstons, and all the rest of these talented guys coming out of here, we're gonna get our glory as a community. NBK? What does it mean? It means that no one who lived outside of this place ever really cared about it until now. Now all the companies are coming in and sponsoring our guys. There's photographers now, there's filmers... However it happened, it did happen. People care now."
ESM: How important was New Smyrna Beach as far as establishing your company on the East Coast?
ESM: Who were some of the guys who helped you close that link?
ESM: New Smyrna Beach earned its own eye-opening sections in your blockbuster videos, Lost Across America and The Decline, and the place remains a prime target for ...Lost productions to come. Who helped that along?
ESM: And we don't have to ask what Cormican's presence has done for your company's success. Is it refreshing to know you played a part in developing New Smyrna's first true global surf star?
ESM: It's been a while since we last talked to you, Cormy. How old are you now?
ESM: Well, we don't think you're gonna require Depends anytime soon. Do you feel like you've been a major factor in this new attention shift toward New Smyrna Beach?
ESM: And it wasn't long before you did. Do you think that's because you went the freesurfing/ video direction instead of the competition route.
ESM: Maybe losing sponsors lit a fire under JJ's ass. He sure had the spark at the King of the Peak...
ESM: That's kinda harsh, isn't it?
ESM: Like the next Gorkin you mean?
ESM: Speaking of Eric Geiselman, you called him out in an issue of Transworld Surf (April 2006) this year as "getting paid a lot of money for not doing much." Anything you'd like to say about that?