Surfin' DOA

Dania Beach cramps the style of its board-riding bunch

After a car accident in 1994, Craig Riedesel languished for two and a half years with a herniated disk, cracked ribs, a broken arm, and worst of all, a nagging fear: "I thought I would never surf again," he recalls. "All I wanted was my health back so I could surf." Riedesel, now 47 years old, vividly remembers the first time he took his board to Dania Beach after the accident. He expected an idyllic day of perfect waves punctuated by congratulations from his fellow surfers, impressed he was back. "But the police got called, and we had to get out of the water," he says. Riedesel and several other surfers had violated a city ordinance barring anyone from being in the water within 100 feet of the pier.

Riedesel, who was only five years old when the movie Gidget set off a surfing sensation, has spent most of his life hungering for the handful of days each year when, thanks to a hurricane or wicked cold front, six-foot swells replace Dania Beach's usual piddling ripples. When the surf's up, Riedesel wants only one thing: to ride the waves without interruption. More often than not, however, lifeguards and Broward Sheriff's Office cops cut good rides short when surfers violate a 30-year-old law barring them from getting too close to the pier. "I wait all year for those days when I can surf," says Riedesel, a tall, 240-pound man with cropped gray hair and an almost-sunburnt tan. "And then they ruin them by whistling at us and calling us out of the water."

Riedesel has the laid-back aura of a surfer, but he does not throw around words like grommet (a young surfer) or goofy (surfing with your right foot in front). Instead of a woody he drives a silver pickup truck, and instead of sandals he wears clean, white tennis shoes. A freelance house painter, he says he and about 100 other Broward surfers get so stoked when the waves are right that they take off work and head for the beach, even if it means calling in sick.

Broward County, however, is not Southern California. According to local enthusiasts, only two spots offer good breaks: Dania Beach and Deerfield Beach. The Bahamas block the kind of mammoth swells Tom Hanks battled in Cast Away. Instead surfers rely on piers; the pilings generate water currents that create sandbars and other ocean-floor contours, which help create good waves. Indeed, legendary surfing sites are often near jetties; California's Huntington Pier is a prime example.

In southern Broward, the Dania Beach pier is often a surfer's only hope. But the city's law, designed to promote safety, cramps Riedesel's style. It limits surfers to a tiny stretch of ocean that extends from the John U. Lloyd State Recreation Area to 100 feet north of the pier -- a fraction of the city's 1500 feet of beach. The waves usually run north to south, making it almost inevitable that, if a surfer gets a good ride, he or she will end up too close to the pier.

So surfers want the city to give lifeguard Glenn Morris power to open up more ocean to surfers, as long as doing so would not disturb fishermen or swimmers. Everything would work out nicely, they argue, because no one swims on the cold, overcast days that create good conditions. "Dania pier is probably one of the best spots, and that's where they get crazy with the regulations," says Randy Skinner, owner of Island Water Sports in Dania Beach. "And the days when [surfers] want to use it, there's no one in the water anyway."

To bolster their argument, Riedesel and fellow enthusiasts refer to a recent Palm Beach County Commission vote to let surfers ride near the Juno Beach Park Pier. Tension was high until the commission reduced the buffer zone next to the pier from 500 to 300 feet, says Tom Cook, education director of the National Surfrider Foundation's South Florida chapter. (The foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmentalism and surfing.)

Hoping for a similar victory in Dania Beach, Riedesel spoke this week to city commissioners about giving Morris more latitude to allow surfers within 100 feet of the pier when no one is fishing or swimming. "[The commissioners] don't recognize what we do. The head lifeguard's got us labeled as troublemakers," Riedesel says. "If that's the worst trouble this town's got, we're in good shape."

One day not long ago, the city experimented with relaxing surfing boundaries when no one else was using the water, according to Morris. The next day, when Morris forced the surfers back to their designated space, they complained rudely about the rules. "It's not really local surfers but surfers from the outside who don't want to know and don't care about the rules," Morris says. "I have to enforce whatever ordinance is there."

Morris insists that safety guides the city's policy. Those who ride close to the pier could lose control and crash into pilings, or they could have dangerous run-ins with fishermen. "It's a safety issue," Morris says. "Fishermen try to snag surfers with fishing hooks and lead weights. We created a specific surfing area so they can surf away from the fishermen."

Surfers campaigning to change this rule may have checked out -- way out -- of reality, according to Wyatt Porter-Brown, co-chair of the Surfrider Foundation's South Florida chapter. "The 100-foot line is hard and fast," he says, adding that it is silly to challenge the rule, because it protects surfers from anglers' hooks. "Fishermen are just a bunch of rednecks. There is no other way to say it." (Porter-Brown, by the way, is no Moondoggie. He is an articulate architect for M.C. Harry & Associates, a firm that has designed several projects for both Miami-Dade and Broward schools.)

Dejected Broward surfers have been calling and e-mailing Porter-Brown, and he has suggested time and again that they organize instead of complaining. "Those surfers can piss and moan all they want," he says. "But those guys aren't going to get anything if they don't help themselves."

The only reasonable course of action, Porter-Brown says, is to put a sign in the water to mark the 100-foot boundary -- a measure the foundation has offered to fund. "How can the Broward Sheriff's Office give out tickets if no one really knows were the line is? How does anyone know if he 80 feet or 90 feet away?"

Commissioners, though, will probably resist any sort of change. Dania Beach mayor C.K. "Mac" McElyea seems stuck on an image of surfers as slow-talking, peroxide-blond ocean rats. "Surfers are usually uncontrollable," he drawls. "You give them an inch, and they take a mile. It's in their nature, I guess."

With so much petty banter and so few good waves, it is hard to understand why Riedesel stays in Dania Beach. Many people have asked him, over the last 30 years, why he doesn't just surf in Palm Beach County or, even better, move to California. "To have your own surf beach in your own hometown, it's a blessing," he says, the soft passion of religion in his voice. "It means so much to me."

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