Sterling Spencer finds perfection along an unlikely coast
When you think of Alabama, you’re more likely to picture football, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Forrest Gump than surfing. But Alabama has a short nub of coastline sticking into the Gulf of Mexico, and while it looks unassuming, the right combination of offshore storms and near-shore winds can produce something extraordinary. Last week, Sterling Spencer saw this firsthand when he drove across the border from his Florida home to check an Alabama beachbreak and found himself pulling into pumping barrels. See what Sterling has to say about surfing in Alabama below, and watch his “interview” about the session with Anderson Cooper above.
What was it like getting interviewed by Anderson Cooper?
It was a good interview. We did the interview over Skype but he called me personally to congratulate me later. I thought it was a joke at first, but it wasn’t. I guess Garrett [McNamara] kind of opened a lot of doors for surfing in mainstream media—he really blazed the trail for me. So when Anderson saw the big swells in Alabama, he knew he had to get me on CNN.
OK, that video was clearly a joke, but there were actually solid waves in Alabama right?
Yeah, I was actually really surprised. It was just a big cold front and I guess there was a little low-pressure system off Texas too. The wind got up to 50mph in the Gulf, so the next morning I checked it in Florida, and was like, “Holy cow!” It was huge for the Gulf Coast of Florida. It was just white water to the horizon, and it only really does that during hurricanes. I drove over to Alabama and it went offshore and turned on.
You live in Pensacola, right?
Yeah, I live on the border of Florida and Alabama. I can actually see Alabama from where I live. There’s just a little body of water between my house and Alabama because I live on an island. I just get on the bridge to go to Alabama, and it only takes like 20 minutes.
So where in Alabama did you score those waves?
It’s a beachbreak that’s basically like ten minutes across the border. It’s kind of like the Outer Banks—just a long stretch of beach that all breaks pretty much the same. There are a bunch of waves all down the beach, and you can just keep driving until you find your own peak. It can be really fun, but it’s pretty much impossible to catch it when it’s like that. Nine times out of ten, you will get skunked for sure. So it’s one of those things where you just have to live here or you won’t really be able to time it right.
How many times have you gotten it like that?
That was for sure the biggest I’ve seen it hold. The video footage was just from the afternoon. The morning was even bigger. I’ve seen it bigger than it was for this swell, but it’s usually just stormy and impossible to surf. That was the biggest rideable swell that I’ve ever seen here in the Gulf for sure. It was offshore wind, and it’s rarely offshore when it’s that big, you know? A lot has to come together to get waves like that here.
How long was it like that? What was the timeframe?
It was only like that for maybe five hours. The wind went offshore at 9 a.m., it was really good into the afternoon, and then it was dead flat the next morning. It was so brutal. I literally surfed all day long, because you know it’s going to be flat in just a few hours. You can’t wait for the tides or anything, you just have to paddle out and surf for as long as you can. I mean, that was last Tuesday and it’s been flat ever since, which is pretty standard.
Is there much of a surf scene in Alabama?
There’s a crew of surfers in Alabama for sure, but they’re a different breed. They’re all like hardcore fishermen who also surf. No one else was surfing when it was that big, but there are other spots in Alabama that were a little smaller with a lot of guys surfing. Sometimes the local surfers can get a little eggy.
Do you think they’re bummed about Floridians surfing their waves?
I’m sure they’re just scared that more surfers are going to come. But it’s basically impossible for someone to just come out here and score. There are too many variables. But it’s rad when you can catch it like that, and there’s a pretty sweet vibe. There’s a huge bar right on the border called Flora-Bama where they make these Molotovs, and the whole scene is pretty epic. You definitely feel like you’re in Alabama when you are surfing there.
Were people just hanging out at the bar watching you surf?
Yeah, it was a huge scene. When I first paddled out, a couple of people came out to watch, and then all of a sudden there were like a hundred people on the beach. I felt like a hero, like the guy from Big Wednesday or something when I came in. Everyone was cheering. It was pretty weird, but awesome.