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Secret Swell: Finding Louisiana’s hidden surfing spots

Published: Nov. 10, 2021 at 10:08 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Lake Pontchartrain is a fickle body of water, typically calm, maybe even placid, but sometimes the brackish water turns into a tempest - kicking up crashing waves that spew into the streets, crush the sea wall, and sometimes creating a secret swell.

“People say that in Louisiana there are no waves. It’s because whenever there are waves, people are inside or they’re not at the beach and that’s when we’re there,” Keegan McGuire, founder of Pontcha Surf Club, said. “It’s almost it’s almost like an evangelistic experience you get to share there is surfing in Louisiana.”

The crew at Pontcha Surf Club finds their waves in Lake Pontchartrain.

“It actually started as a joke and ended up becoming something which was kind of strange a lot of people kind of grabbed hold of it and did what they wanted with it,” McGuire said.

The club is made up of some locals, East and West Coast surfers, and even some Hawaiian ex-pats, like George Lee, who moved to Louisiana from Oahu seven years ago and found himself desperate to find a wave. “That was the first thing that I thought was, ‘Where’s the closest break that I can go surf?’ So, I started in Florida I was about fifteen,” Lee said. “And then I heard that there were waves in the lake, which totally took me by surprise because it’s a lake.”

Lee stretched those Hawaiian roots into the club, finding a home in the south and catching a wave that truly means more to him than you might think. “I can say surfing saved my life a bunch of times growing up, staying out of trouble, having something to do, staying active. Surfing kept me busy and on a good path,” Lee said.

It’s a path he continues to carve through Pontcha Surf.

“The sense of community through Pontcha Surf Club, the camaraderie is awesome. They really make you feel welcome and there are people that have been surfing their whole life, 20 to 30 years. There are people that are just now starting to surf, and they lend out boards, everyone is super nice, nobody is pretentious about it, so it’s really welcoming,” Lee said.

From novice surfers to experts, the club runs the gamut, even if the waves in New Orleans aren’t anything like Waikiki.

“It’s not like Hawaii or California where you got it every day or every week. Sometimes you go about two or three months without having a wave but that’s just how it is on the Gulf Coast,” McGuire said. “It’s a constant chase.”

Often that chase leads to the edge of Louisiana all the way to Grand Isle, where McGuire planted Pontcha’s flag, offering up boards to visitors until Ida ravaged the tiny island. Two months after the storm, McGuire got back inside the shop that housed his boards, the building itself surrounded by crumbling brick, but inside he found hope.

“The first thing I thought was the worst case is that they got beat around like some of these poly boards. They’re fiberglass, they hit anything they’ll just start shattering, but these foam boards, I mean depending on how much water it got, it’s probably not waterlogged it’s fine,” McGuire said.

The building took on at least a foot of water and some of the equipment got tossed around, but even still, McGuire isn’t prepared to bring the Pontcha Crew back down to Grand Isle, not with the massive cleanup and rebuilding effort underway.

“With everything outside, I mean I don’t even know what to say about something like that. There’s really nothing to say, you just sit there and almost want to cry. Something that you’ve seen, you don’t recognize any landmarks or anything like that,” McGuire said.

Still, somehow, McGuire finds a way to smile while recovering a few boards to bring back to the lake.

“Everyone kind of says the surfer mentality is like you’re bummed and then you’re stoked, you’re bummed and then you’re stoked. I’m bummed that the hurricane came through, but I’m stoked for the future, you know it’s that kind of mentality,” McGuire said.

While it might sound like a stereotypical surfer, there is a reason, once you catch a wave, you just can’t shake it.

“It’s a spiritual experience and it’s about the only time in your life where you are by yourself and you’re not in control,” McGuire said.

“It’s just the best feeling in the world. You feel like you’re with the wave without sounding kookie like one with the wave, that’s a really special feeling for sure,” Lee said.

It’s why McGuire and the rest of his crew will keep uncovering Louisiana’s secret swells, no matter how long it takes to find them or how long it takes to recover their favorite spots, left bare by the storm.

“It’s too hard to say, ‘Oh I’m just going to give it up.’ You know I think the thing is because we’re based around surfing, there’s always going to be water here, and hopefully, there’s always sand so [like] Camardelle says, he says we’ll plant a flag, but I’ll say we’ll surf,” McGuire said.

And that is a reason to stay stoked.

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