A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. With hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline, our state

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. With hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline, our state

Our State Knows Best: Surfing

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.

With hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline, our state has no shortage of spots to surf — which explains the countless North Carolinians eager to spend their days at the beach, catching waves and riding barrels. For many folks, surfing is not only a thrilling pastime but also a lifestyle that lends itself to travel and exploration.

“Surfing has been an inspiration to me,” says Robert Farmer, founder of Farmdog Surf School in Nags Head. “It keeps me wanting to be physically fit and active, it’s inspired me to travel the world, and I’ve made a career out of it. You don’t have to be a star surfer to benefit from it — I think that’s important for people to know. It’s something you can have a lifelong commitment to.”

Feeling stoked on surfing? We chatted with Farmer and two other surfing experts — International Surfing Association World Longboard Surfing gold medalist Tony Silvagni in Carolina Beach and East Coast surfing legend Jo Pickett in Wilmington — to hear about their gnarliest surfing stories, their favorite spots to catch waves, and their advice for rookie surfers.

Our experts



Robert Farmer
Founder of Farmdog Surf School in Nags Head who has been surfing and teaching for more than 20 years
Tony Silvagni
Former ISA World Longboard Surfing Champion and founder of Tony Silvagni Surf School in Carolina Beach
Jo Pickett
Former U.S. National Shortboard Champion and founder of Crystal South Surf Camp in Wrightsville Beach

When did you start surfing?

Robert Farmer: I started surfing in the early ’90s. I was in my early 20s, and I moved to the Outer Banks specifically to learn how to surf. I moved to Nags Head. I think I had this romanticized idea of being part of something bigger than myself and the wisdom that gets imparted to you from being in the ocean. It’s just one of those things I dreamed about when I was a kid. I always remember thinking that I wanted to learn how to surf.

Tony Silvagni: I started surfing when I was about 5 years old. My parents would push me in on a bodyboard, and I would stand up on it. Then I met a local kid from this area who surfed, Cory Mullen, when we moved from Williamsburg, Pennsylvania. It was really new and fresh for us, especially coming from somewhere where we didn’t visit the ocean much.

Jo Pickett: It was 1971. I’m 65 years old, and I’ve been surfing for 50 years. I had seen surfboards — I was 15 at the time — but I didn’t know how to get one. I grew up in Brunswick County, and the beach that I frequented was Ocean Isle. One day, a friend had a mid-length board and offered it to me and a girlfriend, and we caught waves and were just ecstatic. By the time I went to college, I went to UNC Wilmington so that I could surf between work and school.

What does surfing mean to you?

Tony Silvagni: It’s everything to me. My entire lifestyle revolves around surfing. I feel like I live by the motto, “To travel is to live and to learn,” and I think that since I’ve been to all these countries, it’s broadened my horizons. I’ve been able to visit and see other countries around the world and adapt to their cultures and learn different languages. With surfing, this is what I live for each and every day. I breathe and live the salt life.

What’s the best part of getting out there on your board?

Robert Farmer: I just think it’s so beautiful to be in the ocean. It’s always rewarding from a physical beauty standpoint — it’s stunning. You’re out on the water with the interplay of light and water and the way waves interact with the shoreline and the sandbars. Even when it’s scary, it’s beautiful.

Tony Silvagni: The thrill of standing up on your first wave. Or the thrill of riding one of the largest waves and having that exhilaration of making the drop and going down the line and doing maneuvers on it. I think that’s the best feeling. Many people feel like riding in the barrel, or tube, of the wave is probably one of the most thrilling parts of surfing, too.

Jo Pickett: I just love being in the ocean. When we get to this point in life, it’s therapy and it’s solace and it’s meditation and it’s life. It’s a vital part of my life.

OK, that sounds amazing. So what challenges should a new surfer expect?

Robert Farmer: By its very nature, [surfing is] unpredictable. No two waves are the same, so you have to be able to adapt in the moment to every single wave. You can have a very general idea as to what the wave’s going to do, but you have to be able to adapt on the fly while you’re riding the wave. It’s a huge mental challenge more so than physical. I always tell people when I’m doing lessons with them, “No. 1, don’t look at standing up and riding waves as success or failure.” Being out in the ocean is a reward in itself. You’re doing something really smart and you’re getting out in nature and you’re a part of something that’s bigger than you.

The other thing I always tell people is not to expect a linear skill growth, because every wave is different. You might go out on a day and those waves just happen to be really conducive for you to learn and progress, and not even the next day — in an hour! — the ocean can be totally different and you’re just getting destroyed on every wave. So don’t beat yourself up because the ocean’s going to do that for you.

Tony Silvagni: I think the most challenging part of surfing, for many people, is learning how to paddle through the break to get to the lineup. When I say lineup, it’s where the waves are breaking farther out. They get discouraged because they use so much energy and they have to learn technique in order to maneuver through that lineup.

Jo Pickett: It does require a certain amount of discipline when you’re not young to be able to operate at this level. For me, what I do is I train regularly. I surf about 300 days a year.

How does it feel to catch a wave?

Robert Farmer: It’s interesting; it’s really hard to describe. You’re paddling, and there’s just a split second where the forward momentum that you’re generating from paddling is almost imperceptibly transferred between what you’re doing and the wave — it’s a controlled fall. You’re lying down, so you’re using that moment, that split second, to gauge when to pop up and what your path is going to be across the wave face. There’s a corny old phrase, “Only a surfer knows the feeling,” and that’s such a true saying. It’s almost impossible to describe. You’ll know it when it happens to you. I will say this: It’s not dull. Let’s put it that way.

What’s your most memorable, sticks-with-you surfing experience?

Robert Farmer: I remember the first time I stood up — I’ll never forget that. I was so thrilled. I’d been struggling. Everyone struggles at the beginning, and I went out on a really crummy day all by myself and I just figured it all out. It just happened and it was really awesome.

Tony Silvagni: Accolades-wise, definitely winning the gold medal at the ISA World Surfing Games. But I think some of my best experiences have been surfing some exotic surf breaks that I’d never surfed before and getting acclimated to that break. It’s just the coolest feeling. I think you become stagnant when you surf the same break over and over again. I’ve been to Cloudbreak [a world-class wave that breaks off of Fiji], the Maldives, and I’ve gone to a couple of other spots that were just incredible, like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Japan.

Jo Pickett: I remember the first wave that I actually really rode. I remember it because it was such a landmark event. It took me all summer to figure out how to stand on the surfboard that I bought — all summer! I mean, really. I got beat to a pulp, but at 16 years old, who cares? I was ecstatic. I was jubilant. When I finished the wave, I paddled in and went straight to the beach, and everybody that had watched me struggle all summer cheered and clapped. It was a huge celebration. And I didn’t go back out. I just enjoyed that one moment of I finally did it.

Let’s talk about surf culture. What makes it so unique?

Robert Farmer: First of all, I don’t think there’s one universal surf culture. I think there’s sort of a popularized surf culture that you get from movies and media, and that’s part of it. There’s that part of surfing that’s sort of the Spicoli or the Gary Busey in Big Wednesday. But surfing has a culture in the same way that music has a culture. There are many different tribes: There are people who only ride longboards, and that’s a culture, and there are people who only ride retro longboards, and that’s a culture. I think what’s broadly appealing about it is the association of personal freedom that you get from riding a wave that you don’t really get anywhere else. It’s just a purely individual pursuit, and it takes a lot of effort and dedication to get good at it. I think there’s some jealousy among the masses that there are people who get to hang out on the beach and surf all the time.

Jo Pickett: Many cultures are unique: skate culture, snow culture. This has its own language, and right now, when we have world championship tour events going on, many of us are glued to the screen just like baseball fans and football fans. It has many similarities to other cultures. The activity itself is unique, but when people take to something and they decide to stay with it, it just turns into a really fun social environment as well as an active pursuit.

What’s your No. 1 tip for beginners?

Robert Farmer: I had a surfing mentor who helped me learn, and this guy said to me two things that I continue to tell people, and they are very perfect metaphors not only for surfing but also for life. One of them is, “You have to catch the wave, you can’t let the wave catch you.” I think that’s a really good way to describe how you have to learn how to surf, but also how to proceed through life. You can’t just lie there and let waves push you in. That’s not surfing.

Another time, we were going surfing and there were a whole bunch of people in the water, and I was like, “I don’t know, man, it’s really crowded.” And he goes, “Just surf the wave, don’t surf the crowd.” And if you look at it that way, there’s no one in the water. It’s a great philosophy to have that also stops you from being a follower. You can sort of dance to your own drumbeat — if you’re not constantly thinking about what the crowd’s doing, you can find your own way.

Tony Silvagni: They need to know that a soft-top board is the best surfboard to start out on for safety reasons. A soft-top board is the best way to go because it has plastic fins, has a leash on the back of the board, is made out of foam, and doesn’t have a hard shell to it. Hard-top boards are epoxy or polyester surfboards, and they have sharp fiberglass fins that are very responsive and have a really good turning radius. It’s really important that you choose the right board.

Jo Pickett: For a complete beginner, I can tell you that a lot of my longtime friends recommend that the person get a lesson before they ever approach the ocean with a surfboard. That would be the first step — to learn about the environment that they are stepping into and to take advantage of the resources available to them. In other words, I would not advise walking out on the beach with a surfboard under their arm and plunging into the ocean with the surfboard. I would want to do a little bit of research first.

Got it! We’re doing some research before we dive in. What are some common mistakes that newbies make?

Robert Farmer: Say you’ve caught a wave and you’ve stood up on your board and the first thing you do is look down. It’s like driving or riding a bike. If you look down, you’re gonna wreck. So keep your head up and look where you want to go. Enjoy it!

Tony Silvagni: The most common mistake that I see is, [when heading out from shore], allowing the surfboard to get parallel to your body — in between you and the wave. In that case, it can hit you in your face, so it’s really important to keep the [tip of the] surfboard facing out toward the horizon. I would also say that some people don’t understand the concept of having surf wax; they end up waxing the bottom of the board, which is inaccurate. That’s for snowboarding. You always wax the top surface of the board for grip.

Jo Pickett: They don’t know how to manage their equipment and be safe in the environment where they’re sharing the waves with other surfers, swimmers, other beginners, and sea life. There are lots of variables there, and it’s a big playing field. For someone who has no familiarity, there’s a lot to figure out.

What are the best surf conditions for beginners?

Tony Silvagni: The best surf conditions for beginners would be glassy, and when I say glassy, that means that the water’s smooth and it doesn’t have a lot of surface chop from the wind. Also, when the waves are at least one to two feet. I think the misconception for people is that they watch surf movies and think that if the surf is large, that’s the best time to go, which is inaccurate. You would really want to go whenever the waves are small and optimal.

What’s your favorite spot to surf in North Carolina?

Tony Silvagni: I think my home break right here in Carolina Beach. It’s a family-oriented type of location where the average surfer — an intermediate or advanced surfer, or a first-time novice — can really take full advantage of great waves.

Jo Pickett: In the upper part of the Outer Banks, the continental shelf is less extensive, so a lot more energy impacts the shoreline there, and the waves are much more powerful. That’s where, for many, many years, I participated in the Eastern Championship that the Eastern Surfing Association holds. I had a lot of fun there, but on the home front, I’ve had a lot of good sessions at Wrightsville and Carolina Beach. There are other islands, too, that we access. I’m not going to name any names, but there are islands that we access by boat that we also enjoy.

Robert Farmer: I love surfing in Nags Head, and I love surfing north of Rodanthe at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve surfed a ton of places in North Carolina that have been really fun. I’ve surfed in Wrightsville Beach, and I’ve surfed Atlantic Beach. Let me put it this way: There are no bad places to surf in North Carolina.

This story was published on May 13, 2021

Zach Skillings

Zach was a spring 2021 editorial intern at Our State.