Surfer J.T. Roberts shares his secrets to success for local surfing

Surf’s up on Hilton Head

Story By Bailey Gilliam

Hilton Head, renowned for its picturesque beaches, lush golf courses and diverse wildlife, may not be the first place to consider when you think of surfing. However, contrary to popular belief, Hilton Head and its surrounding waters provide the perfect playground for wave enthusiasts. Over the past two years local surfers have dominated the Eastern Surfing Association championships, showcasing the island’s untapped surfing potential. Join us as we dive into the surfing world with a beloved figure in Hilton Head’s surfing community, who will share his recent achievements and invaluable insights on breaking into the local surf scene.

J.T. Roberts, the owner of Coligny’s Forest Beach Surf & Cycle, is not only a surf instructor but also a former professional surfer and a member of the World Surf League. With over 20 years of experience riding the waves, J.T. has successfully taught countless young and old individuals the art of surfing. Born and raised on Hilton Head Island, J.T. began his competitive surfing journey at age 8. He surfed collegiately for the University of North Florida in Jacksonville from 2006-07. He was ranked third in the world among amateur longboard surfers, the highest-ranked American amateur at the time.

Hilton Head Island’s Ryan Trenary rides a wave to victory during an Eastern Surfing Association event. The ESA’s 2023 Easterns take place Sept. 17-23 on Nags Head, N.C., drawing top surfers from around the world.

After leaving competitive surfing in 2007, J.T. returned to the scene three years ago when his sons developed a passion for the sport. Starting as toddlers, they began participating in local contests at Tybee Island, the Georgia district of the Eastern Surfing Association. J.T. seized the opportunity to compete alongside them, and together they achieved remarkable success. In 2021 and 2022 J.T., his sons and his Hilton Head-born friend triumphed through the ranks to reach the prestigious Eastern competition.

J.T.’s notable accomplishments include winning first place in the Southeast Regional Championships in the men’s longboard category in Melbourne, Florida, in April 2021. He continued his winning streak by securing first place in men’s longboard and third place in masters shortboard at Easterns in Nags Head, North Carolina, in September 2021. He claimed second place in men’s longboard at Easterns the previous year. J.T. plans to compete again this year in Easterns.

Joining J.T. in his pursuit of surfing excellence are two of his childhood friends, also Hilton Head natives. Ryan Trenary, a manager and surf instructor at Forest Beach Surf & Cycle, attained second place in masters shortboard at Easterns in 2021 and clinched first place in 2022. Alex Vitto, owner of Al’s Aloha Kitchen in Coligny, competed at Easterns in 2021, securing first place at the regionals and third place in stand-up paddleboard at Easterns. 

Hilton Head’s surfing community makes itself known in a big way.

Ryan Trenary (left), J.T. Roberts (center) and John Cook (right) celebrate J.T.’s win in the longborad category of the Eastern Surfing Association’s 2021 Southeast Regional Championships in Melbourne, Florida.

Master the waves

Expert advice for aspiring local surfers

If you’re eager to embark on a thrilling surfing adventure, take note of these five essential insights from the pros.

1. Timing is everything.

Dispelling the misconception, waves abound in this region. The key lies in understanding the tides. High tide is prime surfing time, and since tides change daily, staying informed is crucial. J.T. recommends closely tracking tide schedules, weather conditions, wind patterns and buoy reports to decipher swell patterns and wave heights. Once you master this information, you’ll discover excellent wave opportunities. For beginners and young surfers, summer is ideal as the waves are smaller yet still offer some swells. Seasoned surfers thrive during hurricane season, when consistent waves and optimal swells prevail. The best swells occur when hurricanes or tropical storms remain offshore, causing minimal weather effects on land. They simply send the swells to the coast. Spring is also a fantastic time for surfing.

2. Select your spot wisely.

While North Forest Beach and Burkes Beach are excellent surfing locations on the island, J.T. emphasizes the importance of timing and specific swell and wind conditions. Tybee Island, slightly farther out, boasts similar wave conditions and is known for its exceptional point break, ideal for the right swell. Tybee Island hosts district contests due to its vibrant surfing community. If you’re up for a longer journey, Folly Beach near Charleston offers its own surfing district, a place J.T. frequented during his formative years.

3. Gear up appropriately.

It all starts with the right surfboard, tailored to the wave conditions in your region. Hilton Head’s smaller waves make longboards ideal, while larger waves in other areas require shortboards. Beginners should opt for a thicker, more buoyant longboard with a soft or foam top, minimizing the risk of injuries from falls. Depending on the season, additional gear may be necessary. If the water temperature falls below 70 degrees, don a wetsuit. In colder weather consider booties, gloves and, if needed, a hood in addition to a wetsuit. However, these accessories are only essential for a couple of months. J.T. advises wearing a wetsuit from November to early April, with added gear needed  from December to February.

4. Prioritize safety.

Surfing carries inherent risks, necessitating preparedness. J.T. stresses the importance of surfing with a buddy, ensuring someone is watching out for you in case of accidents or unconsciousness. Maintain constant awareness of your surroundings, avoiding drift currents and changing weather conditions. Surround yourself with experienced surfers who possess strong water skills, swimming proficiency and knowledge of wind and currents. By adhering to safety guidelines and gaining experience and water expertise, surfing becomes a relatively safe sport. “Like anything,” J.T. says, “you need experience and knowledge of the water.”

5. Seek expert guidance.

Starting with some instruction is always beneficial. Enrolling in surfing lessons can accelerate your learning curve significantly, compared to attempting to learn independently or through online videos. At J.T.’s school beginners master the basics within an hour: getting up, standing and surfing with guidance. Establishing a solid foundation is pivotal to surf mastery, so doing it right from the beginning saves valuable time in the long run.

Ride the swells with local surfer J.T. Roberts

[LOCAL Life] Which surf destinations stand out as your all-time favorites?

[J.T. Roberts] I’ve had incredible experiences surfing at Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks, Lower Trestle in San Clemente, California, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico.

[LL] What’s your most valuable advice for novice surfers?

[J.T.] Don’t let nerves hold you back; get out there and embrace the waves.

[LL] What’s the most prevalent misconception about surfing?

[J.T.] A common misconception is that surf wax is applied on top of the board or its deck. In reality the wax is used for grip, not decoration. We frequently encounter this misconception, even here.

[LL] How frequently does one need to surf to reach competitive level?

[J.T.] Try to surf daily. I’m out in the water almost every day. Additionally, maintaining good physical fitness through cross-training, not just relying on surfing alone, is crucial.

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