Standing on the boardwalk at 6th Ave. North in Jacksonville Beach, former internationally ranked competitive surf-star Karina Petroni is suddenly overwhelmed. It’s not the three to four foot sets of azure Atlantic Ocean waves stacking up on the Northside of the pier, that’s got her anxious, though. Rather, the cacophony emanating from the courtyard of the Casa Marina—a raucous mixture of drum and bass music and the hoots of heavily inebriated college coeds—is overloading the Atlantic Beach native’s sensory system.
“I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time focusing here,” she says, laughing.
Though she’d grown accustomed to a hectic, frenzied lifestyle in her late teens and early twenties, traveling the world for contests at the highest level of professional surfing, it’s clear that Petroni—who’s home celebrating her thirtieth birthday—is no longer accustomed to such commotion. These days Petroni calls the Caribbean home, living a relatively muted existence in the Bahamas, where she and her husband run a marine salvage business.
“The best way to explain it is that it’s like living on a ranch,” Petroni says of her paradisiacal domicile. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere and you have to be completely self-sufficient.”
Despite her living in a somewhat isolated location, Petroni’s stayed connected to the broader world, as she continues to model and jump on surf trips to exotic locales around the globe, partnering with notable brands and media outlets like Roark Revival and Vogue.
While she was in town, Petroni was kind enough to stop by the VOID office, where we were eventually able to find a quiet place to catch up.
What’s new in your world?
I came into town about two weeks ago. I had huge plans for my 30th birthday, like ‘I’m gonna charter a boat in Italy. I’m going to the snow,’ [laughs]. When it came down to it, I was like, ‘Nope, I’m going to my mom’s in Florida.’ So, I came in town to see my friends, celebrate my birthday, and then, also to help my sister out with her daughter who just had radical scoliosis back surgery. So, just family stuff, which I love. I actually got a new surfboard for my birthday. My husband got it for me.
Sick! What’d you get?
One of Channel Islands twin-fin templates. It is so cool. It has two big fins and a little nub in the middle. I’ve been having so much fun. To be honest, it’s just been great to surf here. I always find that inner grommet when I come home. I absolutely love it, here.
You retired from competitive surfing, but you’re still traveling and surfing right?
I am. I still try to formulate work through my surfing career. I’m trying to work with as many different people as I can. The most recent adventure that I’m probably the most thrilled about was a trip to Jamaica I did a trip with Roark. That was so dynamic and exciting. And very cool for them to reach out to me as the first woman that they ever wanted to bring on one of their adventures. And for them to want me to write their zine, that was a trip. Ten thousand words! Holy smokes.
But that’s kind of what I’m into right now. More trips like that. Where I can utilize my talents and not be confined to a jersey. I think that’s the direction I want to go, for sure.
How’s island life? What’s day-to-day life where you live now?
That’s probably the most common question we get asked: ‘What do you do all day?’ It’s more about what we don’t do, I think. The best way to explain it is it’s like living on a ranch. Out in the middle of nowhere, you have to be completely self-sufficient. We catch all our own rain water. We collect electricity through solar panels and we have a generator when there is no sun. It’s constant. When you fix one thing, something else breaks. But it’s an incredible way of life. It makes you super grateful to come to Jacksonville and be able to walk into a grocery store at ten o’clock and buy an eggplant [laughs].
Do you feel sensory overload, then, when you re-enter society, so to speak, here in Jacksonville?
Oh, definitely. A lot of my friends pick up on that. They think it’s absolutely hilarious. I absolutely love people and I think it’s vital for me to get off the rock, so to speak, sometimes and come here. I do miss my friends and my community. I definitely think I’m quality over quantity now with what crowd and what noise I choose to associate with [laughs].
We’ve had two very active Atlantic hurricane seasons. How have the Bahamas fared through all of that?
Everyone is a survivor down there, especially on the outer islands. Everybody is pretty badass. They know how to hunker down and prepare. Not to say they won’t need help. Last year, the southern Bahamas got hit pretty hard, which is scary. But it’s part of living there. Just as it’s part of living on the east coast of the United States. Places like Dominica and Guadeloupe, those outer islands of the Caribbean got absolutely devastated—to the point where all of their agriculture is wiped out. Everything sustaining them is gone. So as they get back on their feet, I think the most important thing people can do is go there. Go on vacation there. Put money into their communities. That’s what they need most.
When I interview people that surf, I always like to ask what role surfing plays in their lives. You’ve had a successful career in competitive surfing. You retired from competition. You just turned 30. What role does surfing play in your life, currently?
Surfing is part of who I am. I’ll never not understand it, intimately. For a long time, I wasn’t forced to do it, but I wasn’t really sure if [surfing] was what I wanted to do. I felt like I had other people deciding for me. It’s taken a long time for me to step back and figure out who I am. Through my competitive career, getting massive endorsements at such a young age, winning events, it all came so fast. It was hard to digest what I was really doing—if I really loved it.
Now that that part of my life is over, I’ve been able to sit back and reconnect with surfing. It’s something that I really enjoy. It’s become a quality over quantity thing. I’m picky, but it’s not like I only want to surf the best waves in the world. I could surf in Atlantic Beach. And for me, it’s just moments that I relish in. Yesterday, I surfed with friends that I’ve known since I was ten at the North Jetties. That was so special to me. I got so high off of it. I felt reborn. Dane [Jefferys] was laughing at me. ‘Karina you’re such a grom!’ [laughs]. I savor those moments. I don’t surf everyday. I could never live away from the ocean, though. I know that for certain.
So do you follow the WSL stuff? You watch the comps? Play Fantasy Surfer?
Meh. No. I watch some of the events. I was really into the Bell’s event. Mick’s last one. I was fired up to see Caroline Marks—the first woman to qualify from the East Coast since me. I was so jazzed. I couldn’t be anymore excited. But, for me, the contests are so subjective. Not to say it should be abolished. But don’t lose that essence. It’s surfing. It’s not a tennis court. There’s a lot more to it.
What do you miss about Northeast Florida. Is there anything you HAVE to do when you come home?
Nothing in particular. I just really love this place. I should be an advocate for the city of Jacksonville.
Get in touch with the Jax Chamber!
I know, right! I love getting on the ferry, getting boiled peanuts. I think it’s one of the best kept secrets in the whole U.S. Every time I come home, I thoroughly enjoy it. It ticks off all the boxes. There is no other surfy, beach town in the U.S. that I’d rather live. You couldn’t pay me to live in California. I base a town off of how they treat you in traffic. Here I get waved into traffic. It’s not because I’m blonde. It’s because people are nice. It’s truly a beautiful place.