“Know Your Rights” is a semi-regular column featuring profiles of and conversations with local surfers whose love for the ocean fuels his or her passions, in turn inspiring a deeper connection to the Northeast Florida community and making the RIGHT coast the BEST coast on which to live.
The sun has not quite appeared in full as I climb the hill near Hanna Park’s beachfront Dolphin Plaza and catch my first glimpse of the horizon. It’s a windless morning and the only activity interrupting an otherwise placid Atlantic Ocean is a solo seafarer, paddling south and facing east from atop a stand-up paddle board. The SUP’er is Florida Times-Union features writer, Matt Soergel, for whom I’ve risen at this ungodly hour to share a surf session with.
Soergel’s been profiling distinctive North Florida personalities and spinning narratives about the area’s unique history since joining the TU in 1985. There was a story about a Green Cove Spring’s cattle rancher lamenting the “beige suburbia” encroaching on his antiquated way of life. One about Manhattan Beach, a resort for African-Americans that flourished in the first part of the 19th Century.
And there’s been plenty of surf-y stuff. Soergel’s profiled Dickie Rosborough, Justin Quintal, even Ed Romer, famously known as “Dangerous Dad.” He’s interviewed the Surfing Swami and written about the intricacies of lineup etiquette at the pier. For years, Soergel even had a surf column in The Shorelines. Taken as a whole, Soergel’s work for the TU would be a fairly comprehensive social history of last four decades in Northeast Florida. Or a bitchin’ coffee table book, at the very least.
“I really love stories that touch on the history of this place,” he told me over coffee the day before our surf session. “If you move here from Charlotte or Atlanta, you just don’t know this stuff.”
A residual swell from tropical storm Beryl is hanging around, sending waves to Hanna Park this morning. And Soergel, after identifying a set, strokes into position at the wave’s peak, which he’s already riding despite the wave barely cresting. He takes a high line across the face, before dropping down and rollercoastering back up, where a pocket forms, sending him flying down the line, the 10 feet of his SUP providing plenty of planing area for Soergel to reach optimal speed. The wave stands up and before it shuts down over the inside sandbar, Soergel’s already kicked out and is making his way back into the lineup when he greets me.
“It’s not the best,” he says, “but you can get a long ride.”
When Soergel first visited Jacksonville in ‘85, he thought something similar. “Florida wasn’t really on my radar,” he told me. He’d spent the few years prior working for newspapers in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts, where he’d enjoyed the pioneering spirit of exploring a unique and not-quite-yet exposed surf scene on the New England coastline. “We got here and stayed at a place near the pier. I knew the waves weren’t the best in the world, but we went up to Slider’s [Seafood Restaurant in Neptune Beach], went like two blocks into Atlantic Beach. I thought, ‘This can work!’ I really liked the place.”
Dressed in blue jeans and a button up shirt, and wearing glasses, his head shaved bald, Soergel exudes a kind of relaxed professorial demeanor and often speaks in understatements—a kind of California cool, perhaps owing to his formative years on the West Coast.
With his dad working for the U.S. Foreign Service, Soergel had already lived in three countries before moving to Santa Barbara in the summer of ’73 with his mother and her new husband. He’d had a taste for waves before—mostly body womp and surf mat sessions in Ocean City, Maryland—but surfing really took hold that first summer in California. With a pawn shop beater strapped to the roof of the family station wagon, they spent the season camping on the coast between Malibu and Gaviota.
“That was so influential. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but when I heard about the Australian country soul surfing lifestyle, that’s what I wanted.”
While earning an English degree from Westmont College in Santa Barbara—a stone’s throw from Hammond’s Reef—Soergel was engrossed in the local surf culture, adapting many of the area’s esoteric style markers (black wetsuits, white surfboards). A classmate had access to the Hollister Ranch, which led to primitive camping excursions and uncrowded marathon sessions at Drake’s. “We’d paddle out at dawn to stake our spot. Then, we’d run up to the van, one at a time, to grab lunch. We’d surf all day, dawn to sunset. It’s crazy to think back on that now.”
In thinking about his career as a journalist, it’s easy to draw a line between these formative days in Southern California—exploring new frontiers, chasing new thrills as a surfer, which as a counter culture activity in those days meant you existed on the fringes of polite society—and the topics he’s chosen to write stories about. When I propose this armchair psychology to Soergel, however, he brushes it aside.
“Writing was really the only thing I could do. I couldn’t fix anything. I didn’t have any other skills,” he laughs.
Soergel’s been running circles around me all morning on his SUP, catching virtually everything that breaks (or doesn’t). He began riding standups some years ago. And though he gushes about his new trip, he originally greeted this different approach to surfing with skepticism.
“I can understand surfers trepidation about [SUPs],” he told me. “It’s kind of nerdy. I get stink eye [from other surfers]. That’s OK. I’ll just go down the beach.”
“I love the glide,” he continued. “And when it’s over chest high, there’s a moment where you look over the ledge and you’re already standing, it’s a real charge.”
Switching from paddling prone to standing with an oar hasn’t been the only monumental shift in Soergel’s life since moving to Northeast Florida. In 2014 he was diagnosed with throat and neck cancer. The treatment, was brutal, but successful, though Soergel laments that he was out of the water for five months. “My surgery date coincided with an amazing hurricane swell that I missed,” he says. As a ritual, with each successful follow-up evaluation Soergel washes down the news with a frozen treat from Whit’s Frozen custard in the Neptune Beach Town Center.
And while he’s beaten back cancer, his very livelihood as a newspaper writer has been threatened over and over again during the last few decades. I won’t recount the struggles of print media at length, here, but during Soergel’s tenure at the TU, the paper’s staff has dwindled from 100-plus employees in the editorial department to less than 40.
“We’re much smaller now, but I’m really proud of the work we’re doing [at the TU,]” Soergel said. The paper’s skeleton staff continues to serve a vital function in the region, shining a much needed light on social justice issues (like the recent story uncovering racial bias in JSO’s issuances of jaywalking citations), contextualizing perilous environmental concerns (like the recent investigate report on how years of dredging the St. Johns led to the flooding of the city’s urban core as Hurricane Irma passed by our coastline), and breathlessly contextualizing city politics.
Soergel meanwhile has deftly managed to make himself indispensable, focusing on long form features after years as well-known movie critic for the paper. “I don’t know what the future of daily newspapers is,” he confessed. “But we have some great young writers, really talented editors, and we’re doing good work. I’m optimistic about the future.”
It’s nearly 7 a.m. now and Soergel will soon have paddle in and make the half hour or so commute to the <TU> newsroom on Riverside Avenue near Downtown.
“I have such an appreciation for what we have here,” he’d told me the day before about his adopted city. “There are those mornings you might ride a great hurricane swell, the waves are pumping, then drive into town for work and you’re like, ‘nobody knows!’”
Before he paddles in, I take the opportunity to ask him how surfing has maybe influenced his life choices. Has it tempered his ambition, at all?
“I think it’s definitely kept me from going anywhere else,” he laughs. “I never applied to the Washington Post or Chicago Tribune. But I found this great place, where I have balance. I got to raise my kids in this wonderful place.”
As he catches a wave in I’m reminded of a paragraph from the story Soergel wrote about the development of Hanna Park. Nearing the 50-year anniversary of the park’s founding, Soergel interviewed locals who remembered the primitive nature of Seminole Beach, the architects and designers who sought to maintain the land’s wild character.
“…its default setting became nature: The woods were left pretty much as they were found, the dunes were left to stand up to storms. Most of the park was and still is a green refuge from the bustle just outside its gates.”
As Soergel disappears into the verdant belly of the park, I know he’ll gladly take in a last bit of refuge before confronting the bustle just outside Hanna’s gates.
“I feel so blessed, so lucky, even if it’s an hour and half before work,” he’d told me of his morning surf sessions. “I think more than anything that ‘70s background in surfing led me to seek a kind of modest life with the ocean. To me, it’s still Santa Barbara. It’s a bungalow near the beach. It’s paint thinner and paper towels in the mailbox to get the tar off your feet when you come in from surf. Watching the sun go down after surfing all day. You keep chasing that. But you end up finding it in small moments, or in new places.”
This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 4, The #1 in the 904 Issue.