Dispatch 37: Surf Louisiana
Interview with Pontcha Surf Club by Jeffrey Roedel
Birthed by alluvial deposits shoved and surged strong through the swampy swathes of southeastern Louisiana, as the Mighty Mississippi twisted and writhed in new ways down toward the Gulf, Lake Pontchartrain spans an oblong 630 square miles. It’s been home to native people groups, industry, ecological crises, and hurricanes. To its North lay a string of quiet hamlets, bedroom communities like Madisonville, Mandeville and Abita Springs—home to the famous brewery. To its South: New Orleans.
But now, in an era of renewed conservation efforts, and, dare we hope, appreciation, a new collective is bringing attention to the lake in a somewhat unusual way—as curious as it is cavalier.
When the winds really pick up, some adventurers have long fled the the towns of south Louisiana, boards in hand, for the coastline in search of a wave—any wave—but since a too-brief “hey day” in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, few groups have taken the pursuit as intentionally, and as creatively, as Pontcha Surf Club.
Wonder South spoke with the club’s founders about Pontcha as a social group and startup apparel brand and the pursuit of the almighty surf on Lake Ponchartrain, as well as off Grand Isle, a small community under constant threat of coastal erosion landloss.
When did you first get into surfing and skating, and what was it about those activities that really first attracted you?
Keegan: I first got into skating when I was in 7th grade. There was this kid that played with Tech Decks and he actually skated and I always saw him drawing logos of brands he liked. I asked him more about it and actually ended up asking my parents if they would get me a board. I could do some tricks but I mostly liked taking photos and videos so I ended up doing that most of the time. My parents bought a condo in Pensacola when I was around the same age and thats where I was exposed to surfing for the first time outside of Rocket Power. Lords of Dogtown came out and I was immediately drawn to that. I’ve only been surfing consistently for a few years, but skating has always had a special place in my heart. I just love the attitude of it all.
Michael: I first got into skating around the time I turned 11-12 years old. Pre-teen angst was real and all the guys I thought looked cool were wearing skate stuff. So I began to do the same, and couldn’t justify just wearing the stuff. So I started skating too – poorly I might add. I was okay I guess. And I’m actually not the surfing half of the duo. Much more comfortable with just wearing the stuff nowadays. I’m comfortable with being a part of the lifestyle without actually being a part of the sport. I’m okay with being a poser.
Where exactly in Louisiana do you go surfing? And when are the best times to surf?
Keegan: As Michael said, in Louisiana there’s only a handful of places that have a consistent break. We mostly go to Grand Isle but there are other places such as Elmer’s Island, Port Fourchon, Holly Beach, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Chandelier Islands. We mostly look for a disturbance in the Gulf or any kind of southerly flow that brings waves towards us and that could happen anytime of the year.
Michael: We go down to Grand Isle, and sometimes the Lake. Best time to surf generally depends on the readings, which is covered by Keegan and other guys in our group chat. There’s a whole page on our website about it.
When you go down to Grand Isle, have you had experiences there or elsewhere in which you encounter first hand the effects of our eroding coastline?
Keegan: Personally I’ve seen beaches evolve and dissolve. There was a break in Grand Isle that would always handle the smaller swells after the Army Corps had come in and dumped sand. Now, more than a year later that whole beach is underwater and the water is up to the rocks again. It just goes to show how fast land can disappear.
Michael: Oh for sure, it’s actually startling how fast the coast changes down there. So much of the coast is so altered by human efforts as well, which I think even intensifies the dramatic perception of erosion, if that makes sense.
Some of your designs and imagery draw from elements of culture past and present in Louisiana (be it old Pontchartrain Beach imagery or State Parks graphic elements in the Grand Isle area)—Describe why it is important to you to infuse your love of surfing with a real sense of place and history here in Louisiana?
Keegan: Louisiana isn’t a place known for great surf. We were born into a rich culture that thrives on the quirky, so in a way we adapted the community of Pontcha to that. Michael has ties to Pontchartrain Beach which was a real confirmation to him that we were supposed to be doing this. We were formed around the idea of a 1960s surf club that only surfed Pontchartrain Beach. We know it’s corny but so is this city. We love it.
Michael: For me personally, that’s how I connect with Pontcha more than anything. I’ve always had an affinity for home and I think my family plays a huge role in that. We’re all from here so I’m always searching for connections to place, the land, the history of it all. That’s just how I approach art and design. I’d say that largely, my role in Pontcha is keeping it grounded in the roots of this region. Shortly after starting this thing, we found out that the land that became Pontchartrain Beach was once in my family (before being gambled away, of course). That’s the type of strong connection to place that I’m always looking for.
Are there any types of products you haven't released yet that you're interested in Pontcha developing? Anything on the horizon for Ponchta you'd like to give us some hints on?
Keegan: Right now we’re hyped on the small things. Sure, we love creating new tees, but c’mon; who doesn’t love the small things? We just always want to create something memorable even if it isn’t intended that way. Cool stuff is ahead for sure.
Michael: I’ve always hoped for a “Pontcho”, just for the pun. But in all reality, the products that get me excited are the ones that aren’t shirts: soap, zines, prints, pins, etc. I love knick knacks and useful things.
Do you have any advice for someone else who is thinking about turning their hobby into a social club or even brand as Pontcha has done? What are important things for someone to consider?
Michael: Just be genuine and don’t try to force anything. It doesn’t have to make money (Pontcha doesn’t). It’s okay if it’s just a fun thing you do—it may be even better that way. I’d say, just consider the commitment — how committed do you really wanna be to this one single idea? High levels of commitment require a lot of attention, so, be careful.
Keegan: Like Michael said, Pontcha doesn’t make money. I mean, it makes enough money to sustain itself most of the time, but we never take anything out unless it’s to create something new. But this isn’t about the money for us. Its just about having fun and creating things. Just have fun with it and if it makes money then great! If not, just keep trying to be your best you and something is bound to flourish.
For someone who has never surfed in Louisiana or perhaps never surfed anywhere, what would you say to sell them on the idea?
Michael: One of our slogans is “make fun”. Make fun of surfing here, but we’re just making fun ourselves. It’s kind of a lame double meaning thing, but the point is: Just have fun and don’t take things so seriously.