Tanned and toned, the wahini paddles furiously as a turquoise swell lifts her board and shoots her into fast-forward. She crouches steadily then hops to her feet in pounce position. White foam churns around her ankles as her back-and-forth boogie works the board into the face of the wave. You can almost hear Dick Dale shredding in the background.
True, board-shorted Baby Boomer Rita Quinlan doesn't carve the swells with the same banzai intensity as the young guns jockeying beside her in the warm waters off Eleuthera, Bahamas. But then again, she's old enough to be their mother.
Picking up the longboard two years ago scratched an itch this Long Islander had had since she was 18. "I'm a total beginner," says Quinlan, "and probably always will be, but to me, surfing is a challenge--and it keeps me young and fit."
She's not alone among the middle-aged set seeking out tasty waves; where once the breaks were mainly the domain of teenagers, today, one in three surfers is older than 34.
Quinlan and her husband have a vacation house on Pine Cay in the Turks and Caicos. They've been going there since 1990, but it was only recently that she learned about the swells that hit the Turks in winter. "It's kind of a secret among big-wave riders," she confides.
It's not the only one. While the Caribbean is often overlooked as a surfing destination, the region is scattered with breaks fit for aficionados, first-timers and everyone in between. The Quiksilver Crossing, a wave-hunting mission by pro athletes sponsored by the surf gear manufacturer, documented dozens of virgin rides between 2003 and 2005.
"Surfers like to get away from the crowds, and the Caribbean is a great place to do it," says Crossing crewman and board designer Matt Kechele. "Consistency can be an issue, but when it's on--surfing season here runs from November through March--the shallow reefs make the waves more hollow, more radical."
And in some cases more dangerous. Newbies are counseled to stay away from the rocks and coral and only ride over a sandy bottom.
For those looking to give it a try, Dez Bartelt, owner of Rinc?n Surf School in Rinc?n, Puerto Rico, says it takes a minimum of six hours of instruction to get a handle on essential skills like paddling, surf entry and exit techniques, wave selection, and catching and riding waves. "Within a week, we can get them out on their own," she says.
Even if you'd rather watch than risk wipe-out, the Caribbean's colorful collection of surf beaches serves up a great time. Surfing is more than a sport; it's a way of life with a cool culture that spills onto the shores. Here are some of the region's most righteous scenes.
A choice pick of star surfer Kelly Slater, the east coast of Barbados turns out trade-wind-powered heavies that have hosted international competitions. The cream of the crop is Bathsheba's Soup Bowl, a beach break that normally crests at five feet but can surge up to 15 and higher.
For novices, Freights Bay and Surfer's Point to the south turn out more forgiving waves, averaging three to five feet in easy-paddling water.
Lessons: Zed's Surfing Adventures provides group lessons with no more than four students ($100 per two-hour session) and private lessons ($150) at all skill levels. They also offer board rentals and "surfaris" (overnight surfing/camping expeditions). zedssurftravel.com; 246-428-7873
Surf Digs: Fifty yards from Soup Bowl, comfortable Surfing Cottages at Bathsheba start at $272 per week, year-round. surfing-barbados.com; 246-256-3906
The Upgrade: The Crane resort enchants guests with historic charm and a half-mile of beachfront (from $165 in low season, $241 high). thecrane.com; 246-423-6220