Unfiltered: Yancy Spencer III - Shelby Stanger
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Unfiltered: Yancy Spencer III

Yancy Spencer has been a pioneer since he first tried surfing over 45 years ago. The Pensacola, Fla., native became the first pro surfer from the Gulf Coast—something that at the time seemed as far-fetched as an offensive lineman who grew up in Bangladesh. Spencer was the exception— with his own signature surfboard produced by Greg Noll—and had plenty of opportunities to de- camp to California or Hawaii. Instead he founded Innerlight Surf Shop, the first surf-only store on the Gulf. Now 60, Spencer was also the first standup paddler in the region. He’s still out nearly every day, in good weather and bad, flatwater or storm swell. He even paddled, alone, through the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. — Shelby Stanger

When I was in my early 30s, I got a custom 16-foot lay-down pad- dleboard and paddled prone until recently. In the Gulf, we can go six weeks without surf, so I did it to stay in shape. If I got a two- to three-mile paddle in, it made my body feel like I went surfing.

I heard about Laird [Hamilton] on July the 4th, paddling out at Mali- bu on a surfboard he could stand on with an American flag on his paddle. After that, I kept hearing about this standup paddling thing, but I didn’t know how to get my hands on one.

In the summer of 2006, I went into a friend’s shop called Surf Station in St. Augustine, Florida, and he had these giant 12-foot Mickey Muñoz soft-top surfboards. He said, ‘They’re so big you can actually stand up on them,’ so I bought two of them.

It was pretty difficult to stand stationary, but as long as you kept moving, you could stay upright. I got in line like everyone else to get those 12’1” Laird boards when they came out in 2006. The East Coast wasn’t getting any boards, but since Innerlight was such a big Surftech dealer they finally gave me one in December. I couldn’t get my first one to sell until spring of 2007.

The waves were knee to thigh high, and it was really cold, winter- time. I liked it so much more than lay-down paddling because you could see dolphins and fish and actually talk to people. That was pretty much all I did the rest of winter.
If you’re on a standup paddleboard, you pick a direction, east or west, and all of a sudden you find a sandbar and surf it until you get tired of that break, and then you paddle farther and find another break.

The waves in the Gulf are pretty much all wind generated. When it gets good, it gets really good. It’s just really inconsistent. We can go six weeks without surf but the water here is crystal clear and the beaches are like a bowl of sugar for 130 miles without crowds.

When I first started standup paddling, people would ask questions when I got near the shore. Some college kids were on the beach one day and I had white trunks and a white shirt and they told me I looked like Jesus walking on the water.

There are lots of bayous out here—inland waterways and lots of sounds that run along the coast.

There’s a place in Panama City with a wave on the other side of a channel. Most people only get there by boat, but one day I took my shortboard on the nose of my paddleboard and caught perfect waves on the other side, then paddled back.

Once I paddled with a school of about 20 dolphins. We ran into a big group and they let us hang with them for a while. In my 25 years of lay-down paddling, that never happened.

I paddled every day during the spill. I wasn’t paddling to make a statement. The oil wasn’t [visibly] there. The most I saw were coin- size drops of oil, but it was nothing like you saw in the news. My son [professional surfer Sterling Spencer] was one of the hypo- chondriacs and wouldn’t surf in the oil spill. They said some pretty bad things in the press and he didn’t surf for six weeks while he was in town.

After the well was capped people started coming back to the beach immediately. It was like there was a giant shark in the Gulf and once they capped the well, the shark was gone. Which is kind of silly, because the oil is still there.

My hope, especially as a retailer, is that SUP will stay in surf shops.

That would be a blessing. It’s a beautiful sport, and it might bring people to surfing someday. But that’s secondary. SUP is about people enjoying nature and getting fit.