Question: We'll be visiting the Florida Gulf coast this year. We have a teenager who wants to surf. Are the waves on the Gulf coast big enough for surfing?
Answer: Yes, but they are not consistently large enough for surfing. The most consistent waves for surfing occur in the colder months--December through March--so you'll need a wetsuit. Water temperatures in January in the Florida panhandle dip into the low to mid 50's. Combined with a 50 degree air temperature, water that cold calls for a wet suit. Further south, the air and water temperatures are 8 to 10 degrees warmer, but still quite chilly. By April and May water temperatures are back up to comfortable levels.
Hurricanes and tropical storms also create some very good surf on the Gulf coast, but they too are unpredictable. The panhandle region of the Gulf coast gets the most surf on a regular basis, relative to the peninsula. Pensacola Beach has a thriving surfing community.
Beaches south of Tampa Bay tend to have larger and better surf than those north of the bay.
To be rideable with a surfboard, you'll need waves at least 2 or 3 feet high. A typical cold front swell will top out at 3 to 5 feet, with particularly strong fronts bringing 5 to 8 feet once or twice a season. Hurricane swells are generally more powerful ground swells in the 5 to 8 foot category, and can last from two to five days.
My suggestion is that if you or your kids want to try surfing on the Gulf coast, if there are no waves when you are here, then rent a Stand-up paddle board and learn to use it. You'll have a blast and at the same time you'll learn how to handle a large surfboard in calm waters.
Here are a few photos I took of surfing on the Florida Gulf coast: