Florida's First Coast Lives for the Salt Life

For a good time, First Coast locals just add water, as seen with the Salt Life brand and people hanging out on the St. Johns River.

Drive along the stretch of A1A from St. Augustine, through Jacksonville and up to Amelia Island and you’ll see it: Salt Life. Sometimes the words, sported on everything from SUVs to T-shirts, come with an image of a sea turtle, maybe a hibiscus or a giant fish.

It seems to have a particular meaning for everyone who identifies with it, but it all boils down to one thing: a passion for the ocean and the saline allure of the St. Johns River.

What is Salt Life? It began with two friends from Jacksonville, Troy Hutto, a former landscape irrigation contractor, and Mike Moore, a framing contractor. Clearly not defined by their day jobs, which were only a means to an end, Hutto and Moore instead distinguished themselves by their mutual obsession for surfing, fishing and all-things beach. They coined a phrase about their lifestyle and had it permanently etched with tattoos across their backs: Salt Life.

The rakish expression in the graffiti-like font struck a nerve in the sporting community, and the saying quickly gained popularity outside the Hutto-Moore immediate circle. The two media-shy founders told The Jacksonville Business Journal back in 2004 that what began as a buddy’s ode to a lifestyle had morphed into a full-fledged brand through grassroots promotion. “It’s just what we do: we fish, surf, lie on the beach,” Hutto said. “It’s a salt life. We had the tattoos and then we got some stickers and people kept asking for things. It just took off from there.”

Really took off. Clothing, retail and even restaurants followed, to the dismay of some who clearly wanted it to remain just the symbol of a way of life. But, even now, it’s hard to separate the camaraderie of Salt Life folk who use the phrase to broadcast their allegiance to Jacksonville’s water culture and the commercial brand—it’s a murky mix. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Salt Life is synonymous with the Good Life on the First Coast. 

For a Good Time, Locals Just Add Water

It’s hard to avoid water when you live in Jacksonville, Amelia Island or St. Augustine. The brackish waters of the north-flowing St. Johns River, which begins 200 miles south in Indian River County, happens to be the longest river in Florida. It cleaves the heart downtown in Jacksonville, and tall buildings and the famous Main Street Bridge spring from its banks. To the east of “The River City by the Sea,” 22 miles of sandy Atlantic shoreline bring outdoor enthusiasts out to play. Sport fishing, surfing and beachcombing are all hallmarks of the Salt Life.

Many are thankful to experience the Salt Life as mere recreation, but Capt. David Borries of Jacksonville has turned it into his living; he’s run his fishing charter, Backwater Fishing Adventures, for 18 years. As the name suggests, the expert angler, who was once a restaurateur at Jacksonville Landing, takes visitors and locals out to secluded marshes and backwaters to find sweet spots in the almost infinite nooks and crannies of the St. Johns, hunting for places where fish like to lurk.

“My favorite target is the red drum,” says Borries. “They’re the way I make my living.” The “money fish,” as he calls it, was nearly wiped out years ago when it was commercially fished, but thanks to protection efforts, the red drum is now a sport fish. Borries limits his catch and releases fish that are of a certain size to ensure they are around to reproduce, giving future anglers a chance to experience the thrill.

“That’s being a good steward of our waters,” he says, “It’s a ‘win’ for everyone.” Even though he has been running his business for nearly two decades, he says the St. Johns still surprises him. He sees a lot of positives that have come from the community recognizing the need to protect their valuable resource. “I see more bald eagles than I ever have before, more otters, manatees. Being out here everyday, I see what not everyone gets a chance to.”

The Ocean Scene

On a recent Tuesday morning at Micklers Landing in Ponte Vedra Beach, before first light, a group of paddle surfers was getting ready to launch their long boards. These were the before-school surfers getting a session in before hitting the books. By the time the sun shimmied up the horizon, dozens of surfers dotted the waves.

A willingness to wake before dawn for the chance to catch a good wave is in Tiffany Layton’s DNA. A professional surfer and instructor, the Jacksonville native has made a living off the ocean. She gave up a corporate job to open Jax Surf & Paddle last year and hasn’t looked back. Her goal is to make the water accessible to everyone. Surfing may be intimidating, but paddle boarding and paddle surfing are ways in. “It’s a lifestyle everyone wants to be a part of. We want people to be stoked about the possibilities.”

Each community embraces the wonders of the coast in its own way. And who better to champion the glories of First Coast life than Andrea Samuels, mayor of St. Augustine Beach. “We, as a community, acknowledge the need for toes in the sand,” she says. “There are no high-rises here, so you have unobstructed views of the ocean. Nothing is more relaxing than the sound of waves crashing and wind blowing through your hair.”

Besides fishing, surfing and lounging in the sand is a Salt Life ritual that happens May through October—the hatching of sea turtles. Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch is a group of volunteers dedicated to keeping these endangered animals safe from human activity. Female sea turtles emerge from the ocean to lay their eggs in nests on the beach every year.

After incubation, the hatchlings use the light of the moon to point them in the direction of the ocean. Because artificial light can cause confusion and lessen the chance that the animal will make it to the surf, the group successfully lobbied to restrict ocean-facing lights during hatching season. “The residents of Amelia Island are very supportive of our efforts,” says Mary Duffy, president of the group. “We have a substantial following.” One of her goals is to get visitors to learn more about the turtles’ needs. “Keep porch lights off to avoid disorienting nesting females and hatchlings; remove beach furniture from the beach each night (nesting females and hatchlings can become caught up in furniture, tents or toys), and fill in large holes dug on the beach during the day.”

Home Turf Pride

Locals on the First Coast, it’s clear, have tremendous pride in their home. The unusual access to so much natural land, coastal waters and the St. Johns River runs deep. Never mind the commercial aspirations of Salt Life, people here are absolutely dedicated to living their dreams on or around the water.

Shelley Preston
About the author

I was born and raised on Colorado’s Front Range, so Florida felt pretty foreign when I first moved here almost a do...