Off the Clock—Karalee Nielsen Fallert on Surfing

The things the industry loves in the off-hours.

January 25, 2016 ● 3 min read

Karalee Nielsen Fallert is one of Charleston, South Carolina's most profound restaurateurs. With six different concepts and multiple locations under her belt, she commands a feel-good universe rooted in a rapidly-evolving Southern town. But she also surfs, so we decided to talk about that.  

It's one of those things for me that will be a lifetime pursuit. It's hard, it's scary, and it's wonderful. I find myself waking up and that's the first thing I think about.

Charleston doesn't have a consistently big swell like California does, but we do the trade-off between warm water and big waves. I think in some ways, that’s why we're more appreciative of it. If there's a swell or a storm coming, everybody's in the water. Everybody's changing work schedules, getting up at 5 AM so they can watch the sunrise to see where the sets are coming in. There's true dedication and practice to it, and it keeps me sane.

My parents always took us to the ocean, and I loved swimming, but this was definitely born here for me. One of my best friends muscled me into it, but my husband happens to be an amazing surfer. When you're out in the line-up where the locals are really tough, and your husband's as good as he is, it's a good thing.

There's basically two places to surf in Charleston, and people gravitate to one or the other based on where they live. Folly Beach is where I go, but people also go to the Isle of Palms, which is on the other side of downtown. Our barrier islands shift so much, the sand moves so much, so year to year, depending on where the sand moves, you might surf right by the pier, which is pretty consistent, and other years you might have to be at the washout, because it's the only place where there's big enough sandbar.

I love quiet breaks, I love surfing with my girlfriends on the third and fourth block. You just wander out there with two other people and cheer each other on, hoot and holler at each other. I love that. Sometimes there are 50 or 60 people out in the water. You need somebody to block for you then. It's crazy. You know, just like everywhere there's a pecking order. The better you are, the odds of you actually getting waves is much better.

It's just so pure. You get up super early in the morning, it's already warm outside, the sun's on your body; there's this whole ritual to get out to the water. There’s very few better ways to start your day. That romance is always there, that experience is always there, so you seek it out. I can't have the wonky mind that I normally have, which I would liken to being inside a pinball machine. There are so many different aspects of everything that we do in a restaurant, and my mind is always bouncing back and forth. When I get out there, I've got to keep my eye on the horizon, see the waves coming in, have to time where I’m at. There's just a pure focus about what you're doing. In between sets, you sit there and just admire how beautiful the world is, and enjoy that connection to the planet and to each other.

You don't always have amazing days. Sometimes you have hard days and you hate yourself for not being able to do what you want to do out there. I can definitely tell when I don't get to do it. There's this crankiness that kind of bleeds into stuff. You crave it. This time of the year is when my husband and I are both constantly online, trying to locate where there are waves in the United States, where we can fly.

It’s an area that for me, as I grow more long in the tooth in my professional world, it's a place to learn and to be broken and learn again. I opened two places 30 days apart. It was one of the craziest things I've ever done, and it's taken like 18 months to bounce back. We went out right when it got cold last fall, and I was just getting pummeled and pummeled and pummeled. I couldn't catch a wave to save my life. To me, walking out and not being discouraged but staying in the moment and being like, okay, I'm not going to let this ruin my day, I got to do this this morning, I'm grateful. I think that's a triumph.

We just found out that there's great breaks in Sri Lanka, and a burgeoning surf culture. That sounds like everything I would want to be a part of for a couple weeks.  

As told to Cassandra Landry | Image courtesy of Askold Romanov