As a new college graduate working outside Washington, D.C., in 1985, Mike Powell found himself driving to the beach every weekend. That’s where the surf was.
Powell had discovered the sport in the late ’70s, during summers at the family house in Bethany Beach. When he learned that there were more frequent swells fall through spring, he made a plan: He enrolled in the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies, earned a master’s degree in shoreline management, then, in 1991, landed a job with the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. It was a strategy that would allow him to surf year round.
His twin passions have since entwined. As part of the team that planned the recent reconstruction of wooden groins at Herring Point in Cape Henlopen State Park, he has seen his work protect an endangered beach and a popular surf spot.
“It was a fascinating project,” Powell says. “We’d been dealing with the long-term effects of erosion of the beach that protected the bluff, as well as the military and historical assets of the area. And good surfing was falling apart.”
Thanks to Powell and his team, the beach is growing and the surf break is rebounding—not that Powell hasn’t had to occasionally answer critical surfers who felt inconvenienced by the project, but it’s a small price to pay. “It is my favorite place to surf,” he says—and he has surfed around the world.
Powell’s job takes him away from the beach—he is working on development regulations for the Red Clay Creek floodplain near Yorklyn—but he manages to surf at least once a week throughout the year. (He describes his wife of 15 years as “very supportive.”) As one might expect of a scientist or engineer, he is as interested in shaping and building surfboards as he is in riding them. He has made about 20 over the years.
“It’s a really satisfying feeling, building a surfboard, then going out and riding it and it doing all the things you’d expected it would do,” he says. At present, there are eight boards in his garage. He chuckles at the thought. “It’s kind of painful to know you have $3,000 tied up in surfboards.”