Not long ago surfing was a sport for the young andhardheaded, because surfing instruction proceeded like this:Excited, you walked into a surf shop and informed the dude behindthe counter that you were a beginner. He rented you the worstsurfboard in the place and gestured vaguely in the direction oftheocean. You returned to the shop at the end of the day,noodle-armed and defeated, the board even worse for wear havingbounced several times off your face. Times have changed.
When it comes to learning to surf, says Ed Guzman, "there arethree critical elements. Good wave conditions, good equipment, andgood instruction."
Guzman should know. As head of Club Ed International Surf Schooland Camps in Santa Cruz, California, he's part of a revolutionthat's making surfing accessible even to those of us who aren'tbuffed, tattooed, and 19. Right now, Guzman is beaming because,after a 10-minute tutorial on the beach―pop up quickly,crouch low, feet wide, weight over the center of theboard―one of his beginners stands, albeit shakily, on hervery first wave, her face an open book of surprise and elation.
"Another life ruined," he says.
"It's easy if you take it step by step" Any surfer, beginner orexpert, will tell you that riding a wave is one of life's finestpleasures. As Guzman, a surfer since 1969, informs us on our firstday of camp, "It's going to blow your mind."
First, though, your mind has to remove a roadblock―thefear that you won't be able to do this. "Even if you're over 40, ifyou're reasonably fit," says Guzman, "you can surf." Club Ed'sclients have ranged from age 4 to age 70.
The weeklong camps work simply: You eat, sleep, and breathesurfing. But there's a paradox involved. Once mastered, surfing isfreewheeling improvisation, a dance between wave and rider. Butlearning to ride a wave requires a methodical bricklayer'sapproach.
"You have to learn how to stand up," instructor David Schulkintells us. "But you also have to learn where to sit to catch thebest waves, when to paddle to catch the wave, how to paddle outthrough waves. There's a lot to learn, but it's really easy if youtake it step by step."
On our first morning we line up our surfboards in the sand.Unlike most surfboards, which are made of foam coated in fiberglass(i.e., very hard), the surfboards Club Ed employs are made of softfoam. They are also long (9 to 10 feet), thick, and wide, makingthem easier to paddle and nearly as stable as the Queen Mary(element number one, the right equipment).
We stand in our wet suits watching the small waves. They wellup, then crumble gently, making it easier for beginners to standand slide down their fronts (element number two, the rightconditions). Some campers are itching to get in the water, butGuzman stops us in the sand (element number three, the rightinstructor).
First we move through a series of stretches. Then we lie stomachdown on our boards, shifting and squeaking until we are where weneed to be: head, hips, and legs (pressed together) aligned, aneoprene arrow running straight down the middle of the board.
Properly centered, we practice popping to our feet.
"Hands at the base of your ribs," croons Guzman. "Push up withyour arms and slide your feet under you into a wide stance.Standing has to be a quick movement. Fast is easy. Slow isdifficult."
We run through this numerous times until Guzman is happy. Thenwe receive an indoctrination in wave formation (waves form whenwind blows across the water), wave nomenclature (the highest partof the wave, and the best place to catch one, is the peak), andwave etiquette. (The wave belongs to the first surfer who catchesit. Dropping in on someone who's already riding a wave is bothdangerous and taboo.)
By the time we paddle out 15 minutes later, the cool brace ofthe Pacific Ocean seeping into our suits, we are a font ofoceanographic knowledge and good manners.
Apparently, Guzman's tutorial sticks. Kelly Grace stands on hervery first wave. Devon Porpora totters to his feet a few waveslater. Guzman and Schulkin paddle between students, giving adviceand well-timed pushes to help campers catch waves.
Three hours later, over lunch, Grace shakes her head. "My armsare a little sore, but I'm really excited," she says. "It's been along time since I've done anything this fun."
Heeding the call
Most of Guzman's students are raw beginners―but there is asmall percentage who are not.
Lance Maki is 55, a burly, gregarious doctor so passionate aboutsurfing that he is listed as "Dr. Maki Surfer Dude" on surgeryrotations. But no amount of passion can overcome geography. Priorto moving to Stockton, California, six months ago, Lance spent 30years in the Midwest, putting a serious dent in the surfing skillsgained during his youth.
"I'm an average surfer," Maki tells me. "No one will ever say,'Wow, that guy's hot.' In fact, a lot of days I'll go out and I'lllook horrible."
Maki and I are cut from the same cloth. I have surfed for 25years, but for the last decade, family and job have cut into mywater time, and my surfing skills have receded with myhairline.
Luckily for us, Guzman and Schulkin prove as adept with rustysurfers as they are with beginners. I learn how to pump mysurfboard to keep my speed up on small waves. I learn how to do athrilling little trick called a reentry―swoop up from thebottom of the wave to meet the crest as it comes pitching over,producing a brief moment of gravity-free ecstasy.
A quality surfing camp offers various niceties, and Club Ed hasthem all. It's based in a eucalyptus-shaded campground at ManresaState Beach. The food is first-rate. A masseuse comes to campmidweek. Mike DeGregorio, a local surfer and videographer, shows upand films us.
Of course, taking a single lesson is also an option. But aweeklong camp, by definition, offers things you won't find in aday―the opportunity to surf different spots, and the chanceto enjoy the camaraderie of your fellow campers. Each of us at ClubEd were privy to the taste of salt on our lips, the press of warmsun on our face. And when we woke every morning, the sound of thewaves came to us, like a whisper, calling.
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