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Catch a Wave : North County Beaches Swell With Promise for New Surfers

August 09, 1990|DAVID SHAUGHNESSY | Free-lance writer David Shaughnessy has been catching waves off the North County coast for 22 years and is a nationally ranked amateur surfer.

So you want to be a surfer? You've imagined what it would be like to stand majestically, yes, soulfully, even, on that big, blue sparkling wave.

You'd ride that wave just like the best of 'em. You'd ride it right up to the beach and step gracefully onto the shore, where you'd be greeted by the bronzed surf gods and goddesses who await you--your peers, as it were.

North County offers wave riders some of the finest surf in California, and it does it year-round.

Although surfing is known as a summer sport (and, by the way, real surfers don't consider surfing a sport, but a lifestyle or spiritual experience), it is the months of September and October that provide the best conditions along the North County coast. The crowds thin, and huge south swells combine with still-warm water and Santa Ana winds to give surfers the waves they live for.

If you want to give surfing a try, you're not alone.

As we enter the '90s, surfing, spurred on by a billion-dollar-a-year fashion industry, has won a spot even in the conservative mainstream.

Once frowned upon as a subculture of beach bums and feckless adolescents, the world of surfing is now solidly entrenched in American popular culture. Long the metaphor for a free-and-easy California lifestyle, surfing seems to be benefiting from a nationwide obsession with health and exercise.

Just how do you gain entrance to that boldly colored world of sand, tans and Raybans? Assuming that you already have the requisite rad surfer wardrobe (and who doesn't, nowadays), you could begin by plunking down $350 for a killer board ($400 and up for a longboard) and, oh, $200 for a wet suit (basic black seems to be making a comeback).

When the ancient Hawaiian surfers wanted to ride the big ones, they would seek out a kahuna, or sorcerer, to bring the waves to them. Today in North County, you can seek out "Kahuna Bob" of Kahuna Bob's Surf School.

In Encinitas, the school is in its fifth year of operation--and the business is booming. "We try to get them started the right way," said 39-year-old "Kahuna Bob" Edwards. "We usually get them standing up the first day, and they have so much fun, they take four or five sessions. Once they meet with a little success, then they usually really go for it. I get a big kick out of it, too, just being able to be passing surfing on to people."

Kahuna Bob's is open year-round, but is busier during the summer, when the school operates seven days a week, giving semi-private lessons with no more than four pupils per instructor.

Although many would-be surfers are turning to surf schools and surf camps, most are still learning the old-fashioned way--by trial and error.

There's a lot to be said for just going out and surfing, surfing, surfing, especially if you have a friend or two to share it with.

On either edge of North County are two of the world's most famous surf spots. Both are great spots for learning by watching, but are too difficult for the beginning surfer.

The bookend breaks of Black's Beach and Trestles are each as famous for their place in surfing lore as for their perfect, mirror-image waves.

Black's Beach, on the north end of La Jolla, is well-known as a nude beach, but it also has what many surfers feel is the finest left break--that is when you are in the water, the wave breaks to the left--in California.

Trestles, on the north end of Camp Pendleton, is that picture-perfect right break that at one time required surfers to sneak past the armed military personnel to get to the surf. If the unfortunate surfer were to fall from his board and have it wash ashore, it would often be confiscated by GIs in a jeep.

Even on a gentle beach, surfing for the beginner can mean swallowing seawater, getting tossed around like a rag doll and getting hit on the head by your board. It can mean mouthfuls of sand and a surfboard as slippery as a bar of soap and with a mind of its own.

It's paddling around for an hour, unable to catch a wave, then getting knocked off your board and having to swim to shore in the freezing water while being pummeled by the surf.

"You have to learn not to feel pain," said Michelle Harvey of Carlsbad, who has been surfing without formal lessons for four months, "but most of all you have to get over the fear of the waves. I've been hit on the head, hit the bottom, been hit by other people's boards. It's harder than any sport I ever tried, but I can't give up. It's frustrating, but I'll get good if it takes 20 years."

Surfing has long been a predominantly male endeavor, but many of those deciding to try it today are women.

"A lot more women are surfing now," said Carlsbad's Pam Gilligan, a former competitor on the women's professional tour who now does promotional and administrative work in the pro surfing world. "Over the last two or three years, I've really noticed a boom. More and more women are realizing how much fun surfing can be."

Most surfers say they have been asked at one time or another to give a surfing lesson, or at least pointers. Most wave riders will oblige, perhaps because they can remember the frustration and elation that came with their first surfing experience.

When Phil Edwards, the legendary surfer of the 1950s and '60s who pioneered surfing in North County, was asked by Surfer Magazine about his most thrilling surf experience, he replied "the most thrilling time in my life was the first time I ever caught a wave and rode it all the way in. It was downhill from then on."

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