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OUTDOORS: Ventura County

Wave of the Future

Surfing isn't just for the guys. Lighter boards lure adults, girls to take lessons.


They make it look so easy. You watch them from the beach as they hop on their surfboards and ride the wave as far as it will take them. It can't be that hard, right?

Wrong. Oh, so wrong.

Surfing is no walk on the beach even in California, home to about 45% of the nation's surfers. It's no breeze even in Ventura County, immortalized as a surfing mecca by the Beach Boys in the 1960s.

But if you want to give it a whirl--or if your kids consider the boogie board too tame--we have a few places for you to check out, and some tips on how and where to catch that wave.

For kids, junior lifeguard programs teach not only surfing basics, but everything from water safety to marine biology. Surf camp offers a more intense surfing experience, and a mobile camp in Santa Barbara takes surfing wannabes to beaches with the best wave action.

Surprisingly, not many people give private or group surfing lessons, and you generally won't find them in the yellow pages. It's a word-of-mouth thing. Some surf shops have employees who give lessons during off-hours, or they'll recommend someone.

Surf veterans often point to Shelley Merrick. This mother of three first slid onto a surfboard in 1955 when she was a 10-year-old growing up in Malibu. At 14, families were sending their kids to her for lessons. A world-class champion in her day, she still competes.

"I learned on a big old redwood board, 12 feet long," recalled Merrick, who is executive director of the California Strawberry Festival and teaches surfing in her off-hours.

"About 90% of my students are adults in the 35- to 50-year-old range," she said. "There's a real resurgence in adult interest."

That's due in part to the return in popularity of the long board in the last decade. "They're easy to paddle and catch a wave," Merrick said. In the 1970s, the popularity of the big boards faded as hotshot young surfers mounted short boards for tricky maneuvers.

Many older surfers dropped out, but now they're coming back to a higher-tech long board that weighs far less than the 50-pound hulk on which Merrick learned. And these baby boomers are bringing their children--especially girls--into the sport.

Since 1992 the number of American surfers has climbed from 1.1 million to an estimated 1.7 million, according to the Dana Point-based Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn.

"Once summer hits, they're calling me constantly," Merrick said. She usually gives beginners two or three lessons, charging $50 an hour, which includes the board and wetsuit. Her usual teaching spot is the beach near California Street in Ventura, where the waves are gentle enough for beginners.

She starts out on land, showing them the different parts of the board, the correct stance and how to paddle. In the water, she keeps them close to shore, holding onto the end of the board as they take off in the smaller waves.

During the second lesson, she might hop on a board and take them out to where waves are breaking. She shows them how to stay out of the way of other surfers and how to size up the waves before paddling furiously to catch one.

"It's one of the most difficult sports to learn, especially the older you get because then it's more difficult to be fluid and aggressive," Merrick said. "It takes a lot of upper-body strength. The water is in motion, the board is in motion and you're trying to stand still. Timing, judgment and balance are crucial."

Many surf veterans say that once you've got the basic know-how, the real work begins. It might take a year of regular practice before you can maintain a consistent stance and call yourself a hot surfer. It's a huge investment of time--something that kids have more of than adults.

A junior lifeguard program is a good place for kids to get a taste of surfing, improve their swimming and learn water-safety basics. The city of Port Hueneme offers three three-week sessions, starting June 23, at the pier for kids 9 and older. They run Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and cost $130 per child.

At San Buenaventura State Beach, lifeguards have run a similar program since 1972. Their sessions, for ages 9-15, run four weeks, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and cost $250. These programs require an initial swimming test, which usually can be handled on the first day of class or sometimes by appointment. The first session begins June 23. For safety reasons, surfing novices use soft boards that are less likely to cause injury.

"We get kids from all over the county," said Carrie Johnson, coordinator of the Ventura program.

"A lot of kids have surfed for years--a lot have never touched a board," she said. Because the water isn't good for surfing at the state beach, the kids go on a "surf safari" to better locations once a week.

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