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Far away at boarding school

A California resident heads to the sunny Southern Hemisphere to learn to surf, and finds having fun, like finding the perfect wave, is hard work, even in laid-back Praia do Rosa, Brazil.

October 26, 2003|Sig Mejdal | Special to The Times

Praia do Rosa, Brazil — I was paddling as fast as I could, my arms on empty as the instructor shouted at me. The roar of the waves was so deafening that I could barely hear him as he yelled, "OK, full power now."

I was already in overdrive, and unless a menacing sea creature appeared behind me, I doubted I could find a higher gear.

"I said full power. Now." Cristiano Vanzelotti, our instructor, yelled even louder as a wave captured me and threw me forward so forcefully that there was no doubt I had caught it.

Clinging tightly to the board, I heard the instructor.

"Get up! Now! Get up!"

Obediently I extended myself into the recently mastered "cobra" position. Against hope I threw myself onto my feet and landed on the board. I mentally braced myself for another plunge in the ocean but was startled to find myself upright.

Technically, I was surfing.

I was riding a wave on the Atlantic Ocean off Praia do Rosa, Brazil, 6,000 miles from my home in Northern California, all because of a Web site for a surf school I stumbled across one afternoon. It welcomed novices and promised perfect weather, warm water, "mushy" waves and helpful instructors.

I have dived in the Galapagos Islands, hiked in Slovakia and climbed a mountain in Ecuador. But I had never ventured into the surf 45 minutes from my house. I was the Frenchman who doesn't enjoy wine, the Italian who can't cook pasta, the German who doesn't obey rules. I was a Californian who didn't surf.

I wanted to remedy the situation, but at 37 I felt too old to join the lineup in Santa Cruz. So, at an age when many of my friends were having their third child, I headed across two continents for the Rosa Surf School on the southeast coast of Brazil, about 500 miles south of Rio de Janeiro.

With a spirit of adventure and new board shorts, I took a flight to Rio, then another to Florianopolis, capital of Santa Catarina state. From there, I took a cab 50 miles south to Praia do Rosa, near the city of Imbituba.

Praia do Rosa is better known for whale watching than for surfing because right whales pass close by on their summer migration.

The sleepy town of low-rise buildings, dirt roads and surf shops has fewer lodging choices and has avoided the bustle of other touristy beach towns because of strict environmental laws.

I checked into a pleasant if no-frills cabana just off the beach in a welcoming, family-run hotel, the Pousada Vida Sol e Mar, which is connected with the surf school. Then I took off for the sands. I expected the beach to be as crowded as an "American Idol" casting call; instead I found a relatively un-touristy curved crescent.

I met my "classmates," seven Englishmen in their mid-30s and all in desperate need of a suntan. Like me, they had ventured to Brazil to learn how to "surf properly." They stared at me quizzically.

"You are from California and you do not surf? Don't you fancy it?" one of them asked politely .

"Yeah, I fancy it a lot." I said defensively. "I just don't live near the beach," I lied.

Like much of my experience in Brazil, the class was unstructured. Brazilians call this jeitinho, a spontaneous make-it-up-as-you-go-along lifestyle. I'd call it disorganization, but I welcomed it. Our day began when we rolled out of bed, ate breakfast and by late morning, walked down to the beach. Then we had to wait for the surfboards to get there. They were carried to the beach by recalcitrant oxen. The boards made it to the beach when the oxen were good and ready to bring them, and nobody minded.

On our first morning we met Vanzelotti, an energetic 24-year-old surfing instructor. He had left his home in nearby Puerto Alegre 10 years ago because the waves there could not compare with the swells of Praia do Rosa. He claimed surfing flowed in his blood and infused his heart and mind.

His enthusiasm inspired us, and we eagerly picked up the basics. We learned how to paddle, how to turn around, how to stand up.

The skills were put to use in the afternoon as we began to ride what Vanzelotti generously called waves. In reality they were more like slowly moving speed bumps. We rode the bulges until sundown. Confidence and sunburn suffused our bodies.

"Not so bad, huh?" I said to Charlie Nixon, the palest of the Englishmen.

"Certainly no sticky wickets out there today, mate," he replied.

The skinny on surfing

But the next morning we weren't as confident, suffering not only from sunburn but also board rash on our chests and arms, caused, Vanzelotti explained, by the constant rubbing against the polyurethane board. He gave us a cream called "New Skin," which we applied. It did not work.

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