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Foam and chaos

Learning to surf is fun unless you're the teacher. Then it's jumping over whitewash and chasing stray boards while students struggle for excuses to quit: 'My eyes sting.' 'I'm too tired.' 'This is too hard.' Nathan Myers has heard them all.

March 23, 2004|Nathan Myers

"Is this wetsuit on right?"

"Absolutely. You want the zipper in front for easy access. For when you need to leave in a hurry."

I've got them. This gaggle of kookdom. This flock of flounder. This school of delusionals. I've got them lined up. Belly down. On the beach. On their surfboards. Fake paddling. Fake paddling. And they can't even do that right. Their arms flail about like seagulls tangled in fishing line. They've never even been in the ocean. Most of them probably can't even swim. They don't even want to swim. They want to surf.

"Stop paddling!"

These blank faces. These sun-blinded groundhogs.

"Surfing is the hardest thing you will ever try to learn, and if you end up loving it, it will ruin your life."

Just look at me. A UC Berkeley graduate teaching surf school. All day hanging out with these kooks.

They stare up at me as I pace. These hunks of meat. These green recruits.

"You will never get tubed."

Some wince. Some giggle.

"You will be lucky if you survive this lesson. If you have any doubt about your ability to perform today I want you to get out of my sight. Now!"

This scrawny, inland nerd scrambles to his feet. This computer accessory. This worker bee. Scurries for his car. There is an awkward moment when the leash Velcroed to his ankle trips him to the ground. He squeals, then struggles to freedom. The rest of the class holds my icy stare.

"All right," I growl. "You still want to learn to surf, do you?"

Muffled replies. Scattered nods. The smell of fear.

"First off, let's get one thing straight. You are a kook. In fact, you're not even a kook yet. If someone calls you a kook, you should feel honored. If someone yells, 'Hey, kook, get the hell out of the water,' do it. And don't forget to say thank you."

We flop on the boards, plant our hands on the rails and practice popping to our feet.

"There's a reason surfing looks so graceful," I explain. "You either do it right, or you don't do it at all."

Already it's clear who falls into the latter bracket. One student can barely get from her belly to her feet. It's an arduous, 20-second process that leaves her severely winded. And we're still on land.

"That's something I'm going to have to work on," she offers.

I agree. Quietly. Sadly. She will make me fail today. I try not to hold it against her.

"How do I know which foot goes in the front?"

"Generally, people just flip a coin, but really it doesn't matter one way or the other."

There are more than a million surfers in California alone. More than 100 surf schools churn an average of 1,000 students through their programs every summer. Each of them. That's more than 100,000 fresh kooks a year. And that's not even counting the people who learn from friends or, God forbid, just pick it up on their own.

Southern California waves are choking on foam and fiberglass. Crusty old log-riders demanding their right-of-age; punk-rock chop-hoppers back-dooring their rights-of-way. Rails knock. Heads butt. Hostility. Anger. Screaming. Fighting. "Surf rage" grabs headlines. Take-offs get deeper and deeper until too deep still isn't deep enough to avoid pure mayhem.

The plague is upon us, and it tastes like chicken. It looks like a condo, and it's made in Thailand.

Nothing frustrates me more. And yet here I am, teaching a dozen neophytes how to cramp the soul of surfing. Pumping them through this surf school assembly line. These watery widgets. These cogs of cool.

Am I insane?

"What about sharks?"

"Sharks should be your No. 1 concern in the water. One in five surfers are killed by sharks during their first year of surfing. After that, the statistics go sharply up."

We're going surfing. Me, a couple of 8-year-olds and some middle-aged women. The XXL woman is with us but, judging by her performance on land, I don't think she's actually going surfing. She's bringing a board and coming along.

We wade out toward waist-deep water. Complaining of cold. Trembling with fear. Jettisoning everything I told them on shore. Before I can begin attempting to trick these over-evolved fish to their feet, everything falls apart. My featherweight pre-teen rides a rip current out beyond the breakers and screams in panic. My businesswoman gets smashed by her board and whines of injury. My behemoth can't push past the 6-inch walls of whitewash. My little princess freaks at the seaweed. My schoolteacher sprawls sideways on her board and is swept down the beach by the littoral current.

So this is surfing.

For the next hour we battle the onslaught of whitewash as I hustle from student to student, pushing them into waves. I help them walk out into the surf, help them wheel their boards around, help them somehow crawl aboard, help each shove off into the wave while pressing down on the tail to avoid the inevitable pearl (the surfing equivalent of riding a bike into a low wall) and then dolphin-glide behind them to help steady the board as they attempt to clamber to their feet and fall dramatically into the ankle-high water.

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