by The Mikexican
If you can find your way in and out of a tube, put a gouge in the lip, or a bucket out the back, then you have no need for surf camps. And perhaps you never did. Maybe your dad, your best friend, or older brother taught you to surf; showed you where and how to paddle out, to snap up to your feet, and stay out of the way of the other surfers on your way back to the peak. That’s how many of us learned. That’s how I learned. And if you’re one of the lucky ones already getting your fair share of set waves, it’s very easy to growl and scowl at new surfers... and at surf camps, group lessons, and foam board quivers packed into a van.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed the increasing noise about surf camps and surf schools lately. Here in Nor Cal, the volume is rising around the Santa Cruz area, where locals and longtime surf school gurus like Richard Schmidt are contending with more and more surfers, more surf schools, and increased competition for space and waves. The same thing goes down in So Cal, Hawaii, Costa Rica, and everywhere else there are conveniently located, consistently fun waves. New surf camps are appearing and paddling out at spots that were already crowded.
As an unfortunate result, a lot of the frustration and anger that happens at a saturated break gets directed not just at the uneducated or inconsiderate surfers causing infractions, like shoulder hopping, lingering on the inside, and not controlling their boards. It gets shot toward beginners as a whole, and eventually at the paradigm of the surf school. Because it’s their fault, right?
Consider this... I am the Operations Manager for a surf camp that operates in Mexico. The company I work for does not actively advertise. No magazine ads, no radio spots, no flyers in surf shops. We have a website, and that is the sum of our public image. But websites don’t find customers; customers find websites. Our phone rings and we answer it. Nineteen times out of twenty, the callers have already decided to learn to surf. They are simply looking for the right environment in which to learn. They have already been sold the idea of surfing.
So we don’t convince anyone to learn to learn to surf, and in fact, sometimes we do just the opposite. If our caller is unreasonably afraid of sea life (sharks, jellyfish, etc.) or just plain uncomfortable in the ocean and/or if they are not adept swimmers or capable of the physical demands of surfing, we suggest they might reconsider. In 2006, there is no shortage of eager would-be surfers. The phone will ring again and again. So, who is convincing all these people that call us to take up surfing? Who is whispering in their ears, telling them that surfing is the thing, the absolute crux of cool? Who is really driving the bus to the beach?
Everyone is. And I mean Everyone.
Kelly Slater is. After claiming his seventh world title at age 33, one of the greatest comeback feats in surf history, he’s on the cover of not only every major surf mag, but also on Outside Magazine and Men’s Journal and a handful of others, too. Laird Hamilton is. In the nineties he brought big wave tow surfing into sharp, worldwide focus. A six-foot surfer being whipped onto a fifty-foot wave is an arresting visual, and it’s everywhere. It’s impossible to ignore. Even unlikely heroine Bethany Hamilton is doing her part to sell surfing. A shark takes off her entire left arm; she recuperates and decides it’s not that big a deal. She’s back in the water in a few short months, stroking into waves, literally, single handedly. Magazines (surf and otherwise) couldn’t run that story fast enough. But it’s not just the athletes.
There is a staggering amount of surf brands generating and benefiting from the exposure of surfing. Lets pick on the big guys. Quiksilver is telling everyone that surfing is cool. So are Billabong and Hurley and all the other ‘core’ brands selling fifty-dollar stretchy-tech surf trunks and über-hip street wear. Jeans and shoes, beanies, t-shirts, spiked belts, and all the rest of it have their bold logos displayed prominently.
Don’t expect it to slow down anytime soon. They all want their logos on as many heads as possible. And many of those heads aren’t surfers... yet. I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m just saying IT IS what it is: An enormous market with lots of money to be made. The point? If you’re running a Volcom hoodie, Quik jeans, and Reef flips at the coffee shop after your morning session, then even YOU are doing your part to make 'Surfing: The Lifestyle' look cool to every non-surfer who bothers to notice. And they all notice. They all want to be cool, too.
Forever at the ready with gasoline, the mainstream media is an accomplice in the bonfire of surfing’s overexposure. In a metropolis like the San Francisco Bay Area, where only a very tiny portion of the populace actually surfs the frigid waters of the Red Triangle, you’ll see the Mav's contest getting big billing on the FOX/KTVU nightly news and on the front page of the Chronicle. Not the front page of the sports section... THE Front Page. Once again, it’s impossible to ignore. Everyone is selling, pushing, printing, and exposing (and probably profiting from) surfing.
Back to surf camps. Now that the phone is ringing all day, we are left with the task of providing a learning experience that is safe, fun and rewarding. We take this responsibility very seriously, and safety and etiquette always come first. Our instructors are accomplished surfers, among the best in the world; but they are also lifeguards, EMTs, CPR and First Aid trained specialists.
At our camp, students go through a mandatory one-hour ‘classroom’ session before ever getting their toes sandy. We talk them through safety basics, etiquette, position management, and technique. We drill them and make sure they know that they are entering an environment very different than their everyday world; an environ where money doesn’t buy waves, where those who are patient and persistent thrive, and where respect goes a very long way. Where respect is the only way.
I can’t speak for everyone, and I’m not defending all surf camps. I don’t doubt that some are shady and obviously in it for the wrong reasons. But if it helps, think of surf schools as similar to driving schools. The highways- much like the waves- are always crowded, yet everyone wants to drive, or learn to drive. So what is better? Just put the sixteen year olds behind the wheel with no training, testing, or certification... and hope for the best? Or should we get them into a reputable learning program and teach them skills and the rules of the road? That’s what legit surf schools do.
We teach skills that allow the newbies to paddle out safely and merge with the rippers, hopefully in a way that works out well for everyone. It doesn’t always go perfectly. But would you rather they paddle straight to the peak without the training and coaching surf schools provide? They will, ya’ know.
If all the surf schools and camps vanished tomorrow, your local break, your cherished waves will still be stalked by hordes of beginners who are intent on learning to surf. Hurley and the Irons brothers and dozens of magazines and Fuel TV and Boost Mobile and all the other advertisers have practically guaranteed it. It’s backed up by the numbers: Our surf school hosts and initiates less than three hundred surfers each season (without magazine ads) while one single Roxy ad is seen by literally millions of eyes. Those numbers don’t justify all the surf school hatred going on.
I’ve actually heard the words spoken and seen them in print: “Surf schools should be banned!” Really? Driving schools too, then? The freeways and streets in your hood would be gauntlets of chaos and fear. No surf schools means no safety and etiquette lessons for the great unwashed, the loners, the unlucky ones without surfer friends or super dads to teach them The Way Of The Surfer. In the long run, screaming about, and attempting to ban surf schools will create much more frustration than it will ever solve.