Catch a wave

 (Neill Herbert)

(Neill Herbert)

Your biceps are burning. You can feel your heartbeat in every fingertip. Your breathing is labored as you inhale a mouthful of salty spray. Suddenly, the ocean heaves under you and you’re on the move…right back to where you came from. A few glorious but fleeting moments on your board and it’s all over. Well, not quite.

As the torrential water tosses you around like a dirty sock in the cold load, you lose track of time and direction. Were those dim rays of light sunrise or sunset? Visions of dorsal fins dance in your head, and you’re sure you’re about to get swept to your doom on a large, sharp rock.

But there is no rock, no hungry Jaws, just the seagulls, who greet you with their usual cheerful scolding as your head pokes above the surface. Your Styrofoam steed floats nearby, waiting patiently to be paddled past the crashing waves again.

You stand and smile. You want some more. You’ve been bitten by the surfing bug, and, fortunately, there is no cure.

As the weather warms and surfing’s popularity increases, the sport is enjoying a major boost, thanks to many factors, not the least of which is “probably because it’s just fun,” according to Gayline Clifford, Southwest Conference director for the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA). “There’s been more surfing in mainstream — things like the movie ‘Blue Crush.’ … It looks glamorous.”

The NSSA, the largest association of amateur surfers in the country, organizes contests between teams mostly made up of students from elementary grades through college. Collegiate competition in the Southwest Conference, which includes California, pits teams from schools like UC Santa Cruz, CSU Long Beach and University of San Diego against each other. The most recent season, which lasts from October to June, has been the biggest season in the Southwest’s history with 28 teams from 15 schools.

But large universities are not the only ones represented. Two community colleges, Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Mira Costa College in Oceanside, regularly go up against their larger private university and UC counterparts. Mira Costa has had consistent success since it joined the competition in 2000 and one of the school’s teams is currently ranked first in the state.

Despite the beautiful beach view offered by the Skyline College campus, the college has never included surfing as an official sport, according to Athletic Director Andreas Wolf.

“A couple of years ago, I was sitting in my office and a thought popped into my head, ‘Hey, what about a surfing class?’,” he said.

However, he noted that the class would be logistically difficult because of the long and involved process that surfing often entails, including transportation, acquiring equipment, and other factors. But, Wolf said he is always on the lookout for creative ideas.

“If there’s a demand, if 20 students knock on my door and say, ‘Let’s have a surfing class,’ I would create it.”

Though Skyline has never hosted an official surfing team, students have organized clubs around their common interest in riding waves. However, the college has not had one of these clubs since the Skyline Surfriders disbanded in 2003.

Not just blond and blue

It seems that a description of the stereotypical California surfer must include blond hair and blue eyes, features that are much less common in the Skyline and Bay Area communities than a few hundred miles to the south. One local student looking for a hobby, when it was suggested to him that he start surfing, even responded, “No thanks, that’s too white.”

But even a casual look at the history of the sport reveals a heritage that is anything but Euro-centric.

The first European to observe the sport was the British explorer Captain James Cook. After watching a group of Polynesians surfing in the South Pacific in 1779, an amazed sailor from the Cook expedition wrote in his log, “The boldness and address with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers was astonishing and is scarce to be credited.”

Though it is not known exactly how long the Polynesians had been perfecting the sport, it had been an integral part of the culture for centuries. When immigration to Hawaii exploded during the nineteenth century, some cultural traditions were lost, and surfing’s popularity began to ebb. But in the early twentieth century, a surfing exhibition was held in southern California, igniting a surfing fever. The sport had finally reached the mainland and its golden age began, finally culminating in the popularity it enjoyed during surf music’s popularity in the 1960s.

Dan Moreno, owner of the Sonlight Surfshop in Pacifica has been seeking great waves worldwide since that famous era. As a Filipino-American surfer who grew up in California, he has met people who are sometimes uncertain of his ethnicity.

“I’ve been a lifelong surfer, and people used to think I was Hawaiian,” Moreno said. “Through the years, my identity was not really Filipino, it was more like brown-skinned American.”

Because of his love for surfing and his curiosity about his heritage, Moreno recently traveled to the beaches of the Philippines, filming his experiences as he connected with the country so many of his fellow Californians have called home. When the film, “The Gift of Barong,” opens this summer, he hopes it showcases not only some great surfing, but also how he reconnected with his Filipino roots. And, while he recognizes that the exposure of little-known surf spots in the Philippines would bring an economic boost to the area, he admitted that he hopes the area doesn’t get so popular that it would spoil the cultural uniqueness.

But why do it?

While quick to recognize the physical advantages of participating in their sport, most surfers rate emotions at the top of their list.

“It’s just an amazing rush and a great feeling,” said David Schmidt, a second-year Skyline student and avid surfer. “You’re so close to nature; there’s seagulls all around, surfing in the rain, sunsets.”

But Schmidt also has no problem with admitting it can often be difficult or dangerous.

“It’s exhilarating, and it’s kind of fearful at the same time. Sometimes you think you’re going to die.”

Moreno is also quick to point out the most common benefit of the sport.

“It’s that emotional thing that you feel when you surf, which is very difficult to define or explain,” he said. “That’s probably the primary reason why surfing is so popular.”

But, he added, sometimes people don’t know exactly what they are getting into when they first try surfing, and that is when they discover the sport’s dangerous aspects.

“They probably have seen it on movies or magazines and think ‘Hey, this is fun,’ until they start doing somersaults underwater and they don’t want to be doing somersaults. All they want is that one gasp of breath.”

But for those who stick with it, Moreno points out that surfing has great advantages if you’re looking for a rigorous workout.

“It’s like a treadmill,” he said. “People ask me if I lift weights. I don’t; I surf. It’s not like you’re out there to exercise. You’re just out there to have a good time, and in the process, your upper body is being built up.”

Moreno also says that, while sharks do inhabit the ocean along the San Mateo County coast, he doesn’t think it is a big enough problem to keep people out of the water.

“Frankly, I don’t even think much about sharks because I think surfing is one of those things that is so good for you.”

So how do I start?

Over the 20 years that Moreno has owned Sonlight, he has not noticed many college-age surfers looking to get lessons. According to the 35-year surfer, young adults are more inclined to learn from their friends.

“What happens when you have a friend (teach you), they say, ‘Do this. do that. I’ll see you in abou
t an hour,'” he says.

Schmidt, a self-taught surfer, got into the sport one summer when his father gave him a used surfboard.

“It was a junker,” he said. “I took it out and got beat up.

“You’re gonna get beat up, but you just have to take the beating,” he said, sounding as if he enjoyed every minute of the learning curve.

“Talk to surfers,” he added. “Go to a surfshop and talk to them. Buy a used surfboard and a used wetsuit, and you can get out for pretty cheap.”

Moreno advises taking a lesson.

“It shortens the learning curve dramatically,” he says. “You learn the aspects of safety, surfing technique and etiquette. I think that’s what’s sorely missing these days, when people have learned on their own. There really is a surfing etiquette out there, but most people who are new to surfing don’t realize there’s a surfing etiquette.”

Schmidt also has noticed the lack of propriety in the water.

“There’s no written law. There should be a written law.”

Due to the increased frequency of fights at certain beaches, some places, such as Cowell’s in Santa Cruz have posted signs listing rules for surfers to follow. The signage is designed to make the accepted etiquette a little less mysterious and allow more people to enjoy the pastime.

“You’ll know pretty quick if you like surfing_that first wave and you will be hooked,” said Schmidt before catching his unintentional reference to water pollution. “Or_not ‘hooked.’ You’ll be bitten by that bug.”

Oh well. Surfing may not be as glorious and glamorous as Hollywood may portray it, but there is no doubt that those who daily enjoy riding the waves of the world’s oceans find a pleasure there that cannot be found anywhere else.