Have board, will travel

<I>KEVIN HEIMBIGNER photo</I><BR>Makela Stemback prepares to hit the waves with instructor Juliann Orr for a surf lesson.

LONG BEACH - While California may have a reputation for being filled with surfers, I had to move from there to the Peninsula before I had a chance to experience this great sport for myself.

Earlier this summer, the SkookumChuk Surf School opened for the season in Long Beach and in more sense than one, created some waves. Long Beach officials have spent a lot of time and effort warning people to stay out of the ocean. The currents are powerful, unpredictable and deadly for those who are unfamiliar with the water or underestimate it.

So now, here's a new business that is actually encouraging people to play in the water. Outrageous! Such a scandal!

Like any good reporter, I felt it was my duty to get to the bottom of this controversy. I had to check out the facts, go directly to the source, find out the truth. Which meant, shucks, I guess I would just have to take a surfing lesson. So I showed up at the surf school and signed up for one of their two-hour classes - happy to do my part and learn what it was all about.

Surfboards line the walls of the school on Pacific Ave. in downtown Long Beach. But, I learned, they are not available for rentals, only for lessons. The reason? School owners, Juliann Orr and Alex Cutler, are concerned about safety and don't want the uninitiated or unknowledgeable to get in over their heads, literally. In fact, they consulted with both the U.S. Coast Guard and members of South Pacific County Technical Rescue on methods of increasing safety and promoting public beach safety awareness. They see the school as an educational opportunity, with hands-on training.

I signed the necessary waivers with the usual legalese, signifying I was aware that there are some risks involved, that I was a reasonably competent and mature adult. Right, close enough. They assured me, though, that each instructor had years of surfing experience and had familiarized themselves with surf conditions here. In addition, each instructor is trained in first aid as well. They would be in the water with me, and class sizes are kept small, with no more than four people per instructor in the water.

They sized me for a wet suit, a necessity for local waters and actually an important piece of safety equipment - the ocean here is cold, and without proper protection, a person can become hypothermic in a matter of minutes. As instructor David Loucks pointed out, "You wouldn't go snowboarding in shorts."

A little later, I was headed out to the Cranberry Road beach approach to meet up with Orr, who would be my instructor.

Orr arrived with surfboards and my wet suit, as well as booties, gloves and a hood should I need them. He assured me that the wet suit would keep the chill away. I squeezed into it, pulling and tugging, and found it surprisingly comfortable.

Then began the lesson. But we didn't just jump into the water. First, Orr went over safety, something he would emphasize throughout. He explained ocean currents and how they form, piling sand in small heaps to demonstrate how the water runs between the sandbars as it pulls back from the beach to form currents. He told me to swim parallel to the beach to get out of such a current. He told me never to surf alone, but to have a buddy, as people should anytime they are involved in water sports.

He also talked about handling the surfboard, not to let it come between you and the surf so it won't knock you over when a wave hits. He showed the proper technique for covering your head after falling off, so as not to get whacked by an errant board.

He had me position myself on the board while it lay in the sand to get a feel for it. I practiced jumping to a standing position, keeping one leg straight back while swinging the other forward, like a yoga move. Like yoga, the emphasis is on the smoothness and fluidity of the motion, not the speed. He showed me how to reposition my feet for greater stability, with them perpendicular to the board, rather than having my toes point toward the front or "nose."

I fastened the "leash," a cord which attaches the surfboard to the surfers ankle, and with one last piece of advice from Orr, "It's about having fun," we headed into the water.

And I leapt to my feet, standing tall on the board, riding in a killer wave, wind blowing in my hair, arms gracefully held out in that classic surfer pose. Gidget lives!

Okay, maybe not.

Actually, I practiced a few times by riding the board in on my belly, getting a feel for it.

"Paddle, paddle, paddle," Orr would say, telling me at the right time to catch a wave.

One student, Orr told me, was a little uncomfortable in the surf, despite her SCUBA certification, so didn't try to stand on the board the entire lesson. Instead, she just enjoyed riding it in on her stomach, like a "boogie board."

A word about boogie boards. Doug Knutzen, with South Pacific County Technical Rescue, said they are considered unsafe for this area, often giving people a false sense of security in the water. They are made of Styrofoam, unlike surfboards, and will break apart in rough water. They don't have a leash, so boogie board and swimmer can easily become separated. Often people will not use a wet suit with a boogie board, increasing the chances that they will become cold, tired, and in trouble, before they know it.

The team is trying to encourage local merchants not to sell them, and getting support. So far three local merchants, Jack's Country Store, Peninsula Pharmacy, and Dennis Co. have agreed to no longer carry them.

Knutzen said he has no problem with the surfing school, and because of the instructors' experience and skill in the water, is actively trying to recruit them for the rescue team.

But I wasn't on a boogie board, I was on a surfboard, so I was going to stand. With guidance from Orr, I positioned myself, preparing for the wave. I paddled hard as it came, then pushed myself up, swung my leg forward preparing to stand, and promptly overbalanced and fell off.

I tried again. And again. Each time, hauling the board back through the surf, keeping the end of it up over the water for control as I waded through the waves.

At one point we spotted a seal in the water, curiously watching our odd behavior. I think it was laughing at my clumsiness, which was okay because I was laughing too. I was enjoying being outside, playing in the ocean.

By the end of the lesson, I was able to stand, if only for a second or two. But it was exhilarating, feeling the power and the push of the ocean, floating on top of it. Even falling was fun, splashing around in the salt water.

So my conclusions after my in depth, underwater research?

Surfing is as the instructors describe it, a healthy and physically demanding sport that could give teenagers and adults alike another fun local activity. Skateboarders in particular would probably be able to pick it up easily. As well as a good workout (my arms were sore for three days) it teaches respect for the ocean and safety skills. It only took two waves whacking me upside the head to remember not to turn my back on the ocean. Perhaps the Peninsula, like Cannon Beach, could become another surfing Mecca.

The SkookumChuk Surf School, will soon be closing for the winter, but they plan on reopening next year, bigger and better then ever, having just got their feet wet.

"We've learned a lot this year," said instructor Loucks about their experience here.

So did I, and I plan on learning more about surfing one way or another. Who knows? Maybe I could even talk the newspaper into sponsoring me for series on the subject.

For more information on surf lessons and safety, call the school at 642-2875.

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