Surf's up at this school

Endless summer for teacher

Mentor: A geography teacher devotes the summer to teaching others his passion for surfing.

July 14, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

FENWICK ISLAND, Del. - The weathered beach house in this summer community at the northern tip of Ocean City looks pretty much like what it is - a surfers' hangout.

There's a tangle of flip-flops strewn across the deck. Every available stretch of railing seems to be covered with wet suits, knee-length flowered swim trunks and assorted string bikinis. Inside, surfing posters are plastered everywhere.

The van parked out front could just as well be a Woodie or VW microbus. But it's a dilapidated 1979 Ford Club Wagon, complete with silver surfing trophy hood ornament and blue "waves" on the roof sculpted from foam insulation that doubles as art and patches for a network of salt-induced corrosion.

You'd think the deeply tanned 49-year-old with the T-shirt and baggy trunks is a lifelong beach bum who's surfed for better than 30 years.

You'd be right on all counts. Sort of.

The two-story 1960s-vintage house is headquarters and dormitory for Surf Sessions, a laid-back, wave-riding school that has catered to 100 or so teens and pre-teens every summer since 1987.

The rust-bucket van is used mainly to haul surfboards wherever they need to go for young campers (mostly seventh- to 12th-graders) to learn to ride 3- to 4-foot beginner waves up and down the Delaware and Maryland coast.

And the surf dude? That would be Brett Buchler, seventh-grade geography teacher and father of five who also takes a regular turn at his church's Sunday school, a schedule he acknowledges is calculated to include year-round surfing.

For seven weeks every summer, he's guardian and guru for a stream of kids who learn the nuance and mystery of breaks and curls, winds and waves, long boards and short. The last week of the summer is always reserved for adult campers.

"I'm not rich; I pay rent on this beach house every summer," says Buchler with a shrug. "I'm just a guy who loved the beach and found a way to make a living and surf all day. I love the kids, and it's something I can share."

A self-described wanderer who was a ski instructor in the Alps and surfed all over the world - travels he says started out to be a year and lasted 15, including stints in Hawaii and Tahiti and five years in Europe - Buchler has put down roots in the sand.

Every summer, he crams 10 to 12 kids a week into the Carolina Arms, as a previous owner once named it. There are bunk beds in spartan quarters, boys in the main house, girls in an attached apartment. Four counselors share smaller rooms.

As soon as regular school's out, Buchler, his wife, Carol, and their five children head to Fenwick from their home in nearby Roxana, Del., taking over limited space on the second floor.

Buchler's two sons, 18-year-old Baptiste, a history major at the University of Delaware, and 10-year-old Jake, who sports a Mohawk haircut he believes brings good waves, are already fixtures in surfing competitions along the Atlantic seaboard. Both are sponsored by local surf shops and national companies that produce boards, wet suits and other gear.

Campers seem to have few complaints about their temporary quarters or the lack of amenities such as cable television.

Limited television time is usually spent watching surfing movies or videos of themselves to evaluate their form. After four or more hours a day surfing and nighttime activities such as trips to the boardwalk or beach bonfires, most are too tired to stay up late.

"This camp totally rocks," says 16-year-old Kristen Tainter of Timonium, who was easily handling 4-foot waves at Assateague Island State Park in her third day at camp. "Brett and the counselors are out there surfing with us. I can't believe I never did this before."

The camp, which has a Web site, offers a five-day course for $500, which includes room and board. Day campers pay $25 for the first lesson, $15 for each successive lesson. For those without boards, Surf Sessions has a stash of more than 40 stacked in a shed outside the beach house.

Every day starts at 6:30 with "dawn patrol" and includes at least four hours of surfing, which often means driving to surfing hot spots in Delaware, Ocean City or Assateague.

"This is better than any camp you could think of," says 14-year-old Austin Tighe, of West Chester, Pa. "I went to a boys camp last year. This is so much better - there's, like, total freedom."

Well, not exactly.

Campers, Buchler says, are on a fairly loose rein, but never far from his sight or the view of counselors, many of whom are former campers and members of the close-knit surfing crowd at the Maryland and Delaware beaches.

One hand-lettered poster hanging inside the beach house spells out the basic rules for all campers. "Respect: each other, the equipment, the house, the Buchlers, the ocean, the rules."

Another homemade sign outlines the list of chores each person is responsible for during the five-day camp. It's basic stuff - take out the trash, clean up your room, wash dishes.

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