Hopping a Board

Another young woman tries valiantly to hang 10 and join the 'Blue Crush' phenomenon.

September 03, 2002|By Alexa James | Alexa James,SUN STAFF

FENWICK ISLAND, Del. - It's just past 7 on a cool, late August morning. As the first surfers of the day arrive at the beach, she kicks off her flip-flops and gathers her hair into a low ponytail. It's a workday, but she's escaped from the city office for a morning of surfing. As she surveys the 3- to 4-foot breaks, others congregate along the coast, boards in tow, slipping into wetsuits and sizing up the surf.

While tourists in the hotels behind them sleep off hangovers, surfers kneel like churchgoers, quietly waxing their boards. On the horizon, dolphins jump, and pelicans skim the water's surface like skipping stones.

In just a few minutes, she'll take communion with the sea, joining the waves as they muscle their way to shore.

"So, are you the lifeguard here?" a man asks. His two sons are hustling down the beach to test the water.

"Huh? What? Oh, me?"

My cheeks blush as red as my suit. He's caught me daydreaming. Boardless and staring blankly out to sea, I obviously look out of place.

"Actually," I admit, "I'm taking my first lesson today."

I've worn the tropical fashions, partied at makeshift luaus and, back in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle days, I actually thought words like "gnarly," "radical" and "tubular" made me a native Hawaiian. Now there's the anti-Gidget surfing movie, Blue Crush, about a champion female surfer who battles back from a near drowning to ride with the boys in the Pipe Masters, the most dangerous competition in Hawaii.

After watching those waves splinter boards on the big screen, I have no desire to train for the Pipe. But before the summer slips away, I've decided to try my hand at surfing the milder waves off the East Coast. So I've enrolled at Surf Sessions, a summer program that offers weeklong surfing camps and day lessons.

Class begins

This morning, 14 other beginners and I start by tracing surfboard shapes in the sand. We lie on our stomachs inside the outlines and practice the "pop up," the keystone of surfing.

"This is a really aggressive move," says instructor Brett Buchler, a 30-year-surfing veteran and the founder of Surf Sessions.

Buchler picks the day's surfing location by assessing the waves outside the Carolina Arms, the beach house he rents as Surf Sessions' headquarters and his family's summer home. Today, the surfing spot is off 59th Street.

"The tide came in a little high today," says Buchler. That makes the breaks choppy for learning. He warns everyone to stay with their boards and watch for rip currents. "There's a little bit of one right there," he says, pointing to a section of ocean that, to me, looks exactly like all the rest.

I place both hands, palms down, in the middle of my imaginary board, and rehearse my pop up. OK, don't grab the rails, the sides of the board. Front foot should land where my hands were. Back foot should hit toward the rear of the board.

No sweat. Like a push-up/sit-up combo with a little lunge at the end. Kind of like a snowboarder's stance. Piece of cake, at least here on dry land.

Buchler rattles off safety tips. Don't cut in front of other surfers. "You've got no brakes on these boards." If you get mashed by a wave, count to five under water, then surface with your hands above your head, just in case your board is still on the way down.

"Now these guys are just beginners," says Buchler, pointing to Will and Andrew Hahn, ages 15 and 12, who are already catching waves. The Hahns live in Ellicott City but spend long weekends at a beach house in Ocean View. The family's exchange student bought the brothers their first surfing lessons in July. Since then, they've gathered savings from birthdays, Grandpa and plenty of lawn-mowing to buy their own boards. Will spent $435 on his.

Buchler is highlighting elements of Will's technique when the lanky teen tumbles headfirst through a whitecap. "He just did what you call the nose dive," Buchler says. "You will do one of those today, too."

Joining the `Crush'

Rip currents? Nose dives? My stomach is squirming like a jellyfish. During my last dip in the ocean, I took a bigger-than-expected wave to the face and ended up with a bloody nose.

I have the small problem of getting panicky in the water. And I'm not a great swimmer. The only part of Blue Crush that comes to mind just now is the scene where the female lead gets hauled out of the ocean on a stretcher.

Buchler's sons, 19-year-old Baptiste and 11-year-old Jake, help coach the novice surfer dudes and dudettes of all ages. Nearby, family and friends set up a makeshift headquarters of camcorders and beach chairs.

Thirteen-year-old Allie Pancake from Baltimore has been begging for surfing lessons all summer. She's tired of hearing the boys in her class brag about riding waves. Today, her parents surprised her and brothers, T.J. and Trent, ages 10 and 6.

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