By John Woestendiek
July 8, 2006
I won't be telling you about the top of the world.
If, however, you want to hear about the world's depths - how the churn of the sea makes your limbs flail in entirely new directions, how the ocean bottom feels on your forehead, how tiny sea-shell shards get along with bare knees - I'm your man.
When, at the beach, your 14-year-old son says he wants to take a surfing lesson, you could just fork over the dough and drop him off, experiencing the thrill of surfing vicariously - free of scrapes, rashes, sunburn, sore muscles and exhaustion - as he excitingly recounts it later.
Or you could momentarily abandon your grown-up good judgment, forget about that episode on the skateboard last year, and sign up, too.
For the best thing about surfing - next to the thrilling sense of freedom one allegedly feels while riding on a wave - is that when you fall, you don't land on concrete. And the next best thing to getting up on a wave yourself, or maybe even better, is seeing your son or daughter do it.
Setting up a lesson is easy - assuming you know whom to call, and that he or she, commonly being laid-back sorts, gets back to you. Surfing instructors aren't usually listed in phone books, but the folks at most surf shops, if they don't offer lessons, can refer you to one.
Some instructors, like Brett Buchler, who runs Surf Sessions in Fenwick Island, Del., are schoolteachers who spend their summer months tutoring vacationers and residents in the art of surfing.
Setting up a lesson with Buchler took one phone call - show up at his place at 7 a.m., he said, and he would take it from there.
About a half-dozen novices did, most piling into Buchler's well-worn van for the trip to that day's location - the site can vary daily - in Ocean City at the end of 36th Street.
Buchler, a 52-year-old teacher of seventh-grade geography, sized us up and handed us wetsuits before we hit the beach.
My son slipped right into his. I pressed, squeezed, squirmed and otherwise loaded myself into mine, waddling down to the beach feeling like the Michelin Tire Man. Buchler, noting it was so tight as to restrict my movement, not to mention my breathing, handed me a slightly larger one, and I suited up again.
By then, the other students were practicing on the sand - drawing lines and lying atop them; then, as Buchler instructed, rising so that their feet landed on the line, all in one quick and fluid movement.
That is something I - being a different kind of 52 than Buchler - would normally do with a few pauses and grunts. Some recent back problems made the prospect seem even more unlikely.
But I tried it his way. It was neither quick nor fluid, but it was close enough that Buchler didn't send me packing.
"Sometimes I send people home to do push ups," Buchler, sunglasses perched atop his gray hair, said.
He ran through some basic tips - most dealing with safety - and advised us on how to get beyond the breakers, which can be the most strenuous part of surfing and is no time to be tentative.
"You have to fight to get out there sometimes," he said. "You have to be aggressive because that ocean is aggressive."
Carry the surfboard at your side on the way out, he warned, holding it over the waves. If you hold it in front of you, and a breaking wave hits it, "you will go down; it will knock you over."
If, while heading out, you see other surfers heading in on a wave, they have the right of way - and the momentum. "There are no brakes on a surfboard," he said.
Buchler cautioned us to watch out for our own surfboards as well - most of which, thankfully, were soft and foamy beginner models.
Still, he said, upon wiping out - especially if you take a nose-dive off the front of the board - stay under water for a few seconds to make sure the board has time to come down out of the air.
With that, we headed out, our boards leashed to our ankles, fighting our way through the 3- to 4-foot breakers. Buchler and his assistants rotated from one student to the next, helping each to get positioned and choose his or her waves.
Buchler reminded me to keep my head and chest up while lying on the board. That tightens the stomach muscles, making you less likely to roll off the side when a wave comes. Then he gave me a push and yelled at me to paddle.
As the wave carried me along, I put my hands flat on top of the board, as we had been shown, and pushed myself up, getting only as far as my knees. I managed to stay on the board, on my knees, all the way in - a feat that impressed only me.
On the second try, I went off the side. On the third, I nose-dived. On the fourth, I began to stand but couldn't quite bring myself to take my hands off the board.
"One motion, just pop up," Buchler said. "If you stop in mid-motion, you're either going to be in that same pose all the way in, or you're going off."
The next five tries, I went off.
My son, meanwhile, was getting the hang of it. Several times, I saw him riding upright - for two seconds, three, five even. And children younger than he seemed to be picking it up even more quickly.
Ben Carr, 10, was riding waves all the way in within a matter of minutes.
"It's pretty easy," he said later.
"He skateboards and snowboards, so for him it was just another surface," said his mother, Sue.
Ben's father, Ricky, 49, was having a harder time of it. He had tried surfing three times previously - twice in the 1970s and once in the 1980s, all while on vacation.
"I did about as good today as I did then - a total flop," the auto mechanic from Poolesville said. "I'd get my hands and feet planted, but when I tried to get totally upright, I would wipe out."
Despite his frustration, a sunburned back and board rash on his stomach after the 2 1/2 -hour lesson, Ricky Carr said he planned to try again during his week of vacation and was even considering purchasing a wetsuit.
"We had a blast; it was great," said Andy Copes of Bel Air, who took a lesson with his daughter Alex, 10. They had wanted to try surfing for several years, ever since they started watching surfing movies together. Both were catching waves by the end of class.
Buchler, who has been teaching surfing since 1988 and until a few years ago ran a summer live-in surfing camp, is a no-nonsense sort, but he can be as encouraging as he is gruff, and seems to take as much glee in a surfer's first successful ride as the surfer.
"You're up! You're up! There ya go!" he shouted when my son managed to get upright the first time.
Buchler said his students have ranged in age from 5 to 70, and the number of female students has increased.
"The big trend recently has been girls; ever since that movie came out, Blue Crush , they're starting to outnumber the boys."
Buchler settled in Fenwick after 15 years of wandering the world - working as a ski instructor in the Alps, and surfing everywhere from Hawaii to Tahiti.
He and his wife, Carol, have five children, most of whom help with the classes. Two of his sons, Jake, 14, and Caleb, 13, recently took honors in regional surfing competitions.
Buchler holds classes in the morning and early evening. In Ocean City, surfing is prohibited between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., except at two designated locations, which are announced daily. Usually, those locations are jammed with experienced surfers, making them less than ideal for novices, Buchler said.
On the rest of the beach, when the lifeguards arrive, the surfers must leave. I was already out of the water by then and resting on a surboard in the sand. In about 20 attempts, I had gotten upright once, for one fleeting portion of a second, before crashing into the water.
By then, I felt not so much on top of the world as having gone through the spin cycle of a washing machine. Still, my son and I discussed our "rides" in detail as we stopped for breakfast on the way home - our descriptions lasting far longer than the rides themselves.
We hadn't excelled, but we'd had fun trying. We were sore, battered, bruised and hungry, but as I watched him dig into a stack of Snickers pancakes I realized that the spot where I sat across from him, albeit it in a crowded restaurant, seemed a lot like the top of the world.
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