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Hopping a Board


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.

In a few hours, most of the surfers are popping up - and wiping out - with true grit. "When you catch a wave," Pancake says, her brown eyes growing bigger and bigger, "you just know you've got it!" She's already planning to beg for a week of surf camp next summer.

Girls like Pancake wouldn't be caught dead as a "Betty," a chick who retrieves boards for sweet-talkin' male wave riders. And Gidget? What's a Gidget?

The number of females at Surf Sessions has steadily increased over the years, but this summer Buchler says he set a new record for girl campers.

"When I first started surfing there were hardly any girls in the water at all," says Missy Carrick, a former Surf Sessions camper. As a teen-ager, Carrick was the first woman to compete in Delaware. The competition didn't even have a women's heat. "They didn't know what to do with me," she says. "So they put me with this old guy."

Carrick, 25, is a graduate student at Western Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. She says her parents, who also surf and scuba dive, didn't want her attending college in California, Hawaii or Florida. They knew their daughter would skip class every time a low pressure system arrived off shore.

But Carrick already has too much salt in her blood, so she's spending the summer as a Surf Sessions counselor. "It's cool to see people get hooked on surfing," she says.

Catching a wave

It's one thing to get hooked on the image of surfing. But actually charging the waves with only your body and a board and expecting to hitch a ride ... standing up?

Hey, if these middle-schoolers can surf, what am I afraid of, I ask myself. I pick up my board (it's much heavier than I thought) and swallow my stomach.

But when I hit the water, I forget about the current, the temperature and that nose bleed last month. I push hard with my legs to catch up to Baptiste, already out far enough for wave catching, while attempting to control my board.

I can't let it drift parallel to the shore, or a wave will catch the edge and spin it right out of my hands and into my face. Instead, I focus my measly arm strength on leading the board, nose first, over the waves until I'm far enough out to try riding one.

Here's the general process: Wait for a lull between waves and climb on the board, shimmying down until your toes hang off the back. Then it's time for the pop up.

As I get situated, Baptiste holds the board in place. "OK, I'm ready," I say. I look over my shoulder and see a rising swell of dark blue.

When I imagined this moment on shore, the wave rolling my way, I thought I would freeze, or scream - or vomit. But there's not even time for a squeak. Seconds later, I feel the surge and see the front of my board lift. "Alright, go now!" Baptiste yells.

Trying to pop up on a moving board, with a wall of water pressing on my back, is much harder than my practice tries on land. The first pop only brings me to my knees, so I throw in an extra jump and scramble to my feet. Now I'm standing and rushing forward on a soft sheet of white. Buchler is cheering, and I'm beaming like Miss Malibu.

Then I hit the beach. I slide off the board and skid on my butt across the sand, eventually rolling to a stop with my hair matted in my face and a giant wedgie.

"Wowwwwwwww," I whisper.

For the next two hours, I chase the waves like a groupie following a rock band. I only pop up successfully a few times, but one nice ride is worth dozens of wipeouts.

Water up your nose? Take a board to the chin? Lose part of your suit? Not important when another wave is on its way.

New found respect

I'm riding shotgun in the surf van, a salt-corroded Ford Club Wagon with tropical seat covers, posters lining the roof, and the gold top of a surfing trophy for a hood ornament. Plastic hula girls wobble on the dash as "Wild Thing" blasts from battered speakers.

Cruising down Coastal Highway, exhausted after only a few hours on the bunny waves, I reflect on my first surfing lesson. So what if I never travel the world in search of an endless summer? Maybe I won't shape a career around surfing like Brett Buchler, who spent 15 years traveling, working odd jobs and sleeping outside when necessary. (These days, he's a seventh-grade geography teacher, which still leaves summers free for Surf Sessions.) I'll probably still get the tow-head streaks in my hair, and most of my tan, from a salon.

But now, at least I understand why members of the surfing sect pursue waves so tall and powerful they scream like banshees when they break. I can respect the bruises and broken bones that surfers wear like hickeys. To them, the heartbreak is worth a few roaring seconds in an emerald tunnel of water.

These days, surfing is as commercialized as every other sport, but at least you can't sponsor the waves. "It's not like you can go to the grocery store and get your waves," says Missy Carrick. The ocean doesn't care if your wetsuit is Billabong or Hurley.

It's a humbling practice. Carrick says it reduces a person to instinct. "When you get in your head too much," she says, "That's when you're done."

Maybe it's the sport's forced humility that creates the cult-like camaraderie and defensiveness showcased in movies like Blue Crush. Riding a wave can be extremely private and spiritual, but it produces a common understanding among the surfing community. "When everyone else is off the beach," Carrick says, "surfers are out there."

And today, when I would normally be hitting snooze, I was out there too, hanging 10.

Or at least hanging in there.

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