Catch the Wave

The ancient Polynesian sport of riding oblong wooden boards over cresting waves has intrigued humans for thousands of years.

Today, from the reefs of Australia to the frigid waters of Alaska -- even in Lake Michigan -- wherever there are waves, there are surfers.

Although surfing may seem a perfect fit in the modern, media-drenched world of extreme sports, it has a surprisingly long documented history. In his 1866 book Roughing It, Twain writes, "I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it."

Jack London fared better -- in his 1916 short story The Kanaka Surf, he captures the joy of surfing:
... to ride the backs of the waves, rise out of the foam to stand full length in the air above, and with heels winged with the swiftness of horses to fly shoreward, was what made sport for them and brought them out from Honolulu to Waikiki.

Surfing as we know it today originated in Hawaii, most likely around the 1500s; however, 18th-century contact with Europeans almost eradicated the sport.

Ben Marcus, in The History of Surfing from Captain Cook to the Present, notes that Calvinist missionaries tried to prevent native Hawaiians from continuing this "immoral" practice and that the sport came close to extinction in the early 1900s, but was revived in part and spread worldwide by Olympic gold-medalist swimmer and so-called Father of Surfing Duke Kahanamoku in the 1920s.

Marcus, like many surf historians, also notes that the 1959 movie Gidget sparked the '60s surf-based beach culture.

Up through the 1990s, surfing grew slowly -- but today, surfing, and surfwear in particular, is a multimillion-dollar industry and a presence in the stock market, through companies such as California-based Quiksilver ( ZQK) and Australian-owned Billabong ( BLLAF).

Pipeline to Success

Modern surfing has both a men's and women's worldwide pro circuit, and these athletes make their living from cash prizes and, more significantly, corporate sponsorships.

Look at any photo of professional surfers on their boards, and you're bound to spot Quiksilver's red and white logo -- these sponsored surfers are paid by surfwear companies when their logos show up in photographs. Most of the major surfwear corporations also sponsor teams of surfers who have the tedious job of traveling the world to surf premier breaks.

Yet while surfboards and surfwear are most often manufactured on a mass scale, the small, independent surf shop maintains its deep-seated hold on the industry.

Most shops are owned by local surfers, and while those on the U.S. East Coast many not have as rich a history as those in California and Hawaii, they are still a fun place to hang out. Mark Keup's shop , Nor'easter, in Scituate, Mass., even has couches to lounge on while one peruses his collection of surf videos.

Tired of the commute from the suburbs to his job in Boston, Keup opened Nor'easter in 1990. He had ridden waves for a Rhode Island surf shop team for years, so it was a natural move.

But during the first five years, Keup's business struggled. "It's a wonder we ate," he says, "We did a tenth of the business then that I do now."

Keup explains that the success of his shop "followed the classic model they tell you in business school: five years until you're established in the community." Keup also credits the hurricane season of 1995, which brought with it an onslaught of unusually intense summer waves to costal New England.

Sunset Suzy, proprietor of her own surf school on Oahu, on Hawaii's famed North Shore, also speaks of the tenacity of the small surf shop. "You'd think the bigger chains would take over, but they don't. People want to go to the surf shops in Haleiwa a small town on Oahu's North Shore. Where's there's a surf shop, people want to go."

And both Suzy and Keup credit the movie Blue Crush for increasing their female clientele. Keup points out, "In 2003, Nor'easter went from selling one board in 99 to a woman, to selling them 50-50" to males and females.

A Swelling Interest

Though I grew up in coastal Massachusetts -- and lived there through the epic summer of 1995 -- I didn't try surfing until a trip to Hawaii in 2003.

I stood up on a surfboard for the first time on a secluded break on Oahu's much famed North Shore, under the tutelage of Suzy, comforted by the fact that she was also one of the area's first female lifeguards.

When beginning to surf, Keup notes it's important to start with a big board, known as a long board. "With a larger board, you'll have fun the first day," as it's easier to balance. Keup recommends New Surf Product South Point long boards: made from a slightly tougher material than the standard resin-coated foam units, they are a good way for beginners to get used to handling a board.

Most tropical locales (and even some not-so-tropical ones -- Vancouver has its own surf school) have surf camps that offer lessons. I recommend Sunset Suzy's surf school for anyone headed to Oahu; for those headed elsewhere, Suzy suggests you make sure that the teachers are also certified lifeguards.

Suzy's surf school began small six years ago, and is now thriving, thanks to Web-generated business.

For $85 per person for groups of two or less, and $65 per person for groups of three or more, Suzy and one of her assistants will paddle out with you for a morning of surfing. And during my lessons, the session ended when my arms were too tired to paddle, not like the abrupt 60-minute lessons offered at many tropical resorts for twice the price.

Before I tried surfing, I imagined it as a rush of speed and water: What I didn't consider was the upper body strength it takes to propel yourself and the surfboard into the path of the oncoming wave. I also didn't think about falling off -- and the ensuing glorious rush of water coursing up your nostrils and the surfboard smacking you on the forehead.

But after my first few painful wipeouts, I learned to stay under the water until I felt the wave had passed, and to surface with my hands stretched above me to feel for the board. And despite the many challenges, by my second lesson I stood up on the board. My friends had to beckon me back to shore after I'd been out with Suzy and her assistant for almost four hours.

It was nearly impossible to leave; straddling the board, as you wait for your perfect wave, you experience a completely different form of water from the rough froth of white those on the beach see -- this far out, the waves are smooth and rotund, all their explosive force contained.

Surfers call it "the stoke," the adrenalin rush that follows catching a good wave. For me, every time I balance upright on my board, stoke jets through my veins. I've climbed rocks, skiied, mountain-biked, boogie-boarded, kayaked -- but none of them leaves me with the permagrin of hours spent chasing the waves.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Penelope Dane is a writer and sociologist living in Baton Rouge, La. She is currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction and conducting research on teen poetry.

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