Learning How To Surf And Be A ‘Surfer’


One by one, little heads popped above a rise in the sand path leading through the dunes to a largely deserted stretch of beach in Napeague. White zinc sunscreen coated noses and cheekbones, the late morning sun sparkled off a glassy August ocean.

Surf boards were in tow, some tucked under arms, others dragging through the sand at the end of rubber leashes. Hoots and hollers echoed off the dunes as small waves, scrubbed smooth by light north winds, curled into cannoli-shaped tubes and swept left and right along the shoreline.

“Look at that perfect wave, this is why you don’t want to get stuck in summer school,” exclaimed one of the surfers, a coach from a local surfing instruction program, MBX Surf Camp, to the 20 pre-teen boys and girls bounding through the dunes behind him. “I’m stoked!”

Another coach, the MBX program director, 23-year-old Bridgehampton native James Casale, asked the kids contorting themselves in stretching exercises around him what direction the wind was blowing. “Offshore,” came a chorus of responses, getting a thumbs up from the tutor and an explanation that because the wind was offshore, the gentle swell remaining from the previous day’s stiff southwesterly winds would be “standing up” into a perfectly ridable wave.

In a conversation later on the beach, Mr. Casale said his program focuses not just on teaching its young pupils the mechanics of standing up on a surf board and riding a wave, but also the ins and outs of being “a surfer.” That entails: searching out the places along the oceanfront where sandbars and beach contours conspire to create ridable waves, reading the meteorological conditions near and far to predict ideal surfing days on the horizon and how to “read” the water for conditions like riptides and sweep, for the sake of safety and identifying ridable waves.

The things that others might associate with “surfers,” such as the enthusiastic lingo, sun-drenched fashion sense and hang-loose attitude, don’t need instruction.

“We have to move with the conditions, adapt to the waves so the kids get an understanding of the ocean experience,” Mr. Casale said. “And we teach them how to operate in the water as a surfer.

“There’s a rule to surfing when you’re in the water with multiple people,” he continued. “There has to be a priority and a right-of-way, like when you’re driving a car. It teaches kids etiquette and to respect each other.”

For Mr. Casale and the nine 20-something coaches with him that day, life growing up on the East End meant almost daily trips to the beach, nearly year-round, to check on the surfing conditions, slowly picking up such patterns and learning that respect for themselves, and hundreds of hours spent over the years of their youth bobbing in the sea and waiting for their turn to rise up from the horizon. The young kids donning matching fluorescent green spandex shirts, known as rash guards, on the beachfront that morning were a mix of boys and girls, most from urban and suburban neighborhoods where steeping themselves in the lore of surfing are not possible.

“I don’t really get to surf, other than this,” said a young man named Colin Hoschke, who said he has been attending the MBX camp for two or three weeks each summer for six years. “First, you learn to surf the white water, then you learn how to surf from the peak—that’s the top of the wave—then you learn how to go down the line, which is sideways along the wave.”

The MBX camp, which is based at Main Beach Surf & Sport in Wainscott, operates mostly on East Hampton beaches, its group of 20 students bouncing from break to break in a caravan of vans and pick-up trucks bristling with surfboards. The campers are accompanied each day by 10 coaches, at least three of them East Hampton Town-trained lifeguards and one certified EMT.

Mr. Casale said he selects his coaches carefully for their enthusiasm and ability to build a rapport with the young pupils. Most are people he grew up with or knows from the beach, so he can gauge whether they will be good with kids.

“We need to have coaches who want to be there and who are going to engage with the kids,” he said. “They need to want to see these kids get better and learn about surfing.”

And the coaches at the camp are a constant companion of students, floating in the water beyond the surf break and watching the waves rolling toward them. When the right wave rises up the coach gives the youngster’s board a shove to get it going with the wave so the student can focus on their pop, the leap from laying on their stomachs to their feet.

After one young girl, with pink zink on her cheeks, caught a good wave, the young instructor who had thrust her into it 
came bounding through the 
surf, leaping out of the water with a gleaming smile and thumbs-up.

A discussion of what the girl had done so well and how the wave had set up perfectly was short-lived. For as satisfying as the success was, it only stoked the urge for a follow-up. Both quickly turned back to the sea and charged through the following wave to get back into position for the next ride.

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