"Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world." - Beach Boys.
I've sat on top of the world. Granted, it's been a while, but the thrill of catching a wave, standing on a surfboard and skimming along the water is not easily forgotten.
Ask some of the kids surfing off Ocean City, Fenwick Island, Virginia Beach or the Jersey Shore. They'll tell you what I already know - surfing very quickly becomes more than a sport. It develops into a way of life.
Two college friends in particular stand out in my mind as devout followers of the surfer lifestyle so popular in the mid to late '60s and still around in somewhat smaller numbers today. Blindy (rhymes with Windy) and Mutsi (rhymes with tootsie) kept their surfboards in the dorm room they shared. Space for their boards took precedence over books, clothes, desk materials and everything else. Their supply of cut-off jeans was endless as was their supply of Beach boys' albums. That were casual, fun, but beneath the surface they were driven like men passionately in love.
They came to school tanned, and in the winter when even their wet suits offered no protection against the cold, they were miserable. Their eyes were vacant, their sking was pale and patxy, their hair was without luster. But they could feel the warmth of the sun in February when other people were still bundled in overcats. They'd be off to the Jersey Shore or Long Island to celebrate the New Year of Surfing. They'd return from their year's first trip rejuventated.
"It was great, just great," Bindy would always say while lying on his back and staring at the "hang-ten" imprints he'd made by inking the bottom of his feet and pressing them against the ceiling.
"It was okay," Mutsi, always a bit more realistic but clearly happy, would say. "Getting out of the water, you know, it just does something to you."
What it did was bring a sort of separate peace to their world. Surfing was and is an exhilarating physical experience which provide challenges, a sense of accomplishment and, most of all, fun.
The fist challenge in surfing is paddling out to where the waves are breaking. The difficulty here is that as waves break, they knock you backward, hampering your forward progress. The best bet is to lie stomach down on the board and paddle hard with both arms. Enough hard paddling will almost neutralize a wave intent on driving you back toward shore. Then, in lull between waves, hard paddling will eventually put you out where the waves form, which is where the best rides begin.
The next major difficulty is actually catching the wave, which means riding a little in front of the wave while it breaks just behind you. Timing is essential here. You paddle hard toward shore as the wave lifts your board. When you're just beyond the wave's tip, make your move to stand on the board. At first, this move should be made very cautiously. In fact, it's not a bad idea to rise to your knees and steady yourself before attempting to stand. Warning: the first several (hundred) attempts to stand generally result in a wipeout. But once up, even for an instant, the feeling that you have momentarily tamed a natural force sets in. You'll want more.
Skeptics from the West frown at East coast surfing and even Blindy and Mutsui, who surf California, admitted the East was calm by comparison. "But you go with what you've got," Mutsi always said.
What we've got, really isn't bad at all. The Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey ocean beaches all have reasonable surf on most days. It's not going to look like Hawaii, but who can handle Hawaii? There are regulations posted in most beach towns stating surfing hours and locations, but they're mostly common sense rules. No surfer worth his tan would think of surfing the crowded downtown Ocean City beaches in midday anyway.
People who feel they are either too young or too old for the actual surfboard can get a less strenous, but nonetheless fulfilling, experience in the surf by riding a canvas raft or by body surfing.
Getting the most out of a raft involves essentially the same techniques as using a surfboard, with one exception - don't try standing on it. Lie flat on the raft and hold onto its edges when you ride it in and you'll be propelled rapidly into shore.
Body surfing requires catching the tip of the wave so you are lifted as the wave rises. That's when you start swimming toward shore.If you've timed right, the wave will break over your head and you'll be washed up on shore with the foam ("soup" in surfer talk) of the wave.