You've seen them riding seaward on the waves, paddling hard over the breaker line. At just the right moment they stand, sun glinting off their hair as their beautifully toned and bronzed bodies glide along the cresting mass of water, the power of the ocean beneath their feet. Who hasn't wondered: Could I trade in my little boogie board and become a surfer?
Peter Zabowski says you can. Zabowski, founder of Rehoboth Beach's Boarding School, teaches surfing in the Delaware beach town from June through mid-October. Then he takes his skills to Puerto Rico for the winter, teaching and, for fun, riding 12- to 20-foot swells.
People are always surprised to hear about a surfing school on the East Coast. But actually, the 3- to 6-foot swells in Rehoboth and up and down the coast are "ideal for teaching," says Zabowski, 45. "All you need to learn the basics is a knee-high wave."
Granted, waves in California, Hawaii and Polynesia, where surfing was born, are bigger and more consistent, says Zabowski. East Coast surfers tend to have a harder time becoming champions because for every decent wave they catch, a West Coast surfer will have caught three or four. To surf the East Coast, Zabowski says, you have to be patient, waiting out a good set of waves on a normal day and living for the times when storms kick up massive swells. And it is hurricane season now.
But trust me, if you're a beginner, you don't want really big waves, and you don't want them coming at you constantly.
How long does it take to learn? It varies tremendously, Zabowski says, but he adds that he has never failed to get a student onto his or her feet at least once during an initial two-hour lesson. His students range in age from 8 to mid-fifties, which unfortunately puts me toward the upper limit of those who've decided to try the sport. I'm gratified to hear that for some reason, females initially catch on quicker than males.
"Most sports are tilted in favor of the guys," says Zabowski. "But if you bring a brother and a sister who are equally motivated, I guarantee you the girl will get on her feet first. The boys get really mad."
Lessons start on the beach, where you put on a wetsuit provided by Zabowski and learn simple but important things, such as which leg gets attached to the strap that keeps the surfboard from catapulting out of your reach.
Zabowski, who is from Dover, Del., says he began teaching himself to surf when he was 15 and wasted a lot of time being pulled off the board because he had the strap on the wrong leg.
From the safety of the sand we lie on our boards and practice responding to the commands "paddle hard," "ready," "pop up." My pop up is clearly going to be a problem. From a completely prone position you must leap to your feet, without first going onto your knees. Muscles in numerous parts of the body are very useful for this exercise, while flab merely gets in the way of the pop-up.
The tide and wave conditions at the end of the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk haven't satisfied Zabowski on this day, so he has taken my daughter and me a couple of miles away to the wide, empty ocean beaches of the oddly named Gordon's Pond Wildlife Area, which is within Cape Henlopen State Park. I'm happy we've deserted the crowded boardwalk area, where hordes of sunburned tourists would likely be rushing from beneath their umbrellas to watch. In fact, the only spectators of my travails are a family of Brits who've just completed their lesson for the day. The family, including two children, discovered the school the first year it opened, four summers ago, and have returned every year since on their annual visit to family in Washington.
Even so, I would rather there be no witnesses and am glad the family gets bored seeing the gawky popping of a middle-aged body squeezed into what is basically a black girdle stretching neck to toe.
I'd suggest you practice popping up in the privacy of your own home for a few days before testing that ability in public and on the open sea, when the little bit of fiberglass floor beneath your feet is moving every which way.
I enjoy the paddling out part, bobbing over the waves. Really, my first time out I'd just be happy to paddle and bob. But Zabowski is waiting, chest-deep in water. The ratio of students to teacher is 2-to-1, and it's my turn. (I've let my 11-year-old go first. Since she has survived, I'm ready.) The three challenges of surfing are picking the right wave, perfectly timing the moment to take it and popping up. For beginners, Zabowski takes care of the first two. While you lie on the board and face the beach, he holds the end of the board until the right wave comes. When it does, he shouts "paddle hard." By the time you've taken about two strokes he shouts "ready," at which point you tense and grab the sides of the board. Then comes the "pop up" command.
The first few times I mean to pop. In my mind I'm popping, but my body remains stiff and prone. After a few more tries, I make it to my knees. I enjoy the knee ride so immensely I'd be satisfied with that.
But Zabowski clearly believes I can do this, and as all wonderful teachers do, he makes me believe it. Endlessly patient, he figures out that while I'm properly gripping the sides of the board during the ready phase, I fail to let go when it's time to pop. You can test this at home: It's hard to stand if you keep your hands nailed to the floor.
He adjusts the technique so that on the split-second ready phase, I place my hands flat on the top of the board, instead of gripping its sides.
This is not a magic solution, but a big help. I try again and again, and soon understand why surfers have such great bodies. Battling the waves with an eight-foot board is no easy task, to say nothing of the constant popping and falling.
"People think a two-hour lesson is no time at all, until they get out here," says Zabowski. "After two hours, though, they're exhausted."
Working out in a gym doesn't prepare you for surfing, he says. Swimming helps, but doesn't work all the muscles you use to surf. "You just have to get out here and do it."
If students have never surfed, he suggests that they sign up for just one two-hour lesson. Once they've tried it and decided they like it, he advises signing up for three more. By the end of four or five lessons, most students are consistently getting on their feet and riding the waves, and are ready to begin the lifelong practice of judging and timing the waves for themselves.
In the midst of my two-hour lesson, I actually manage to get to my feet -- but if you'd been watching and had blinked, you'd have missed it. Zabowski remains patient as I try, try again. Each time, I'm standing for longer milliseconds. So long that a camera with a fast lens could catch my triumph for posterity.
Surfing, I find, takes much more physical endurance than I had expected: Great surfers make it look so effortless. The good news is that it takes less athletic ability than I'd thought; not that it's easy by any means, but it's within the realm of possibility for just about anyone.
Of course it will take longer than a day to get the surfer body. But a mere two hours introduced me to the thrill, and the satisfying knowledge that with time enough, I, too, could be a surfer.