As most of us are, I am full of contradictions. I read slowly and do not spell particularly well, though I am a writer. I believe myself to be someone who takes care of himself, yet it occurs to me once a week that bagels in and of themselves do not constitute a balanced diet (for the record, I don’t slather these high-carb delights in butter or cream cheese, so I feel justified in my dietary righteousness). I have never been very comfortable in the water, though I skin dive and scuba dive and skim across the surface as often as I can in whichever boat avails itself to me. Perhaps my biggest contradiction, however, is the fact that I do not surf, despite having grown up in Malibu, California.
This movie-star-laden, sun-drenched hamlet north of Los Angeles is so steeped in surfing and hang-10 culture that in junior high I would often be the only boy sitting in my first-period class because a winter swell had made world history irrelevant to the wave-obsessed surfers who would show up to third period still dripping. My disdain for this water-borne sport partly sprang from the lack of academic rigor it seemed to spawn in its adherents, a passel of scruffy, distracted kids prone to declare – with the eureka-intensity of those having just discovered the meaning of life – “Like, dude, I mean, look at that, dude, it’s like the sun, and it’s just, ya know, hanging there. Totally epic.” Which is not to say that I never tried to surf.
In eighth grade, I gave in to peer pressure, bought a surfboard for five bucks at a garage sale, then balked and slumped my way through the crashing waves like a man on his way to the gallows. But at least being hanged would have put an end to my misery, since I wouldn’t have had to skulk to shore like a drowned rat and walk past the kids sitting on the sand, who were all cramped up with laughter. I was out of my element (not to mention my mind, since it turns out that my what-a-deal surfboard was meant for advanced practitioners of the sport, not for a neophyte trying to pretend he hadn’t just wet himself).
Obviously, I was afraid, and it was not a difficult decision to give up the sport after a few attempts to participate in it. A quarter-century later, however, I received an invitation to attend a surf camp. I had seen the gatherings of wet-suited kids and adults at camps up and down the coast. I had also met a couple adults who had taken a one-day lesson and had found the hands-on training invaluable. But I had figured I would never participate in such an operation. My friend, Kerstin, had read about a family in San Diego that ran a camp designed specifically to teach beginners how to negotiate past their fears and into the breakers. Legends among the cowabunga set for both its surfing prowess and its international RV travels in search of the perfect wave, the Paskowitz clan instills in campers of all ages the techniques necessary to read the ocean, to catch waves and to ride them with style.
The Paskowitzes like to say that they don’t just teach people to surf – they create surfers. Over the 33 years of its existence, Paskowitz Surf Camp has introduced numerous regular folks – and plenty of famous people from the worlds of music, movies and business – to the laid-back surfing lifestyle. Kerstin and I arrived at San Diego’s Mission Bay on a June afternoon and pulled into Campland on the Bay, the amenity-rich campground that draws RVers from great distances to its scenic location and calm waters. The place was bustling, with its pools, volleyball courts and game room filled with bathing-suited revelers. The Paskowitz camp, we soon found, colored an isolated section of the campground the way a hurricane colors a landscape.
It looked like a refugee camp, except that North Face, Mountain Hardware and Tommy Hilfiger appeared to have been
the benefactors. Soggy teens and a few weary adults lounged around the assemblage of tents, trailers and scattered surfing jetsam – boards of various sizes and colors, wet suits hanging like rubberized scarecrows on the chain-link fence and photos of wave-borne surfers past and present dangling from the thatched-hut that served as the dining hall and gathering place. The deeply tanned 80-plus-year-old “Doc” Paskowitz quietly presided over the current incarnation of the camp he started. A handful of surf instructors and one of the nine Paskowitz children, Abraham, prepared dinner for the campers. As I waited in the food line and listened to a tan instructor recount his “gnarly” day and describe the “righteous waves” that made the campers feel “so awesome,” I realized that he sounded just like many of the kids with whom I had grown up.
The sun came out the next morning for the first time that summer, according to the surfers. This solar development was a good omen, I thought, as I ate a bagel and wondered why I didn’t feel even the slightest bit nervous or apprehensive about my impending surfing session. We all made our way to the nearby beach and unloaded our boards. Those of us who weren’t chicken – meaning everyone but Kerstin – put on our wet suits and scanned the three-foot waves. I bounded through the surf with an inexplicable degree of confidence. I lay on the board and waited for a big wave to break far out. Then I got myself in position to catch the white water, as I had been instructed to do. What I hadn’t been advised of, however, was which board to choose. After instantly submerging the too-small board when I laid on it, causing the white water to roll over me as though I were a human speed bump, I grabbed an 11-foot longboard (a technological marvel, as far as I was concerned, since it was soft, which granted my chest and knees a measure of forgiveness).
I positioned myself properly, pointing the nose of the board toward the beach and into the past, headed directly for the kids who had laughed at me so long ago. The wall of white water approached me from behind. I began to paddle, slashing my arms through the dark-green water. When the wave urged me forward, I scooted toward the front of the board and knew I was going to catch the wave. I awkwardly muscled my way to my feet, stood up and rode the wave to shore. I did the same on the next one, a little less awkwardly. I rode the third wave in, too, bending my knees that time. The fourth wave kept me humble, but the fifth one allowed me to gloat. I levitated my way up the beach. When I approached Abraham Paskowitz, he looked at me and said, “Hey, you can surf.” I wanted to say, “Yeah, dude, I’ve been surfing for years.” Instead, I thanked him and smiled.