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Surf Camps

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

With all the variables in surfing, I knew that some excellent coaching would save me a lot of pain that trial and error dished out during my first few experiences on the water. I ended up at a surf camp in Fiji on the island of Namotu, taught by Hawaiian waterman Dave Kalama who invented modern paddle surfing with Laird. “Kalama Kamps,” as they are called, gave me a good education. I was so excited about this trip that as the camp start date drew near, I indulged in a custom-made paddle surfboard. I was basically bringing a Ferrari and I figured this could only help me excel.


Namotu was an idyllic setting: a tiny island surrounded by nearly half a dozen pristine surf breaks with nothing but waves and fresh seafood for as long as one stayed awake. I was in heaven the minute I set foot on the island. Since it was the first morning of camp, a couple of us who were new to Namotu were asked to paddle out with one of the coaches for a basic water briefing. As we followed like little ducklings paddling out into the vast blue ocean, our instructor guided us beyond the surf break about a quarter mile offshore. He was positioned looking out to the open ocean, and we had all eyes glued on him. Just as he launched into his advice, his eyes widened in sync with an alarming command to get up fast because a sweeper was coming.


“What’s a sweeper?” I yelled over the rumble of the incoming surf, but it was too late for questions. Lesson one was in full swing. I learned quickly about sweeper waves that morning. These rare occurrences extend past the reef with a much wider swath. They generally take everyone by surprise unless you are paying close attention. Given the tone of the instructor’s command, I knew it was not a drill, so I went into survival mode, having no clue how to handle the situation. If I dive too deep, will I hit the reef? But will I go over the falls if I don’t dive deep enough? There was no one to ask and no time to debate. This ten-foot sweeper blew everyone into oblivion . . . what surfers call a yard sale. Bodies and boards were flying everywhere as leashes snapped and appendages flailed in the mountain of whitewash. It was pure chaos.


All I cared about was Lizzy. I spotted her about twenty-five yards away as I came up for air. To say she was bug-eyed would be an understatement. She was in one piece but had no board, paddle, or leash and was waving her arms to get my attention as the whitewash engulfed her like a snow drift. I grabbed my leash to reel in my board, only to discover half of it was missing and riding out its life in the white foam. So much for my Ferrari. Another board bites the dust.


Once I got over to Lizzy, I could see that she was shell-shocked and giggling uncomfortably as she does when she is nervous. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” She wondered aloud. Welcome to Namotu; school was now in session.


After Kalama Kamp, I was hooked on paddle surfing and wanted to spend more time in the water. Never one to hold back on speaking or acting on a feeling, I admired this one surfer’s ability out in front of our Manhattan Beach pad and met him as he exited the water. I had been watching this new face around the beach and thought, why not pick his brain? I am so thankful that I almost always listen to my gut instinct and act, mostly because I do not want to live with regrets. So, out of the thousands of paddle surfers I could approach along our coastline, I had no idea that I was about to chat up the world champion, Sean Poynter.


Sean greeted me with a smile and talked like he had all the time in the world to share his insights on the sport. He also mentioned that he ran a surf camp in Mexico along with the Australian Ian “Kanga” Cairns, a premier power surfer. Enough said, I was in on the next camp. While I always believed in the adage that you are the sum of the five people you hang out with, I could only wish to be the sum of these two studs when it comes to surfing. This was a fun but more serious camp than Namotu.


Ian did not mess around. He was old school and full of expletives when he barked instructions while riding his board like a raging bull in the wave behind me. He reminded me of Mike Ditka during my football days. He had a good heart but a tough exterior, and he dished out unfiltered feedback in short barks. Meanwhile, Sean was a precise and clean technician. He surfed like an artist carving beautiful lines and offered insights with thought and careful consideration. They were like the two guys from The Odd Couple, but they were a great blend of skills and styles. With the camps in Fiji and Mexico under my belt, I was in a much better position to navigate this new sport.


In my early years of surfing, I did not realize just how lucky I was to avoid serious injury while out in the surf. Mother Blue, as I like to call the ocean, forces respect if it is not offered. I have watched leashes wrap around all sorts of body parts including necks and fingers, as well as fins slice bodies with the ease of a Ginsu knife. I watched one guy pop up from a wipeout cradling his bloody hand minus two fingertips. Meanwhile, my neighbor slashed his neck on his board’s fins, and Lizzy broke her forearm at the close-out of a major swell, referred to as Code Red Two. Yes, a swell big enough to have its own name. More on that later.


The most ironic part is that Mother Blue is also well-known for her healing effects, so like all things, she giveth and she taketh. She lights me up with uncontrollable energy or lets me know that it is not my day. Not too many hobbies fire up my brain as much as surfing. My head is hard at work given the constantly changing water surface and the relational positioning of other surfers. Then add on the need to focus on balance, foot positioning, and of course, wave timing . . . all that for just for one wave. It is a combined mind and body effort.


When a major swell from the southern hemisphere makes its way toward the California shores, it is game on. These are generally winter storms that I watch off the east coast of New Zealand in the violent Tasmin Sea that travel 7,000 unimpeded miles and light up our coastline. The surfers in my area glue themselves to forecasting applications like Surfline and Magic Seaweed, which heighten the excitement. Once the timing of the swell’s arrival is imminent, I clear my calendar of appointments since Mother Blue is on her time, and when she offers waves, you surf. As for physical preparation, I lay off the weights about a week out and focus on yoga and stretching versus heavy lifting and cardio. I also spend a lot of time using my Theragun which is an amazing recovery tool developed by my good buddy, Dr. Jason Wersland. There is nothing worse than being too tight or sore to get back out on the water.


The last monster swell of 2022 surprised everyone with her veracity and was labeled a Code Red by the Tahitian government as it passed through heading for southern California. Code Red means that all boats and watercraft are banned from traveling in the surrounding area. By the time this swell hit California, it was much bigger than predicted by the professionals and unofficially named Code Red Two. Since I live on a great surf point, all my buddies started texting for live reports as she drew near. The start of this chatter is like kids preparing for Christmas. The good juju flows and spirits are high.


Over the course of a swell that typically lasts three to five days, memories are made, bonds grow tighter, and abilities improve, but plenty of pain is delivered as well. Equipment snaps and blood spills from collisions with the boards or rocky bottoms. By the end, everyone is drained. Once the swell moves on, it is literally the quiet after the storm. We all need a break to reminisce, swap stories and lick our wounds.


More on this topic and others in my forthcoming memoir, Aggressively Human, to be released on all platforms in November 2023.


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