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Surfer seeks mandatory training for instructors

DEL MAR — “Better I get a bad haircut than a bad surfing lesson,” Mike Willis, a well-known surfer and Del Mar resident, told City Council at the April 6 meeting. “A bad surfing lesson could carry on for life. A bad haircut will grow out.”
With that in mind, Willis was hoping council members would consider implementing a mandatory certification program for all surf instructors in the city. Certified training is currently required for many professionals, such as hair stylists, manicurists and massage therapists, but not for those who teach surfing, Willis said.
“When you take a surfing lesson in Del Mar, it can basically be paddle, paddle, paddle — stand up,” he said. “That could be a professional surfing lesson.”
As proposed, Willis’ program would include education, training and testing at varying levels.
Education would cover ocean awareness, such as how to recognize and get out of rip currents. Training would include preventive safety measures and emergency and disaster procedures.
“If we’re going to have these guys out there, they might as well be trained to the highest level of emergency disaster preparation,” Willis said.
Testing would consist of written and physical examinations. “It would be a good idea to also make it mandatory to teach surfing etiquette,” Willis said. “Somebody comes out here and takes a surfing lesson. Now they think they know everything. It’s invisible, surfing etiquette. So you wonder why you got punched in the nose and what you did wrong. No one told you.”
Willis said mandatory certification for instructors would help beginning surfers “learn something besides how to go out there and get a sunburn.”
“That way, when you’re finished, you become an asset in the ocean rather than a liability to yourself and to others,” he said.
Willis suggested establishing a committee of experienced marine safety experts, qualified surfing instructors, lifeguards and city officials to create and enforce uniform standards.
Willis said he believes mandatory certification is inevitable. “This will happen sooner or later,” he said. “I would rather see the finest city in the nation be the first to establish the finest surfing programs rather than follow and be the last.”
Pat Vergne, chief lifeguard and community services director for Del Mar, said the plan has some good merit, but implementing it at the city level might not be the best approach. He suggested Willis contact the U.S. Lifesaving Association, which could be a better venue for developing the program.
Willis is planning to discuss his idea with San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye, whose husband was a professional surfer.
“If I could meet with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and go right to the top and get it done, I would do it,” said Willis, who would eventually like to see such a program implemented nationally. “This is our civic duty,” Willis said. “It’s our social responsibility and the intelligent thing to do.”
Willis is developing the program with his brother, Milton Willis. The two grew up in Solana Beach and began “surfing on a mat” at 2 years old. They have surfed throughout the world, taught the sport in Hawaii, and currently do so locally.
“We have a lifetime of commitment to surfing and teaching,” Mike Willis said. “It’s not that we want to see more regulation. We think it’s the right thing to do. We’re big on education and knowledge. Spread the knowledge. Keep the ocean safe.”