While I have rarely surfed in a contest, I have judged one, commentated dozens and watched countless.
For much of my life, I have failed to understand the motivation for being forced into a tiny area with often inferior waves, to be subject to someone else’s rules.
Surfing, after all, is about freedom of expression, right? After coaching a few dozen high-school surf contests over the past few years, however, it has occurred to me that I might just be a slow learner.
This past weekend I again accompanied the Grauer School Surf Team to the Scholastic Surf Series, held this time at Ponto.
There, surf coach Brian Dugan and I instructed our team through their heats.
To many, the idea of coaching surfing probably sounds odd.
The event seems no more complicated than paddling out at the sound of the buzzer, riding waves to the best of your ability and paddling in when the same sound repeats, 15 minutes later.
Upon closer examination, however, it becomes apparent that “free surfing” and contest surfing are not identical.
Free surfing, which is riding waves when and where you want is pretty much instinctual, while contest surfing requires a well-thought-out plan.
This has been discovered the hard way by many a great surfer after being eliminated by someone of lesser ability.
Two waves of those ridden are given scores from one to 10 points.
A surfer, therefore, needs to be aware of the conditions and react accordingly — inconsistent surf requires scrambling to catch waves, while consistent surf offers the luxury of sitting and waiting for set waves.
Getting two good waves in what is often a shifting beach break requires knowing things like where the peak is breaking, how often the sets arrive, and how the tide is shifting.
You need to know the rules, and what the judges prefer — some favor radical maneuvers where others reward solid consistency.
Now, mix five other surfers, add water, paddle out and hope to avoid an interference call, something that will almost certainly end your run and send you to the beach for the remainder of the day.
Learning surf strategy develops organizational skills and clear thinking.
While I used to go kicking and screaming to every event, I now view surfing contests with the same nail-biting enthusiasm as March Madness, where unlikely upsets can occur at any time.
Surfing contests can also teach teamwork, something that surfing alone never hints at.
With barely over 150 students, a fraction of whom are surfers, the Grauer School has had to learn to utilize their team as well as possible, with some members taking on multiple disciplines.
This roaring mouse has taken down far bigger schools than theirs in their hunt for victory.
Leading the team are bodyboarder and now longboarder Kai Stern and shortboarder/longboarder, Kasey Bowles.
Both regularly find the top spot and have earned reputations for their advanced skills, competitive savvy, and encouragement of their teammates, many of whom are moving up in the ranks, and could soon be threatening their positions.
While Grauer has been dominant in their division, a lack of female surfers (can you believe there are no girls on the team this year?) has caused them some uncharacteristic losses.
The season is over, for now, so enjoy free surfing until next year when we once again face the challenges and the joys of surfing contests.