Too young to care about anything else but waves, new boards and the next ride to the beach, young surfers or "grommets" are free to spend the summer practicing for the pros and hoping that one day they'll see themselves staring back from deep inside a tube on the cover of Surfer magazine.
"I guess you could say my life is surfing," says 15-year-old Grant McDougall of Corona. "Trestles is my favorite break, Old Mans. But I'll surf just about anywhere there's waves."
It's impossible to gauge how many grommets are riding the waves off Orange County's shore. The National Scholastic Surfing Assn., based in Huntington Beach, lists 4,000 members nationwide, from grade school to college, who compete in NSSA contests. Janice Aragon, NSSA director, estimates 800 members are from Orange County, with at least 600 of them aged 10 to 16. Countless other pint-sized non-competitors are also in the water. But one thing is certain--if the surf's up, the young wave riders will do whatever they must to get to the beach, surfboards in tow.
Eddie Araujo, a Huntington Beach resident and a regular at Blackie's, a beach area just north of Newport Pier, hitches rides with his cousin, older brother and friends, or takes the bus, rides his bike--anything short of walking--to get to the beach. "Surfing is the ultimate," chirps the 14-year-old, "Nothin' else like it in the world."
"Surfing is definitely the cool thing to do," says A.J. Burch, 13, of Irvine. He looks to pros like Tommy Curren, Brock Little and Martin Potter as role models. "I try to pattern my best move, an off-the-lip, after Curren's radical move," he says.
"And he's almost got it down," chimes in his dad, Jeff.
"They're chargers," says Aragon of the 8- to 12-year-olds who compete in the boys division of the NSSA contests. (NSSA requires members to maintain C-average school grades to compete.)
"When it's their turn to compete, you don't call them. They already know where to go," Aragon says. "They are never late and most of them are the best and most focused competitors we've got."
The boys' heats are usually scheduled about 11:30 a.m. during contests, but the youngsters are on the beach at 6:30 a.m. with their boards and gear, analyzing the rides of their elders and making sure they know where they are supposed to be.
Many of the upcoming generation of grommets started surfing because of fathers, brothers and other older relatives.
Eleven-year-old Chad Michael, beaming shyly through thousands of freckles accentuated by a cheek-to-cheek strip of pink running across his nose, is waiting on the beach for his dad, Dan, and brother, Tim, 16.
The Fountain Valley family is catching an early south swell at the jetties in Newport Beach. "Yeah, my dad's surfed since he was a teen-ager and he got Tim into it and then me. I'd rather surf than do anything."
Very few of the younger kids will venture out in surf much bigger than six feet. Only a handful have been surfing long enough to conquer the big summer swells. "I can ride the big stuff here," says Bret Haver, 13, a Lake Street, Huntington Beach local, "but it gets kinda hairy at beaches I don't know."
Haver's been surfing for the last two years, mostly with his older brother and friends. "We hang together at school and surf every chance we get. Wavin's cool."
Like all minor leaguers, grommets generally steer clear of the older guys. Pecking order in the water depends on ability and familiarity but, as it has for several generations now, size and experience ultimately ranks you when all else is equal.
"You don't want to end up gettin' in some dude's way, 'specially if he's bigger 'n' better 'n' you," said Araujo. "That's why I like Blackie's. More guys like me get better waves."
After all, at this age and probably for at least another decade, better waves are the meaning of life itself for this young crew.