Tips from a champion surfer

Dave Brooks

Small, sloppy waves on the south side of the pier. An indestructible

soft-top long board that could survive a submarine torpedo.

Waist-high waters directly in front of a lifeguard station.

Yeah, I was scared to death.

I've been surfing for about two years, first picking up the sport

in Santa Cruz. Sure, I have braved colder waters, climbed up cliffs

and worried about the occasional shark, but nothing scared me more

than the thought of paddling out with someone who was much better

than I.

It was July 19, two days before the big crowds started converging

on the city for the U.S. Open of Surfing, and here I was scheduled to

participate in an assignment in which a pro surfer would be

"teaching" me how to surf.

I gleefully hammed my project around the office, bragging that I

was actually getting paid to surf for the day -- but secretly I had

many reservations about my little escapade.

You see, despite its popularity, surfing still seems plagued by a

general discouragement of new people coming to the sport. There's

actual some logic behind this -- there's so few good waves in

Southern California, and more people at the lineup leads to crowds

and fewer waves to go around.

There are even terms to describe this. If you've been surfing

since you were a kid -- no older than age 16 -- you're a "core"

surfer. If you're like me, who started when I was 23, then you're

just some dumb "kook" or a "barney" who flops around in the water.

So, by surfing with a pro surfer for the sake of journalism, I'm

totally opening up myself to being discovered as a "kook." But the

ridicule would be short, and it sure beat writing another piece on

the Orange County Sanitation District, so I agreed to go along.

Before I could paddle out, the public relations people made me sit

through a half-hour press conference. As I was listening to one beach

bum describe how the U.S. Open was "the sickest contest in surfing,"

I caught a glimpse of Taj Burrow, last year's Open champ.

"Well, here goes nothing," I told myself, before walking up to the

big-shot Aussie and introducing myself.

In a moment of characteristic uncoolness, I even told Taj I was a

"huge fan." Despite my fawning, he was really friendly, cracking some

joke I pretended to understand.

OK, if that went well, then maybe this surf lesson wouldn't be so

bad after all. I headed over to say hello to sportswriter Mike

Sciacca, who proceeded to introduce me to my instructor for the day

-- Holly Beck.

Oh my gosh, Holly Beck! Probably the most famous woman in surfing.

Although she would later get eliminated in the early rounds of the

U.S. Open, Beck is the third-ranked American female surfer in the

World Qualifying Series and recently starred in the WB reality

series, "Boarding House: North Shore."

OK, not only was I surfing with a pro surfer, I was paddling out

with one of the most famous babes of the sport. For a 25-year-old

single guy, there are few things worse than being embarrassed in

front of a beautiful woman.

Of course, it was too late to turn back, and her publicist told me

I would win her heart if I asked about her nonprofit group,

International Women's Surfing. I pulled up a chair next to Beck and

launched into some wordy diatribe about the disparity between prize

money for women versus men when this older fellow came over and told

us he, too, was a journalist and would be participating in the surf

lesson.

His name was Steve Dilbeck and he was a sports columnist for the

Los Angeles Daily News, and this was his first time surfing in many

decades.

OK, I thought to myself, at least I'm not going to be as bad as

this guy.

And I wasn't. We all paddled out together, and Dilbeck could

barely get over the baby-sized waves, let alone actually balance on

any part of his board.

What a kook, I thought, fearfully positioning myself to catch the

first wave, as I had to get it over as soon as possible.

The wave came. I stood up on my board and rode one of the shortest

waves of my life. Before slipping off the side, I dinged myself for

terrible form, complete lack of style and a shrinking rash guard

encroaching up my gut.

I dreaded turning around, fearing the mockery I would receive from

the "core" surfer babe. I look over my shoulder, caught Beck square

in the eye and almost fell over when I saw what she was doing.

She was cheering. Wait, for me? Yes, she was cheering for me.

Moments later, Dilbeck came screaming by, belly down on his board,

clinging for dear life as he headed straight for a group of

nine-year-old girls. Narrowly avoiding complete destruction, I looked

over and there was Beck, cheering for Dilbeck.

"Good job on your first wave," she told him.

Wow, she genuinely wants him to do well. And she is actually going

to help me improve.

In later conversations with Beck, she said that she's too grown up

to mistreat people in the water. Surfing is a business, it's her

business, and it would be really dumb to discourage people from

getting interested in her business. It's more important to educate

people, she said, and hook them up with waves that match their

abilities.

For us, that meant three-foot sloshes in waist-high water. After

my subtle epiphany, I got a little more comfortable with Beck and was

able to openly discuss my obvious limitations in the water.

I needed to work on my timing a little more, she said. Slow down

and concentrate. Think before I paddle into a wave. And practice,

practice, practice.

After about 90 minutes and a dozen decent waves, we headed for

shore. Dilbeck was ecstatic. Apparently he had reconciled his own

guilt that he had lived in Surf City for so many years but had never

been out in the water.

"I'm a surfer," he told some scared kid as he carried his board

under his arm.

Beck laughed at Dilbeck's antics. I smiled and secretly thought to

myself, gosh, what a Barney.

* DAVE BROOKS covers City Hall. He can be reached at (714)

966-4609 or by e-mail at o7dave.brooks@latimes.cof7o7mf7.

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