As legend goes, three Hawaiian princes arrived on the shores of Santa Cruz, California, about 120 years ago with 19th-century surfboards in their arms. It was here that they dazzled the locals with their Hawaiian dances atop the waves. Bedazzled frontier settlers were so amazed at what they saw that they jumped out in the ocean and tried to ride the waves like they rode their broncos. It must have been a sight to behold, just as I was a sight to behold when I took my first surfboarding lesson a few summers ago with my twelve-year-old son in sun-kissed Santa Cruz.
A vibrant seaside town 75 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz has become the official capital of surfboarding in America. The sport really took off in the United States in the 1930s when a group of young men migrated from southern California to Santa Cruz and began riding the waves of Monterey Bay.
Monterey Bay is still a favorite location for surfers. The Bay’s Cowell’s Beach, where the Santa Cruz Surfing Club was born, is a well-known spot for beginning surfers. The waves at Cowell’s Beach are said to be smoother than most because they break over outer reefs and sandbars. Some say the waves here roll in all the way from Africa. Many surfers straddle their boards waiting for the “big one.” It was at this beach that my son and I rode the “big one” if only just for a moment, as it broke at the reef and rolled into the shore with both of us riding our boards, standing up. It was the ultimate rush, like breaking the glass ceiling and defying the odds as a neophyte surfboarder in my midforties.
When my son had begged me enthusiastically to join him for a summer family surfing camp in Santa Cruz, I hesitated, but agreed. I scratched my head the next day to make certain I knew what I was getting myself into. Surfing Camp? California, where the water is like ice? Sleeping in a tent for a week? Well, I assumed, they must have valets and special accommodations for the adult surfers.
We attended the highly recommended Richard Schmidt Surf School (831-324-0928) in Santa Cruz. Richard is famous in the surfing world for his many achievements, but most notably for winning the Triple Crown surfing series in Hawaii. He was also crowned California’s top surfer in the 1980s.
The first morning we arose in Richard Schmidt’s Surf Camp, we were greeted with a cold, thick fog that had settled in from the surrounding hills. After I squeezed into a snakeskin-like wet suit and was handed a ten-foot board, I became concerned. Certainly, they did not expect me to carry this thing around all day, much less ride it on a wave. But that was just the beginning.
We arrived at Cowell’s Beach. Richard had chosen this spot because of its easygoing waves. “Don’t worry about the sand sharks nibbling at your feet when you get in the water,” he said, “they just bite a little.” I was informed that I had to, like everyone else, take my ten-foot board and put it on my head and then climb down three flights of narrow wooden stairs to access the beach. After this point we had to climb over several areas of cragged boulders where waves crashed along the shore. There was no valet in sight to assist me in carrying this ten-foot board. Trying to be a sport, I barely managed to make it to the water.
The day was rough. We would paddle out away from the shore and wait for waves, then try to ride them through. We straddled our boards with our feet dangling like bait in the icy water. Each time, you had to paddle back out to wait for the waves. And each time, I would fall. Finally, at the end of the day, I made it. I actually rose to my knees and rode in a wave. My son clapped. I was exhausted.
After three days and six magnificent surfing spots, I felt that maybe Richard would give me some time off to go shopping and tour the picturesque village of Santa Cruz. No way. He expected everyone to work hard to learn to surf. When I knew he was serious, I gave it all I had. In one moment off of Cowell’s Beach, Richard rode alongside of me and grabbed my hand effortlessly and raised me to my feet. I was riding the wave from Africa, I was dancing on the water like the Hawaiians, I was flying like a bird. I did it. And although I am not a surfer today, I will always know what it feels like to catch the crest of the surf in Santa Cruz.
Genuinely, this was one of the most endearing trips I have taken with my son, and we have traveled all over the world. To share the thrill of the unknown in the beauty of the California Coast is a moment in time I would never take back. It remains the lodestar of new adventures.