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"You gotta want to do it —
you have got to want to SURF!"

These words come from Lou Maresca as I sit listening in a pavilion at Fort Pierce State Recreation Area just south of Vero Beach, Florida. I had come to write an article on his school and attend a session of classes and I have to admit I had not really given the issue all that much thought. I mean, after all, how hard can it be?

Well, I'll tell you what - it ain't easy! But if you are aged 7 to 70 and in relatively decent shape, Lou and his crew will teach you how to surf. They claim a success rate of 95% and I believe them, having seen as much with my own eyes. Lou pioneered East Coast surf schools some years ago, works out of a beautiful facility, has tons of experience, and uses quality equipment. Do not be fooled by imitators.

Before class started Lou personally spoke to each potential student and intensively asked some questions about their abilities and experiences:

Lou unloads boards first
thing in the morning.

"What sports do you play?

Have you surfed before?

What kind of equipment do you have at home?

Have you been injured in the past year?

Have you fully recovered?

When was the last time you were in the ocean?"

He was a very serious and focused, clearly a professional gauging the strengths and weaknesses of his clients. Next the payments outstanding were dealt with, all accomplished with very little hassle. Lou makes family discounts and will take checks (Florida only). This was about the time the comment that opens this story was heard. One of the students was not sure she was into it and it became clear that Lou had been here before. I figured out later he simply didn't want to be wasting anyone's time during the lessons to be dealing with a situation he could handle right now. He assured the young lady that his feelings were not on the line, he just wanted to make sure they weren't going to have to be talking anyone into anything once out in the water. She said she wanted to surf and we were off.

Lou's school has a couple different levels of instruction: those who know how to surf and those who don't. Those who have surfed before and are fairly competent at the basics of surfing will receive personal instruction at the hands of the master. They will proceed directly to the water and Lou will watch them surf for a bit, then he'll join them in the water and assist them in the finer points of choosing waves and getting up to speed so as to overtake and meld with them for a free ride to the beach. He will fine tune their technique and do some surfing himself, allowing them to see how it's done. The other group of students, those who have not surfed before or who are still working on the basics of paddling out and into waves and then popping up on their boards, will stay for an hour of instruction back at the pavilion before proceeding to the water. That was for me and half a dozen children, I'd say from ages 7 to 13.

Ryan in pop-up, she
looked like a martial
arts master executing
this move.

Lou works with a couple of local surfers who assist him in his classes. Ryan is a 22-year-old surfer gal who sings in a band when not surfing and has a smile that literally bursts out of her when particularly happy surf thought breaks over her mind.

Billy is a 27-year-old business owner (G-Bolt, a company that makes and sells accessories for wake boards) who assists Lou in his spare time for some extra geld. He is also constantly smiling; actually his face looks like it hurts when he isn't grinning

These two were like all the surfers I met in that it was easy to see that one thing a surfer loves is anything to do with surfing. They are constantly looking for the next wave, a tireless and endless pursuit that seems to them like a natural extension of breathing.

At one point in my day I had asked Ryan if she ever got tired of talking about surfing. She looked at me like I was insane and explained that it was something inside of her, "a drive." Lou had recently been instructing a few Air Force Lieutenants, one of whom observed to him that he was constantly in the water, working in it all day, then playing in it; his response to this was that they should think of him as, "an ocean going mammal. I come out of the ocean to feed, sleep and one other thing. Then I'm back in the water." These guys live to surf and when your class starts you will feel that desire coming off them in waves, and I guarantee you, it is infectious.

My beginners class started with a hefty dose of safety instruction. Ryan was very clear and adamant about the potential dangers to be faced in the water. Although I never felt any fear of any of the things covered when I was actually in the water, they do an excellent job of making the possible dangers very clear to those who know nothing of the ocean.

Everything was covered; from holding your board properly, moving around with it safely in the water, and any potentially dangerous ocean fauna you might bump into. Ryan had an instant rapport with the kids, and although she allowed their occasional digression, she was expert at bringing them back to the task at hand and keeping their attention. If I were going to put my kid into a school to learn how to surf, these folks would be the ones I'd want teaching them; safety was a huge priority and yet I don't feel that the kids ever thought they were being talked down to. Ryan almost went out of her way to scare us all a bit, to make us know we were participating in a sport that could be dangerous, and in a potentially perilous place as well, although it was all a bit overplayed for awareness:

"Your first job is to not hurt yourself and then to not hurt someone else!"

"You do not want to get hit by this board. See this eye?", as she shows off what must have been a beauty of a shiner, "I got hit in the eye by the nose of my board, and I'm good!" (I found out later this was not quite the truth, but a little white lie in the hopes of keeping our attention and teaching something important seemed forgivable.)

The master shows us how it's done. In two days I never saw him get close to falling off that thing.

"That ocean will spank you like your own momma!"

Though all of this instruction was important, by far the vast majority of people who go into the ocean do so without incident and such it was for all in my class.

Once all of the safety was covered it was time to learn the basics of surfing.

We were taught the basic positioning of the body on the stringer (the centerline of the board) and the pop-up. I won't go into all the details here, but I advise you that if you are going to learn how to surf, some preparation may be in order. Swim, strength train, do push-ups, crunches and practice the pop-up at home. You can do this easily; simply lay a piece of tape on the floor to simulate the stringer of the board then lay down on top of it with your body centered down its length. Bring your toes and hands to a push up position: toes flat on floor, heels up in the air and your hands along side your chest. You should have your back arched and head up. Now pop-up: in a single, smooth motion bring your feet up underneath you, with whichever of your feet that feels natural forward and directly under your chin, centered at a 45 degree angle or so. The trailing foot should be under your butt, resting on the ball with your heel in the air. Your hands should still be on the ground. This is not easy and my description here is basic. See the pics, and if you are going to practice this move I'd suggest further research.

Once all the students had practiced their pop-ups on a picnic table it was time for us to get our rash guards (those cool shirts surfers wear) and head to the beach with our boards for some surfing. We arrived on the beach and laid our boards on the sand; made sure they were fully waxed up to provide maximum traction and did a few more pop-ups under Lou's intense gaze.

After a few more tips from him it was time to wade out to the inside surf and get the hang of what we were all there to do, ride some waves. As beginners we did not immediately paddle out and over breaking waves, turn around and then try and paddle up to speed and surf. No. It was enough for us to simply get on our boards and stay on long enough for our instructor to do a three count while pushing us into a wave that had already broken. We would be pushed into the wave while centered on our boards, then pop-up at the end of the count when we were released and the board was running with the surf.

You definitely got the feel for what it was like to be riding on a wave; you could feel the board grabbed by it and pushed toward the shore while you struggled to pop-up and not take a face digger into what was decidedly shallow water.

Lou helps a student learn to surf by pushing her into a wave.

Even the youngest students surfed to the shore.

This is much easier for children than for adults, as was readily apparent to me after just a very short while. I had assumed that my age and better sense of my own balance would be an advantage to me in this and man, was I wrong. I kept grabbing the side of my board (d-oh!) instead of keeping them along side me flat on the board. I asked Ryan later why the kids were having so much more an easy time of it than I and the explanation was simple. They weigh almost nothing on the board, especially when compared to a 6 foot. 2 inch, 230 lb man. I was wobbling all over that thing and definitely over thinking the situation. The kids seemed much more willing to follow their intuitive-ness and not overcompensate and by that virtue, all of the kids I schooled with made it up on the board. By the end of the lesson some of them were onto the next phase of paddling themselves back out to Ryan or Billy, holding themselves up in a push up position so the whitewater on the inside (the area between the break and the shore) didn't wash them off their boards as they passed over the tops of the churning waves. At the end of the day we were all exhausted but happy having ridden the water with no energy source other than the moon and our instructor.

The School is also a camp for those who want to spend a few days learning how to tame the waves and if you want to walk away knowing how to surf I'd say a couple of lessons would be in order.

"Let's go surfing!" exhorts Lou from his home, the surf board decorated base camp of the Central Florida Surf School.
Lou puts up students in his own house a half hour up the road. This is no musty canvas tent supervised by a couple of out of work surfers. Lou has a beautiful home, very well appointed and tastefully accented by tile he laid himself. He is an excellent cook (get the ginger dressing on your salad, and the stir fry is awesome!) and prepares meals himself. It was a very easygoing and comfortable setting. Although I was put up in Lou's personal living quarters he has a couple of rooms on the ground level of the house and can put up six or more students. Once again the rooms are spotless, newly decorated, and extremely comfortable; I've been in many hotel rooms that could take a lesson from Lou's place.

It must also be said that Lou has experience overseeing children and although he is a great guy he is also a father and is no-nonsense when it comes to his responsibilities. He had originally started his school as a day camp for thirty kids, so leaving your children with him for a few days while you cruise the coast is something you should feel very comfortable about.

Lou Maresca's
Central Florida
Surf School
1085 Morningside Drive
Vero Beach, FL 32963
cell: 772/713-0412
fax: 772-231-3265

Something else I noticed while in the area was the UDT-Seal Museum, just a few miles up the road from Ft. Pierce rec. area. If you are dropping the kids for a single day of instruction and the shopping in the area isn't enough to keep you busy, or you're looking for something to keep dad occupied, this looked like a cool stop. Also, for your info: Lou will be offering a new camp soon, "Girls Learn to Ride", which is sponsored by Surfing Magazine.

Contact Lou for details.

So, how did I do? Well, I'll tell you: I learned how 'to' surf but I did not learn 'how' to surf. I was not very forthcoming about the fact that my left shoulder has a blown AC joint and pop-ups were something I could just not physically do for long. I would also say that in the beginning I was not sure that I cared if I learned how to surf; I was there to do a story. You do have to "want to surf!" I got bit by the bug, though. I'm swimming every day, doing push ups, and soon I'll start practicing my pop-ups. Some day, in the not too distant future, I'll be back in Vero Beach, knocking on Lou's door with his catch phrase on my lips: "Let's go surfing!"

By Mitch DeSoto, Florida Keys Correspondent.

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