Don't look down. Hands UP. Welcome to Surfing 101 -- for kids.
Paddle, paddle, paddle and PUSH UP. Don't forget to bend those knees. Now they've got it, with the hip young instructor's help. They're up! They're riding the crashing wave -- for a few seconds anyway. Even 9-year-old Melanie seems to be getting the knack. From shore, the kids look like colorful fish bobbing in the surf. I'm not nervous because I know the experienced instructor is right by their side.
They come back to the beach clutching the nine-foot-long boards, breathless but with huge grins on their faces. Their parents watching are impressed; the kids are more impressed with themselves. ``SOOO fun, just like you see on TV,'' said my 14-year-old daughter Reggie.
``It's not that hard to get up. It's hard to catch the wave. You've got to jump up at just the right time,'' explained 11-year-old Chas Crandon, a sixth-grader from suburban Los Angeles who was back for his second try.
``You go so fast,'' said Joe Wakazuru, a 9-year-old veteran from Seattle.
These kids were being introduced to surfing in Hawaii, where Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku first brought the sport into the international limelight in the early years of the 20th century. Surfing, of course, has long been a huge part of the local beach culture here as it has been in Southern California. By the 1960s, surfers typified a much-envied California lifestyle, especially among teens and their older siblings around the country.
In the years since, the sport's popularity and professionalism has grown tremendously. There are international competitions and a well-regarded Association of Surfing Professionals. Women have become an increasingly visible presence. There's even a surfing magazine for women.
It's no wonder that now the children of those first mesmerized by the sport and its freewheeling culture three decades ago are just as anxious as their parents were to be part of it all. The difference: On beaches in Florida, California and Hawaii, these would-be surfers are 9 instead of 19, their interest increasingly fueled by the frantic merchandising of everything and anything that smacks of the surfing culture. Even the tiniest surfer wannabes now can sport board shorts and shirts graced by surfing company logos.
``In California schools, the surf team has a bigger following than the football team. They've got their own cheerleaders,'' said Pete Rocky, editor of Surfing Magazine, the sport's largest, with a 500,000 monthly readership (www.surfingthemag.com). ``It's their little brothers and sisters who can't wait to learn. The instructors are more willing, and the equipment makes it easier to teach them.''
What's happening with surfing and kids is much like what has happened with snowboarding -- younger and younger kids are determined to learn the sport once reserved for action-seeking young men. Families are seeking more active adventures to share, and children are sampling all sorts of experiences earlier than their parents did -- from four-star dining to white-water rafting and surfing Hawaii's legendary waves.
``For kids who see the surfers on the beach, coming and not surfing is like going to Disneyland and not going on the rides,'' suggested Matt Rimer, a former elementary school teacher who now teaches kids to surf from ZJ Boarding House in Santa Monica, Calif. ``It becomes a high spot for their vacation.''
Some kids now are even spurring their parents to try. Eight-year-old Max Rubenstein, for example, has been taking surfing lessons on every Hawaii vacation since he was 4 at Hans Hedemann's Surf School overseen by the legendary surfing champion. This time, he got his mom Jacqueline out there, too. ``My husband was impressed,'' she said, laughing. ``For the kids, it's cool and they have a great time.''
Hedemann, himself the father of two grade-schoolers, says these days as many as a third of the 15,000 would-be surfers coming to his Oahu school every year now are kids.
``Since the whole surfing image has cleaned up, there are a lot more kids and so many little girl surfers,'' added Christine French, who with her husband Bob runs the well-known Nukumoi Surf Company and Brennecke's beachfront restaurant on Kauai. Those surfer girls include their daughter Rochelle Ballard, a top-ranked competitive surfer.
The SurfGuys surf school in Melbourne Beach, Fla., near Cocoa Beach also is seeing more kids. So is Paskowitz Family Surf Camp in San Clemente, Calif., where parents are forking over upward of $1,000 for week-long camps. The Surf Diva program in La Jolla, Calif., specializes in teaching girls and women.
But be forewarned, parents. Surfing lessons don't come cheap, usually more than $50 for an hour or two with an instructor and a couple of other would-be surfers. ``Definitely they need the lessons. The instructors help them catch the waves. It's much harder on their own,'' advised Phyllis Crandon, whose son tried it both ways.
And if your kids are anything like my adventure-loving girls, they're bound to ask for more than one lesson. Mine begged to return a second day to Hedemann's school. After all, they explained, surfing is not something they can do at home.
But even those who could surf at home and don't may find the lure irresistible on vacation. ``My kids surfed every day we were in Waikiki, and now my son Sam wants to go to surf camp this summer,'' reported Marilyn Parkin, who lives in Los Angeles. Her son is just 9, she added.
Of course, the lessons don't include a wet suit or shirt to keep the kids warm in the water and the brightly hued surfer shorts and T-shirts they'll beg for afterward. (LocalMotion is one made-in-Hawaii brand big with the young surfing set.)
``It's like walking around in tennis clothes. They look good,'' explained Jacqueline Rubenstein.
So do the pictures of them on their boards they'll want to show off to their friends. Keep that waterproof camera handy!
IF YOUR KIDS WANT TO LEARN TO SURF:
On Oahu, call Hans Hedemann Surf School at 808-924-7778 or www.hhsurf.com.