Exec downtime: squash, golf, and ... surfing?

Corporate executives and professionals are trading their wingtips for wet suits as surfing becomes the hobby du jour of the white-collar crowd.

A half dozen surfers bob up and down, patiently waiting for waves with arms folded across their chests. The sun is still a distant glow as dawn slowly takes hold here at Topanga State Beach.

As the water flattens out in between rollers, a lull sets in. "Let me tell you, that real estate market isn't giving up," says one middle-age surfer straddling his board.

Others chime in. Within minutes, a full-fledged discussion about home values, the stock market (specifically technology hedge funds), and healthcare issues drown out the ubiquitous squawk of seagulls overhead.

Hello. We are surfing, right? Hedge funds? Healthcare? Loosen up, dudes. It appears times have changed, at least here in southern California. The new golf course is now 59 degrees, wet, choppy, and teeming with professionals who surf to network, exercise, and simply look cool when they go to work with a board under their arm and a suntan to boot.

Up and down America's premier coastal playground, more and more business executives and professionals are trading in their Brooks Brothers suits for wet suits. Surfing – once the preserve of the "hey, dude" set – is being invaded by doctors, lawyers, and options traders.

"I'm already catching waves and doing the 'dawn patrol,' " says Todd Becraft, an immigration lawyer from Los Angeles, a newbie to the sport.

He pulls his long board from the cold Pacific and joins friend Kelly Candaele, a commissioner with a Los Angeles retirement board. "When I was growing up, surfing just wasn't something I wanted to do," says Mr. Candaele. "It seemed like it attracted the rebels. But it's never too late to start. It will clear your head...."

Beyond the psychic advantages, some middle-age professionals are riding the waves for the physical rigors, too. Art Mondrala, a film editor from Marina del Rey, took up surfing just a couple years ago because he became disenchanted with working out at always-crowded gyms. Mr. Mondrala, his eyes reading the whitecaps as he prepares for a morning joust with two-foot waves at Sunset Beach, says surfing is a good way to start the day – and helps him forget the frenzy and frustrations of work.

Similarly, Richard Bergin, a small business owner, began surfing a couple of years ago when running started to hurt his knees. He now surfs several times a week on his nine-foot board and draws parallels to yoga.

"When I push up on my board to stand, I am basically doing a 'down dog' position," says Mr. Bergin, sliding his slender frame into his wet suit. "What I find amusing is that I think you can tell what kind of professional someone is by the way they surf. It's like literally having a board meeting out there. Is the person more aggressive when paddling or afraid of the big waves?" (Bergin, incidentally, paddles after every wave – often to no avail.)

While a certain number of corporate and cubicle types have always plied the waves off California, their numbers are mushrooming as surfing becomes the new corner office. "It's as if we are bringing the mundane world into the water – dragging the profane into the sacred," says Jerome Hall, a surfer and professor of anthropology at the University of San Diego, where he teaches a class titled, "Surf Culture and History." "You no longer have to be a waterman or waterwoman to surf. You don't have to be muscular anymore to haul a long board down the beach. You simply have to have enough money."

***

As befits the monied class, many of the newcomers don't want to put in too much time learning slashes and bottom turns. They want to master the craft now. Before their power lunch. So corporate titans are showing up at the chipped-paint door of Todd Roberts, co-owner of ZJ Boarding House in Santa Monica, for lessons and exotic surfing excursions. "I'm teaching more stock guys, marketing guys, and mortgage guys," says Mr. Roberts. "I think they like surfing because it is the polar opposite of the corporate world."

Of course, money helps with the start-up costs, too – a good wet suit (the new ones keep surfers warm and virtually dry in the water) and a good board. Epoxy resin is now the material of choice: It makes a board that is significantly lighter than the old fiberglass-wrapped ones and less susceptible to "dings." The boards cost anywhere from $600 to $1,500.

The new white-collar watermen have become adept at mixing business and pleasure. On a Saturday at famed Malibu, several professionals are hanging out at the beach with their epoxy boards, including Grant Hardacre, president of the Association of Surfing Lawyers. He is wearing wraparound sunglasses, board shorts, and a tan that befits a pool boy. Mr. Hardacre specializes in estate planning ... and long boarding.

"I was a surfer long before I was a lawyer," he says. "But I think it's easier to be a professional and a surfer. A lot of the nooks and crannies are getting crowded, and when you make a little money, you can travel to more remote destinations."

The Association of Surfing Lawyers started in 2002 after its founder, David Olan, realized how many of his colleagues had taken up the sport. Today, the group holds its "minimum continuing legal education seminars," a requirement to maintain state bar status, in exotic locations, such as Fiji and Costa Rica, where the surfing is good.

When asked whether the association's 100 members are actually surfers or posers, Hardacre laughs. "Yes, we do have some kooks," he says. "And I am not too impressed with the younger guys, either. But at the end of day, it doesn't matter because we are all out here to have a good time."

***

The boardroom culture doesn't always mingle easily with the surfboard culture, though. Some traditionalists lament the newcomers' lack of respect for the sport and high seas. "These corporate folks get all giddy as soon as their feet touch the sand," says Roberts, the surfing instructor. "Sometimes it's annoying because I have to settle them down like children. I tell them, 'You have to take the water seriously.' "

Others resent all the talk of high finance and low prime rates in their laid-back domain. Hey, this is surfing. If anything, they want the ethos of the sport – fun, respect, camaraderie – to change the corporate cubicle. "Surfing has become the trendiest, coolest thing, and now the coastal regions have taken to surfing" the way the rest of the country has taken to baseball, says Matt Warshaw, author of the "Encyclopedia of Surfing." "It shouldn't matter that lawyers and doctors and teachers are in the water, but it kind of does."

Professor Hall gets even more cosmic about it. "There is a lot of symbolism in surfing. You shed your clothing, adopt nakedness, leave the land, and go into the water," he says. "But when you return to the land, it is about the respect for self, environment, and the people around you. And most importantly, it's about bringing that aloha spirit back to the boardroom."

Marc Kalan brings that spirit back to the clinic. He is a couple miles up the coast, about to enter the water with a 10-foot board. "I don't mean to come off as a cheese ball," says the infertility specialist at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, who has a pile of scrubs and surf wax in his back seat. "But I really do get a sense that I'm more in tune at work and better able to relate to my patients after a good surf."

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