Surf's up, and so are surfers and their image

The sun has hardly pierced the early morning chill blowing in off the Pacific , and John Rothrock's first physical education class of the day is already suited up.

The beach is deserted, but the surf is alive with the colorful wet suits and sun-bleached fringes of 50 Edison High School students. They slice, with varying degrees of success, across the green faces of waves on bullet-shaped fiber-glass boards.

Playing tag with the foamy fingers of the breakers, they curl up, stretch out , or contort to any configuration that will scoot them on their surfboards just ahead, but not too far ahead, of the curl. Ultimately they are either delivered gently ashore or pounded straight to the bottom as their surfboards rocket high into the salt spray.

It's as vigorous a PE class as any student has, and it's as Californian as baseball and football are American.

''This gives kids a reason to go to school. Nine years ago, we couldn't get them out of the water to come to school,'' so the surfing classes and a team were started, says Mr. Rothrock. He's a shop teacher, a surfing coach, and a founder of the National Scholastic Surfing Association which promotes student competition.

The NSSA is the latest evidence of the maturing of the sport so closely linked with images of youthful abandon. The association is part of a more sophisticated approach that has given surfing a more polished edge. Surfing is a big business - multimillion-dollar sales in equipment, fashion, magazines - and promoters are doing what they can to clean up its image. The surfers of the 1960 s are the adults of today, who, never tiring of the sport, are lending legitimacy to surfing as well as a guiding hand in the business and public relations aspects of forging a new image.

The lure of the waves is not unfamiliar to Rothrock, a tanned remnant of the first American generation of '60s surfers. If the boards are shorter, the surfers younger, and the waves more crowded, the lure is still the same - the sun, the air, the freedom, and the thrill of merging with the power of a wave.

It is simply The Life, as journalist Tom Wolfe wrote in his 1966 newspaper piece ''The Pumphouse Gang.'' His account of the free-spirited, though sometimes directionless, surfers and the satellite community orbiting around them sunk the Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo image. And it is quintessentially Californian that high school teacher Rothrock would be holding classes, for academic credit, every day of the school year out here where surf meets sand.

Surfing and the mystique surrounding it endure as a subculture along the ribbon of California coastline, a subculture that draws people to it who may never have seen a beach, yet who adopt its wind-swept, laid-back style. It has evolved as a youth phenomenon, but now its first generation has matured, adopting adult concerns of legitimacy and earning a living. For some, surfing has been their bread and butter and they are treating it as a business - doing market surveys of the world's 4 million surfers (more than a million are in southern California), selling $600 million worth of surfing equipment and fashions annually, and even tailoring a new image for surfers.

''There's going to be a dramatic change in the image of surfing,'' says Ian Cairns, an Australian former world champion who has pioneered surfing promotion in the United States. He runs the Association of Surfing Professionals, which has pumped enough money into world-class competition to earn last year's world champion $125,000 in prize and promotional money. He also runs the National Scholastic Surfing Association, which promotes amateur competition designed to keep enthusiastic young surfers in school.

Mr. Cairns notes that the traditional image of surfers has been that of ''dopers, dropouts, surf Nazis.'' In the early '60s surfers were on the experimental fringe of southern California life styles. With its popularity, surfing grew but was never quite a legitimate sport as, say, the school-sanctioned sports of football or baseball. Without that endorsement, anyone bent on surfing had to focus his attentions outside the scholastic structure, catching the waves when they were good, rather than when they fit around English or math classes. During the 1970s, the territorial image of surfers grew as its popularity did. Resources - ocean waves - were limited; and in the squeeze, crowding caused outbreaks of territorial violence on the waves, a kind of free-fire zone where policing is almost impossible.

''We saw the same image problems in Australia . . . it was never properly promoted. But a positive attitude brought a different media involvement and now surfing is accepted as kind of a career . . . surfers aren't considered outcasts ,'' Cairns says. He concludes that ''what happened in Australia is going to happen here. We're trying to promote a clean-cut, good image.''

Chuck Allen spends his mornings, before going to work as a vice-president of a savings-and-loan, just up the beach from Rothrock's class. Mr. Allen coaches Huntington Beach High School's surf team. At 46, he says, his love of surfing is seasoned with the perspective of an adult that teens don't have when faced with leaving good surf, warm sun, and fun behind for the classroom. ''I talk to the kids and tell them to get an education and a good job and then they can (afford to) surf in a style they like.''

Surfing coaches are using NSSA as a means for giving students the incentive to stay in school. The association has recruited enough top talent to make its amateur competitions some of the most respected in the world. The national team travels to compete in places like Bali, Australia, and Hawaii. But the teen-agers - mostly boys, but a growing contingent of girls - cannot compete at any level of competition if they are not passing all their courses.

''This helps present surfing to the adult community,'' explains Rothrock. ''The sport these kids love has had negative social connotations. Some kids used to have to sneak out of the house to do it. But it's a very postive athletic activity - like ballet; it involves individual expression.'' The surfer's world is different from most students', he continues. ''Their environment is very fluid. They spend time looking at weather reports or satellite pictures,'' and because good surfing conditions don't respect school schedules, students find it tempting to skip class, he says. Organized competition provides the structure for a more stable approach to the sport.

Surfing industry sources, from promoters to magazine editors and teachers, point to the return of the old guard to surfing. While many never left the beach , college and career plans took others away from the sport. But now, success has brought some back. The most famous among them is Hobie Alter, whose design and marketing genius have made him a fortune off the surf. (He created the Hobie Cat catamaran, for example.)

''More people at the executive level are coming out of the closet,'' says Ian Cairns, laughing. ''Previously it wouldn't have been too cachet (for a middle-aged businessman) to tell anyone he's a surfer.'' Whatever the reason, those who regularly surf notice older surfers are returning. Some speculate it is because success has given them the time to take off and surf when the waves are good or to travel to far-off places to find good surf. This, too, feeds a better image for the sport, says Cairns.

From the ''hang 10'' days, when big 10-foot boards gave surfers enough weight at the rear of their boards to inch forward and hang 10 toes over the front, to today's shorter, speedier boards and the preference for top-of-the-wave stunts, the lure of the surf has consistently attracted new hordes of youth into the sport. This was happening even before the new stylized business approach brought about the package of public relations, magazines boasting some of the slickest design and most sophisticated photography in publishing, and all the peripheral equipment such as wet suits, surfboard leashes, stylish swimsuits and sportswear spinoffs of the surfing culture.

Once you've been gripped by the excitement of surfing, surfers say, the appeal of the sport has nothing to do with its image. As the Beach Boys sing it in their falsetto style, ''Catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world.''

Brian Clisby, a 17-year-old Edison High School student scheduled to surf in the NSSA national team competition in Japan and Bali this summer, has been surfing for four years. Face flushed from the salty ocean and wet suit heavy with water, the towhead looks perplexed, as if there should be no doubt, when asked what compels him to surf. ''Besides skiing, it's the funnest thing I do,'' he says.

Surfing's appeal is captured more from photographs taken right from the bottom of a wave than from onshore. Recognizing this, David Gilovich, editor of Surfing magazine and a surfer himself, has built the circulation of his magazine to 85,000. Distributed in corners of the United States and the rest of the world that don't even have a coastline, the magazine captures the thrill of surfing - freeze-framing surfers ducking through the tube of a wave, or racing to beat the edge of the breaking wave, or riding perpendicular to the board as it hits the wave's crest.

''Once you're a surfer, it's pretty much a life style . . . the ocean, the freedom of the beach,'' says Gilovich, who at 31 has surfed for nearly 20 years. ''It's really much more than a physical sport.Anyone can pick it up and if they give it time they're going to have that one moment, that greatest moment of their life and the reward is so great,'' that each wave holds new fascination for a potential thrill.

Another aspect of surfing's appeal, he continues, is the relatively low cost. ''There's no lift ticket or green fees,'' he points out. The average retail price on the 100,000, 6-foot, 2-inch boards sold last year was $330, and in the summer, California's 60-degree ocean water doesn't even require a wet suit, Surfer market research shows.

Market research estimates show that California has 1.3 million surfers, Gilovich says. But that number, he adds, puts a squeeze on the finite amount of wave resources those surfers have. And that has been the source of the sport's biggest problem here in southern California, where territoriality has caused fights between youths staking claim to certain surfing areas.

''The best thing is to be able to ride a wave alone,'' Gilovich explains, but that isn't always easy to work out when 40 or 50 surfers are bobbing for hours just beyond the wave break, waiting to compete for that one swell promising a good ride. As surfers have grown accustomed to the situation, they have reluctantly hashed out an etiquette of the waves, and hostilities have been reduced, he says.

While the heaviest surfing turnout is on weekends, the best time, surfers agree, is in the early morning when the wind comes from onshore, smoothing out the face of the waves and holding them up for a perceptible moment longer. The most avid surfers find that there are fewer people out at that time, especially midweek, to compete with for the waves.

The effects of this winter's stormy weather in California were not all bad. Surfers found much more challenging surf rolling in off the ocean during the past winter. And the belief within the surfing community is that with an expected trend of more stormy weather due here, there should be less crowding. As waves break more frequently, surfers will have more waves to ride.

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