Surf’s Up, and Upscale, as Sport Reverses Its Beach Bum Image
For $10,000 a day, you can have the ultimate surfing sojourn in Indonesia aboard the 110-foot Indies Trader IV, a sort of floating hotel with 15 cabins, a helipad and three-course meals with wine. A motorized tender takes you to the waves.
Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times
Liv Galendez learning to surf in California. Catering to wealthier surfers has become a big business.
Or for a daily rate, in addition to the cost of his airfare, Brad Gerlach will give private instruction to select clients anywhere in the world. Mr. Gerlach, who was ranked No. 1 on surfing’s world professional tour during the 1986 and 1991 seasons, termed the cost “not cheap at all.”
Surfing, once the sport of Hawaiian kings, has come full circle. After becoming a counterculture activity for beach bums and bohemians, it has emerged as a status sport, like skiing and golf.
“It’s sort of lost that dirtbag appeal,” said Isabelle Tihanyi, who with her twin, Caroline, started Surf Diva, a school based in La Jolla, Calif., that caters mostly to women, a growing segment of surfers. “Now you see more yuppies in the water with a brand-new board and a brand-new S.U.V. — all the latest technical gear.”
This new species of surfer contributes to a booming market for vacation packages, instruction, equipment and real estate near some of the world’s best surf breaks. Like golf, surfing has become an ideal activity around which to discuss business. Surfers find plenty of time for talk while driving in search of good spots, while changing into and out of wetsuits in the parking lot, and especially while waiting between sets of waves.
“There’s more down time in surfing than any other sport,” said Chris Mauro, the editor of Surfer Magazine.
It was not always this way. “In the 1970s, you would stop at 25 and went to work or you were going straight to loserdom,” Mr. Mauro said. “It used to be a strike against you if you were a surfer.”
In those days, continuing to surf while carrying on a career was a matter best left secret. “If you were a surfer and you wore a suit and tie to work, you tried to hide the fact you surfed,” Mr. Mauro said. “Now, it’s like you’re the star on the company basketball team.”
Todd Juneau, a real estate consultant in San Diego and a longtime surfer, trolls for business in local lineups. “I’ll sit in the water and listen to conversations, and if someone says something about real estate, I’ll find a way to interject,” he said. “And it pays off.
“In San Diego, you never know if the guy next to you could be a multimillionaire, or a judge or an executive, and he’s surfing.”
Dionne Mochon, 32, a prosecutor in San Diego, began taking surf lessons last year. “Surfing has opened so many doors to meet people, network and just enjoy being a woman interacting with other professionals on a social level,” she wrote in a recent e-mail message. “Judges I appear with surf, opposing counsel surf, my colleagues surf, and I made so many friends who surf as well.”
Enrique Huerta, who is known as Moose, said he landed a job in Manhattan’s fashion industry partly because of surfing. A former professional longboarder, Huerta, 28, works in international sales and merchandising for a denim company. He got to know two of the company’s founders during surf sessions off Long Island.
“That was kind of the icebreaker,” Mr. Huerta said.
Jeff Kolodny, a talent agent for the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif., said he had seen a surge in interest in surfing at work. Mr. Kolodny began surfing at 12 and worked as an associate editor at Surfing Magazine before joining William Morris, a company with a growing number of surfing devotees.
“Only in the last few years has anyone cared that I’m a surfer,” he said. “Now I’m really popular. People you would never imagine in your life are going to the beach, senior executives at my company.”
It is unclear why surfing has found a broader respectability. Some point to the initial public offering of Quiksilver, the board apparel and accessories company, in 1986 as a catalyst.
Perhaps reflecting surfing’s laid-back roots, concrete figures on participation are hard to come by. Two million people consider themselves active surfers in the United States, twice as many as 20 years ago, according to Action Sports Retailer, the leading board-sports industry trade show. An active surfer is considered someone who goes out at least eight times a year.
Surfing’s popularity has helped drive international real estate sales, with property along remote coastlines being bought and developed into resorts and vacation homes. Parts of Costa Rica are considered so crowded that some surfers have pushed north to Nicaragua. And in Mexico, rumors abound about development in a remote area of Baja California known as Scorpion Bay.
A drive of more than 800 miles from San Diego, Scorpion Bay can be difficult to reach, and it lacks most amenities. Only private airplanes can land there, and those who drive must cover a few hundred miles along dirt roads through the desert. For years, most people stayed at a cold-shower campsite on a rocky bluff above the beach. On their Web site, Scorpionbay.net, the campground’s operators denied that they would sell out.
Surf schools have become another growth industry. San Diego had so many that the city began to regulate them.
Richard Schmidt, a renowned big-wave surfer, started giving lessons part time in 1978, while working as a lifeguard in Santa Cruz, Calif. Six years ago, his surf school began taking clients to Costa Rica during the winter. They stay near the beach in a house where Mr. Schmidt’s wife teaches yoga. They also retain a masseuse.
Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times
Todd Juneau, left, a real estate consultant, and Dave Sims commuting to Pacific Beach in San Diego. Juneau listens in the surf for business talk.
In addition to trips to Costa Rica, Surf Diva holds about 50 corporate clinics a year in Southern California. Packages can include accommodations, transportation, golf and spas.
Many of Surf Diva’s clients are from New York City; they work on Wall Street or in the entertainment or fashion industries. Some stay at La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, where rooms start at more than $300 a night.
“It’s more than just a vacation,” Isabelle Tihanyi said. “It’s a girls’ adventure trip.”
But for more adventure, surfers can take boat trips to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Indonesia and East Timor.
“Good surf is predominantly a third-world deal,” said Jake Burton Carpenter, founder and owner of Burton Snowboards. “In surfing, you’re trying to get away from the crowd.”
Mr. Carpenter, 52, whose company bought Channel Islands Surfboards in June, began surfing as an adult and now rides waves an average of 60 days a year. He plans to take a boat trip to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean this summer.
“A big part of what’s happened,” he said, “is that the market has aged, and not in a negative way. I would run into so many people who say, ‘Oh, I used to surf.’ But people are staying with it more. These board sports you can do the rest of your life.”
As a result, high-end boat charters in destinations like Indonesia have begun to serve older, more affluent clients. “With boat trips, it’s an older demographic because these trips are so expensive,” Mr. Carpenter said.
Through SurfAid International, a nonprofit public health organization started in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia, by a doctor who is also a surfer, Mr. Gerlach met one of his well-heeled clients. That client introduced him to others. They fly him to places like Costa Rica for lessons.
As a surf coach, Mr. Gerlach functions like a golf pro, offering insight on the mechanics of catching and riding waves, and sharing some shortcuts.
“You’ve got to pick the right surfboard for the conditions,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to play 18 holes with a wedge, and you wouldn’t want to play 18 holes with a driver.”
Montauk, a prime East Coast surfing spot at the tip of Long Island, serves as a symbol for the sport’s evolving status.
Last summer, in a dirt parking lot near Ditch Plains, a bottlenecked surf break, Mr. Huerta said he overheard a comment that spoke to the state of surfing today. Through a breeze, he heard a voice say, “I can get service on my Treo at Scorpion Bay.”
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