SANTA CRUZ -- Max Kagan, wiped out after a day of riding the waves, an evening on the boardwalk and a night of sleeping under the stars, fumbled with his dark sunglasses.
"I'm going out to the 'happy place,' " he said one morning to no one in particular.
Clad in red flannel pajamas and sporting some serious bedhead, Max, 13, shuffled past a cluster of colorful dome tents, then down a dirt path dotted with wildflowers and fragrant with the aroma of eucalyptus trees. In a couple of minutes, he was sitting cross-legged on a cliff, staring at the churning surf and watching dolphins cavorting.
He assessed the state of the waves.
"They look good," he pronounced, "but I think I'm gonna just chill right now."
He would have plenty of time later to earn his surfing stripes.
During a weeklong camp , Max and 19 other people, from ocean-savvy kids to landlocked baby boomers, took on some of the most celebrated waves on the West Coast and immersed themselves in the surfing lifestyle.
They learned about ocean currents and riptides and wind direction and the combination of conditions that make for the perfect wave. They were schooled in surfing safety and surfing form, learning to balance their bodies on their boards and time their attacks on the waves. They practiced surfing etiquette, taking care not to be "wave hogs."
After long mornings riding and swimming and bobbing in the sea, which they shared with otters and seals and dozens of friendly dolphins, they chilled with books, volleyball and ping-pong, back and shoulder mas-sages, stories around a fire pit, and even a ukulele serenade.
A WEEK IN THE WATER
Clearly, this was not your typical summer camp.
"Surf camp is intense," said Ed Guzman, founder, director and namesake of Club Ed.
Club Ed is one of Northern California's prime surfing schools. Its summer camp boasts a remote, spectacular location above Manresa State Beach (a few miles down the Monterey Bay coast from Santa Cruz), highly trained instructors, the latest equipment and gourmet meals. Costing about $1,000 for seven days, the camp attracts surfers of all ages and abilities from across the United States and as far away as Europe.
The man behind the camp is wiry, athletic and wildly enthusiastic. Surfing, Guzman said, is about more than just having fun. Surfers gain a keen awareness of ecology and the ocean environment, and they learn a deep appreciation of the workings of the human body, he said.
A San Francisco native, Guzman started surfing 39 years ago at age 10 and made it his life's work. He and his mother, Rhoda Hemenover, run the administrative side of Club Ed from their home in Santa Cruz. Besides the summer camps, Guzman sponsors winter camps in Baja California and custom trips to Hawaii, Costa Rica, Chile and wherever else the surf beckons.
The sport is, after all, in the man's genes. His grandmother, Dorothy Becker, was a surfing champion in the early 1900s. There's a photo at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum of her surfing in 1915 on Duke Kahanamoku's board during the Hawaiian legend's seminal visit to Santa Cruz.
To the uninitiated, the notion of venturing into roaring surf with an 8-foot board lashed to one ankle might seem inherently dangerous. Maybe even crazy.
During more than 20 years of teaching the sport, Guzman's youngest student was a kindergartner, his oldest an octogenarian. "That guy was 87," Guzman recalled. "I had to pick him up and help him stand on his board, but he did it."
Standing up is not as simple as it sounds, Guzman explained.
"People come in with a romantic notion about surfing, but they know little or nothing about it," he said. "It's not a video game. It's more difficult than most people anticipate. You have to do things correctly or the ocean will knock you around."
Plenty of Club Ed campers got knocked around during a sparklingly clear week. But buoyed by words of wisdom and encouragement from Guzman and other instructors, they got up again and again and again.
NEVER TOO LATE
One glorious afternoon, Claude Devarenne, 41, a software engineer from Petaluma, collapsed on the beach, using his yellow surfboard as a chair after swallowing too much seawater. Devarenne had promised himself when he turned 40 that he would finally learn to surf -- but on his first few days at camp, his body and spirit were battered.
"It's hard," said the transplanted Frenchman, gazing out at some of the younger campers.
"I'm not as flexible as I want to be, and I have this," he said, patting the spare tire around his waist. "I'm trying, but so far, I haven't been able to stand up."
Two decades ago, Devarenne made his first attempt at surfing. "I ended up mostly paddling," he said. "I wanted to learn to do this right, but it's a challenge. I'm sore. Very sore."
He was nothing if not determined. After a few minutes of rest, Devarenne smoothed back his wet hair, picked up his board and plunged back into the sea.
On the other end of the spectrum was Luke Silverthorne, 11, the youngest camper. Luke, his brown hair carved into a Mohawk, lives in Napa but he has relatives in Brazil, where he surfed for the first time last year. At Club Ed, he coasted on wave after shimmering wave.
"See, the wave is faster than you," he explained during a lunch of sandwiches, fresh fruit and brownies. "You can feel it getting closer, and when you do, you paddle faster and faster. You'll know when it's time to stand up."
He demonstrated his form, planting one foot in front of the other on an imaginary board, holding his right arm straight out in front of him.
"You're up, and it feels cool!"
SEASONED AT 16
Ashley Rivera and best friend Ally Nice, both 16 and from the Bay Area, enthused that they, too, are hooked. Seasoned surfers, they came to camp with their own fiberglass boards, which are slicker and faster than the lighter, more buoyant "soft boards" used by most beginners.
"The first time I surfed, I was like, 'What am I doing here?' " Ashley said on Day 2 of camp, pulling on her wet suit shortly after 8 in the morning. "Now I love it. Why else would I be up so early? At home in the summer, I would be sleeping until noon. I can't wait to get out there!"
Before hitting the surf, Ashley and Ally carried their boards to the beach and spent a few minutes doing yoga, paying homage to the waves and stretching their limbs as seagulls screeched overhead. Luke lay down in the sand and waved his arms and legs, creating the California version of snow angels. Camper Shelly Grimaldi, 15, performed splits, cartwheels and handstands.
More than four hours later, Guzman practically had to drag his charges from the surf for a group photo.
"Get your boards ready! Let's go, guys!" he shouted.
By that time, an exhausted Devarenne already had used the solar shower and changed into shorts and a cotton shirt. While others were talking about going out on the town, he was contemplating a night of reading and early shut-eye.
"I'm not going anywhere," he said, but also had a smile on his face -- and a bit of good news.
"I saw dolphins today!" he said. And he managed to get up on his feet for the first time.
"It was only for a half of a second, and, of course, I wiped out immediately," he said, "but I did it. And I'll be back out there tomorrow."