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Monday, June 20, 2005 | The look on the face of a person riding their first wave is one of profound joy. Not just a smile, but a look of serene contentment, often followed by a hoot of exultation and accompanied by body language that bespeaks a tremendous mix of excitement, fear and adrenaline. As rapidly growing numbers of people, from locals to tourists, want to experience these thrills, the surf camp business in San Diego is booming.

From surf schools exclusively for girls, to daily surf excursions to Baja, Mexico and even corporate bonding events, San Diego surf entrepreneurs are learning that there is serious money to be made from a sport that is not usually associated with capitalism.

Darren Fulhorst, director of Menehune Surf Schools, said that he founded his first school five years ago and has since experienced almost 300 percent growth each year. He said that in 2004, when the school had two locations, one at La Jolla Shores and another at Del Mar, a total of about 600 children attended a standard, one-week Menehune camp.

Fulhorst, confident in continued growth, will direct four camps this summer – two at the coveted La Jolla Shores, one in Del Mar and another at the newest location in Oceanside. Location is key in this business, and every surf camp owner interviewed for this article agreed that La Jolla Shores has the best waves to learn on in all of San Diego County.

Due to unique underwater features, including a large submarine canyon, the Shores produces perfect sandbars that create the long, slow and gentle waves perfect for beginners. On the best days, students can ride the whitewater, what is left after a broken wave, towards the shore for up to a hundred yards, while they attempt to stand up, said Izzy Tihanyi, owner of the Surf Diva surf camp, which has three separate schools at the Shores.

Surf Diva is the first surf school dedicated to teaching women and young girls to surf but also includes “Boys on the side classes,” explains Tihanyi. Over the last three years, the Divas have expanded their creativity and surf knowledge to include a how-to book on surfing for women as well as a beach friendly clothing line. Tihanyi attributes the success of her surf school not only to “girl-power” out in the water, but also to the ideal conditions for learning to surf that La Jolla Shores provides.

In contrast to the long, gentle rides of La Jolla Shores, Fulhorst said that there are days at Del Mar when students are lucky to get 10 yards of whitewater to ride before a wave hits the beach. However, getting a camp located at the Shores has a steep price.

The city of San Diego now operates a 13-permit system that includes five surf school sites at La Jolla Shores. Eight additional sites in the city range from Pacific Beach in the north to Ocean Beach in the south. The permits were designed to protect beach environments as well as to avoid potentially dangerous, overcrowded conditions caused by too many surf camps clogging popular learning spots each summer.

Each permit allows 25 students to be in the water and costs $7,500, or 10 percent of a camp’s gross, whichever figure is greater. With five permits, and one additional, nonprofit permit for charitable surf camps, the maximum number of students in the water at La Jolla Shores can still reach 150.

Rates for Cowley’s Baja experience range from $319 for an individual, to $199 per person, for those with the highest group discount. Thus, the more friends and family you bring, the lower the cost. Maximum group size is 13 guests, and two meals, including a lobster dinner, are included. Similar pricing systems, with group discounts, are in effect at Surf Diva and the Menehune Surf Schools, too. Menehune Surf School’s basic package is $285 for five days of three hours of group instruction a day. Surf Diva does three-and-a-half hours for $313.50.

What factors should potential students consider?

– The ratio of instructors to students: The Menehune Surf School uses a one-to-four instructor to student ratio and Surf Diva uses a one-to-five ratio, which is the industry standard.

– Several individual groups or one large group: The Menehune Surf School divides all of its classes into groups of eight students with two instructors, whereas Surf Diva does groups of up to 25 with five instructors. The Baja Surf Experience uses a single group of 13 students with 2 instructors. The smaller the group is, the more likely a student is to get personal attention from a teacher, but children might have more fun with the larger groups.

– Quality of instruction: To make sure you are getting quality instruction, make sure the person teaching you has been surfing for a minimum of five years. However, 10 or more years of surfing experience is a good benchmark with at least 2 or more years of teaching surfing.

– Quality of schools: Make sure they have insurance, have been operating for several years, have return clients and use only soft boards with leashes for beginners.

– How crowded is the beach the camp uses: One of the biggest advantages to the Baja Surf Experience tour is that clients surf without any other people in the water aside from other campers. That way, there are no worries about being run over by another surfer, as can happen at crowded beaches, and students can concentrate exclusively on learning.

Edward Graham is a new Voice of San Diego Guest Columnist. He resides in La Jolla, California and continues to build on 12 years of surfing experience and education that the ocean and local community has given him.

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