Surf School Permits

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malibu, California
Posted on: Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Surf schools add to blue crush

Surf instructor Suzy Stewart talks with student Amy Hsu. The state has begun regulation of surf schools, but many recreational surfers say the water already is too crowded.

Deborah Booker The Honolulu Advertiser

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By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

Just when Gil Riviere thought North Shore waters couldn't get more crowded, something else has been stirred into the wave mix:

Surf schools galore.

"All of a sudden surf schools are booming," said Ed Underwood, with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.

"It's real big. They all over. ... It's been quiet for 10 years and then all of a sudden wham! here it comes," Underwood said.

With them have come new worries for recreational surfers, who already complain that surf contests dominate the waves and keep them from the best spots.

Surf instructor Suzy Stewart cheers on student Amy Hsu of New Jersey at Ali'i Beach Park in Hale'iwa. Although long a part of the scene in Waikiki, surf schools are relatively new to the North Shore.

Deborah Booker The Honolulu Advertiser

"Now, surf schools are crowding the joint out, too," said Riviere, who heads the Let's Surf Coalition, which represents recreational surfers. "I'm getting complaints. One guy said, 'My son tried to surf Chun's Reef yesterday and there were three surf schools going on at the same time.'

"Who are all these surf instructors? Are they licensed, regulated or even checked?"

For decades, beach boy surfing instructors have been part of the scenic atmosphere in Waikiki, but surf schools at least in these numbers are a new phenomenon on the North Shore.

The proliferation of surfing instructors there has accompanied a resurgent interest in surfing worldwide, and the numbers have reached such proportions that the state has begun regulating them for the first time.

In the past, sightseers mostly have traveled to the North Shore in the winter to gawk at its world-famous giant waves and watch more experienced surfers ride those liquid mountains. Now they want to learn to hang 10 themselves.

Five years ago, there was barely a handful of surf instructors on the North Shore, said Joe Green, owner of Surf-N-Sea ocean gear and clothing shop, which he said has offered surf lessons longer than anyone else in the area.

Now, Green said, it's hard to know how many surf instructors are working the beaches maybe 10, perhaps a dozen, or more. The only thing that exceeds the increase in surf schools is the rush of budding students who are streaming to the North Shore.

With that rush has come an increased focus on the qualifications of instructors and schools. Rules regulating such activities have been on the books for a long time, Underwood said. But until now, there was no call for surf school regulation on the North Shore.

Surf schools on agenda

Public meeting: The proliferation of surfing instruction has even affected Waikiki, where surf instructors have been present for decades. The DLNR will hold a special public meeting Jan. 22 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Jefferson Elementary School to discuss the impact of surf schools on the state's most popular beach.

Questions? Anyone with questions about the meeting, surf schools or permit requirements in Waikiki or on the North Shore can call the DLNR Boating and Ocean Recreation Division at 587-1973.

The DLNR program implemented this season requires would-be North Shore surf gurus to get an operator's permit. To qualify, the instructor must have three years of surfing experience, pass a physical, be CPR- and first aid-certified by the Red Cross, and undergo a written exam dealing with surfing rules and regulations.

If the instructor is also the owner of the school, he or she is required to designate the specific area in which it will operate, get appropriate permission to access that area (such as from the city and county), and possess adequate liability insurance.

In addition, an applicant must get final approval from a three-member panel that scrutinizes the operation using qualification criteria devised by DLNR staff with input from city and county lifeguards.

"Our primary goal is safety," said Steve Thompson, acting administrator for the Boating and Ocean Recreation Division. He said the panel expects an instructor to have a high degree of familiarity with North Shore beaches.

"A certain amount of local knowledge is what what we're looking for," he said.

So far about three surf school registration permits and a half-dozen instructor operator permits have been issued on the North Shore, Thompson said.

But Green and others say there are rogue instructors who ignore the process. Underwood said the state is aware of them.

"What we do is turn that information over to our Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement," Underwood said. "Violators will be cited and fines will be issued."

Those who are cited must appear in court and can be fined up to $1,000, said Deborah Ward, spokeswoman for the DLNR.

Beginning surfers might be wise to ask about an instructor's qualifications. Many don't bother.

When tourist Amy Hsu of Palisades Park, N.J., spent $65 for a two-hour lesson with Sunset Suzy's Surf School last week, she said, "I didn't really bother checking to see if she was certified. I just wanted someone to get me out there and get me started."

Suzy Stewart, who owns the school, not only has the necessary operator's permit, she's a certified city and county lifeguard as well. She is also sold on the new permitting process.

"Even though I went through hell to get mine, I think it's great," said Stewart, who spent a year and about $1,500 (mostly liability insurance costs) getting the permit.

"You have to know what you're doing out here. North Shore waves can be the most dangerous in the world."

Stewart said Riviere and others who want to cut down the number of surf schools on the North Shore can simply report those they suspect of giving lessons without a permit to DLNR enforcement officers.

"They've told me, 'You see someone running a school illegally, you give us a call,' " she said.

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or

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