Best Surfing Instructor - 2008
Kai Sanson, Zuma Surf and Swim Training
Kai Sanson takes you to a beach where the surf rolls in slowly. He has a key to the gate; the security guards know him. Even on a Saturday morning, there are no more than five or six surfers on the half-mile-wide beach. He walks with you down to the water, tells you how to assess the scene and advises you to wait until the sea calms before you venture out, one arm stretched to its limit around a long foam board.
"You want to be cool," he says. "Surfing is all about cool."
Then he laughs, and you know he's kidding.
You might feel a little guilty here, knowing that people have worked hard to secure access to the coastline for everyone. Now may be the time, though, to suppress your egalitarian ethics, because it's a lot easier to learn to surf when you've eliminated some of the threats you find at the gentler public beach breaks, like 19-year-olds on sharp-edged shortboards who've been up all night on acid.
It's also easier for Sanson to line you up in the perfect spot, tell you when to paddle like hell and give you a little push if you fall behind. The rush of speed and force of that first wave under your body defeats any lingering terror you might have of the water. You suddenly realize what it means, exactly, to be on a surfboard. And when the time comes that you must choose and time your own sets — and, naturally, you get thrown head first off your board by a wave crashing into your back — you'll discover when you finally pop up that Sanson has been keeping a close eye on you, counting the number of seconds you were pinned under.
Everyone who's ever hung out a surfing-instructor shingle claims to specialize in beginners who fear big water, because, in fact, most people who live in Southern California want to surf but don't for fear of big water or sharks. And while avoiding the water for fear of sharks is a little like avoiding elevators for fear of earthquakes, waves you can come to understand. That's where Sanson excels: He can tell you why that little push-up on the board helps you over the white water as you paddle out; he can explain what makes the waves break neatly in this perfect spot just to the right of the rocks. Pretty soon you realize it's not just the ocean you have to understand, but yourself: It's not the water that's making your board feel tippy, it's where you put your feet.
Sanson can talk about other things, too, like energy politics and European cities. This is good, because unless you hit a magical day with perfect 3-foot sets rolling in from the west every five minutes, surfing is 80 percent sitting on your board, looking out to sea. "And now, we wait," is the way Sanson puts it. Ask him about his veggie-oil truck.—Judith Lewis