Santa Cruz Surf School Protest Makes Noise

SANTA CRUZ – On Labor Day, a group of Santa Cruz surfers gathered at Pleasure Point to take part in a rising groundswell.

But they weren’t in the water. They were up on the cliffs with handmade signs, trumpets, noisemakers and raised voices, engaging in what could be the state’s first organized protest of the exploding number of surf schools.

“Just Say No! to $urf $chools in Eastside Breaks,” blared one protestor’s sign.

Other signs ranged from the mildly embarrassing (“If You Ride a Foamie, You Ain’t a Hommie [sic]),” to the poetic (“Ignorance + Crowds + Exploitation = Danger + Frustration”) to the offensive (“Take Your School and Go to Hell, Our Wave Is Not for Sale”).

The protest, dreamed up and organized by surfer Joe Henry of Santa Cruz, was meant to speak out against the widening number of surf instruction outlets and camps that Henry and others see as bringing way too many students to the Pleasure Point area, choking out the peaks for the regular surfers, practicing poor surf etiquette and neglecting to teach ocean knowledge, dangerously pushing students in front of oncoming surfers and generally wrecking the fun and pleasure of the surf experience for the locals.

The 60-70 protestors who marched from the Hook to Pleasure Point Monday morning said they know surf schools are here to stay, but they want a few concessions.

“We’d like licensed instructors and a reduced ratio of students to instructors,” said participant Tom Chotia, a 40-year surf veteran from Boulder Creek.

Other protestors were just plain tired of what they see as crass commercialization of a culture steeped in heritage and tradition.

“Here’s a major gripe,” said participant Cal Ponzini of Aptos. “They fill up the parking lots, take up all the public space and get paid for it.”

The mushrooming number of surf-instruction outlets, including formal and informal schools, day camps, church groups, recreational courses and out-of-town instructors who bring their students to Santa Cruz, are one part of the equation making conditions in Pleasure Point miserable, said Henry.

Another part, said Henry, whose home break is the Hook, is at least one established surf school owner, Richard Schmidt of Richard Schmidt Surf School Inc., who Henry said has violated previous verbal agreements not to bring too many students to the area.

Schmidt admitted that there may have been some days when classes and camps have overlapped at the Hook.

“But I’m trying my best to ease their concerns,” he said. “As far as me dropping in on them, I don’t think it happens a whole lot. If I’m not teaching etiquette, then what am I doing out there?”

Though Schmidt pointed out the irony that the people making the loudest complaints were those who are out there every day getting the most waves, he said he sympathizes with the protestors as well.

“It’s been a long, pretty flat summer, and they’re frustrated,” he said. “It’s too bad they can’t see beyond that and look at the faces of the people we teach — this is the highlight of their summer. It takes a little bit of sharing of resources.”

Schmidt, who started his school 27 years ago, said he was aware of the planned protest and had talked with Henry and other organizers.

Another surf school owner, Dylan Greiner of five-year-old Santa Cruz Surf School, said the protestors have a point.

“They’re stereotyping with the claims they make on their signs,” said Greiner, “but as an individual business owner, I want them to know we don’t teach here. We teach only at Cowell’s.”

Greiner, who said running the surf school is his life’s work, attended the gathering “to let everyone know that we’re trying our best. We’re on your side.”

But, admitted Greiner, there are people out there who shouldn’t be teaching.

“There should be an instructor certification process,” he agreed.

Schmidt’s take is that he’s doing the area something of a community service, since surfing’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years and it’s better to have people taught properly, since they’re going to surf anyway.

“If they didn’t have schools down in the Pleasure Point area, it could be a lot worse,” he said.

A combination of an exploding state and local population, the soaring popularity of surfing and the “California lifestyle” with its resulting increase of surf instructors, the lack of a sandbar at Cowell’s for the past four years and many other factors have funneled teachers and students into the Pleasure Point area, according to Ed Guzman of Club Ed Surf School & Camps.

Guzman, who’s run his surf school for 15 years, no longer takes his camps and students to Pleasure Point, seeking to avoid what he calls “Pressure Point.” Things were already crowded a few years ago, and he decided to take summer students to the beach breaks south of town, where he has a contract with State Parks.

“So I don’t have to deal with angry crowds,” he said. “It’s just a mess. I don’t like to put my employees under that pressure.”

As the protestors left the Hook and began their march up to Pleasure Point above a peaking summer swell, drivers cruising by on East Cliff Drive honked their horns and shouted encouragement.

But others weren’t so supportive.

“These are the NIMBY surf Nazis!” shouted Kem Akol of Pleasure Point as he rode by on his bicycle. “Open your hearts to the beginners! Be good hosts!”

The surf students bring jobs and thousands of dollars a week to the area, said Akol, and protesting them is selfish and mean-spirited.

“Where did these people learn to surf?” he fumed. “They’re crying over these two-foot waves.”

The protestors held firm to their line.

“The legitimate surf schools are practicing safe practices,” said Chotia. “But others don’t, and it’s hazardous conditions. There’s a place for surf schools, without a doubt, but it needs to be regulated, because it’s out of hand.”

Next, the protestors plan to set up a meeting with the local surf school instructors to present their ideas and hammer out solutions.

Gwen Mickelson is the surf columnist for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Contact her at