On a crisp, almost sunny morning on a Pacifica beach, high school student Kevin Guzman wrestled with the arm of his wetsuit, tugging at it until it surrendered and slipped over his shoulder.
A lifelong resident of San Francisco’s landlocked Mission District, Kevin would be the first to admit his young life has not been filled with the unquenchable thirst to surf.
“I’m not a really a big ocean person — looking at the ocean scares me,” he said, warily eyeing a pack of nearby surfers bobbing in the waves. “Seeing the big waves, it gives me goosebumps.”
But on this day, Kevin would brave the churning Pacific Ocean to repeatedly mount a surfboard as part of the City Surf Project, a program that preaches the love of surfing to high school students in San Francisco. The new program launched at Mission High School where he is a student.
In just his third time on the waves, Kevin somehow harnessed his terror of the ocean to get in a few respectable rides.
“Not as bad as I thought it would be,” he said. “Being able to surf made me notice there’s other things I can do that I never knew I could do.”
Kevin's spiritual transformation was exactly what former high school teacher and lifelong surfer Johnny Irwin envisioned when he founded the City Surf Project a couple of years ago.
The native San Franciscan started surfing when he was eight years old at the nudging of his surfer father. He never looked back.
Following five years teaching high school, he was struck by the idea of combining his two loves — resulting in City Surf Project.
“Many of the students live close by the ocean — maybe a mile from the ocean — and have never been there before, don’t even know that surfing is a possibility,” Irwin said.
Every Monday, Irwin visits the schools to lead classroom discussions covering surfing, the environment and conservation. Twice a week, he loads a van with nearly a dozen students and heads to Pacifica where the surf lessons meet the actual surf. The lessons begin with Irwin reciting what could be considered the surfer’s anthem.
“Any time you can get to the beach, into the water,” Irwin said, “that’s a good day.”
The students are paired up with instructors who who guide them out into the water, offering prompts to “paddle” to “get lower” to “shoot up from their feet.”
The amateur wave riding is peppered with fleeting hints of actual standing before the rider is awkwardly flipped backward into the foamy waves, emerging with a grin. Occasionally, someone will find their footing, pumping a fist in the air while gliding over a wave toward the shore.
“You feel like you’re flying,” said student Sharon Padilla. “When I’m there and I go catch a wave, I see it as a life problem.”
Sharon said there are no surfers in her family. Surfing was never something she or her friends ever considered. But by her second session, she was one of the students who regularly found her balance and rode long meandering waves until they snubbed out in the sand.
“If I fall from the board I always get back up,” she said, “I want to reach my goal which is to stand on the board and get better.”
Irwin said the surface goal of the project is to expand interest in surfing. But ultimately he sees a surf board as a vehicle to deliver a deeper sweeping appreciation for the outdoors.
“If nothing less, if they don’t take a liking to surfing, at least they have this experience of this connection to nature," Irwin said.
Irwin hopes to ride the crest of his own enthusiasm — to expand his project to every high school in San Francisco. He said a city surrounded by water should hold more passion for the surfing life, though he remembers growing up as one of a handful of surfers in his high school. He dreams of a day when taking up a board is as natural as picking up a basketball or swinging a bat.
“Not just a far off idea for kids growing up in San Francisco,” Irwin said. “I think surfing provides a really positive outlet as an extra curricular activity.”
Irwin stood among waist-high waves — a centrifuge to the frenetic scene around him — kids on boards paddling through the rush of water, bouncing to their knees, maybe even climbing to their feet before plunging into the chilly ocean water.
Irwin knew just what they were experiencing.
“The thrill of surfing, that feeling of riding a wave,” he said, “It’s a magical feeling.”