New Jersey Surf Camps at Ocean Outfitters
Wildwood Crest, N.J.
Sessions offered: Five-day surf camp, $250; four-day, $220; three-day, $180; two-day, $130; one-day, $65 Ages: All, starting at seven years old
You might say that Jeff Walden is a 21st Century Renaissance man, at least in the hybrid world of day camp instruction and the best sports ever created -- surfing and skiing. Couple that to a passion to educate and improve his sports, and the Renaissance tag is probably right on target.
Walden, a native of Wildwood Crest, N.J., has been surfing since he was 11, developing an early and abiding love for the sport. And who can blame him? And, who can blame him for transferring those skills to skiing?
Walden took to skiing like a Norwegian to, well... skiing. Describe as a "second-found passion" Walden became so proficient that he ran a ski school and race program for seven years, taking regular jaunts to the Austrian Alps to share his craft.
He soon returned to his native New Jersey and started a surf camp there about five years ago in conjunction with his surf shop and cafe, Ocean Outfitters.
"It was something I had already done, and was already familiar with as an administrator and director. Utilizing the things I learned in my background from running ski programs into the surf program was pretty easy to do," says Walden.
Easier said than done, though, as Walden says the greatest challenge -- as it with camps of all shapes, styles and sizes across North America -- is finding the right staff. But Walden has a good system that makes it easier.
"More important than patience is empathy. If an instructor has empathy for their student, they'll care so much about how they're doing, that they'll keep on diving in until they make it happen. I look for those people; the ones who obviously care a lot. It's the main ingredient in the best instructors. I'd rather have a person with that quality than someone who can surf really well," says Walden.
To find who's got the right stuff to be a surf instructor/counselor, Walden does a one-week training session at Cape Hatteras, N.C. It's a one-week certification try-out where instructors hone their skills at CPR, First Aid and general instruction.
"I get a good feeling out there because we put them in different situations. I can tell right away, and I can tell who I'm going to use for what kind of lessons they'll be responsible for and which kind of students I'll have them work with," says Walden.
"The kids need someone upbeat -- kids aren't thinkers, they're doers. I have this one instructor who's awesome -- Colleen -- who says, 'Little steps and big celebrations.' That enthusiasm goes a long way with kids. Adults learn differently -- some are much more cognitive -- and need specific input, so it's a different type of instruction."
One Step at a Time
New Jersey Surf Camps offers one- to five-day camps, and individual lessons. The camps run in the morning daily, with 20-45 students in each session, most of whom are children. Walden marries a step-by-step instructional approach, instructor enthusiasm, and ocean education seamlessly in each session.
The day begins with a warm-up and stretches. From there, instructors get oriented with the students' backgrounds -- whether or not they've skated or snowboarded, their experience with surfing (such as their expectations based on what they've seen on television and other media) and other orientation tidbits.
Then, students are introduced to the ocean -- conditions that day, currents, wave height and so forth -- and to their equipment. Still on the beach, students are given instruction on the basics of the pop-up (lying on the board to standing) and how to fall safely, then they're taken out to the water.
"If they're not able to grab their board after the lesson or camp, take the board out, turn it around, guide it into a wave, stand up and ride it, all by themselves, you haven't accomplished anything," says Walden.
Walden says it's important to explain everything so they know what to expect and are more confident in real conditions when instructors guide them through the waves and turn them around as students try to line up and pop-up on their own.
"The camps cover so much more information, which includes currents, ocean conditions and surf etiquette, which is so important because they have to know how they fit in that line-up with other surfers. One of the best things that surf camps are doing is that they're able to give all that information to the people before they get to the water. Information is everything," says Walden. "You're teaching ocean awareness as much as you're teaching surfing, and it's integrated the whole time. It's hard to teach something unless it's right in front of you, like rip currents. We try to wait for a time when it's real obvious so they can experience and learn how it works firsthand. So we try to incorporate it in when it's right there in front of them."
Each camp averages a five-to-one student-to-instructor ratio, with two lifeguards on duty. The extra sets of eyes on the water help ensure safety, which is especially critical in an ocean environment.
"The difference between surfing and any other sport is that if you have a student go down in the water and go unconscious they can't breathe, and if you don't see them long enough, then you'll have a situation on your hands where you may wish you never taught surfing. It's a big, big responsibility," says Walden. "Everything is prone to injury, but surfing is not that high-risk. We've done thousands and thousands of students and any injuries we've had were pre-existing, like someone's ankle swelling up from an old injury."
Besides staffing, Walden says the biggest challenge for any surf camp is beach access. Unlike private ski areas whose sole purpose is to cater to skiers, surfers have to share space in public areas or get special permission from residents at private beaches.
Fortunately, Walden has been around the area long enough to establish good relationships with local concerns. "You need to develop good town politics and relationships to get beach access," he says.
Ultimately, Walden is striving to make the sport more professional, for lack of a better term. Consistent instructor certification -- in both skills and teaching methodology -- along with a more informed beginner surfer will help elevate the sport across the board.