Surfing 101? Ocracoke takes surfing into the classroom
October 03, 2000, 01:55 PM

"I grew up here and primarily the two sports have been surfing and basketball," O'Neal said. "Basketball is regulated and accepted, surfing has never been. I know that the sport has gotten a lot more popular over the years, especially around Ocracoke. Since I've returned home as a teacher, I know that a lot of kids will leave right after school to go surfing.
By Jason O. Boyd, correspondent

OCRACOKE - Surfing is a right of passage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

When the wind picks up and the waters are just right, people of all ages converge onto the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean, surfboard in hand, ready to catch that perfect wave.

Over on the island of Ocracoke it's no different. Young and old, boys and girls, men and women "surfing is as much of a way of life as the novelty shops or seafood restaurants that are scattered throughout the quaint setting.

So it would only make sense that a sport that is so loved by the people of Ocracoke Island would be taught in the classroom.

Yes - the classroom.

Beginning this February, Ocracoke High School will become the only school east of the Mississippi to conduct a surfing class. Students in seventh through 12th grade are eligible to take the class, provided they pass a Level IV Red Cross Swimming Certification, which is being taught at the Island Inn, a local hotel. Students must also maintain at least a C average in all other classes.

The class will be taught by Gary Zbel, an avid surfer himself, and Joan O'Neal, athletics director at the high school, the smallest public school in the state.

"I grew up here and primarily the two sports have been surfing and basketball," O'Neal said. " Basketball is regulated and accepted, surfing has never been. I know that the sport has gotten a lot more popular over the years, especially around Ocracoke. Since I've returned home as a teacher, I know that a lot of kids will leave right after school to go surfing.

"It's a good way to promote physical endurance. We are looking for a class that provides phy ed and book sense together."

Getting an idea off the ground

O'Neal wrote a 40-page proposal in May to Ocracoke principal Larry Thompson about the possibility of having a surfing class. In the proposal, she highlighted the physical value of surfing as an addition to the existing physical education curriculum. The proposal also documented the aspects of learning the retail business related aspects of surfing, from making and repairing boards to the marketing of surfing equipment.

Her quest began after coming across "The Complete Surfing Guide", a book written by Bruce Gabrielson, a renowned surfing expert. Gabrielson was responsible for getting surfing classes started at high schools in California as well as some universities in the state, the first being Long Beach State.

"My proposal is about 40 pages long and I covered anything and everything that I thought might cause it not to pass," O'Neal said. “I went through liability issues, issues on how to use park land, everything, insurance, that we would need in order to make the class a go.

By the time it got to them, it was a pretty tight document, I felt."

Thompson got the proposal and liked what he saw.

"I'm never caught off-guard by some of the great ideas that come up by ourstaff," Thompson said. "They approached us and looked at all the aspects to benefit the children. They looked into how they can do it and if they can do it and if the students have interest."

Once Thompson approved O'Neal's proposal, it went to the Hyde County Board of Education for final approval.

"We don't have that many sports, we only field basketball because we have so few students," said Margaret Garrish, who occupies the Ocracoke seat of the Hyde County Board of Education since 1991. "This is something the kids are already interested in. I have two sons in their 40s that have been surfers since they were 10 or 12.

"I was all for it. I think the lifesaving aspects of it, the kids on surfboards have saved numerous people around here and don't get recognized for it. They just do it when they see somebody in trouble. I think it's great and it makes them more excited about school and P.E. (physical education)."

The Board of Education overwhelmingly approved the class in July for the 2000-2001 school year.

"It was well worked out, Joanie O'Neal did a good job of presenting it to the board and the principal did a good job of approving it. We all agreed to try it. It may not work but we will try it.

"There's so much connected to it. There are also college scholarships connected to it. It has a whole lot of positives."

O'Neal had a pretty good feeling before the members of the school board cameto Ocracoke Island to discuss the prospects of the class. After the visit, her aspirations were confirmed.

"They looked over it and, in a meeting we had, the school board came over and had lunch with the teachers over here," O'Neal said. "The response I got was all positive. They were glad to see somebody doing this, they thought it was great for the kids, I guess a way for them to do better at something that they are already doing and provide a more positive way to do it".

Getting the class started

Marcus Lawson and Annie Garrish are the envy of a lot of students at the school.

Both are currently taking the Red Cross course and should be eligible to take part in the surfing class in February.

"It sounds like it would be interesting," said Lawson, 12, who is in seventh grade. "I heard that we are going to watch movies until the water gets warmer to swim in it. Then we will start going out to the beach and literally go surfing".

Garrish, 13, an eighth grader, has only been surfing for a year and was encouraged to take the class with some of her friends. But, in the end, she was the only one that ended up taking the Red Cross certification for the surfing class.

"Mainly, I want to learn how to surf better," Garrish said. "I'm all right at it now but I want to get better."

"Actually, all my cousins do and I thought it was cool so I just started. And it's fun."

A surfing camp was held this summer by Michael O'Neal, an instructor on the island, over the summer. Between now and February, students will take part in the Red Cross course while materials and books are ordered for the class. O'Neal is even lining up speakers who specialize in surfing.

O'Neal said that Gabrielson will try to make it to the island in the spring to speak to the class. Julie Hume, Outer Banks director for the Eastern Surfing Association also is planning to make a trip. Also expected are Lisa Pellitier-Harmon and Buddy Pellitier with the surfing association, a group that offers scholarships for high school seniors to go to colleges in North Carolina.

The class enrollment is now up to eight who are certified to participate, two girls and six boys.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the students to do an activity they are really, really interested in and do it in a safe manner," Thompson said. "They will also learn the skills from the basics up and will also get information on repairing equipment.

There's a chance to listen to experts and we have a local business (Ocracoke Adventures) that are going to help the kids with repairing boards and preparation of boards. We are getting a lot of community involvement. It's a real positive thing for the children, people on and off the island and the community are involved. It's a chance to come together to learn something that they really like to do."

But there are those that are a little envious of the students that are eligible to take the course, and that certainly doesn't extend to just the students in other high schools.

"I could learn all that stuff like, if you wipe out, how to swim around if your leash snaps and your board is out," said Patrick O'Neal, 10, a fifth grader who's brother, Daniel, will be in the class. "There's different kinds, like the scissor stroke. I can swim away but sometimes when waves keep pounding me and I have to go under then come up for a breath, the waves keep on pounding me. But usually, I can get away. "

"I want to do that (make surfboards)," said Jesse Burton, 11, also a fifth grader. "Since I heard about that, I wanted to be in that class. I wish I was in seventh (grade)".

But, at the same time, the younger students are looking forward to one day being a part of the class.

"I can make my own surfboard and I can get a certificate after that," said Dylan Bennitt, 11, a sixth grader. "Maybe I could learn how to do sharp turns and how to make a surfboard."

What happens from here?

The first year of the surfing class brings a lot of promise. Interest in theclass spans from the students in the schools and the island all the way out to other parts of the state and across the country.

Having students in the class might inspire someone to open up a business tomake surfboards, something that is missing on the Outer Banks, especially on Ocracoke Island. It also provides students the chance to become lifeguards and spread their knowledge from the class to others, whether it be students who want to take the class or visitors to the island over the tourist season.

"It's something the kids here are already involved in a whole lot," Margaret Garrish said. {They have to pass a Red Cross test for swimming, which can leadto them having jobs as lifeguards.

"During the summer, the park service brings in lifeguards and we have to house them. It would be a good job and pay for the local kids. I think it's great that they can do this."

The class might lead to other things, like competition with other high school surfing teams in the United States. The National High School Surfing Association has com petitions on the East Coast all the time. In addition, the Eastern Surfing Association holds competitions at Cape Hatteras, Buxton andother areas along the Outer Banks.

"Basically, the other schools in the area, the students seem very excited for Ocracoke to the extent that some students in the schools near here want it at their school," O'Neal said. "But, of course, someone has to take the step, design the class and get it approved. I think it's a sport that's just as valid as any other sport and I don't understand why the coastal schools can't offer it and regulate it like other sports."

Thompson won't go as far as saying the school will field a competitive team to take part in events. But, if the class is successful, who knows what limitations there will be.

Maybe one day, newspapers and other media outlets will be writing about the success of the Ocracoke Dolphins surfing team.

"In a way, it kind of can turn into an extra circular activity but, right now, it's just instructional," Thompson said. "We are not looking at it ascompetitive but someday, we could have it as a club activity where the children could become involved."