Endless summer school

At the University of Plymouth's new surf-science program, getting barreled is downright respectable.

By Alex Salkever
July 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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From California to Florida to Hawaii, the waves have always proven a strong lure to young aquatic scholars in pursuit of higher education and a longer tube ride. To any query about their studies, the suntanned legions offer a time-honored response: "I'm majoring in surfing." Translation: I cut class a lot to go surfing. Inevitably, those who majored in this sybaritic subject flunked out in disproportionate numbers. Alas, independent study in Applied Surfing 101 generally garnered no course credit. Even the most winsome surfers received little sympathy from academic probation committees.

Until now, that is. Beginning in September, the University of Plymouth on England's southwest coast will inaugurate what it claims to be a completely legit Bachelor of Science in Surf Science and Technology. With an emphasis on nearby beaches, geological formations and the technology of making surf equipment, young surf scientists will study marine biology, geology, wave dynamics, economics and business management as well as surf skills, surfing history and surfing culture.

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The catalog paints a bold picture of a well-reasoned degree designed to fill a gaping commercial need: "The University of Plymouth is the only institution in the world to offer such a rigorously academic course within this subject area. This unique course has been conceived in response to the needs of the multifaceted surf industry which has been developing since the 1950s and generates billions of dollars world-wide." Imagine: a supposedly rigorous college major in which fully one-sixth of the course units can be gained by surfing. Can this be for real? And how did an otherwise respectable institution of higher learning, with some of the best marine-science programs in Europe, get involved in such a sordid business?

"It really came from student demand," claims Malcolm Findlay, a surfing Scot, professor in fisheries sciences and one founder of the program. "We know that surfing actually makes quite a big contribution to the local economy in the south of England. One of the University of Plymouth's agenda items is to serve the local economy. Beyond that, we know that there is tremendous demand from potential students. And we are probably closest to decent surf breaks of any university in the U.K.," says Findlay, who is wired to a pager that sounds whenever the local weather buoys pick up major waves.

To get the program off the ground, Findlay brainstormed with marine geologist Colin Williams and marketing director Elly Sample. The trio canvassed students and surf companies to get feedback on their degree idea. According to Sample, the response was unprecedented. "In my 10 years of PR, I have never quite seen a response like it. We had people ringing up asking when these students would be available. We had phone calls coming in from all over the world," says Sample, who also surfs. When word of the project got out, surfing faculty members likewise voiced approval. In short order, several dozen instructors had offered to teach courses in various aspects of surfology.

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Convincing clearly skeptical administrators to stamp their approval on what might be perceived as a dubious degree proved easier than Findlay thought. "The first reaction we got from the more senior people in the administration was not particularly encouraging. They thought it was a joke. Then they would chew it over and the next day they would come back and call us and say, 'You know, that's a bloody good idea,'" recalls Findlay.

To ensure that the course did not turn into a joke, Findlay and Williams laid out what they believe to be a serious curriculum heavy in hard science and business courses. Entry requires a total of 16 A-level points in the British university placement exams, a fairly high hurdle for prospective students.

"One thing that we have been very, very assiduous about is that this is a rigorous academic course. We are looking at the physical dynamics of breaking surf. We are looking at the pollution, analysis of the chemical composition of polyurethane foams and composites and trying to model the performance of surfing equipment. A lot of this is high-level science and very complex stuff. People who have specialties in the liberal arts, they won't have as good a chance of getting in. And we are definitely not providing a hot housing program for aspiring pro surfers," says Findlay emphatically.

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After a year of broad-based course work that teaches the sciences surrounding surfing and the sport itself, students will select a focus for their second and third years of study. Specialties will range from board and wet suit design to coastal ecology and retail management. Many will also serve internships with companies in the field.

But all of this begs some obvious questions. First of all, why would anyone want to train for a job in the surf industry? Notorious for low-paying jobs and clubby networks that place surfing ability over other necessary skills (such as counting to 10), the surf industry is viewed as something of a wasteland and a joke in the United States. Board shaping, although a highly skilled art and craft, is often a quick route to poverty. Lucrative soft-goods contracts -- from T-shirts to leashes and wet suits -- are locked up by a few bigger players while smaller companies generally struggle. Management jobs pay less than their counterparts in other industries due to the premium attached to surfing's cachet. And the cyclical nature of the biz, which depends largely on youthful consumer whims, often shreds long-term business plans. Despite rapid growth in the industry in recent years, true success stories are few and far between. Worse yet, the business has a reputation for suspect accounting and funny money investments from drug sources.

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"A surf-shop manager is never going to make $10,000 a month like someone with an MBA might," says Bill Barnfield, a surf-shop owner and board maker on Oahu's legendary North Shore who has watched the industry for over 30 years. "When you talk about a college degree in surfing, it's a romantic thing like sailing around the world. It's a major warm fuzzy. But whether or not it could actually produce anything viable, I don't know."

But Findlay argues that the very things that make surfing a tenuous business sector are what make a degree program more valuable. "The way the surfing industry is run is very chaotic. Some of the people that run the industry don't have a real idea of what they are doing. They now are saying that they need people to make this industry less chaotic and make it organized better," says Findlay, who claims that a number of prominent surf companies contacted Plymouth to inquire as to when the first batch of surfologists would hit the job market.

Another obvious question is: What possible academic value could be attached to an activity like learning how to surf, which is more physical than cerebral? To this, Findlay counters that even surfing can be a scientific learning experience. "We don't just go off to the beach and go surfing for the fun of it. We go to the beach and do scientific testing. We may test surfboard performance. We may test wet suits. We may test pollution. For example we may send two students out in a 3 mm suit, two students out in a 2 mm suit and two students out in a 4 mm suit. Then we bring them in every five minutes and stick a thermometer in their ear to study the loss of body heat, its effects and causes," says Findlay, who hopes his charges will put out scientific papers for peer review based on their research.

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Sure, surf science might play in Plymouth. But will it play in the Pacific strongholds of California, Hawaii and Australia, where the bulk of the surf industry resides? That is not entirely clear. Sample says that she received applications for entry to the program from the Far East and Australia. But why would anyone who lives in Hawaii and surfs epic waves stoop to trading Pipeline for Plymouth?

"If it's just learning how to surf, I don't think so. Why would we go to a cold place like England? If I were beginning and I were really interested, maybe. But England, that's kind of far," says Jeremy Grad, a high school senior in Hawaii and an avid surfer. "Geology-wise, that would be super interesting. But surfing, as in learning? It would be better to be here. And probably even shaping, because we have such a variety of waves and much steeper waves than they have. Lots of different shapers shape different kinds of boards here."

While Hawaii's young surf scholars might give Plymouth the pass, apparently the interest from other parts has been more than enough to fill the first incoming class of 20 surf scientists. Sample says that she received more than 500 serious applications, making for a staggering rejection rate of more than 96 percent. What's more, apparently Mom and Dad are stoked to pay for junior's surf degree. "We have had a number of parents ring up and they have been quite positive. They like the idea that it is very academically rigorous and that it combines school with what their child loves to do," says Sample.

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And in the end, that is what Findlay and his colleagues at Plymouth are really betting on -- giving people a chance to study and legitimize something they love. "Doing a degree should be fun. But there is no reason why you can't develop yourself intellectually while you are having fun," says Findlay. "When people go to university for three years and invest thousands of pounds and a very good part of their lives toward obtaining a degree, they ought to have a good time. But they should come out with a qualification that can hold water, so to speak."


Alex Salkever

Alex Salkever is a surfer and writer living in Honolulu.

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