With the concurrent arrival of fall and the season’s first northwest swell, which brought large waves to Santa Cruz’s world-famous stretch of coastline this past week, it’s the perfect time to consider being part of the action in the water. Whether you’re brand new to it or just need to scrape off some rust, Lookout has your complete guide to finding the stoke.
Santa Cruz is lucky that its real summer begins after most tourists have put their beach chairs and Smashball paddles back into garage storage for the year.
And it’s not just the orangish glow of the warm summer/fall sky, but also the northwest swells that begin to swoop down from the Gulf of Alaska and light up the innumerable world-class surf breaks that dot the 7-mile stretch of coast between Natural Bridges and Pleasure Point.
How epic do we have it here? Enough so that Santa Cruz has earned the distinction of being among just 10 areas globally to be dubbed a World Surfing Reserve by virtue of three key criteria: wave quality and consistency; surf culture and history; environmental characteristics.
Yes, this is a pretty righteous surf town, dude.
And why wouldn’t you want to partake?
There are days in fall and winter when no novice surfer should be anywhere near the water. But there are also many more days perfectly suited for learning as long as you have the proper guidance.
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Santa Cruz’s beginner-friendly breaks on either side of town — Cowell, 38th Avenue, and Capitola — all have nearby instructors ready to teach. We touched base with the most experienced surf schools and independent instructors in town and dove into their focuses and strengths to give you insights into choosing the best match for where you are.
Whether you’re a true newbie taking your first lesson, an “OK-ish” intermediate seeking to level up (hi!), or the parent of an insatiable grom with pro aspirations, there’s never a stage where surf instruction and coaching wouldn’t help. Here’s a look at those who can get you to the stoke.
Richard Schmidt Surf School
Story: Richard Schmidt’s eponymous surf school is one of Santa Cruz’s first and oldest. Schmidt, who turned 60 this year, started teaching surfing when he was 18 and lifeguarding on Main Beach. A friend who worked for the parks and rec department offered Schmidt a surfing class, and he loved it. “I’d teach from 10-12 and then run breaks with the lifeguard towers,” he says. As the demand for surf lessons grew, he cut back on lifeguarding and focused on teaching surfing.
In 2001, he began leading surf and yoga retreats in Costa Rica. After last year’s cancellation because of COVID, these are starting up again in addition to lessons Schmidt regularly conducts at spots like Cowell and Capitola. His sons Makai, 20, and Richie, 23, are also avid and seasoned surfers who give lessons.
Focus/approach: Schmidt and his instructors mostly teach beginners, but they’re open to working with any level. Progressing surfers might particularly like the Costa Rica program, where videos are taken and reviewed to “look at mechanics.” Schmidt also sees his fair share of groms, aspiring pros, and people who “get going and come back for little tuneups.”
Words of stoke: Schmidt’s favorite part of being a surf instructor is connecting with people. He compares his work to being “almost like traveling, to get to meet all these people from all walks of life.” Recently, he gave lessons to a family driving from Canada to San Diego. Also, “the stoke people get from catching their first wave. It’s a pretty powerful experience. It’s hard not to have that rub off on you.” An example he shared was a recent client’s message: “I took a surf lesson with you guys yesterday and wanted to tell you that it was like literally one of the best days of my life and I’ve had some really good days!” Schmidt is grateful for where he’s landed. “I’m so lucky to share the stoke for over 40 years and have my two sons Richie and Makai helping.”
Story: Ed Guzman’s surfing legacy is pretty special: His grandmother, Dorothy Becker, was performing headstands on her surfboard back in 1915. Mesmerized by the photographs of her (some of which can be seen on his website), Ed went out as soon as he got a chance, in 1967, when he was 10. “Friends took me out at Santa Monica Beach. I got sucked up and over the falls and hit the bottom.” His reaction: I don’t know if I like this. It didn’t take long for Guzman to bounce back. He lived in San Francisco and took to surfing at Ocean Beach: “We would get pulled by riptides. It got so that I could take beatings easily and relax when I did.” His journey eventually led him to Santa Cruz, where Richard Schmidt had the only surf school at the time. “He’s top-notch,” Guzman says, “so I had to invent myself here.” Ed began his own rentals and lessons on Cowell Beach, but the Club Ed mobile can be found spreading the stoke on all sides of town.
Focus/approach: Club Ed handles all comers, from adult beginners to kids to brush-up lessons. Guzman’s outgoing personality and fun storytelling make for good company in the water. He compares choosing a surf school to choosing a restaurant: “Everybody’s got a different style, they both serve excellent cuisine and it depends on who the chef or who the owner is and how they act and react in the whole dance. I’m an extrovert. I love people and people get buzzed on that.” He enjoys everything from tandem surfing with the littlest ones to group lessons, and will take on any level of student, novice to expert.
Words of stoke: “I don’t think any great masters think they have it down, and that’s why they’re great masters,” Ed says. “The masters are still teaching because they have so much to learn and to share. That’s what we all do.”
Story: Founder and owner Cliff Hodges, a born-and-raised Santa Cruzan who graduated from Santa Cruz High School in 1998, received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in electrical engineering. When he returned to California in 2004, he says, he “lasted all of about three months in Silicon Valley before I realized that was not how I wanted to live my life — in a cubicle, under fluorescent lights. … I started Adventure Out because I know from my own life just how healing and important a nature connection and time in the ocean is for human beings and I wanted to share that with as many people as possible.” You can also spot Hodges on National Geographic’s “Remote Survival.”
Adventure Out’s surf instructor/manager and big wave surfer Chase LaRue adapts surf-lesson curriculum to students’ learning styles and personality types. “Considering how difficult surfing can be, it is important to reframe success and embrace a learner’s mindset to appreciate small victories,” LaRue says. “We spend plenty of time on land deciphering and demystifying specific techniques — paddling, catching waves, pop-up, surfing etiquette in a crowd and, most importantly, how to stay safe.”
Focus/approach: Wilderness survival and ecological conservation are priorities. Adventure Out is accredited by the National Surf Schools & Instructors Association and a member of the 1% For The Planet alliance. “We donate a portion of all gross revenues to environmental nonprofits that work to protect the spaces we recreate in,” says Hodges. As for lessons, “Our style, more than anything, is welcoming, comfortable, and safe. Venturing into unknown environments, like the ocean, and trying new things can be scary. We work hard to break through those barriers and make it a positive experience, regardless of background.”
In a lesson with LaRue, he guides people through “slow, deliberate practice of techniques to ingrain the most important mechanics, building composure and awareness through helpful cues so students can self-assess in the future when I am not around to coach them.” LaRue helps unpack and do away with fears, whether somebody is afraid of sharks or deep water, or of “judgment from others.”
Words of stoke: Hodges most loves seeing people stoked on surfing for the first time. “I still remember my first wave at Cowell’s when I was 11 years old,” he says. “It sticks with you forever. I truly do believe that giving people positive experiences in the outdoors creates ‘stakeholders’ for our environment.”
Surf School Santa Cruz
Story: Bud Freitas, a pro surfer who traveled the world competing, started Surf School Santa Cruz a decade ago. He would book his lessons from his dad’s house on 34th Avenue, have the students meet him there, and just take them right to the spot where he and his instructors take students out to this day.
Focus/approach: Surf instructor and Buell Surf Shop manager Jason Hdez, who works closely with Freitas, says Freitas is, “to this day a local standout every time he paddles out and rips apart a wave. He started the school out of the love for the sport and ocean. He wanted to share it with people who wanted to experience the ocean and all it has to give, but needed a teacher to take them out first.”
Surf School Santa Cruz mainly works with beginners, “their first time ever putting on a wetsuit, and sometimes their first time in the ocean,” Hdez says. “What they want out of the lesson helps us guide the lesson. If it’s someone from the middle of the country who wants to catch a wave for the first time, but will not ever come out again, we get them as many waves as we can and make sure they enjoy their time.
“If it’s someone who wants to take it more seriously, just moved into the neighborhood, we guide them more and help them progress. With all the new surfers entering our area, we try to make sure they are doing it the right, respectful way. The more resources they have and people they can talk to without feeling like a kook makes it better for everyone in our surfing community. We want to be the helping hand.”
Words of stoke: “It is so awesome taking people out to surf for the first time,” Hdez says. “Surfing is a special sport because you really connect with nature by riding a moving wave. To see people enjoying that is really special. It is pure stoke, and to see that happiness it brings to people is why I personally like to teach lessons.”
Aylana Zanville, Ola Chica surf, swimwear and surf coaching
Story: The former pro started surfing as a teenager. When she was 19, she spent a year surf-traveling in Australia. “When I got back all I wanted to do was surf.” She began teaching in 2001 and spent a decade teaching in a major surf school. The surf-travel bug gave multiple bites, so she set off and worked at surf schools in Costa Rica and Maui.
Focus/approach: Of her ideal student, “I like to teach people who really want to be there, who love the ocean or are really excited and want to learn more about it.” Her students tend to “already have some kind of connection. Like, they were a junior guard, boogie boarder, swimmer,” or if a beginner surfer, “they’re not brand new, there’s already some kind of foundation.” Someone ready to move from novice to next level would be in a good stage of their journey to work with Zanville to figure out wave judgment and timing, how to read waves, or transition from a longboard to a shortboard. “Or if you’ve been surfing a few years and are at a plateau.”
Words of stoke: “What brought me into teaching surf is my love for the ocean,” she says. She grew up in Santa Cruz and has surfed all over the world: Indonesia, Hawaii, Mexico, France, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil. “I love adventure,” she says. In addition to coaching surf, she founded and owns Ola Chica functional surfwear and co-organizes the Women On Waves local surf contest and fundraiser.
Story: Hawley is one-stop shopping for surf coaching and Pilates instruction. Hawley started surfing over 30 years ago and has traveled and taught in Europe, Central and South America. He most loves “imparting knowledge and sharing the stoke,” he says. “Surfing has given me so much. For me, it’s an all-encompassing thing, to harmonize with nature, waves, and tides, and to humbly be appreciative. That’s what I really like to convey to my people. Surfing is not just a sport, it’s a spiritual pursuit and connection with nature, and it’s super fun.” Hawley taught large group classes in Santa Cruz and Pacifica through Adventure Out before focusing on Studio Emilio Pilates and individual surf students. In addition to surf lessons, these days he offers surf and Pilates packages to combine the best of both his passions.
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Focus/approach: Clients who appreciate a philosophical bent will enjoy Hawley’s surf training. “We honor the wave by riding it,” he says. “Waves are bands of energy that end their journey in these coves. We get to ride them as they end their journey. It’s really cool.” He conducts private lessons for people “who want to hone their skills and be more comfortable in the water, work on the ever-evolving pursuit of balance and paddling, wave knowledge, positioning, and general awareness.” Absolute beginners are welcome, as are more seasoned surfers looking to brush up. “I incorporate Pilates stretching to get the body and abdominals involved in the very physical act of surfing,” Hawley says.
Words of stoke: “Doing private lessons is what I love to do,” he says. “It’s all about the joie de vivre, wanting to enjoy the ocean, leaving all the noise on land behind to be in the moment and let our childish nature come out,” he says. “Nothing like taking time from our busy days to spend time being youthful. Saltwater therapy is the fountain of youth.”
Andre Gioranelli, Wet Surf Training
Story: A Brazilian former professional surfer who grew up near Rio de Janeiro, Gioranelli started competing and teaching in the 1990s. In 2006, he moved to California, where he’s worked in various roles for the World Surf League, including being the Portuguese analyst for WSL broadcasts. On land, he studies yoga, jiu-jitsu, and at Ido Portal Method-based Santa Cruz Movement. When he’s training his students, he likes to incorporate Carver surfskate skateboards as a cross-training addition or flat-ocean substitute. He blends all of this together in a philosophy emphasizing mindset and mobility.
Focus/approach: Gioranelli is not the guy to call to push an absolute newbie into whitewash on a foamy. Though he has intermediate clients and “a few old clients who are more beginners,” he currently does not have time for a beginners class. He’s focused primarily on surf-hungry groms who want to train to compete, push themselves, and do their best. When openings for new clients arise, Gioranelli conducts a skills assessment — a tryout of sorts: “I’ll take a look to see if I can help. I like to work with disciplined and committed clients. ”
Words of stoke: Gioranelli finds extreme satisfaction in his clients’ successes. One of his longtime students, who is almost 70 years old, had said to Giornanelli, “My dream is to be a shortboarder.” Now, that client rides a 6-foot and got second place in an amateur surf contest. “The most important time of my day is just to share my knowledge with them and to see the happiness on their face,” Giornanelli says. “To me, that is priceless.”