Cam Jones ’19 remembers gazing longingly down to Second Beach from the boys’ thirds soccer field on some afternoons in the fall of 2016. “My friends and I were always bummed out when the waves were good,” he said, “and having to just watch them from up here.”
Things were different last fall, however, as Cam and seven fellow students — all donning wetsuits — sat on the grass near that same soccer field waxing their boards. Last school year, the eight were given the opportunity to take part in an afternoon-activity pilot called The Surf Leadership Program. The program offered the chance for participants to improve their surfing skills, train for their lifeguard certifications and gain leadership experience.
English teacher Cory Cramer ’00, the program’s advisor, put it this way: “This is not a competitive surfing program. Those programs exist. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re teaching these kids to be lifeguards. We’re teaching these kids to take ownership and planning over their afternoon activity. And we’re teaching these kids to be safe and confident in the water.”
Along with another program focused on marine biology, Surf Leadership was part of a move to expand St. George’s offerings in the afternoon “to provide specific-interest activities to our students,” said Dean of Afternoon Programs John Mackay.
Leading the drive for the surf program were three boys who proposed it to Cramer last year, and who also helped design a program that met the criteria for a valuable extracurricular experience: Cam and his classmates, Colin and Oscar MacGillivray.
“We got a Google Doc going and put all of our ideas in it,” said Oscar, a Middletown native. The boys had the drive and the passion to make it work. “I’ve been surfing for most of my life,” Oscar added, “and I also wanted to be doing it as a sport too.”
On Cramer’s mind was also “to help kids think in a really respectful way about the ocean.” The group spent a good amount of time in thoughtful discussion “reading the water” and talking about weather conditions before they even waded in.
Not all the students in the Surf Leadership program grew up on a board, and so with members of the group having varying degrees of expertise, the leadership aspect of the program was especially important, Cramer said.
“One of the things that we’re doing is having the more experienced kids actually do the teaching of their less-experienced peers,” he added. “One of the first lessons I learned about leadership was that it is generally separate from performance. So your ability to be an experienced sailor — in my case that’s what it was — really had very little bearing on my ability to get a whole bunch of kids who didn’t know how to sail a boat.
“It’s awesome that they can surf really well,” he said of the more veteran surfers, “but what’s transferrable out of here is their ability to work with people.”
Charis Todd ’ 18, an avid sailor from Bermuda who took part in Geronimo’s transatlantic journey two years ago, said surfing was on her St. George’s bucket list. “Coming here as a freshman all my friends were like, we totally want to learn by senior year — and I’m a senior now, so it was my last shot to give it a go,” she said. When we talked to Charis last fall, she was excited to learn — and humbled by what last October were some of the best surfing conditions in years, thanks to a series of strong storms off the coast.
“I got pummeled by a wave the other day and one of the guys sitting next to me on the beach after was like, ‘Yeah, that one took everyone out,’” Todd said. She appreciated the collegiality and getting to talk to people off campus.
Lexi Sinskey ’18 of San Francisco said she comes from a family of water enthusiasts, and before the Surf Leadership program was mainly into body-boarding and body-surfing. “I’ve always been really bad at sports and stuff, but I’ve always really liked the ocean,” she said. “It took me a little bit longer than the rest of my family to start surfing. I guess after I came here I realized I should probably start trying to surf more.”
Seamus Fearons ’19 of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, never surfed before he came to St. George’s. “I started surfing freshman year because my brother [Patrick ’18] went here and he got a surfboard — and I ended up getting into it more than he did,” he said. “The beach close by definitely got me into it.”
Indeed Cramer, who also teaches a course in maritime literature, expressed his passion for “place-based” learning. A former Dragon sailor, he led sea kayaking and sailing trips for Thompson Island Outward Bound and worked in the Maine Coast Semester program at the Chewonki Foundation before returning to St. George’s to teach in 2014. “The reason I love this program, and the reason I love this place, is that there are so many opportunities to combine what we do up here with where we are,” he said.
Learning along with the locals
Of course anyone who regularly drives past Second Beach on their way to St. George’s sees the evidence — the board-topped cars, the wave riders pulling your eyes while you’re ascending the hill — that Aquidneck has a very strong surfing community. “There’s definitely a lot of good, institutional local knowledge kicking around here,” Cramer said.
Part of what he stressed with the students was respecting the rules.
“Surfing safely within a large group of people involves being aware not only of your position relative to the waves, but also to the other people there,” Cramer explained.
“And so it really is important that people be able to communicate, to learn what it means to wait your turn, who gets to go, and to understand your place in the lineup.
I want to help our students be very good stewards of that because that etiquette exists primarily to keep people safe on the water.”
Throughout the fall the surfers made day trips to other beaches in Rhode Island to surf, such as East Matunuck State Beach in South Kingstown and Goose Wing in Little Compton — definitely a hit with Darien, Connecticut native Spencer McLane ’19. “A highlight for me was when we took the trip to Little Compton and the waves were really nice there and it was just a new break,” he said. “So it was really fun and we were all getting really good waves.”
At the end of the term, the crew went on a camping trip to Montauk — and they all passed their lifeguard certification tests.
“It’s awesome that the school allowed us to do this, to come up with our own thing and to really step out of what they originally had planned,” Cam said. “They allowed us to go for it and give it a shot.
“Surfing is a passion of all of ours,” he added, “and we love surfing whenever we can.”
This article originally appeared in the 2018 Spring Bulletin magazine. You can view the entire magazine online here.