LA JOLLA -- Growing up on the East Coast, I always assumed surfing was a cultural rite of passage for anyone in Southern California who was blond, cute and who looked good in a bathing suit.
Consequently, as a teenager, I wanted to be a surfer in the same way I wanted to be a cheerleader or a movie star -- because it sounded cool, because it would mean I'd look good in a bathing suit, and because, with the nearest beach being 90 miles away, it was totally unlikely ever to happen.
Still, I imagined it: how my hair would be tousled with saltwater and my skin toasted pink as I floated in the water, waiting for the right moment, the right wave, to ride to shore; how when I caught that wave, I'd smile all the way in, standing posture-perfect as if I were posing in some Universal Studios photo facade or, you know, Seventeen.
Of course, it was nothing like that. On the contrary, my first attempts at surfing -- which took place, mind you, about two decades after my imaginings -- were about as graceful as a toddler's first attempts at walking. During an earthquake.
But that's OK. At Surf Diva in La Jolla, the nation's first surf school for women and the place where I went to live out that teenage dream, the company credo is simple: "The best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun."
As she should be.
* * *
"You ready?" chirps Melanie Sandquist, the blond-haired, dimple-cheeked surf instructor bobbing in the water beside
"Here's a good one," she says as a dark bulge of water curls toward us. To anyone watching on shore, it's a measly 3-footer; to me, it's a mountain.
We've been over this before. I'm supposed to start paddling before the wave reaches me -- in that same way you've got to accelerate as you merge onto the 405 Freeway. Because it's all about the flow.
"OK, paddle!" Melanie says. She gives my board a quick push and lets go.
"Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!"
I feel the wave lift me up and suddenly, it feels as if I'm going a whole lot faster.
"Pop up!" I hear Melanie shriek from behind me.
I crawl to my feet unsteadily, moving one knee at a time. It's slow motion compared to the quick and stealthy pop-up we had practiced, over and over, in the sand earlier, but I'm getting there.
And, just like that, I'm standing. I'm surfing.
For a second. (Or maybe less than that.)
Then, in one forward swooping motion, I face-flop into the churning froth of whitewater. My surfboard, tethered to my ankle for such a wipeout, flies into the air as my body whirls in the water like a shampoo cap stuck in a shower drain.
And all the while, I hear Melanie: She's woo-hoo-ing like a USC fan on New Year's Day.
Because so what if it was just a few seconds? I had done it; I had surfed.
And that's why I'm here.
* * *
Surf Diva was founded in 1996 by twin sisters Isabelle "Izzy" Tihanyi and Caroline "Coco" Tihanyi, who started the company simply as a way of recruiting more surf partners.
"Initially, Izzy just wanted more girlfriends to surf with," said Coco Tihanyi, who handles the marketing side of the business while her sister does more of the hands-on teaching. "We were both thinking of what makes us happy in life. ... Now, 11 years later, we're the world's biggest surf school."
Something's working. With more than 50 surf instructors, Surf Diva has taught thousands of women how to surf and offers year-round programs for kids and adults in La Jolla, while also operating an Australian surf academy, a women's surf school in Costa Rica and a clothing store (because if you can't be a surfer, you can always dress like one).
In 2005, the sisters published "Surf Diva: A Girl's Guide to Getting Good Waves" (Harcourt; $14), a how-to guide that maps out everything from selecting the perfect surfboard to recovering from a wipeout.
"It's a sport that takes years and years to master. At least we demystify it," Coco said. "Surfing can be a very intimidating sport because it has predominantly been a guy's sport."
But that's changing. Girls have come a long way since Sandra Dee brought a surfing "Gidget" into popular culture and the Beach Boys immortalized the "Surfer Girl" in their 1963 hit song.
According to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, the number of girls and women surfing regularly has increased 280 percent over the past decade, with about a quarter of the estimated 1.6 million surfers today being women.
The proof is on the shelves. Surfboards are getting longer, softer and lighter, making them easier to ride and to carry.
And, of course, there's that breezy surfer style that has kept Ugg boots and Roxy surfwear in style even in parts of America where the ocean is miles away.
"When people meet surfers they have this certain mystique about them, a certain coolness," Coco Tihanyi said. "How do they get that? Do they have some secret? I think the secret is just being in the water."
As for the whole "Diva" thing, Coco said the all-girls atmosphere of the surf classes (though there are a few guys-only and co-ed options) can make learning to surf "a lot less stressful."
"You don't worry about how you look in your wetsuit or your bikini," she said. "As women, we don't want to look stupid when we're doing something. We want to be told how to walk the walk and talk the talk, and sometimes it makes it more intimidating if a guy is there."
Surf Diva classes attract all types. My 15-woman class included a biologist, a veterinary student and an occupational therapist. They were women in their 30s and 40s, mostly -- with a common goal.
"We may come from all over the U.S. and different parts of the world," Coco said. "We may be stay-at-home moms or lawyers or writers, but we all have this passion that we've always wanted to surf."
La Jolla Shores is the perfect training ground. With its sandy bottom and year-round 3-foot swell -- the waves here are usually the gentlest of all the San Diego beaches -- it's a place even a surf newbie is likely to catch a few waves.
Weekend clinics are two hours a day for two days. (It's not much on the clock, but trust me, the body feels it.) Classes begin with an in-the-sand instruction on everything from proper surfing etiquette (wait your turn) to how to get out of a rip current (paddle parallel to the shore).
Much time is spent on land learning how to do a proper "pop-up." Then, it's out to the water.
"If people ask us, 'Will you guarantee I'll stand up?' We'll say, 'Nope,' " Coco Tihanyi said (though everyone in my 15-woman group did, if only for a second). "But we'll guarantee you'll have fun."
IF YOU GO:
DETAILS: Surf Diva's two-day surf clinic runs every Saturday and Sunday (winter hours: 10 a.m. to noon; spring/summer hours: 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.).
WHERE: Classes meet at Surf Diva boutique (lessons are held on the nearby beach), 2160 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla.
COST: $148.50 per student.
INFORMATION: www.surfdiva.com; (858) 454-8273.