Illustration by Robert Ullman
There is little chance that six-foot swells would ever break in the Dell pond, but members of the Surf Club of U.Va. would be the first to catch the waves if they do. The University’s distance from a large body of water and the dearth of surf culture have not proved a deterrent for student surfers: Since 2003, the club, which has about 20 members, has offered surfers and nonsurfers alike the opportunity to “come together around the sport of surfing,” according to the group’s constitution.
Surf Club president Chris Winstead-Derlaga (Col ’09), a native of Norfolk, dates his interest in surfing to preschool. “I always said I wanted to be a professional surfer when I grew up,” Winstead-Derlaga says. His parents—neither of whom embraced the beach culture themselves—“just sort of went with it.” After years of surf camps, meeting new friends out past the lineup and hanging on the beach, Winstead-Derlaga found that life in first-year dorms left him longing for the wind and the waves of home.
He immediately found kindred spirits in the members of the Surf Club. “With surfing, it’s hard to explain, but you just get it,” he says. “Even when we’re hanging out and watching a movie, we still have the surfing connection.”
First-year student Natalie Otsuka (Col ’12) also found an instant fit when she stumbled on the club at the fall student activities fair. “I’m from Northern Virginia but my dad’s from California, and he definitely brought the surf mentality with him to the East Coast.”
The action isn’t just on the waves. Club members gather every few weeks to share surf culture—watching surf movies, checking out conditions online and planning trips. Winstead-Derlaga says, “Some of our most enthusiastic members still haven’t been surfing. It’s as much about culture as anything.”
Club members have to travel together to get their feet wet. Winstead-Derlaga says the trips he has taken with the Surf Club are some of his most memorable experiences at the University. One excursion to Hatteras, N.C., in the fall of 2005 found members battling hurricane-force conditions with only four experienced surfers trying to teach the whole group how to catch a wave.
“Hardly anyone could even paddle out,” Winstead-Derlaga says, “and if you did manage to get up, the wind would blow you about a mile down the beach.” Before long, members were scattered as the wind buffeted them across the water and into the shore. “It was freezing, but it was awesome,” Winstead-Derlaga says.
On a trip the following fall to Ocean City, Md., club members participated in an intercollegiate surf competition, also with less-than-ideal conditions. “We had camped out all night on Chincoteague in the pouring rain, and we had to be out on the beach at 7 a.m. The waves were inches high—basically if you caught a wave, you won the competition.”
“We were the last heat—when the waves were smallest—and it was funny watching people try to surf. The guy who won caught two waves.” Winstead-Derlaga says that despite the conditions, the seven hours the club spent on the road were “totally worth it, especially to spend time in the water.”
Perhaps the most unusual trip the Surf Club has taken in recent years was an outing last fall to Massanutten Resort to catch a different kind of wave. Club members rented the “FlowRider Pipeline,” a stationary wave-making machine, for several hours to give both experienced and inexperienced surfers a new challenge. Winstead-Derlaga says the Pipeline shot water forward in a continuous stream so surfers could experience the feel of catching a wave. “The weirdest thing was that you start standing up,” Winstead-Derlaga says. “Normally you’re paddling out and then you stand up once you’ve caught the wave.” Students in central Virginia may need to be creative when it comes to catching a wave, but nonetheless surfing is catching on.