A camp to get youngsters stoked about surfing
By Lorraine Eaton '85 (M.F.A. '99)
The surf report read pretty good for Virginia Beach that searing June day: One to two feet, semi-clean with a light onshore breeze, all under a drift of cotton ball clouds.
But one of the East Coast's best-known surfers wasn't in the water. Jason Borte '95 (M.S.Ed. '97) stood in the sand in a sea of blue, pink and lime green surfboards.
"How many of you have surfed before?" he asked the 30 or so wannabes fanned out in front of him.
A couple of boys in the back tentatively raised their hands, one admitting, yeah, but it was, like, only on the fake waves at Great Wolf Lodge.
No matter. This was the first day of Borte's Stoke-a-Thon, where disadvantaged kids got a week of free surf lessons.
It's just one of the ways Borte combines altruism with his evangelical love of surfing. The East Coast Pro Champion and Surfing Hall of Fame inductee has taught wounded veterans, children with autism and people with disabilities. His summer camps attract hundreds of other kids and adults.
But Borte, 51, considers teaching underprivileged kids his most important work.
The Stoke-a-Thon mission: to open the eyes of dozens to the playground in their backyard, to have them experience the exhilarating push of a wave, the sense of accomplishment that comes with standing on water and gliding to shore. Ultimately, to get them hooked on a sport that costs almost nothing - just a $2 hunk of surfboard wax - after snagging a board.
At 12, Borte wanted to imitate his older brother, Derrick '91, a surfer who's now a filmmaker. He soon found he had a natural knack for the sport. Borte became known for his explosive roundhouse, a sort of crazy-8 on the face of a wave.
He skipped classes at First Colonial High School to surf Hatteras and started winning local events.
By 1988, Borte was considered "pro," but his total winnings were $36. A year later, he scored a sponsorship with the Ocean Pacific clothing brand. He could hardly believe his luck. He was getting paid to surf, and at the world's hottest surf spots - Indonesia, Cuba, Fiji, Hawaii, South Africa.
In between, he got married, had three kids and received degrees in English and social studies from ODU. Borte taught middle school for a year, then turned to writing for surf magazines. He became one of the most respected international surf journalists in his field.
And he kept surfing.
Borte was so good he won the prestigious East Coast pro title in 1997, at age 27. He also founded The Surf School, now known as the Billabong Surf Camp, in partnership with 17th Street Surf Shop.
In 2003, his first book, a biography of surfing legend Kelly Slater, "Pipe Dreams: A Surfer's Journey," made The New York Times bestseller list. In 2010, he published "The Kook's Guide to Surfing - The Ultimate Instruction Manual: How to Ride Waves with Skill, Style, and Etiquette." (Every Stoke-a-Thoner got a copy.)
A year later, he surprised the surfing world when he gave up the sport for a year of "surfbriety," chronicled in a snarky, witty, introspective blog titled "How Surfing Ruined My Life."
It was tough seeing other surfers at the jetty. But "I learned a lot about myself and surfing."
These days Borte is teaching technology at Salem High School and spending summers doing what he loves best: teaching kids to surf. And, of course, surfing himself.
By the final day in June, the Stoke-a-Thoners had experienced all sorts of waves.
"Clean, choppy, big, small. A lot of them are pretty self-sufficient at this point," Borte said, surveying the action.
The Friday surf report again read better than average for Virginia Beach - waves two to three feet, a little bumpy, but fun.
Some kids rode to shore lying belly-down on their boards. Others made it to their knees. Some were bona fide surfing.
Brayan Herrera, 13, riding a lime green board, maneuvered all the way to shore, finishing triumphantly with arms spread wide and a big, big grin. He hurried over to his family and, after a flurry of Spanish, paddled right back out to catch another wave, totally stoked.