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It’s the year of the Grom

By Linda Van Zandt

La Jolla Light

Youth-oriented surfing has deep roots in the Jewel, dating back to the early history of the WindanSea Surf Club, founded in 1962 by Chuck Hasley. Back then, the surf club was a group of older teenagers and twenty-to-thirty somethings that wanted to form “the greatest surfing club ever” to compete in a longboard competition in Malibu, Calif.

Three months later, the surf club’s then-executive director, Thor Svenson, decided to develop a Juniors program for kids under age 17.

The youngest members recruited were Hank Warner and Ricky Ryan, both 13 at the time.

The menehune program began in 1965 when Thor directed his club to put on a contest for kids aged 12 and under. His motivation was three-fold: generate revenue for the cash-strapped club; put the juniors to work building skills he knew would serve them later in life; and finally, to create a source for new talent that would be the future of the club if its competitive edge was to survive. The event’s inaugural winner was an 11-year-old La Jolla phenom by the name of Margo Godfrey.

As the only female competitor, Margo surfed against the boys. She solidified her reputation as a serious competitor the following year by successfully defending her title, once again against an all-male roster of competitors. Immediately handed an application, Margo was invited into the club and eventually went on to become a world champion in professional surfing.

By 1968, the menehune contest was attracting worldwide attention with contestants coming from as far away as Florida, Hawaii and the Gulf Coast. That year the event was won by Kyle Bakken, also of La Jolla, and in keeping with the tradition of recognizing amazing, local surfing talent, Kyle was invited to join the club. At first resisting, feeling he was more into the solitary side of surfing versus the competitive team aspect, Kyle was finally sold on the club when he learned of their surfing program with the Junior Foundation for the Blind.

Though his attitude might have branded him a maverick at the time, perhaps Kyle was foreshadowing the direction the sport itself was taking. The attitude in surfing indeed subsequently shifted from the team concept to a more soulful, underground, individual pursuit.

In 1999, the menehune contest was revived big time when Ozstar Dejourday, then-president of WindanSea Surf Club, with the help of vice president Buzzy Dephilippis, brought back the event. Citing the fond memories of the event from older club members involved in the contest as kids, the club’s main motivation was to bring that same “stoke” to a new generation of surfers.

In 2001, the club added a juniors division, currently capping the competitive age to surfers 16 and under. In 2003, committing to the tradition of the “aloha exchange” with the Hawaiians, the club sponsored a team of deserving, lower-income youngsters from the islands to participate in the event.

That event is now host to close to 300 groms from all over the state and Hawaii. The Hawaiian contingent has also revived the tradition of reciprocity by sponsoring a small team of young competitors to participate in their own menehune contest in Makaha. These kids are hand-selected by the Hawaiian coaches during the annual WindanSea Menehune event held each fall at La Jolla Shores because of their demonstrated sportsmanship, attitude and ability.

This year has brought a historic first for the WindanSea Surf Club: the election of its first female president, Tifani Swink, the daughter of the club’s beloved charter member, the colorful and often controversial Butch Van Artsdalen. Tifani never had the chance to meet her father, tormented as he was by his own demons. So she did the next best thing by forming a quick and lasting bond with the club that was such an important part of her father’s life. “Being a part of the WindanSea surf club has allowed me to touch and know a piece of my father that would have otherwise not been possible,” Swink said.

Swink has proven her value by helping revive a rich part of the club’s history, the Menehune Contest. “Butch was intimately involved with the original Menehune contest,” she said. “Becoming involved was a way to honor my father’s legacy.”

Tifani Swink’s main focus as surf club president is to further develop the “grom” program. She said: “This is something that comes entirely from the heart. It’s time for the club to grow with youth. I find it personally rejuvenating to have all this young energy around me.

“My goal as president, along with my current board of directors, is to continue to foster these young kids, not only to become better surfers, but to become better citizens because of their involvement with the WindanSea Surf Club. This is our future. It’s up to us to give them the proper mentoring they need to continue the important sense of community and community services we provide. Who knows, maybe they’ll even have a chance to come up with their own philanthropic goals for the club.”

Former surf club president Randy Lind, enthusiastic with this new influx of hot rippers, agreed with Swink’s feeling the surf club is best served in the future by focusing on the youth of today. “Do the math,” he said, “no new members equals no future for the club.”

So, what exactly is a grom? To paraphrase Matt Warshaw, author of the

“Encyclopedia of Surfing,” the term grom is broadly defined as any young surfer, usually hyper-enthusiastic and often underfoot. While the grom can expect a fair amount of good-natured hazing from his elders, they are fiercely protected from any harassment from outsiders. And while the word menehune is, in literal terms, a Hawaiian leprechaun, in the surfing world the two terms are synonymous.

Within the WindanSea Surf Club, a menehune is age 13 or younger, while the juniors are 17 and under. There are several ways in which one may be considered for membership in the club as a menehune. The first is a “legacy” applicant, children whose parents are active and involved members. They have the luxury of being on the fast-track for admittance, but the formality of a vote is still required.

In keeping with tradition, those surfers proving their contest mettle and winning their respective division at the WindanSea Menehune/Junior contest will generally be given an application for consideration of membership.

The final way to be considered for menehune membership is basically scouting for talent. And while it may be first and foremost a surfing club, and surfing well is indeed a criterion for both nomination and membership consideration, it doesn’t just end there.

“The club is a great way for these kids to earn their community service points as they enter high school,” said surf club president Tifani Swink. “Before their application can be processed to the point they are presented for a formal vote, they must attend at least four club events within a one-year period.”

Events range from the club’s annual St. Vincent de Paul Day at the Beach, now in its 21st year, or the Special Olympics Beach Day to beach clean-ups and club events like the Menehune/Junior Contest and Butch Van Artsdalen Memorial PaddleBoard Race held in June.

Although WindanSea Surf Club does find potential applicants from all over San Diego, the La Jolla area has proved to be such a hotbed of amazing, young talent that, in the last several years, they haven’t had to look much further than the inside left or right hook of the break itself.

This year’s crop of groms includes an unprecedented number of immensely talented kids under the age of 14, like Lucas Dirkse, Joey Filter, and Hunter Lane, now in his seventh year of surfing. In the membership pipeline are Erik Vanstrum, Gina Andrews, Hunter Johnson and Harley Taich, along with hard-charging 10-year-old Skippy McCullough, who has already racked up an impressive resume of winning contests.

These kids are joining the club’s current menehune roster, which includes legacy members Sara Roper and Matty Taylor. Legacy candidates include cousins Chance and Tiare Thompson. If admitted, Tiare will be the club’s youngest ripper at age 6. Her resume already includes an impressive first place in both girl’s shortboard and longboard in last year’s Menehune event.

Solid citizens, Lucas Dirkse as well as Sara Roper and family member Noah Bloomberg have all been selected at one time to represent WindanSea in the Makaha contest.

In 2006, at age 10, Lucas won both longboard and shortboard divisions in the Menehune contest.

“The club is a good group of surfers, friends and families and I’m stoked to be a part of it,” said Lucas.

His peers would agree, all citing various themes along the lines of friendship, surf stoke and the desire to help out as motivations for membership. The camaraderie runs high among these kids as their membership applications all list one another as their most inspirational, favorite to surf with and most radical.

While none could argue that the WindanSea Surf Club has deep roots in the rich surfing history of La Jolla, when it first began it really had nothing to do with the world-famous break that bears its name. But that surf break was instrumental in a major revival of the club in 1980-81. At that time, Steve Shaw, Debbie Beacham and Hans Newman, along with several surfing friends from WindanSea beach, brought new life back into the club. Centering membership around the break itself, the club became more about camaraderie than competition. New membership was a cautious process.

Since that new revival, each successive surf club president has brought a unique perspective and vision on the direction of the club.

Such is the case with first-ever female president Swink, who would be the first to admit her surfing skills are more about fun in the sun, than tearing the tops off lips.

Nonetheless, with her new back-to-the-future emphasis on youth, Swink’s administration promises the future course the club pursues will be one of talent achieving its full potential, challenges being met and accomplishments being racked up.

For more information on the WindanSea Surf Club, or the Menehune/Junior Contest, visit www.windanseasurfclub.org.