Live to Surf, Surf to Live
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen them scampering across the grass at Kellogg Park or waiting to cross La Jolla Boulevard with their boards under their arms, but there are many young people in La Jolla who live to surf.
“It’s really special,” said longtime La Jolla surfboard shaper Tim Bessell. “There’s a group of these kids who are just into it. The young guys, they’re out there every day. If they’re not surfing, they’re skating.”
Bessell has been around the La Jolla surf scene long enough to see a ton of rippers come and go, and he believes there is a new generation of young surfers with the talent and commitment to make real waves in the surfing world.
Near the top of the list of youngsters with skills beyond their years is John Paul Engh. Engh, 13, is a seventh-grader at The Bishop’s School and is practically a fixture in the lineup at La Jolla Shores. Engh may be young, but people with knowledge about surfing look at him and see a classic style born in California decades ago.
“JP has got a classic noseriding style,” Bessell said.
While Engh rides all different kinds of surfboards, his father Paul Engh said his son usually can be found on a longboard, surfing with a style reminiscent of one of the most successful surfers ever to come out of La Jolla, Joel Tudor.
“He is definitely more of a style surfer,” Paul Engh said. “In shortboarding, the philosophy is to try and rip the wave apart. Longboarding - old-school longboarding - is more like a ballet. It’s more graceful.”
John Paul grew up watching the 1960s longboard movies. He grew up watching Tudor. Because of that, he leans more toward the graceful aspect of surfing than the performance side.
If the old videos planted the seeds of classic noseriding in John Paul Engh, then the seeds were planted deep. He said the urge to move up to the front of the board and let his 10 toes dangle over the edge comes from within.
“It comes naturally,” he said. “You just get up there, then there’s nothing in front of you. You’re just on the wave, really. You kind of forget you’re on a board. It’s sort of like you’re flying.”
Engh’s introduction to the sport didn’t happen naturally. He said he rejected the sport when his dad first taught him how to surf when he was about 5, only to fall in love with it when his friends began surfing a few years later.
Engh is a Shores resident and spends most of his water time there. But he has been venturing more to the reef at WindanSea, a natural progression for up-and-coming surfers, Paul Engh said.
Last October, Engh won the WindanSea Surf Club Menehune Surf Contest, defeating some 60 other participants in his age group. It was an early competitive success for a young surfer, who for now surfs mostly for the fun of it.
Engh said he competes in about three or four contests per year.
“I don’t do as many of the ones where you get ranked. I do more of the festival contests,” he said. “It’s fun when you win. I just like being around the contests because all your friends are there.”
In the upcoming year, Engh plans to compete at the La Jolla Shores Surfing Association contest, at Rob Machado’s Surf Classic in Cardiff, at the WindanSea Menehune and at a contest at Haleiwa Beach in Hawaii. Engh regularly travels to Oahu with his dad, where they surf waves ideally suited for perfecting John Paul’s craft.
“That’s the beauty of the South Shore (of Oahu),” Paul Engh said. “The breaks we surf there have really long waves. John Paul logged almost a mile on the nose of his board one day.”
The Enghs have not decided yet whether that training will ever translate into a serious competitive schedule. But they do know that John Paul is in this surfing thing for the long haul.
“He’s super stoked,” Paul Engh said. “He wants to surf every minute he can, and surfing is something you can stick with for many decades. Four years ago, the guy who caught the best wave at the Longboard Luau was Rabbit (Kekai), and he’s 82 years old.”
For the seventh-grader, making a career out of surfing is far from his mind.
“I just like riding waves, being in the water, the rush when you catch a wave, especially a bigger one,” Engh said.
The biggest wave Engh has caught yet was about double-overhead at Makaha, a famous surf spot on Oahu’s west side. That wave may soon be eclisped if Engh gets a chance to visit all the locations on his wish list of surf