VIRGINIA AVENUE PARK For Robbie French, the summer of 2008 and those in years past were as different as night and day.
“The previous summers were total chaos,” French, who owns Perfect Day Surf Camp, said in regards to the overcrowded beaches of yore. “There were pirated camps everywhere … and people would take customers from each other.”
French was among the surf camp owners and private instructors who gathered at Virginia Avenue Park on Tuesday to rate their experiences under a new permitting system that City Hall instituted this past summer.
City Hall was one of a handful of municipalities in the state that didn’t regulate surfing instruction, leading to an unmanageable number of operations at the beach. Camps and private instruction were previously free to operate without a city-issued permit as long as they had less than 20 students.
The policy resulted in a number of problems, including occasional conflicts between recreational surfers and teachers, and created challenges for lifeguards trying to manage the safety of everyone in the water. The issue led city staff to draft an ordinance, putting together a new permit system that went into effect this year.
The result was a less crowded beach, according to the instructors and camp owners who landed a permit.
“It was a big difference because it weeded out the camps that shouldn’t be teaching,” French said, whose camp is located north of the Santa Monica Pier.
The Open Space Management Division held the meeting to gather input from surf instructors about ways in which the system was successful and could be improved, possibly incorporating some of the suggestions into the program. The schools are in the process of submitting applications to receive permits for the next summer, which are due in November. The recipients will be announced in December, according to Callie Hurd, the open space manager.
The response was, for the most part, positive.
“It was an improvement overall from the previous seasons,” Matt Rosas, a private instructor, said. “There weren’t 25 people in the water going willy nilly.”
Rosas said he would like to see the instructor to student ratio increased to one-to-four. Another surf instructor said he believes the ratio should be closer, about one instructor to three students. Currently the ration is one-to-two.
The instructors said they would also like to extend the life of the permit from one year to at least three, noting the expenses in advertising and other investments they put into their venture, only to be unsure of whether they would receive a license again for the following year.
“We put a lot of dollars into marketing the camp and we don’t benefit from it until a year later,” French said. “We’re promoting the location for whoever has it next year.”
Some instructors also had concerns with the number of camps clustered around lifeguard stations 26, 27 and 28 in Ocean Park, arguing that it could pose a safety issue.
City staff worked with county lifeguards to determine where different types of instruction and activity should be located, including which areas could better accommodate group or private lessons.
Any changes would be done after consulting with the lifeguards, Hurd said.
City Hall received more than 10 applications last year, turning away approximately four. The applicants were required to have CPR certified staff and a minimum of five years owning and operating a business of a similar size and scope.
Businesses that would teach children were required to have at least one certified lifeguard in the group.
The application and permit cost $150 and schools were required to pay 15 percent of gross receipts back to City Hall.
Four surf camps received permits — two a piece operating on the north and south sides of the pier. A provider was also selected to run private and semi-private instruction near the pier, accommodating all the beachfront hotels but keeping the lessons open to the general public. Three sole proprietors who offer lessons to one or two students also received permits.
Some of surf instructors reported seeing unlicensed individuals teaching on the beach. Hurd urged the instructors to report any suspicious activity to City Hall.
Jack Tingley, who runs Wave Crashers Sand and Beach Camp, was pleased with the outcome. The program, which offers water activities such as body surfing and boogie boarding to children between the ages of 5-14, operated alongside several licensed surf camps, some of which receive Wave Crashers’ graduates.
“It did what it was supposed to do,” Tingley said. “It organized a disorganized situation and made things safer for the public.”