Campsurf Celebrates Two Decades of Putting Kids on Boards in the South Bay

The next wave.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Amber Klinck
  • Photographed by
    Jeff Berting

It’s not new for kids growing up in the South Bay to want to learn how to surf. Their experience while learning, however, has evolved tremendously over the years. Today there is an abundance of resources available to the South Bay’s young athletes.

For the novice, there are clinics and camps with thoughtful instruction, comradery and encouragement. For the more experienced athlete looking to hone their skills, there are private lessons and coaches who will analyze and redirect their every move to maximize performance. But it wasn’t always like that.

“Kids these days have no idea how good they have it,” says Campsurf’s owner and executive director, Chris Brown. “The instruction and people helping you, little kids getting pushed in by their parents or surf coaches—we didn’t have any of that.”

In the past surf lessons weren’t readily available, and surfboards weren’t made with beginners in mind. “In the mid-to-late ‘70s, there were no surf schools. There was no such thing as a soft surfboard,” Chris says. “If you wanted to surf, you just got a hard surfboard and went out and floundered on your own until you were able to ride waves.”

Chris was 8 years old the first time he got on a surfboard. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I kind of got to my knees, maybe on one foot, and I was hooked.”

But Chris, a Hermosa Beach local, had been a water baby long before that moment. “My parents were beach people,” he notes. “I used to bodysurf on [my dad’s] back. I would hold on to his neck, and he would catch waves. I remember thinking they were huge waves, but they were probably tiny. I was so young.”

Boogie boarding was next in the natural progression of water sports for Chris. “When we were 5, 6, 7—that age range—we were in the water all the time. I even remember there was a year or two when we had the old inflatable surf mats. They were like a canvas material. You held on to them, and you caught a wave.”

By age 9, Chris owned his first surfboard. “I had to get up the courage to ask my parents. My birthday was coming up, and Becker Surfboards had just opened its location.”

Chris spent his early summers surfing. But when the weather turned, he and his friends were focused on other things. “I was really only surfing when the water was warm. Once school started, we’d surf a little bit. But once it got cold, we were out playing soccer, basketball, baseball—the youth sports.”

That would all change as the quality of wetsuits improved. “In junior high the wetsuits started to get better, and that was really exciting. Even though—looking back on them now—they were shitty, we thought they were great at the time, and that enabled us to surf year-round. I just immediately fell in love with it.”

Surfing became a way of life for Chris, as it did for many of the friends he surrounded himself with. “Growing up, one of my best childhood friends was Jimmy Miller,” Chris shares. Jimmy’s love of surfing inspired him to share his passion with others, as well as travel the world.

In 1998 Jimmy created the Pure Surfing Experience—a surf company that offered instruction to all ages, organized local contests, and led single-day and weeklong surf camps through Campsurf. Campsurf offered aspiring surfers something new with safe, organized instruction from experienced surfers.

“Jimmy set it up for success,” Chris says. “He got the best location—he was very forward-thinking—and he had done so much to build it. But at the same time, he was living a lifestyle where he was only here a few months out of the year. He’d come home and work really hard during the summer, make money running private lessons—he had a bunch of big corporate clients. Then he’d take that, travel, surf the rest of the year and come back.”

Like Jimmy, Chris found a way to merge his passion for surfing with business. “In 2004 I owned a surf shop in Palos Verdes, and that’s when Jimmy got sick. Things got really crazy, really quick.” While recovering from a shoulder injury, Jimmy was also suffering from a period of severe mental illness. Jimmy’s family reached out to Chris and asked if he could help with Campsurf that summer.

“When I first got involved, it was to help out a friend. I thought I was just doing it for a summer till he got back on his feet,” Chris says. “We all just thought he was going to get the right medication or counseling or a mixture of all that. Jimmy was a really exceptional person. We just took it for granted, thinking, ‘He’s going through a rough time right now, but he’ll figure it out. He’s going to the best doctors; he’ll be fine.’ Well, it wasn’t fine. He ended up committing suicide. It was brutal.”

For a period of time after Jimmy’s death, it wasn’t clear whether Campsurf would continue. “After some reflection, I met with Jimmy’s parents a couple of times. They eventually said, ‘Look, we’d really like you to keep running Campsurf if you’re interested in doing it.’”

So that’s what Chris did, with the help of Tommy Ostendorf and Mark Gerold. Slowly but surely, Campsurf began to grow. “It was teed up for success,” Chris emphasizes. “I saw how much bigger it could get if we ran it year-round. Fast-forward 20 years, and that’s what we’ve done. But it was slow, step by step—it wasn’t just some explosion.”

The first off-season in 2004 was a grind. With Tommy and Mark away at college, Chris spent his days at the beach teaching lessons on his own. There would be days in the winter where he’d be in and out of the water all day.

“Wetsuits aren’t meant to work when you’re out of the water, so you’re wet and you’re on the beach in January and freezing, waiting for the next client.” There was also a lot of uncertainty. “I wasn’t able to pay myself for a period of time,” Chris notes. “But I stuck with it because I saw the potential of what it could be and what it’s become now.”

In the summer of 2005, Campsurf started offering summer camp sessions. “Now it seems like everybody does it, but back then there weren’t many,” he shares. The program started off small, but word spreads quickly in the Beach Cities and Campsurf had a stellar reputation. “We really take pride in doing a good job. You get to a certain point where all the moms start talking to each other. That’s been the secret of our success.”

Today, with more than 40 employees, Campsurf continues to offer year-round private lessons to surfers from across the globe. Summers are busiest, with surf programs for ages 7 and up, beach volleyball and now a camp offering an introduction to ocean safety for kids ages 4 to 6.

Operating in unity with Campsurf is the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization offering ocean therapy to veterans and at-risk youth. “We’re two arms of the same body,” Chris says. “We share equipment, we share a van and we look for a lot of opportunities to partner.”

Over the years, Campsurf’s reputation has earned the attention of a number of sponsors including Billabong, Body Glove and O’Neill. But even with the business’s success, the simple purity of sharing your passion with others remains Chris’ and his team’s main motivation.

“It’s one of the reasons why we love what we do,” Chris points out. “We’re sharing that feeling of euphoria. It never gets old. You see that excitement, that stoke on people’s faces the first time they stand up on a surfboard. It’s an indescribable feeling. To be close to that and to be able to facilitate that is really cool.”

That kind of enthusiasm is intoxicating for both the teacher and the student. “Our twins, Nathan and Ryann, were about 7 or 8 when they first began attending Campsurf,” says Debbie Goldberg. “We first heard about Campsurf through our philanthropic support of the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation.”

Nathan’s interest in surfing became apparent when he began standing on his boogie board. Nathan and Ryann enrolled in a few weekly summer camp sessions over the next four to five years. And while Ryann still enjoys surfing recreationally, Nathan’s interest has grown into something more.

“Nate is the embodiment of a true surfer,” Debbie says. “His passion is the ocean. His main source of happiness and exercise is the water and being on his board.”

Nathan is now a member of the surf team at Rolling Hills Prep, and both Ryann and Nathan continue to donate their time to the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation. “Last summer they each volunteered for over 30 hours on behalf of the JMMF. They worked with kids and veterans—helping them get up on boards, learning to surf, cheering them on and fetching wayward boards in the surf,” Debbie adds.

Campsurf’s team, reach and impact have grown considerably over the years, but its origin has never been forgotten. “We need to recognize Jimmy Miller for his amazing foresight to start Campsurf when there were few surf schools in existence,” Chris notes.

Aiding in Campsurf’s continued success is the support and collaborative hard work of everyone involved. “The Miller family—Jim, Nancy and Jeff—gave their encouragement and support every step of the way,” Chris says. “Tommy Ostendorf and Mark Gerold played critical roles in building Campsurf into what it is today. And Jason Napolitano, who is an amazing human, is the backbone of our current operation.”

Chris adds, “I love it. At the end of the day we’re teaching surfing, and I try to never forget that.”

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