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Surfing with caution

Daughter's near tragedy leads to mother's crusade

By Bill Becher, Special to the Daily News

VENTURA -- It wasn't the sort of day when a 13-year-old girl would worry about dying. It was a warm and sunny January morning at the beach, the kind of weather that causes people from Minnesota to move to Southern California.

Marissa Hood was riding the small waves at Surfers Point, combining fun with a school science project to study how the contours of the ocean floor affect wave shape and size. She doesn't remember much after she was struck in the head by another surfer's board.

Other surfers saw Hood floating face down in the water, unconscious.
They brought her to shore on a surfboard where a passing nurse made sure she was breathing. She was taken to the emergency room.

"I arrived at the emergency room after receiving frantic phone messages on my cell phone from her dad," said her mother, Maggie Hood. "I found my daughter lying unconscious on a gurney."

Marissa was wearing a neck brace, was hooked up to several IVs and was being treated with an air bag that pumped warm air to raise her body temperature, which had dropped to 90 degrees.

"I didn't know if she would ever walk or talk again," Maggie Hood said.

Marissa had a concussion, but has since recovered after months of dizzy spells and bouts of vomiting.

When she resumed surfing, her mother made her wear a helmet at first, but she didn't stop there.

A petite, intense woman, Maggie Hood decided she would use her daughter's near-tragedy to fuel a movement to make surfing safer. Maggie Hood founded the Surf Safety Alliance to educate new surfers and encourage experienced surfers to be more sharing on the water. With help from local contributors Hood has printed more than 5,000 pamphlets to help teach surf etiquette.

Surf etiquette isn't Emily Post stuff -- it's the mostly unwritten rules of the road on the waves that help keep things orderly and safe.

Maggie Hood also worried that new surfers jump into the water without enough knowledge of the sport's dangers.

"No one would rent skis or a snowboard and start off on the top of the mountain on a black diamond expert run," she said. "But they do that on surfboards."

Her pamphlet rates the difficulty of a dozen Ventura coast surf spots from beginner breaks to expert areas with strong rip tides where waves can reach 12 feet. Hood also is trying to get experienced surfers to be more sharing and accepting of beginning surfers.

"After surfing for 20 or 30 years people forget what it's like to be out there as a beginner on their first wave, falling off and getting pounded," Maggie Hood said.

Rather than look at beginners as intruders to abuse and threaten, she hopes to encourage more of an "Aloha Spirit" of generosity and sharing in surfing.

She is distributing her pamphlet to Ventura County schools and surf shops and has arranged for public service announcements on local radio. She hopes to encourage other communities to start Surf Safety Alliance chapters. Hood also is supporting efforts to erect signs displaying surf etiquette rules at several surf spots.

Providing information to beginners is one thing, but changing behavior is another. Some surfers are skeptical about calming a sport that's been marred by violent acts of "localism" and aggressive, testosterone amped "surf rage" as an ever-increasing number of surfers seek out the same waves.

"It's like dealing with traffic on the 405 on a Friday night at five o'clock," said Matt Meyerson, a co-founder of the Groundswell Society, a group that is trying to promote more harmony on the waves.

"People get frustrated and angry. Everyone wants their wave but they don't want to share. It is a very difficult task because you've got to change people's psyche."

Janel Ellis, a former professional surfer and two-time national champion, is now a surf coach who thinks the Surf Safety Alliance is an idea whose time has come.

"Maggie put on paper the surf etiquette that's known by advanced surfers," Ellis said. "Through her efforts it's getting out to the beginning and intermediate surfers."

Marissa Hood is back in the water with her board practicing for surf competitions. She's happy about her mom's new activism.
"It's really cool what she's doing," Marissa said. "She's making it safer and making sure there's a good vibe in the water."

SURF ETIQUETTE
No surfer has the right of way in a collision situation. Never endanger other surfers in the water. Never let go of the board, it becomes a hazard to everyone else. When paddling out go around the break, not through it. Stay clear of other surfers on the wave. The surfer closest to the breaking wave owns it. Two surfers can share the same wave if they go in opposite directions from the peak. Communicate your direction. Never snake, don't cut in front of another surfer and try to take their wave. Don't try to ride the big waves until you're ready. Take your place in the lineup according to your experience and ability.

NOTE: To receive a copy of the Share the Stoke guide, e-mail surfsafetyalliance@yahoo.com