Nonprofit Warm Current Takes Tribal Kids out to Surf

A young member of the Makah tribe has fun with a Warm Current volunteer surf coach. Photo by Emily Rieman.
written by Michelle Kehm

FOR NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC Association scientist and Warm Current board chairwoman Abigail McCarthy, surfing is more than just a pastime. It’s her touchstone, her teacher—and her mission.

“Surfing is a challenge and in the best way possible,” McCarthy said. “It’s also ridiculously fun and we love to do it, so why not share it?”

Warm Current is a volunteer-run nonprofit that holds yearly surf camps for kids along the Oregon, Washington and California coasts. Over a span of ten years, the organization has worked with more than 2,000 kids and 600 volunteers, teaching basic surfing techniques, environmental stewardship and personal growth. The camps are free and designed to get kids between the ages of 6 and 18 into the water and riding a wave. For many of Washington’s Native-American kids, those waves happen to be right in their own backyard.

“Some of the best surf in Washington is along tribal lands,” McCarthy said. “The kids who live there have a connection with the ocean that goes back millennia, but many of them have never surfed.” This is where Warm Current steps up, bringing in wetsuits, soft-top surfboards and volunteers from all walks of life. They show up ready to teach the kids how much fun they can have just outside their front door.

Warm Current works with the Makah, Hoh, Quinault and Quileute tribes to organize day camps on Washington tribal lands every summer. Well aware that Warm Current volunteers are incredibly lucky to be welcomed to surf some of the best breaks in the state, McCarthy has organized tribal advisory groups, encouraging tribe members and parents to give their input on how the camps are run.

“We definitely put the safety of the kids first,” she said. “Before anyone is allowed into the water, I give detailed safety talks and we have a group beach cleanup.” Each camp always has two trained lifeguards as well. “In La Push, we even have the Coast Guard,” she said. “They call us to see when the camps are, so that they can be a part of it.”

After safety is addressed and the kids are suited in head-to-toe neoprene, vetted volunteers walk the kids into the water, never going more than waist-deep, and help them catch their first wave. Sometimes the kids are more excited to get into the 53-degree Pacific than the volunteers are, jumping in with their parents to play in the waves before the wetsuits are on.

Surfing is as much about overcoming obstacles as it is about fun and, when the day is over, McCarthy hopes this is the one lesson that really sticks. “When I see these kids stand up on their boards for the first time, it’s such a feeling of joy and accomplishment,” she said. “For me, sure. But hopefully for the kids, too. Surfing has something to teach all of us.” 

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