Since the beginning of time, there have been very few constants. The sky may not have always been blue, nor grass green, nor roses red. But one truth will always remain: surfing has always, and will always be, cool.
As the legendary Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” so aptly put it, “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.” It seems rather simplistic to label surfing as a sport because it does not properly define all that surfing encompasses. More of an art form, surfing allows each individual to express themselves on a blank canvas. The early Polynesians and Hawaiians viewed surfing as a religious experience, and used surfing ability to indicate social class. The best surfers were treated as kings and had their names passed down for centuries, often remembered as demigods rather than mere mortals. Today, the rich history of surfing has not only taken root in Charleston, but even closer to home, at the College.
Last fall, the College decided to add surfing to its already diverse course list. One of the few colleges on the East Coast that offers a surfing class, the College knew it needed a very talented and experienced instructor to anchor the program. They did not have to look far, as successful business owner and alumnus Kai Dilling willingly answered the call. Growing up on Isle of Palms, Dilling found himself just 100 yards from the beach.
“The beach was pretty much my playground,” Dilling said.
Honing his skills on local beaches, Dilling grew into his own as a surfer, often competing against his friends. “Surfing contests were part of growing up, you wanted to go compete and beat your friends.” Even as he tackled college, Dilling’s life revolved around the beach. He received a Bachelor of Science in Education with an emphasis in middle school sciences. Teaching Earth science for nine years, Dilling was able to convey what he learned on the water to his young students. “Earth science has everything to do with surfing; it’s all about meteorology, geology, oceanography and astronomy.”
Moving on from teaching, Dilling created his current business, Sol Surfers Surf Camp. He started it 16 years ago, and runs camps over the summer on Charleston beaches.
The camps span 12 weeks from May to early August. Besides running camps, Dilling also gives private lessons and designs and shapes surfboards. Now, as a professor at the College, Dilling is able to combine his teaching experience with his love of surfing.
“What’s great about the class, is that usually during the fall, I’m kind of letting go, and surfing a lot, but now it’s nice that I can focus my energy on the College,” Dilling said. In its second year, Dilling hopes that he has turned some of his students onto surfing and encouraged them to cultivate a new hobby. “What I hope I’ve accomplished is that I’ve gotten some people into surfing, taught them the fine points of etiquette and also introduced people to what can become a lifelong enjoyment,” Dilling said.
Besides inspiring students and adults alike, Dilling also has a family with four children. His eldest is a senior at the College of Charleston. His teenage daughter surfs regularly in competitions along the East Coast and is currently sponsored by Billabong. His two younger sons also enjoy getting out on the water and have been surfing since they were about three months old. Juggling family time, a business, teaching and a good deal of surfing, his life can get hectic. “I’m really busy, but it’s cool, I run from one thing to the next, but I still manage to surf quite a bit,” Dilling said.
Though never considering himself as a professional surfer, Dilling has surfed in many championships, from exotic Costa Rica to the East and West coasts. Most recently, Dilling was invited by the Virginia Beach Longboard Federation to participate in a surf contest in Malibu, California. While he usually prefers the shortboard, the small rolling waves of Malibu called for him to cruise on a longboard. “I prefer shortboard, but lately, I’ve been digging long boarding, but I love them both, and on their day, they each have their great aspects,” Dilling said.
Even at his advanced level of surfing, Dilling still sometimes takes the role of a student. Most recently in Malibu, Dilling had the honor of surfing with some of the most prestigious surfers on the planet. “There was probably about 100 of the best longboarders in the nation, teams from Japan, Spain and all the clubs on the West Coast. It was a pretty high honor. I learned a lot, and had a blast” he said.
While surfing alongside some of the best surfers in the world is truly special, the full-circle nature of surfing in Dilling’s life is just as spectacular. “I’ve been training my whole life to do what I’m doing.” Surfing began as a hobby, but has now turned into his livelihood. In Dilling’s case, surfing has been his life. It has never abandoned him, and does not look to in the future.
The Hawaiians seemed to have it right. Surfing is not just an activity, but a far deeper experience. The warm sand, cool water and refreshing breeze of the ocean lures one in, but the sudden euphoria of flying on water is what truly delivers an unmatchable feeling.
Surfing truly is the definition of cool.
*This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Yard.