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Orlando Sentinel

Central Florida Explorer: Catching my first waves with the Surfing Santa

By Patrick Connolly, Orlando Sentinel,

The Orlando Sentinel’s Central Florida Explorer Patrick Connolly snags a wave during surf class with Clifford "Peanut" Kuehner in Cocoa Beach, Monday, August 28, 2023. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

I’ve lived in Florida for more than five years, but it wasn’t until recently that I had my first surfing experience.

As someone who has spent countless hours on a paddleboard and has some experience skateboarding, snowboarding and occasionally wakeboarding, I figured that trying to catch waves would be right up my alley. I thought that perhaps even my boogie-boarding experience might improve my odds.

Luckily, I found a willing teacher with plenty of experience. Clifford “Peanut” Kuehner, commonly known as the Surfing Santa and the mascot of the beachfront Christmas-time event, has spent decades riding waves.

“I think the first time I ever saw a surfboard, I was like six years old,” said Kuehner, now almost 72.

We drove to one of his favorite surfing spots just north of the Cocoa Beach Pier. What seemed like a decently calm day actually turned out to be a little rough once in the water, with 5-to-6-foot waves breaking one after another.

Still, we gave it a shot, and I got some tips as Santa gave the board a coat of wax.

“You have to learn balance. Start by sitting on the board and paddling the board,” Kuehner said. “Don’t worry about standing up when you first catch a wave; just ride it in and feel the movement.”

Once on the board, I knew this was where my boogie boarding experience might come in handy, though paddling a surfboard felt slightly different. I had to be watchful not to get pummeled by the swells, which were heightened as Hurricane Idalia approached the Gulf Coast. But I quickly saw the appeal.

Perhaps similar to fishing, surfing isn’t just about catching waves but enjoying time in the sun and on the water, a tranquil meditation on the ebbs and flows of the ocean.

“There’s peace you get from sitting out in the water relaxing,” Kuehner said.

But when it came time to catch my own waves, I didn’t hesitate to paddle with the breaking surf. While some gave me a sense of how it felt to ride the waves, others dumped over me, sending me under.

I learned the term “pearling,” which is apparently common among first-timers. As the waves crested a bit too steeply for my beginner status, the tip of the board dove nose-first into the sand, sending me for a swim. But once or twice, I did manage to stand up on the board, even if for just a few seconds.

I left a few blemishes on the 7-foot board I was learning on, but that’s just part of the deal, Kuehner said. Rather than trying to conquer tall waves that would be more suitable for advanced surfers, my teacher advised coming back on a calmer day and maybe using a bigger board.

“You did great. You were catching your own waves,” he said, extending the invitation to come back on a different day. “These were too big.”

More information: Contact Clifford “Peanut” Kuehner at 603-986-0236 for lessons.

Find me @PConnPie on Instagram or send me an email: .

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