Business Matters

Operation Surf: The Business of Healing-By-Surfing

By Judy Salamacha

On Oct. 21, 2014, Patagonia and Slow Coast celebrated Van Curaza of San Luis Obispo County and his “Operation Surf” team, as the first recipient of the “Blue Mind Award;” meanwhile, the New York Times Bestselling Book, “Blue Mind” by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols was released.
Dr. Nichols promotes the benefits of water therapy and wrote, “The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected and better at what you do.”
The Blue Mind Award recognizes the success and benefits of ocean-water therapy program for veterans demonstrated by Curaza’s program. In September 2017 the documentary, “ReSurface,” aired on Netflix with testimony from participants how the program saved and re-directed their lives. The film noted that 22 U.S. military veterans attempt suicide every 24-hours. A summary statement confirms, “Surfing is medicine. It defines them with a new story.”
The stated purpose in Operation Surf’s brochure promotes the non-profit organization as “…a globally recognized surf program that changes the lives of wounded military heroes…combines the healing power of the ocean and compassionate mentorship to help our heroes overcome perceived challenges and instill hope.”
Curaza noted that 68% of the 500 active duty heroes and veterans they have served since he started the program in 2008, have sustained a positive change in their lives due to Operation Surf activities.
In Re-Surface, Curaza wrote, “I thought I was taking a group of veterans surfing. It became clear to me what my purpose if life was.”
Each October, Operation Surf’s therapy for veterans takes place in Avila Beach and Morro Bay. The physical therapy is provided by world-class surfing instructors, but the mental therapy and additional positive encouragement to stay engaged in positive living experiences comes from the community volunteers that welcome and encourage the heroes when it might be the first time they have been outside of the hospital.
In 2017, 250 volunteers worked with 15 heroes during the Central Coast program.
However, the story behind the story that defines Van Curaza, was revealed to Morro Bay Rotarians by his friend and fellow-surfer, Tom Hay. First the healing-by-surfing had to happen with Curaza himself.
Hay introduced Curaza to his fellow members to encourage their participation at the Oct. 9-15 training in Avila and Morro Bay. He said, “Van is a professional surfer, travels worldwide, and probably was the youngest surfer with natural talent that ever came out of San Luis Obispo area.”
Hay then stated a life-changing catalyst that prompted his friend to create Amazing Surf Adventures/Operation Surf. “He overcame many challenges in his younger life, including divorce and addiction, but channeled his recovery positively by teaching at-risk kids to surf.”
Curaza said, “All my darkness brought all the light. Normally I avoid [talking about] the addition thing. Friends close to me would ask why I was wasting my potential doing drugs? Well, Dec. 6, 1972 was my sobriety date and I have learned giving back is how you sustain your sobriety. Surfing kept me out of jail and alive.”
Giving back meant creating Amazing Surf Adventures originally for at-risk youth and now serves active duty military and veterans through Operation Surf.
“Sobriety is difficult,” Curaza said, “but awareness and education is the key. Now I share my experiences; how to work my way through the challenges to find what makes me happy. Our personal experiences — what happened to me good, bad, positive or negative — is the best thing we can share.”
Tom Hay, owner of Hay Printing in Morro Bay since 1980, also understands the nurturing nature of surfing.
“I came to Morro Bay to attend Cal Poly to continue my printing education,” he said. “I got lucky, as I was close to the Coast and surf and Cal Poly is considered No. 2 in the United States for a printing major degree. We are a ‘commercial printer,’ which means we handle most items that can be printed on paper.”
Hay continued to explain what surfing was like when he first met and surfed with Curaza. “Surfing has changed since 1972 while I was a Cal Poly student,” Hay said. “Today there are 80 percent more surfers in the Central Coast waters, which are rocky and rough. We have bigger waves and the water is cold.
“From 1968 to 1972 changes broadened the scope of surfing.”
He called it the “short board revolution” that saw the invention of a board more maneuverable for turns. The “long board” was heavy and harder to paddle, ride and transport.
Then the invention of the surf leash added safety and control of the board after losing it in a wave. “I’m proud to be among the first to surf Montaña de Oro.”
Hay is involved in Operation Surf and noted next year’s dates on the Central Coast are Sept. 29 through Oct. 5 for those who want to get involved or know an active duty military or veteran to refer to the programs.
Check out for details for the 1-week or six week programs and see the trailer on YouTube for the Netflix Documentary ReSurface about the benefits of Operation Surf.
Volunteers can also help by golfing or supporting an annual golf tournament scheduled for June 24, 2019.

Freelance writer, columnist and author of “Colonel Baker’s Field: An American Pioneer Story,” Judy Salamacha’s business column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.

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