OCEAN CITY — Matt Ellison, clad in a tie-dyed bandanna, large black sunglasses and a white T-shirt, walked through the 7th Street Surf Shop out to the Boardwalk, where a group of children standing in their wetsuits waited for him.
The 47-year-old is a lead instructor at the surf shop and has been teaching kids to catch waves since 1987.
“There have been some big days in my life: high school graduation, my first Grateful Dead concert and the day I learned to surf. This is going to be that big day for you,” he told the kids.
Spraying a mist of sunscreen to protect the colorful tattoos spread across his arms, back and chest, he began chatting with each child, asking what they wanted to be when they grow up. One shy girl stepped back when Ellison approached and admitted she didn’t have an answer.
“That’s fine. Just tell people it’s a surprise whenever they ask you,” Ellison said, smiling.
“Dreams do come true. So let’s dream big,” he said.
Standing behind Ellison on the Boardwalk, Larry Friedel rested a bunch of soft surfboards against the shop. Friedel opened 7th Street Surf Shop in 1986 and has known Ellison since the lead instructor was 19.
“He’s a showman, and he loves people. He coaches football leagues and other stuff with kids in the community,” Friedel said.
Each child grabbed a soft surfboard and balanced it on top of his or her head. Some of the smaller children teetered on wobbly legs.
The ocean can be intimidating for an 8-year-old, but Ellison tries to lighten the mood before bringing his troop down to the beach.
“The most dangerous thing we’ll be doing today is trying to cross this boardwalk,” he said. “Let’s go!”
Ellison, along with four secondary instructors from the shop, 14 kids and their parents, all began to weave through morning bicyclists and power joggers.
Like a trail of ants, the group zigzagged down a ramp toward the sand.
“Forget about what you’ve seen in movies or what you heard from your friend who went to Hawaii once. This is really surfing,” he told the children.
All lessons are given just down the steps at the 7th Street beach. For the first 20 minutes, the group learns the basics while standing on their boards in the sand.
Part of this introduction is to provide safety lessons for the children, including the dangers of diving off your board, how to efficiently paddle and how to stick the landing once they get up on a wave.
“Crouching tiger,” he joked with a couple girls in the front row trying to master a pose on the board.
For the next hour, Ellison and his instructors broke the kids into groups of three and took each child into the water. All three in Ellison’s group — including Page Bates, 10, and her sister Jordan, 8, of Trenton — stood on their boards and rode a wave for a few seconds.
The girls’ father, Tom, said it was his daughters’ first time surfing and praised Ellison for making it a fun and easy learning process.
“It’s fantastic because they were already nervous before the class and (Ellison) lightened it up, and it makes the experience a lot more fun,” Tom Bates said. “I don’t want my kids to be afraid of the water. He’s teaching them the right way.”
Ellison, a self-taught surfer, said he feels truly blessed to help these kids.
“If we don’t teach these kids right, then our sport won’t thrive,” he said. “We’re teaching them safety and etiquette and to trust the ocean.”
When he isn’t teaching kids surfing during the summer, he’s coaching for the NFL Youth Gruden Academy in Ocean City or performing in Somers Point with his reggae band, The Verdict. When the off-season comes, Ellison heads back down to St. Augustine, where he coaches more football and works as a professional musician.
He has traveled to the beaches of Barbados to surf and said he still enjoys coming to Ocean City each summer to meet new students and make new friends.
“It’s a lifetime worth of friendships. People never forget the person that taught them how to surf,” Ellison said.
The shop has group lessons available every day throughout the summer at 8 and 10:30 a.m. as well as private lessons and surf camps. Ellison and his coworkers also teach those with special needs, including the deaf.