“Hey, do you have a minute?” Dave Cerney asks me.
We get in a modified golf cart, leave the parking lot of East of Maui in Lewes and ride over to Lewes Beach. There he looks out over the Delaware Bay and smiles. When he skims the horizon – as he has done thousands of times – the image he captures is different from what I see.
“Water is the universal feel-good for everybody,” he says. “People are drawn to water everywhere.”
Most aren't quite as philosophical about the sea as Dave, and some are drawn to water more than others. You can put Dave Cerney at the head of the line. He's lived the beach lifestyle to the fullest.
Except for a few years living in Orlando, Fla., Dave has never lived more than five miles from the ocean.
It's a daily ritual. When Dave wakes up, the first thing he does is check the Lewes weather forecast using his iPhone, in particular what the wind and waves are supposed to be. He plans his day on that forecast – to go: a. surfing; b. sailing; c. sail boarding; or d. wind surfing.
“What the waves are and where the wind is, it's how I start every day,” he says.
Dave Cerney is that kind of guy. He lives for the water. Nearly every free moment, he can be found on the Delaware Bay or Atlantic Ocean; every trip he takes involves surfing and other water sports. He has traveled in search of great waves to places around the globe, including Costa Rica and Nicaragua eight times, the Bahamas and Hawaii six times, and even locales in Europe including Spain and France. He's still looking for that perfect wave.
One of the real loves of his life is a lady named Pearl – a 27-foot sailboat. He spends as much time as possible with Pearl competing in Lewes Yacht Club races and going on sailing trips along the East Coast.
Retired less than one week
The recently retired Sussex Consortium teacher says he remained out of work for less than a week. He's now manager of the Lewes East of Maui surf shop, doing a job that fits him perfectly. It also allows him the winter season off, which he plans to spend on ihe island of Maui in Hawaii.
“If everyone could grow up on Maui, we would all be different. The power of the ocean there is almost unimaginable. It's so dynamic and different. The Pacific Ocean is so magnificent,” he says.
In one of those full-circle stories, he's staying with a former employee he hired to work at his beach stand at Cape Henlopen State Park. Dave helped him during a rough spot, and now he's getting repaid in a pay-it-forward deal. The trip has been a plan of his for a long time.
Until he started teaching full time, Cerney's jobs were always near the water. He and life-long friend Rob Perciful not only operated the No Problem summer beach rental stand for 16 years, they also worked together as lifeguards near Indian River Inlet for six years.
“That was the best job ever because we were always busy,” he said. “We were saving lives every day.”
The beach was notorious for its riptides. Cerney says it wasn't unusual to pull as many as 500 people out of the surf during a summer. He was a lifeguard in the late 1970s and he operated the beach stand from the late 1970s into the early 1990s
Returning to work at Sussex Consortium
Dave wasn't interested in school that much, yet he ended up teaching for most of his life. And true to his character, he didn't take the traditional approach to his life's profession. He graduated from Cape Henlopen High School in 1972 and went on to graduate from Salisbury State University. “All I really knew is that I wanted to travel and surf,” he says.
Dave said he had a deal with his parents that as long as he stayed in school he could pursue his almost nomadic lifestyle of searching out waves and sun. After graduation, he traveled back and forth to winter in Florida, finding his his way back to Lewes in the summer.
After working with a group of handicapped Boy Scouts in Florida, he discovered he liked what he was doing. He worked as a substitute teacher for a few years in Florida before returning permanently to Lewes at the age of 30, possibly to settle down a little. He was married and now has a daughter, Amy, and two grandchildren.
He ended up working with emotionally disturbed middle school children for the next 28 years at Sussex Consortium. “It has been great training for life; I'm happy I did it,” he said.
Sussex Consortium, part of the Cape Henlopen School District, is a school for special needs children ages 3 to 21. The Delaware Autism Program is one of the school's offerings.
He's concerned about a trend pushed by federal and state education officials to increase concentration on academics testing. “There are some unrealistic expectations,” he said, adding more and more time is being spent on record keeping and report writing.
He said the school has a phenomenal record of training students for jobs. “I have students working all over the place,” he said. Cerney introduced some of his students to organic gardening as they grew their own vegetables to sell at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market.
To Cerney, testing has its place, but looking back on what you've accomplished at the end of your life is much more important. “That one-on-one touch with a child - that contact - is what is most important,” he said.
Surfing has changed dramatically
Dave was born in Lewes when it wasn't considered a top tourist and retiree destination. To him and his friends, it was a great small town to grow up in within a few minutes of the bay and ocean. He says his love of all things nautical comes from his father, who worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was a licensed boat pilot for 50 years.
Dave was around when the Fort Miles area became Cape Henlopen State Park, where he learned to skimboard and surf. He's been surfing since the ninth grade and bought the first of many surfboards for $25 in his sophomore year.
He said back in the 1970s and into the 1980s, there were 19 surf breaks - great areas to surf - from Fenwick Island to Lewes. Much to his regret - and to many others' - one surf break remains today, he says, at Herring Point in Cape Henlopen State Park. Surfers still refer to the spot as the naval jetty.
Cerney holds nothing back when he puts the blame for the loss of surf breaks at the feet of state and federal officials who continuously replenish beaches along the Delaware coast. He says beaches are now sculpted so waves break onshore and not offshore where surfers could catch them.
“It's hard to find good waves because of replenishment. We need to look for creative ways to work with Mother Nature to preserve the beach and our natural environment,” he said.
He's made it his mission to quietly work behind the scenes to find a solution to the problem. Dave says other areas in the world have created artificial reefs not far offshore to allow waves to break off the beach. He said in Australia, they fill huge bags with cement to make artificial reefs. “It seems like a no-brainer to do that here, and we have plenty of beach to experiment with to see if it works,” he said.
Cerney says surfing is more popular than ever. The overflowing Herring Point parking lot most weekends is testament to that statement. “Surfing is in an all-time groovy phase right now,” he says.
That's a good and bad thing. Surfing as a young man, Dave says, seven surfers in one location was considered a crowd. Today, it's when the number reaches more than 50 surfers that it's considered a crowd - all because there are so few good surfing locations.
Dave's also on another mission – one to help his friend Suzanne Thurman, who runs the Lewes-based Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute. “I'm really concerned about the number of dolphin strandings,” he said. “There are 71 so far this year; it's an epidemic. I would like to drum up support for MERR, because they need as much help as people can give them.”
For more information about MERR, go to merrinstitute.org or phone 302-644-2678.
When most of us are huddled up inside trying to escape the cold, Dave Cerney will be catching waves in the beautiful, aqua-colored water off Maui. It seems a just reward to someone who devoted a good portion of his life trying to find a place in the world for children who face overwhelming odds.