Sunday, March 31, 2013

Make it Look Fun

The rumors are true.  Last week, I competed in my first kayak surf contest.  I have a hard time saying competed because for me surfing isn't about competition.  Most surfers never surf in a competition and many loath the idea.  The Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival is the only competition that Jeff participates in.  He does it for the opportunity to surf the typically overcrowded Steamer's Lane with only 3 others.  His family lives in the area and so it is a special chance for them to see him surf.

My reasons for signing up were basically the same.  We both agreed that I didn't have the experience yet to surf in the Open Division at Steamer's Lane so the Cowell's Classic would be a fun, friendly event for me.  My goal was to catch some nice waves, surf them well, and have fun.

The weekend of the event, the waves at Cowell's were small (2-3 feet) and very slow so I decided to use my Mini Mako Surf Kayak.  The Mini Mako is fast but I was nervous about using it because I haven't surfed it in months and don't have good control of it.  (My Mini Mako doesn't have fins and tends to slide and spin on the wave rather than carve.  I know that I need to edge it harder but haven't mastered edging it and keep sliding).

At the pre-event meeting when the judges explained the event and scoring criteria, one phrase stuck in my mind - "Make it look fun."  My anxiety over the boat and the event evaporated.  The sun was shining and there were waves to be surfed.

There were 15 of us competing in the kayak division of the Cowell's Classic so we were divided into 4 different heats.  Of the 15 competitors, there were probably 15 different makes of kayaks in the event including classic whitewater kayaks, hp surf kayaks, waveskis and sit on top surf kayaks.  It was fun to see a mix of craft as well as a mix of men and women and ages.

In Saturday's heats, the waves were small and slow but spilling.  There were long lulls in the set waves making everyone nervous about not getting waves.  Some of the participants waited for the longer rides of set waves while others surfed the smaller, shorter but more consistent waves on the inside. 

I was in the final kayak heat of the day with 2 others.  When the horn blew for us to surf, it was like someone turned the faucet on.  The lines of waves kept rolling in.  The 3 of us cheered each other on and took turns as we frantically tried to make the most of the waves fearing a long lull.  But less than 10 minutes into our 20 minute heat, each of us had caught several nice long rides.  We settled down and started being more choosey about our waves.

Competition pushes one to do a bit more than they normally do.  I was inspired by watching surf kayak legend Kenny King pull off 360 spins in his Mini Mako.  The waves that I was surfing were soft and forgiving so I started playing with the spin of my boat and trying to make it spin a 360 on the wave.  I didn't pull one off but was having fun messing about with it at the end of my rides.

When the 3 of us got off the water, we were elated and giving each other big hugs.  We all agreed that it was one of the funnest surf sessions ever and were so stoked to share it with each other.

Sunday morning, we checked the results and heats for the next day.  The swell was looking a little bit bigger and I was eager to get back out there.  When I saw the results from the previous day, my stomach knotted up.  I won my heat and had scored really well.  I got really nervous.  Butterflies started fluttering in my stomach as the anticipation of surfing has turned to anxiety over performance. 

As I paddled out for my heat, I was excited to see the waves a little bit bigger than the previous day and more frequent.  They were still super friendly - spilling slowly down 3-4 foot green faces.  My heat began with a nice set.  I paddled on to my wave, started to skid, and promptly caught my edge and wiped out.  I rolled up and frustratedly dug my blades in and paddled back out.  As I charged back out, I focused on my forward stroke - anchor and rotate, anchor and rotate, anchor and rotate.  The rhythm of powering my boat felt good.  I started to relax.

More waves came and I caught a few nice rides making turns as the waves spilled toward shore.  I still had moments of  skidding out of control which I tried to combat with digging in my edge.  This often slowed me down too much so I decided to continue with the previous days efforts of continuing the spin to flat spin my boat in a 360 on the wave.  And to my disbelief, I pulled one off.

Game-over - I didn't care if I got any more points - I was happy.  It was a sunny, warm day with just a breath of wind, fun friendly waves, and I was out surfing and having fun.  It seemed that most of the participants felt this way.  We enjoyed each others company on and off the water and on the water, many of us accomplished "firsts" - first rolls in the surf, first cut-backs, first time surfing a surf boat, first time kayak surfing in 30 years, first 360 on a wave.

A huge thanks and congrats to Dennis Judson and his team that organized the 27th Santa Cruz Paddlefest.  It was an excellent event with a great spirit of paddle surfing.  The efforts to "Occupy Cowell's" for the novice/intermediate event must have been considerable but was successful.  I hope that they will continue to offer the Cowell's option again.  I will definitely rally paddlers and encourage our students to participate.

And where do I go from here?  Watching the open division was inspiring but humbling.  I am a perfectionist and am continuing to develop my kayak surfing skills.  I surfed Jeff's Valley Rush for the first time this week and foresee an HP Surf Kayak in my future.  I don't know if I will compete again because I like to push myself from within and surf on my own terms.  However, I have to admit that I would really like the opportunity to kayak surf Steamer's Lane.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Have you ever experienced one of those moments when you have to pinch yourself because it doesn't seem real?

This morning,  Jeff and I are standing on the headlands scouting a break for surf - the sun is shining, there isn't a breath of wind, the fog bank is sitting off-shore, and 4 foot glassy waves are spilling across the break.  We lapse further into our fantasy world, when we see a huge pod of Risso's dolphins feasting and frolicing just outside the break. There are well over 100 dolphins launching into the air, somersaulting and belly flopping into the water.

Our existence feels surreal as we head down to the beach in anticipation of sunshine, surf, and the enchanting magic of dolphins.  Then, the fog rolls in erasing the sun and veiling the glassy faced waves that moments ago we were surfing in our minds.  It socks in so thick you can barely see across the beach, and the glassy green faces morph quickly into dumpy, wrinkled grey masses with madly frothing tresses.

As my fantasy of sunshine and surf dissipates, I tell myself "It's training.  Get out there and get some waves."  Slowly, I launch and start to traverse the surf zone heading north where I saw Jeff disappear into the fog.  Foam piles tumble at me as spewing lips threaten to chomp down on me.  Currents push, pull, and grab at my kayak as I work to keep her on course.

Finally, I find the rip current and catch a free ride out of the chaotic soup zone.  The rip feeds me into a quiet place in the break behind a reef where I can chill out and start reading the water.

Jeff is out in the middle - probing and hunting for green faces and spilling shoulders.  I watch and wait.  This is a tricky beach break that we only surf on small days.  The waves are variable and constantly shifting making good rides elusive.  Chances are good that if you venture out into the middle of the break to surf a wave, you will find yourself in too deep, take one on the head, or get tossed.

I am sitting in my eddy at the edge of all the chaos and confusion.  Trying to read the jumbled and bumpy water, I feel like a dyslexic student hiding in the back of the class praying that the teacher doesn't call on me to read aloud.  I hide in the eddy trying to avoid embarrassment and punishment while the star pupil is showing off.
The sun breaks through and Jeff catches some nice long rides.  I am no longer content to sit in my eddy.  I want to be launching onto those green faces and carving up and down.  I cautiously nose out of my eddy.  A steep face rears up and I turn tail and scoot back into my eddy.  This ticks me off.  Determination sets in and out I go to accept what ever the sea has in store for me.

A wall of water starts to build and I carefully position myself to where it is walling up the steepest.  Two strokes later, I am hurling down a 6 foot wall of water and carving into a bottom turn.  I see a cone of water forming down the line as I carve up the face of the wave.  All of a sudden time seems suspended, and I feel like I am in a freeze-frame photo sequence.  At the crest, I drop back down and set my shore side rudder to subtly climb and drop, climb and drop, climb and drop across the face of the spilling wave.  The wave steepens so I race up the face then drop down to reset my angle and continue my diagonal run until the wave crumbles into a foam pile at the southern end of the beach.

I am elated as I traverse back across the surf zone thinking to myself,  "I ripped the shit out of that wave."  Jeff is pumping both of his fists in the air.  That magical -  life is a dream - feeling has returned.

We both head back out to try our luck with the next set.  As the morning progresses,  some rides are marvelously long, others are fun steep one-drop wonders that end in deep water, while others pitch and hurl us down the line reminding us of the reality that we are not in control here.  This is not a dream.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Little Fresh Water in the Face

In December, our winter was off to a flooding start; however, January and February have been quite dry.  Fortunately there is never a shortage of whitewater on the Mendocino Coast so we haven't been high and dry in our kayaks but definitely jonezing for some fresh water in the face.
Whitewater Kayaking on Mendocino Eel River
Whitewater Kayaking on Mendocino's Eel River
Last week, we finally got a couple of inches of rain and enough to get our coast range rivers flowing.  We managed to step away for a couple of sunny runs on the Eel River.  My river skills were definitely a bit rusty, but it sure felt good to be going down river.
Whitewater kayaking on Mendocino Eel River
Whitewater kayaking on Mendocino's Eel River
And it was great to see June get some more time in on the oars.
Whitewater Rafting Mendocino Eel River
Whitewater rafting on Mendocino's Eel River
Looks like another dry spell is in the forecast.  Hopefully that means for a wet April  . . . we're ready.