Every spring, Steamer Lane hosts Santa Cruz Paddlefest (SCPF), an event eagerly anticipated by the paddle surf community. Elite Kayak, Waveski, and Standup Paddleboard (SUP) Surfers from around the World gather in Santa Cruz, California to surf this famed break. March 2016, SCPF marked its 30th anniversary and my first surf kayak competition. For a colorful history of surf kayaking and SCPF, check out Paul McHugh’s article in Canoe & Kayak.
SCPF is not only the longest running paddle surf competition, but it is the only competition with an intermediate class for newbie competitors. The Cowell’s Classic is held at the tail end of Steamer Lane where the waves are smaller and the competition is friendlier. As the registration deadline for SCPF approached, I was still wavering between entering the expert and intermediate class. I sought the advice of my two surf kayak mentors hoping for a consensus. Sean “go big or go home” Morley said I would be a fool to pass up the opportunity to surf at the Lane and seemed unfazed by my inexperience. Not quite convinced, I asked Mat “slightly more sensible” Hoff. Without any sugar coating, he told me I wasn’t ready to surf at the expert site. I should also mention that Mat is the Event Organizer for SCPF, so his opinion held a bit more weight. Humbled, I took his advice and registered for the Cowell’s Classic Intermediate Competition. A huge weight immediately lifted from my shoulders and I was positive I made the right decision.
Surf More. Work Less
My car laden with boats and gear, I set out for Santa Cruz on Wednesday morning to help Devon Barker-Hicks with the Cali Collective Intermediate/Advanced Surf Kayak Clinic. The sun was shining and conditions were developing nicely. We spent the day refining basic skills, working on more advanced maneuvers, and reviewing the rules of competition. Watching these women face their fears and tackle new challenges with the support and encouragement of their peers was an inspiration – this was the perfect start to my first SCPF experience.
By Thursday, surf kayaks adorned the roofs of countless cars as I walked West Cliff Drive to check the surf. A quick scan of the Lane showed paddle surfers outnumbering boardies. Santa Cruz Paddlefest was finally here! Stoked, I grabbed my boat and hit the water. I spent several hours catching waves and having a blast, sharing laughs with old friends and making new ones. Heats for the expert competition began on Friday morning and I watched in awe as some of the biggest names in kayak surfing shredded waves at the Lane. Tomorrow it would be my turn, albeit on slightly smaller waves.
The Cowell’s Classic follows a framework similar to other surf kayak competitions. Participants are separated into heats of 3 to 5 competitors and each heat has 19 minutes to catch waves and demonstrate their prowess. Judges score the waves a competitor surfs on a scale of 10 and the final score is the total of their 2 best waves. Radical maneuvers on the green wave face score the most points – think aggressive tight turns and catching air. Heats for the Cowell’s Classic are not divided by boat type or gender. This year there were 12 competitors paddling everything from high performance composite surf kayaks to plastic whitewater boats, and much to my surprise and delight, nearly half the competitors were women!
I woke up Saturday nervous and still a little unsure what to expect. Walking down to the morning safety briefing, I thought back on an article written by my friend and colleague Cate Hawthorne. A few years ago, Cate entered the Cowell’s Classic and reflected back on her experience in a post she titled “Make it Look Fun.” During her safety briefing, that one phrase stuck out in Cate’s mind and helped her relax and enjoy the experience. With that thought, I set my goal for Saturday – I wanted everyone watching to know how much fun I have when surfing.
I was assigned to the first heat of the day at the intermediate site. With the hope of settling some pre-competition jitters, I grabbed my jersey and hit the water early to warm up. Conditions were ideal – 3 to 4 foot spilling waves with rides long enough to take you well past the judges stand. I couldn’t resist, I caught wave after wave and somewhere in there a horn sounded indicating the start of my heat. I had a few decent waves, a handful of wipeouts, and one amazing ride that still gives me goose bumps. I came off the water grinning from ear to ear. That was one of the most amazing surf sessions I’d ever had and the show of support from my family, friends, and fellow competitors was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to get back out there!
Up to this point, I have not been entirely honest. For all my talk of wanting to simply “catch waves and have fun,” I do have a competitive streak. I really wanted to finish the weekend in the top 3, I was just afraid to admit it out loud. On Saturday, I scored enough points to win my heat and found myself in 3rd place going into Sunday. First and 2nd were well ahead and 4th and 5th were only a few points behind. It was going to be close.
Sunday we were blessed with another day of amazing conditions. That said, I was on my 6th consecutive day surfing and starting to feel the signs of fatigue. I was lethargic on my paddle out and decided to cut my warmup short in an effort to conserve my rapidly waning energy. As I sat watching the last heat of SUP surfers from the water, I focused on the waves envisioning the perfect ride. Shortly after the horn sounded, I caught my first wave. My fatigue melted away and my place in the competition became insignificant – it was just me and countless waves to be surfed. I came off the water pleased knowing I gave it everything I had.
From the time I caught my first wave in a short boat, members of the surf kayak community encouraged me to participate in SCPF. I never really understood why everyone was so enamored with this competition. Isn’t it enough to simply enjoy the sport, does everyone have to compete? Now that SCPF has come and gone, I finally understand that it’s about the community, not the competition. The event is really an excuse for friends from near and far to meet up once a year to share laughs, a bit of sun, and some epic waves. My performance on Sunday surfed me into 2nd place in the Cowell’s Classic. For me, SCFP was much more than just a competition – it was an opportunity to share a sport I love with others. Over the next few years, I plan to work with the ladies of the California Women’s Watersport Collective to increase the presence of women in the surf.
I hope to see you out there! ~Kelly
All words and images copyright California Women’s Watersport Collective 2016. All rights reserved.