Style Versus Survival & the Little Purple Devil

When Melissa suggested I write a post on learning to kayak surf and my decision to enter Santa Cruz Paddlefest, I wanted to wait until after the competition, “What if I don’t do that well?” Then, I proceeded to feel like a jerk because life is all about the journey, right?  So here it is, my journey from barely competent and hardly confident in the surf to competing in Santa Cruz Paddlefest 2016.

Fake It Till You Make It

I would like to take this opportunity to make a confession.  When I decided to pursue my American Canoe Association (ACA) Level 4 Open Water Coastal Kayaking Instructor Certification, I could count on one hand the number of times I had kayaked in surf.  For those unfamiliar with the ACA instructor criteria for sea kayaking, a Level 4 instructor candidate must demonstrate proficiency and the ability to effectively teach in 3 to 5 foot seas, 15 to 20 knot winds, 2 to 4 knots of current, and 2 to 4 foot surf.  I am young and fit with ample experience in the required seas, wind, and current.  How difficult could it be to appear competent in 2 to 4 foot surf?  Let’s just say, I wasn’t fooling anyone.  At the end of my examination, my certification was conditional on gaining more experience in the surf. An Obsession is Born

By Spring 2015, I had gained enough surf zone experience to complete my Level 4 certification and the thought of surfing my sea kayak had finally gone from anxiety inducing to exhilarating.  So when my regular paddling crew traded in their sea kayaks for a weekend of short boat surfing, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.  I got my hands on a Necky Rip and joined them in Bolinas.  We spent the entire day catching waves and having fun.  I felt like such a badass!  (If you squint when you look at the picture, you can almost see a wave.)  The transition from my sea kayak to a short boat still gave me that same addictive adrenalin rush, but with a new sense of control.  As soon as I got off the water, I was already planning my next session.

The Little Purple Devil

I won’t bore you with the details of surf kayak design.  When it comes right down to it, you could surf anything that floats.  As paddlers get more interested in performance, they typically make the transition from a plastic whitewater kayak to a composite surf kayak.  These boats come in 2 flavors, High Performance (HP) and International Class (IC).  HP boats are short (~7.5 to 8.5 feet), with aggressive rails, a short tail, and fins.  Think surfboard with a deck.  IC boats are longer in overall length (> 9 feet) as well as through the tail and they typically lack fins.  In general, IC boats tend to be more forgiving than HP boats when making the switch to a composite surf kayak.

After a few months surfing the Rip, my good friends Sean and Gina Morley convinced me to try a composite boat with fins.  As luck would have it, they were storing a Random Rampage for a friend.  Now, there are degrees of high performance and I was going straight from a forgiving whitewater boat to an HP surf kayak known for vertical surfing and airs.  Perfect.  How could this possibly go wrong?

If at First You Don’t Succeed- Try, Try, Try Again

The first time I “surfed” the Rampage, I could barely stay upright while waiting for a set.  I caught my edge and flipped on every take off.  My clearest memory from that day is Gina standing on the beach collecting my boat while I swam in.  I’m pretty sure I never caught a wave.  As summer wore on, I continued to struggle with the Rampage.  I was getting worked over on the paddle out and trashed when the sets came through.  Going several rounds with Ronda Rousey was starting to sound like more fun than surfing the Rampage.

I was seriously starting to question my sanity when it all came together.  Sean put me in touch with Mat Hoff who generously agreed to show me around his local breaks in Moss Landing.  I was wicked nervous driving down to meet Mat – he is a world-class kayak surfer and I could barely stay upright long enough to catch a wave.  I figured I would be lucky to escape the day without completely embarrassing myself.  When I arrived in Moss Landing, we evaluated the break together.  To my surprise, conditions actually looked friendlier that what I had been beating myself up in.  I will never forget that morning surf session – 2 to 3 foot, beautifully peeling waves with a clearly defined rip and not a breath of wind or another surfer in sight.  On the drive home, I wondered why my cheeks were sore and then I realized it was from smiling.

Style Versus Survival

I would love nothing more than to tell you that surfing was all smiles and epic rides after my session with Mat in Moss Landing, but that would be a lie.  With the onset of winter came week after week of monster swells and punishing surf.  Conditions were increasing faster than my confidence and my sessions went from a physical challenge to a mental one.  I quickly realized that to surf through the winter, I needed to get my fear under control.  After a bit of research and some trial and error, I developed several successful techniques for managing my fear – the details of which I hope to include in a follow-up post devoted to fear management in paddling.  As winter progressed, I was no longer terrified of the 8+ foot walls of water baring down on me, but I was discouraged because my technical skills were still not improving.  My second realization this winter was that I needed to put my pride aside and spend more time surfing small waves.  The consequence of poor timing on large waves was deterring me from putting myself out there and trying new maneuvers.  Clearly, I still have some hidden fears to confront.

Why Stick with It?

Why do I wake up before sunrise and drive 45 minutes to the coast to spend an hour on the water before work?  Why do I continue to pursue a sport that has sent me home in tears on more than one occasion?  Finding words to adequately describe the rush of emotion I feel when surfing is difficult, but here goes: I do it for that one perfect wave when I nail my take off and go racing down the line.  The background noise of life fades away and there is only silence.  I am fully present in the moment on that wave.  At the end of the ride, the surge of positive energy and pure joy is empowering.  I feel ready to conquer the world – or at the very least, face the day ahead.  But don’t take my word for it, join me on the water and experience it for yourself!

And now we arrive at the impetus for writing this post. This weekend, March 19th and 20th, I will be competing in my first surf kayak competition, Santa Cruz Paddlefest. SCPF is the longest running paddle surf competition in the world and arguably the most famous.  Kayak and SUP surfers come from all over the world to surf Steamer Lane, one of the region’s premier surf breaks.  After much deliberation, I decided to compete in the Cowells Classic intermediate competition. My goal is simple, to catch waves and have fun.

The ladies of the California Women’s Watersport Collective will be there in force.  Come down and show your support for Devon Barker-Hicks, Gina Morley, Teresa ‘Tree’ Rogerson, Sophia Sotello and me!

Check this space for a follow-up post on the 30th Annual Santa Cruz Paddlefest.

All images and words copyright California Women’s Watersport Collective 2016. All rights reserved.