Interview Geoff Jennings Competitive Surf Kayaking
All Photos courtesy of Geoff Jennings.
Over the last few years I’d swapped a few e-mails with Geoff Jennings about various paddling tidbits, surfing in California and his Social paddling hub Kayaking.com. I took the chance that just after the Santa Cruz Surf Paddle Fest, Geoff might be able to help us midwestern kooks learn a bit about competitive surf kayaking.
In the process I learned a couple of things, first Geoff is the Number 2 seated Waveski Paddler in the US. Second that he his first baby on the way, so congrats to Geoff and his wife.
Bolded questions are from Go Kayak Now!
How long have you been paddling, how did you get started in paddling?
I started paddling many, many years ago, canoe camping trips in Texas with my scout group. First learned to roll a kayak around age 14, but didn’t do much paddling due to costs and geography. I moved to California in ’97, and started paddling more, mostly whitewater and a little sea kayaking. 2000 or so, I started doing more and more.
How long have you been kayak surfing? Did you start surfing in a surf specific kayak, or did you use another type of boat when you started?
Around 2001 I moved to Southern California, near the beach. I was working for a kayak shop, and I’d take my whitewater boat out and dink around in the surf for practice. One day, I saw a guy in a surf boat, and he was really tearing it up. He introduced himself, we’re still very good friends, and it wasn’t long before I was shopping for a composite surf boat. I guess it’s been 10 years now. I don’t think I’ve paddled a white water boat in the surf more than 5 times since.
How much time do you spend surf kayaking? Do you spend most of your time only surfing, or do you split between other disciplines, sea kayaking, white water? On average 50/50 etc?
Hard to say a percentage. I get out in the surf probably twice a week at least, sometimes more. But it tends to be for a couple hours before work. I love whitewater, but I live a ways away, so those trips tend to be full day or weekend trips. Less frequent, maybe twice a month, but more hours. When I lived in Northern California, those numbers were reversed.
I’m doing a lot of surf paddling these days. I really enjoy sea kayaking, but realistically probably only take the sea kayak out every couple months, and then it’s mostly the tandem sea kayak with my wife. I used to teach/guide sea kayaks, and for me it’s mostly a vehicle to explore cool places, so I tend to use it more around trips. For local paddling, I’ve sort of seen it, so I’m much more likely to take out the surf boat, which I find more challenging and dynamic. I’ve got 14 kayaks in the garage. 2 are my wife’s. 3 are tandems. The other 9 are mine and all get paddled pretty frequently, but some more than others.
Have you ever taken surfing lessons formally, or has it been more of an informal pick up a thing or two here or there from other paddlers, watching surf videos etc?
No formal training, though I have taught surf kayaking classes! I’ve mostly learned from paddling with others and watching contests. As much as I love paddling, I get bored watching paddling videos. Even the good whitewater paddling flicks. I can barely sit through one. There are only a few quality surf kayak videos that have been made. The video UPTIME that Fletcher shot and Vince Shay edited, from the World Waveski contest is probably my favorite. It’s what I aspire to be able to do in the surf. I actually watch more videos of board surfers than I do kayak surfers. Watching how they use the wave, how they capture and maintain speed, it’s pretty cool. But overall, it’s mostly just getting out there and doing it.
How much time do you spend preparing for a competition? Do you go out to practice certain maneuvers on your local break, or are you pretty much free-surfing and organically working towards the competitions?
My prep for contests involves a couple things. I try and make sure I’ve surfed all the craft for the contest, I typically enter 2-3 categories, so I’ll be surfing 2-3 different boats. Each is unique, and switching between them is tough. I try and spend time in each of them before the contest, and get used to the feel. I should probably do more of this, I favor the HP boat, and surf that far more than any others. Then in the weeks before I contest, I dust off the IC boat.
I will also try and simulate “heats”. 19 minutes is not a long time to get three scoring rides, so choosing the right waves and getting back out quickly is seriously different from “free surfing”. It’s more of a sprint. I wear a wrist watch, and will set a timer for 19 minutes, and try and get three good “scoring” waves in that time. Then I’ll rest a bit, and repeat. I probably do this 1 out of 5 times I go surfing. The rest of the time I’m mostly just trying to catch good waves, and make big, dynamic moves on them. There are times when I know I could just cut off the wave, but will stay on it and go for a big end move. Things that i know would get me more points. Mostly I like surfing and making moves, so fun surfing for me is very similar to what I’d need to do to get points in a contest.
I struggle with my weight. I’m a big guy, and love cooking and food, so it’s not easy to stay at fighting weight, so that’s a big part of my training. Last year, for my general health but also with the specific goal of the US Waveski National Championships, I trained and dieted hard, and lost about 50 lbs. It was my best contest ever, and I’m currently the number 2 ranked US Waveski paddler. I’ve recently written out a specific cross training program for this years contest.
Number Two US waveski paddler! Wow. Are you competing in the worlds as part of the west coast team in that discipline or for hp/ic? It always seems like waveskis get sidelined in the kayaking world, but the biggest most dynamic moves always seem to be from skis? Or is this perception mainly Midwestern baloney. 🙂 What’s your thought?
I think waveskis definitely get the shaft here in the US. I think it’s mostly because the majority of paddle surfers get into the sport via sea kayaking or whitewater, and the kayak is more familiar and more comfortable. There are parts of the world (NZ, AUS, S. Africa) where waveski paddling is a sport on it’s own, and that’s where the worlds best paddle surfers are. I think Waveskis offer a level of performance I’ve never seen from a kayak, especially on small to medium waves. I will say, I’ve seen kayaks out surfing in bigger, gnarlier waves. I’m getting more and more into Waveskis, but the learning curve can be steep.
I think, honestly, they are also more popular in places with warm water. I paddle my waveski way more in the summer than the winter!
Because you surfed in the SCSPF in both disciplines (HP/IC), do you split your time equally between IC/HP paddling, or do you do one more than the other? Does it depend on the conditions and the break which boat you will use? i.e. more of a slow peely break for an IC boat, or fast steep break for an HP day etc? Or is it more by feel?
I mostly like surfing fast, steep waves with well defined pockets, so I rarely would surf the IC boat outside of a contest. I love my IC boat, it’s a great boat, I was 4th in IC with it this year at Santa Cruz, but in general, I prefer surfing the HP boats. I just got a new one I’m excited to paddle, but I gotta get it outfitted. I’ve actually been spending more time surfing waveski lately, and really enjoying that. I just got a new custom made Tyler Lausten ski, but I haven’t had it in the water yet. I think I’ll be spending as much time on that as I can between now and October, to get ready for the Waveski nationals again.
What’s in the HP quiver that you love? And What’s in the IC Quiver?
I surf a Mega Scarab for HP. Awesome boat. I surfed the bigger version, the Megatron, for years, but switched the Scarab last year. My IC boat is a Murky Waters Salsa, with some extra volume built into it. Murky Waters will add or subtract volume from the seams of the boat to build custom boats for you. Both Mega and Murky Waters build boats that are absolutely impeccable in terms of construction, so it’s all about finding a design that you like. I also have, but haven’t surfed yet, an EVO. It’s an HP boat designed by Random Kayaks our of Australia, built for the North American market by Murky Waters.
You mentioned your new Waveski, curious about that too.
It’s an 8 foot Tyler Lausten custom Ski. I’ve long surfed the longer “California” stlye waveskis, but wanted a short, high-performance ski more similar to what the Australians, S. Africans and Kiwis ride. But I’m a big guy, and couldn’t find one that worked for me. Tyler built a sick custom ski to my specifications. It should rip, but with work and getting sick, I haven’t had it on the water yet. Soon!
Is there an HP/IC design you really love but don’t own?
I’m really tempted by several boats. Probably the one I’m most tempted by is the Mega Proton. It’s sort of the replacement for the Scarab, and looks like it absolutly flies. It’s the boat of choice for Chris Hobson, one of the worlds best paddlers.
I’m also interested in one of the “barely” HP boats. HP is defined by boats under 9 feet, so both the Mega Bullit XS and Murky Waters Chili Pepper were designed to squeeze just under this limit. More similar is design to the IC boats, but with fins. I think these boats would be fun for BIG days, as a big wave gun, and certainly would have been the best choice for conditions like Santa Cruz this year.
How many years have you been competing?
What was the first competition you entered, how did it go?
Ventura in 2002? There used to be a kayak and waveski contest there in January each year. I think I got 4th in the intermediate division. Out of 4. =) I was pretty new to surf kayaking, and the strategies involved in a contest were foreign to me. I think I got called on an interference for dropping in on someone. Just didn’t know better.
What is special about SCSPF? Why do so many people fly in for this competition, is the locale, the people, or the competition itself, or some magic combination of all three?
I think it has to be all three. Santa Cruz is a cool town, Steamer Lane, when it works, is simply incredible. I know several folks who would say that they come to the contest just for the privilege of surfing the Lane with just 3 other paddlers. But it’s not always good, and people keep coming back. The people are awesome, and over the years I’ve formed many great friendships, some folks who I only see each year at Santa Cruz. And the contest is big. It’s been around for 25 years, and I’d bet as many paddle surfers could tell you who won SCSPF, as could tell you who is the current world champ. It’s that big. It’s pretty much as big as it gets….
When you are surfing your heats, do you have a strategy? Is the strategy based on the rules and who the judges are? Or are you pretty much trying to get as many radical moves on as many big waves as you can within the time period? For instance Dave Johnston told me that last year his whole plan was to catch a twenty-footer and have the crowd go wild, which unfortunately backfired because a wave this size didn’t come during his heat. But it sounded good when he told the story!
Yes. And it depends on which contest we are talking about. Ventura is smaller, well defined point break. Super fun, and I can probably get 4-6 waves, if not more, in a heat. I’ll take risks and go for big moves there because if I blow it, I can still get more waves. Since the top 3 waves (most contests) are scored, at a break like Steamer Lane, with the big waves and long rides and LONG paddle outs, I’m a bit more conservative. I’ll still go for moves, but I really don’t want to blow it and mess up a wave. 3 good waves can often beat 1 great wave, 1 Ok wave, and a flub. So I surf a bit more carefully, knowing I’m unlikely to get a ton of rides so each one has to count. Big waves are great for points, but it can be dangerous to try and wait for one. Last year, at Davenport, I caught 3 good waves, then sat way outside waiting for a bomb, and lucked out. It cam in with less than a minute on the clocked, and I won the heat, beating a former World Champion and knocking him out of the contest. At the Waveski nationals last year, I knew the paddlers in my semi-final heat were amazing, and would be getting some sick moves, so I sat deep outside and caught bigger waves. judges liked it and it worked for me. But I’ve had far too many heats where I sat too far outside, chased peaks that never broke, and ended up last in the heat. So, yes, strategy does play a big role, but it’s hard to always pick the right one.
How much does the judged nature of the competition change what you will do with any given wave during a competition, meaning would you surf a wave completely differently if there was no crowd and no judges, or is it about the same?
Not a ton different. I surf pretty aggressively even outside a contest. I live in SoCal, so I’m always trying to show the board surfers I deserve a spot in the lineup. =)
The biggest difference is my aggresiveness for position, for catching a wave. Free surfing, I’ll wave others into position. I let waves go by that I’m in a better position to catch, etc. It’s just being nice and playing friendly. In a contest, all bets are off, and I’d push my grandma over if she was in way for a good wave. (I kid, but only slightly).
Maybe an even bigger difference is what/where I’ll surf. I tend to choose where I surf based on conditions, and when. I live 40 minutes from the beach, so I only go if the forecast looks decent, and I know where is likely to be good based on swell angles, size, tides and wind. In contests, you surf whatever is there. I’ve surfed tiny, huge, windblown, closeouts, whatever. I’ve actually been trying to be less picky when I go surfing for fun, it’s easy to surf good waves well, maybe harder to surf crap waves well, and it requires practice surfing crap waves. If I was at the beach on a non-contest day, I wouldn’t even get out of my truck for conditions like we had at Santa Cruz this year.
How does the nature of the competition with all of the great paddlers from around the world raise/hinder your performance on any given day? Or is it somewhat irrelevant?
Well, I probably get bigger, single moves outside of a contest, because the consequences of failing are smaller. In a contest, I’m striving for consistency, and big moves, but moves I’m pretty sure I can stick. Free surfing, I probably roll every 4th or 5th wave. I get upset if I roll in a contest (other than possibly on a big closing move as the wave closes out). When I show up to a contest, I’m definitely putting everything I’ve got out there, putting my heart and soul into it, but trying to do it strategically.
I do sometimes get nervous at the contests, and have a bad habit of hunting for waves. I’ll see a wave roll through, and paddle over to where it just was, then something will be where I just was, so I’ll paddle back. End up paddling all over and not getting the waves I need.
One of the coolest things about the comps in the camaraderie. At the Nationals last year, I knocked out two good friends of mine in the semi-finals. It was unexpected, and those two guys were possibly more stoked that I was in the finals than anyone else there, even though it meant they were out. That’s pretty special.
What was the best wave you caught during a competition, and did it score well? Tell us about it?
Davenport 2009 was pretty spectacular. BIG. Bordering on scary big at times. I was way out at the point, and saw this wall coming at me. I turned, and as I dropped in, it was like falling off a house. I remember thinking that missing the bottom turn would likely result in something breaking. Hopefully not me. Hit the turn, and it was jsut a big screaming ride. Crazy. Big, fast, screaming turns, but the wall kept stacking up in front of me. Just perfect. Tucked under the lip for a little shade at the end. Sooooo good. It did score well.
This year’s SCSPF had some major weather factors involved, how did that effect the competition?
It was pretty disappointing. The rain and hail aren’t such a big deal, but the winds were atrocious. The waves still had some size, but mostly just weird, confused shape. It was really hard to figure out where to be, and then, once there, few waves really had a dynamic pocket to allow radical moves. My whole goal and strategy is to surf well enough to advance to the semi-finals on Sunday, but Sunday was cancelled. I had won both my IC heats, so I ended up 4th in the contest, but it felt a little hollow as we hadn’t had the semi-finals and finals to determine the real winner. Still good, and I’m pleased, but not as pleased.
In HP I had two of my worst heats in a long time. Friday morning I got one decent wave. Second wave I was too deep, and got caught under a heavy, heavy lip. Tumbled me for quite some time, and held me down. (It was still big). I came to the surface, upright and still in my boat (I wear a seatbelt), but my skirt had imploded. Doh! Long cold swim. Saturday, I launched for my heat 50 minutes early, but got a beat down in the gnarly shore dump, then it took so long to paddle out, against the wind, that I was 10 minutes late for a 10 minute heats. Waited a few minutes to catch a wave, got a long ride, then looked at my watch and realized I’d never get back out in tiem for a second ride. Paddle in, more than a little bummed. I was still 13th or so in the contest, since lots of people had worse heats than that, or simple decided not to paddle out in those conditions.
Did you surf the day before when it was glassy and huge?
Only about 5 1/2 hours. It was spectacular, amazing, and made the trip worth it even with the challenging conditions on contest days.
What was the best wave you caught during this years comp?
There weren’t many. But I did have one form nicely. I’d taken a bigger, but mushy outside wave, and as I rode it in, it kept forming these nice steep faces. I’d pull off a move or two, then it’d mush out again, I’d ride in straight, then it’d reform. It must have happened 4-5 times, and I’m certain was one of my higher scoring waves for the whole contest. But the conditions were pretty gnarly.
What is it you really like about kayak surfing?
Geez. That’s a hard one. There is just nothing I’ve ever felt like dropping into a 12 foot face, tucking under a lip, getting a tube, and blasting out the other side. Do it once and you can spend the rest of your days trying to get that feeling again.
I’d really like to plug the Davenport Contest. Davenport, CA is just north of Santa Cruz, a super fun break, and the contest is relaxed and fun. We have special, nice prizes for the 1st time competitor that finishes highest. November 12-13, 2011.
Many thanks to Geoff for the interview and good luck with the baby and future contests.