Kayak Surfing San Diego 2009

Stormy Sky over La Jolla

Ostensibly I was in San Diego for a wedding. The bride, is my wife’s cousin. The entire Field clan was landing on the shores of San Diego in waves like a viking horde. Some arriving early, some arriving later, but their numbers are many. The longships hit the beach and our tribe was determined to sack the Monastery. We arrived earlier in order to allow for some wedding preparations, and yes also for some Surf Kayaking.

As a Michigan native, I do get my share of textured water on Lake Michigan. But due to luck and some expense, I manage to squeeze in surf kayaking in California at least once a year. There is no more palpable thrill than seeing Pacific swell rolling in with slow undulations like Poseidon is rippling a blanket on some far off shore. The waves move so slowly and so predictably. Lake Michigan has forced an awareness and a toughness for dealing with cold, windy, irregular short period slop. So each time I arrive in California to see the vast Pacific meet the shore, it is a different world.

When I drove down to the Cardiff Reef on Monday morning to meet Val Goodfellow, I saw the beauty of the Pacific at dawn. Val is one of what I refer to as the conflict diamonds of Paddling.net. Val, along with Chuck Freedman, and perhaps a few others is one of the last old school Paddling.net personalities worth knowing. The real deal in every sense of the word. He is out at dawn most mornings surfing somewhere in San Diego on his waveski for the joy of it. He isn’t looking for accolades, an instructor certification, a BCU star award, or anything other than a ride on a good wave. This more than anything else, I completely identify with. As I have posted less and less over the last year at the message board, my only anxiety is on missing out on more of these people. Paddling.net for each repetitive, goofy, or just plain stupid thread, pays itself back ten-fold with the one Val, or Chuck. I hold out some small kernel of hope that there are more Val’s and Chuck’s out there.

On Monday we were greeted with an occasional four-five foot waves from small swell. Val suggested we paddle out to the reef break. One other paddle surfer was out catching rides in a Mega UFO. I paddled out an let him catch a few rides and watched where he was catching rides. On Lake Michigan, I am often the only surfer out catching rides on windy November days. In sunny southern California I am afforded the luxury of learning from other surfers experience. Judging where the optimal spot to catch waves from based on board surfers, or other kayak surfers is a great tactic for catching rides.

After a few missed attempts and shorter rides, I caught a beautiful steep wave, dropped in, carved along the face regained the face, top-turned and then dropped in again, (unheard of in the great lakes). The wave began to close out, I carved ahead of the foam and actually regained greenwater. It was a thing of beauty that was to be repeated several times over the three days I got out to kayak surf.

Val and I had a Breakfast Burrito from a classic Highway 101 roadside restaurant. Val drove me to a few spots north of Cardiff Reef. One that I really came to like was Beacon’s in Leucadia. Beacon’s is not the most exciting, steep, or dramatic break in San Diego. It is however a long board surfer favorite. After breakfast I went on my own and hung out for the rest of the morning, swapping rides with a bunch of old guys, (and a few young ones). The waves peaked perfectly and then peeled predictably from the upwind side south. To me this is probably the dream. While I do love an exciting off-shore reef break with steep faces and a bit of a testicle clenching rush on drop-in, a beautiful 4-6 foot face where you have time to carve turns, react to what’s happening, and really surf is what puts the iambic in my pentameter.

I had so many great rides that first day at Beacons. I actually had the old guys cheer me on for a cutback from a bottom turn.

Beacon's San Diego at Dawn

Day 2 started at Beacon’s. I had another great morning. I even had my first confrontation with someone dropping in on me. A standup paddler paddled over the top of a crest on a wave I had already take and was surfing and then cut towards me on his board, luckily I broke away from him and past him. One of the old guys on a longboard gave him a bit of a tongue lashing and told him he basically stole the wave.

After surfing beacons for a few hours I drove south to try Scripps Pier. Scripps was breaking faster and steeper that day than Beacon’s. It was also closing out quickly and had a long impact zone all the way to the caves at La Jolla Shores. I suited up and paddled out. It was a struggle through the impact zone into a crowded lineup. There were also a bunch of kids in the lineup who didn’t always obey the rules of the road. Several kids, maybe 13-15 were sharing waves and hanging out ahead of where I was trying to catch waves. On one wave a kid actually looked over his shoulder after I had started to paddle for a wave saw me about drop down the face, and paddled anyway. I tried to back off, and got thrown painfully over the falls.

Scripps Pier

The resulting beat down on the inside was probably the worst I have sustained to date. I was upside down hanging on for dear life, and then catapulted by a wave, smacked down, and then rolled up, only to be nuked over hard again with no breath. Luckily I rolled up again almost immediately in the water and was surfed inside. Bad news was that I was immediately beat down again, going ass over teakettle in the impact zone. I made it back to the lineup, out of breath and exasperated. I caught a couple of OK rides, before saying, ok Scripps is not my kind of wave.

Day 3 Val and I took the small waves at the slide. It was great to gain Val’s insight into San Diego surfing. We had a great time swapping rides on the 2-3 foot waves near the caves. A small sea lion kept coming to surf waves and check us out. The sun rose over La Jolla and drifted the scent of coffee towards us.
Val Goodfellow on the waveski

I got to try Val’s Waveski. I surfed a few teeny waves, but was tossed unceremoniously from the ski when I failed to roll it back up.

Boardie letting one pass at bird rock reef

I figured going back to Bird Rock would be good. I parked at the top of the a steep cliff with a windy stair that goes down to a rocky point. Looking out from this prominitory there is a steep reef break about 600 yards off shore. It was breaking in a crescent shape towards shore and then rebounding off the rocks. My scrotum was tightening as I watched it from shore, but decided to go for it. I suited up and launched from a small sandy spot behind the rocks. I told some neighborhood girls watching from the rocks. , “If I don’t come back, avenge my death.” I broke out over flat water, (never happens in Michigan) to a deepwater area where a steep 4-7 foot swell swept in from the Pacific and then peeled over the rocks. I sat and watched a lone board surfer. The surfer hung by a lobster pot buoy until a massive swell peaked and then began to break towards shore. I tried several times for a wave to find I was too far out. My stomach clenched into a knot. I nervously anticipated a beatdown due to the size and the unknown element of a break that curved in on itself.

Bowl Shaped Reef Break, Bird Rock San Diego

Finally I paddled for a steep face and dropped in on a big face, I began carving downwave, but adjusted my angle to make sure I wasn’t at the bottom when the wave closed out. I was moving faster than on any wave I surfed before. The speed was exhilirating, it was like being cut loose from a parachute in a kayak. I just skimmed my paddle over the wave in high brace with the rail edged over hard into the wave. Each time I thought I would slow down, I just kept catching greenwater. Ahead of me, I saw the bowl shape of the wave start to swing around on me, I allowed myself to descend a little to catch some additional speed to make sure I made it past the closeout on the outer arm of the break, and then shot off the shoulder into deep water. It seemed like that ride lasted five minutes, it was probably more like 25 seconds. For that 25 seconds I guarantee you I wasn’t thinking about anything other than how to keep catching greenwater.

Fuzzy picture that gives some idea of the size of the reef break at Bird Rock San Diego

In our day to day activities in a superconnected world of divided focus, I strive for these momentsof singular purpose. Kayak surfing, or surfing in general heightens the senses, and sharpens your reflexes, and keeps your spirit alive. Much in this world will try to beat you down and make you miserable. Surfing I am certain is not one of them. There are beatdowns a plenty when your focus isn’t what it should be. If you mistime a takeoff, or catch an edge. But there is a payback in clean drop-ins, swift carving turns, and the thrill of more to come.


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  2. Great story and photo’s. I was the other kayaker surfing with you out at Tabletops (just south of Seaside Reef). Come back anytime!

  3. Hey Keith, Nice post! I think there has to be a future group trip to Ca. to explore surfing.

  4. Only a surfer knows the feeling.

  5. Jealous indeed. I used to kayak surf in North County in the 80s, and Cardiff Reef was my home break. Moved to the Least Coast in 91, and I still miss the Pacific.

  6. Nice writeup. Do you have more photos?

  7. Gorgeous, but I'm waiting for the punchline. Did you forget about the wedding?

  8. Great report Keith! It brings back memory of when I lived in San Diego. I learned to surf at sunset cliffs just south of Ocean Beach and learned to Dive in La Jolla Cove. You're descriptions brought me right back even after 25 years. And as you said before "Why do we live in Michigan" Take me Back!!!


  9. Fabulous description and photos, Keith! I'm so glad you were able to get so many good surfing days in, and with such excellent company.

  10. Jealous! And sweating after a good reading ride!