Road Trip-Santa Cruz, SMX West, Canoecopia

I am fortunate enough every year to get out to California to surf kayak because of SMX West. Santa Cruz is now a town I feel I know pretty well. If I had to designate a second home in this universe, it would be a tough call between the west coast of Ireland and Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz means a lot to me. I was devastated to hear that the harbor was demolished by the tsunami from Japan. I was also really glad to get a text back from Dave Johnston who runs Venture Quest kayaking and his business seemed relatively unharmed. Dave loaned me his composite Neutron Surf kayak to hit Scott’s Creek on two days and the river mouth in Santa Cruz for three days of surfing.

I was also lucky to hang out with Josh Messer (not pictured for reasons pertaining to security). We had a pretty good time being complete nerds, and managed to hit the coolest cocktail lounge in central california in Santa Cruz, it’s so cool I won’t even tell you where it is unless you e-mail me.

Surfing in Santa Cruz is always a head trip for me each year. I bounce between elation and dread. It can be really great peely manageable surf, or it it can be big, meaty and gnarly. Last year was pretty epic when I got some instruction from Sean Morely. Sean gave me so much information and appreciation for his ability and he pushed me in ways that I hadn’t predicted, that I am really grateful for, but it also gave me some perspective on judging conditions where I will be effective. On the last day of surfing last year at Davenport, which anyone will tell you is a mean place to screw up, I caught a whopping total of around 5 rides, but I got beat down around double that. I was so happy to have caught the five rides I got, which were probably some of the biggest fastest waves I’ve ever caught, but also I took some of the worst beatings I’ve ever taken there. They sort of go hand in hand.

I decided this year to really be more decisive about picking my spots and stating my limits, and anyone who has met me will tell you that it isn’t based out of cowardice, but more an appreciation for what I enjoy about kayak surfing. I really like being able to catch steep discernable sets and performing maneuvers where if I miss a turn, or botch a take-off, I am not going to pay a big penalty. I like hitting a rock solid bottom turn, reattaining the face, hitting top turns, and repeating, with maybe a not so slashy cut-back or two. I would love to get enough good conditions to practice this and hitting a late top turn/aerial, but Lake Michigan only gives up her jewels a few times a year.

This year, I watched the swell report with anticipation and saw that it was small one day, big the next and then small again the next day. So I was able to warm up to Scott’s Creek on Day one with only 4-5 foot waves that were very easy to catch with minor penalties for error. There was a small beach break to warm up on, and then an outer reef break that washed over some rocks near the cliffs. I caught some really nice rides in both spots that were right up my alley.

Second day turned out to be very like a spring day in Michigan. Lots of rain, some wind, and a bit cold. I surfed in the rain for about three hours, Dave was already out and started giving me some local knowledge on positioning and wave selection that really paid off so that I wasn’t picking closeouts and gnarly wipeouts on purpose. Though I got caught on the inside a couple times and once right behind Dave where he might have landed right on me, (not cool), I caught some very steep fast rides that day, and felt like I got a real dose of the pacific.

The Last Day was very stormy out at Davenport and Scott’s creek, it looked like a giant washing machine. So I elected to try something in town. Dave suggested the river mouth. I was reluctant only for the reason that board surfers were bound to be competing fiercely for small sets. This did turn out to be true, but I also got a good lesson in not backing down to unreasonable board surfers when I was obeying the rules of the road. I surfed some awesome four foot sets with tight turns and cutbacks. There were quite a few school age kids out on a monday morning! I paddled out when there were only four board surfers, two adults, decent surfers, and a couple of real hotshot kids.

I waited my turn until each of the board surfers had caught a decent ride, I then moved in to the somewhat less than ideal part of the peak and caught a decent ride in, and then paddled back out to repeat. After a couple rides like this, I watched and waited to see what the expression was on everyone’s faces. Everything seemed copasetic, so I continued waiting for decent rides, and backing off of waves where a board surfer had claimed it from the deeper part of the peak. Pretty soon a few more boarders were out there. One of them claimed a ride from deeper water as I was breaking out and I got the stink eye, I sort of knew he was a problem from the minute I saw him. A few minutes later I saw a good looking set, I paddled to the deeper part of the peak and looked down the line, and no one was going for it so I decided to try and take it, this guy looked at me as I was paddling and then paddled three times and then stood up, as he rides by he says, “don’t even think about it”. So after timing my rides to when this guy is paddling back out, he comes up and starts accusing me of dropping in on someone. I hadn’t even been surfing when anyone else paddled for the same wave. Some of the board surfers were doing this by breaking left or right, which was possible on this wave. To avoid this very thing I had been careful to not even paddle for a wave until I saw it was clear. So I thought about apologizing and being submissive, but then I thought, this guy basically decided in about three seconds he had a problem with me. Most likely it was with the kayak being on his break inside steamer lane, and not with me personally. So I could do one of two things, back down and go in, or stand up to him.

Not being one to be bullied around, I yelled back to him that he was out of his mind, I hadn’t even paddled for a wave I saw someone else on. To which he replies, “Am I seeing things?” I answer yes, and someone else finally chimes, in. “Leave him be, he’s cool.” To make my point, I paddle for the next wave. I surfed for another thirty minutes, until I see about 4-5 more board surfers in the water. I had caught enough waves, no reason to stay out and risk another confrontation.

Steamer lane is one of the most competitive spots to surf in California that I’ve been. It’s scenic and predictable, but it’s also crowded. The more dangerous spots up the coast are where they push surf kayakers because less people frequent them, but sometimes you have to risk the people factor to get a few waves. I was glad I did.

I really look forward to seeing Dave Johnston in the Santa Cruz surf kayak festival videos. Wish him luck, he and Galen Licht are both local boys so no harm in rooting for them!

Post on canoecopia is coming.


  1. I still wish that bar had required a password.