4/6/2008 – Kate Stepan,Associate Editor
It’s not every day you get to paddle with a world champion, let alone use his boat. Oh, and then receive his expert instruction from the seat of another finely tuned, specialized craft. But this is where I found myself last Sunday morning, a paddle’s length away from professional surf kayaker Sean Morley, bobbing in 2-4 foot waves off the coast of Mission Beach near San Diego.
After hopping into Sean’s Rush-ya, the same boat he designed for Valley Kayaks and used to carve up Spain’s legendary Mundaka en route to clinching the master’s title at 2007 World Surf Kayak Championships last fall-I paddled to where I thought was past the breakers. Stopping for a breather, I told Sean I was ready to try a roll, would he spot me with a bow rescue?
Sean glanced toward the horizon, and said flatly, “You’re going to have to roll here in a second.”
Whoosh. The biggest wave of a sneaker set sent me over the falls backwards and left me carping in the foam backwash until Sean was able to reach me with his bow. Safely installed beyond the set waves for real this time, he showed me how move my right hand to the middle of the paddle shaft to get more leverage on the surface, a variation of the old school pawlata roll.
It’s a good thing, too, because I tumbled more than a few times during our session. I also caught some good rides, though I was more hanging on for dear life (in a kayak, four foot waves are, like, a foot overhead, brah) than riding down the line like Sean showed me. But to feel that smooth Kevlar hull flow down a steep wave face just once made each wipeout completely worth it. It’s a feeling, I figured, that must compare to what the board crowd refers to as “stoke.” I can only imagine, though, since I’ve been unable to achieve this on my long board even after a year of floundering in the world-class Southern California surf breaks.
Stretching my cramped legs on the beach a few hours later, I felt reborn, like I saw the ocean in a different way than before, as playground rather than danger zone, fluffy rather than menacing.
Backing up a little, Sean and I were in San Diego for the weekend for a festival of sorts organized by Jen Kleck and the crew at her Mission Bay kayak shop, Aqua Adventures.
For a seemingly small event, the fifth annual Southwest Sea Kayak Symposium drew some big names, Sean Morley included. Nigel Foster held paddling clinics and debuted his sporty new Point 65 N design, the Whisky 16 (later, while huddled close to the roaring bonfire, I cajoled the story behind the name out of the twinkle-eyed Foster, but my lips are sealed). Russell Farrow of Team Sweetwater, the winners of Immersion Research’s 2008 Vacation to Hell, was on hand to talk about preparations for the Florida crew’s upcoming Arctic expedition.
Whitewater legend-cum-stand up paddleboard guru Dan Gavere demonstrated his new sport-which is becoming as hot as Dan was in Liquid Lifestyles 2-on the beach throughout the weekend. And Greenland ropes master Duane Strosaker joined unofficial symposium guitarist Steve Wilson to lead a few hearty rounds of “Pink Kayak” (to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac”) and other paddling-related tunes late into the drizzly Saturday night.
That’s not to say that Jen isn’t somewhat of a big name herself. Last year in Fort William, Scotland, she became the only American to achieve the British Canoe Union’s highest coaching honor-and is also a BCU five-star individual paddler. But that’s nothing compared the impact she has had on thousands of kayakers, some new to the sport, others as salty as they come, as an instructor, coach, and friend.
I know this from personal experience. A year ago, as a whitewater paddler, I moved from Colorado and its bevy of mountain streams to bone dry Orange County, California, and immediately felt like a pilgrim in the desert with no promise of manna from heaven. I flailed on my surfboard and crashed my mountain bike. I needed release. Then, suddenly, Jen, her boyfriend/business partner Jake Stachovak, and the rest of the fun-loving paddlers at Aqua Adventures appeared, like an oasis to my kayaking-thirsty soul. In visiting the shop, first for official magazine boat review business, then, later, as somewhat of a store groupie, I saw that they were as enraptured with the ocean and its hidden depths as I am about the river and its enigmatic currents. I felt like part of something again, like a boater, amongst my own kind.
After a day of paddling, I almost always raise a glass (or bottle or can) “to new friends and new rivers.” After last weekend, and the past year with the San Diego folks I’ve met, I think I’m going to have to alter my standard toast a bit-“to new friends, and new waters.”