By Paul McHugh
Fear struck at the heart of the 2016 Santa Cruz Paddlefest from the first second of its opening day!
Okay, okay. I’ll admit, I wrote that line just to grab your attention. (Darn media…)
It would be far more accurate to say there was a modicum of concern – about whether a good and rideable swell would show up. NOAA called for a 3-4 foot, 11-second lump that, during the morning’s high tide, might not give the initial SUP board heats much to work with.
However, as dawn’s grey light steadily incandesced under a high overcast, it became clear that a small yet decent swell structure was indeed present. However, it was important that the first heat contestants held paddles in their hands, because they were sure going to need a boost.
Overall, the NOAA predictions suggested an ideal progression during the course of this three-day contest. Saturday was supposed to see a west swell arise of 6-8 feet at 16 seconds; and on Sunday they called for that to continue; and all three days would have winds blowing no stronger than 10 knots.
So contestants could warm up on Friday, hit their stride on Saturday, and still find a fabulous marine canvas on which to sketch their art during the finals on Sunday.
Board surfers expressed their outrage by waxing windshields, yelling, screaming, cursing, threatening fights, and even vandalizing their own break – which they achieved by knocking our contest Porta-Potty off the cliff and into the water.
To get maudlin, sentimental, and anthropomorphic about this all in one go, it was as though the Pacific herself wanted to join in celebrating of the 30th iteration of this contest, now one of the premier events in the world. But… ‘twas not always thus. The tale of the birth, growth, and sustaining of this Paddlefest is a fraught and tangled story.
On Thursday night, the festival began with a traditional barbecue and party held around the pool at Dennis Judson’s Adventure Sports shop. At this ‘do, registrants were awarded colorful T-shirts stamped with a logo for the 30th event. As I picked mine up, I happened to be wearing a faded blue T stamped with a logo for the first contest. Because I’m one of the few who was there 30 years ago to get the shirt, Canoe & Kayak has asked me to render some of this event’s history. Which – before big memory fade truly kicks in – I’m willing to do.
As President Millard Fillmore once said, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” (I know most people think that Jerry Garcia of the rock band, The Grateful Dead, originated that phrase… but Jer’ was just quoting a man he saw as his spiritual and musical guru, as well as a trailblazer in recreational drug use.)
Now, the begatting of the present surf contest was on this wise. In the summer of 1985, Northern California’s avid whitewater boaters bemoaned the great drying and shrinkage of their rivers. And the finest minds among them pondered the options, and bore witness thus: “Behold that fine ocean, for it doth not dry up. Not ever. Eh? What adventure may we find out there?”
The bold took heart, and yea, verily, flung their whitewater boats and their largely clueless selves out in the surf. And lo, a great thrashing and splashing arose. So did a giant lamentation amongst board surfers already in the line-up. And these boarders declared these clumsy invaders “butt-surfers” and worse, and cursed them and their progeny unto the tenth generation.
Some paddlers looked upon this fraught situation and wavered. Yet others said, we can build upon this chaos.
Number me among the latter. Recently hired as the outdoors feature-writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, I was in the hunt for a gripping topic for my first story, and in August 1985, I picked kayak surfing.
Upon publication, the revered lady Dianne Poslosky, leader of the ETC community organization, rang me up and asked if I thought a surf contest for kayakers might make a good fund-raising event for her group. I said, yes.
(Bit o’ background, here: ETC, or Environmental Traveling Companions, was a group Dianne formed in the 1970s to give outdoor access to the disabled or disadvantaged. It was an offshoot of Friends of the River (FOR), which Mark Dubois had co-founded a few years before to fight the damming of the Stanislaus River. Both do-gooder outfits have endured and grown their missions substantially amid all the years since.)
I sat slack-jawed watching Rasyad take a drop, fling the Sabre on its rail, then make section after section, rising smoothly up and down the face, swiftly alternating bottom turns with lip turns on a fast and sinuous run.
Poslosky and ETC brought on board Keith Miller, founder and proprietor of Richmond’s California Canoe & Kayak. Within three months of my Chronicle feature on kayak surfing, they had a contest up and running on the beach at Bolinas. (It had a large and enthusiastic turnout, producing a momentum that helped this event recur for the next ten years.)
Meanwhile, in a case of parallel invention, Dennis Judson, founder and proprietor of the Adventure Sports shop in Santa Cruz (he’s also famed for a cackling laugh and banana-hammock casual wear) launched his own contest a few months later. A number of paddlers toted their fetal skills at organizing and judging a contest from Bolinas down to Judson’s event. Originally dubbed the Santa Cruz Surf-Kayak Festival, then (after sea kayak races and then SUP surfing got added) the Santa Cruz Paddlefest.
I’ll provide a more detailed history of the Santa Cruz event in a moment, but first, let me rewind, to render a more general accounting of what went on in Bolinas and the S.F. Bay Area.
Philosopher George Santayana’s most famed line is oft quoted. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Well, that was we kayak surfers. Not that we really felt condemned… except to our own ineptitude. Such a thing oft occurs if you’re forced to reinvent the wheel. At this point, I’d not even heard of Don Golden, though he had carved up Santa Cruz only two decades before. Golden built his own 13 foot-long, 65-pound, fiberglass-and-wood surf-craft and paddled them into large waves at Steamer Lane… in the 1960s. According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, there was even a contest held there called the first annual United States Kayak Surfing Championships in 1968! (I did a search on the Encyclopedia’s site and could find no other entries, for instance, of a second contest.)
Golden’s entry mentions that he came in third. Who took the top spot and second place? Would not surprise me at all if those berths happened to be occupied by Mike Johnson and Merv Larson. It’s perhaps more forgivable that I hadn’t heard of them either, since they held sway and carved their wakes down in Southern California. Read more about these illustrious precursors to our modern day wave warriors at USWaveski.com and the Encyclopedia of Surfing.
Now, I HAD heard of Tom Johnson, Mike’s dad, since I had bought one of his Hollowform River Chasers when that model first broke on the scene in the 1970s. I taught myself to surf with it, sort of, at Big River Beach near Mendocino. By the time our first Bolinas surf contest came along, I paddled a Perception Dancer, a revolutionary plastic boat which had taken the river world by storm. Soon, I moved on to a Dancer XT, which better accommodated my weight. Even so, in that first contest, I did what everyone else did: pick a wave, take a drop, turn no more than 15 degrees to the right or left (otherwise you’d spin off the face), brace as it broke, then side-surf the foam pile until I could pry my boat up and off it.
Curious why or how such a deep-seated animosity between board-surfers and butt-surfers began? Starts here: kayaks in the surf zone during the late 1980s strongly resembled only-slightly-guided missiles.
Not many of us had a true grasp of etiquette in the line-up. Also, once we dropped onto a wave, our discretionary moves were instantly revealed as unskilled and awkward. In addition, after a wave broke, we became a menace to anything on the inside of the break as we bounced and tumbled… to all intents and purposes, becoming large plastic logs, that could and did often mow down all in our paths.
Can you imagine how that might’ve looked to a board surfer, just seeking to safely paddle out? This was a dire situation, badly in need of improvement. Kayak surfers needed a leader who could guide us out of the wilderness of ineptitude. Perhaps even, a prophet. By which I mean, a brand new one, since most of us were shamefully ignorant of the histories of Golden, Johnson and Larson.
Enter, Rasyad Chung. A (self-described) Sino-Celtic athlete built like an NFL fullback (5’ 7” and 200 lbs of thick, cut muscle), he made rapid progress in many types of outdoor sport. In his first year of paddling, he ran the Tuolumne (Class IV). In his second year of paddling, he ran Cherry Creek (Class V+). In his third year of paddling, he entered the first Bolinas contest. When he entered the next time, he blew everyone’s mind by how well he surfed the world’s initial, low-volume, sharp-railed, plastic squirt boat, the Perception Sabre. He well knew how to exploit its strengths, since he’d spent months wringing it out in the steep and pounding shore break of Ocean Beach in San Francisco. (For anyone eager to test their paddle skills, I recommend the venue of Ocean Beach.)
I still vividly remember sitting slack-jawed on the judges’ stand at Bolinas, watching Rasyad take a drop, fling the Sabre on its rail, then make section after section, rising smoothly up and down the face, swiftly alternating bottom turns with lip turns on a fast and sinuous run. And I especially recall thinking: “Right. Okay, then. That’s exactly how it ought to be done.”
Rasyad later underscored his accomplishments in the surf by being the first paddle surfer known to ride the huge and formidable Maverick’s wave at Half Moon Bay.
But after that second Bolinas contest, his impact on the world of kayak surfing was both swift and mighty. Those who could afford to do so immediately went on a hunt for squirt boats – anything low volume with a sharp rail – and set about learning how to use them to actually turn in the surf and work a wave face.
Okay, let’s put our focus back on the Santa Cruz contest. Dennis Judson held his first two events at the Pleasure Point site – a good place for consistent, well-shaped waves, almost no matter the swell size. But in terms of forging better relations with board surfers, it was terrible. (Probably, at that point in time, ANY good site would’ve had problems.) Boarders were outraged that one of their favorite spots had been co-opted by butt-surfers and their bouncy, clumsy boats. They expressed it by waxing windshields, yelling, screaming, cursing, threatening fights, and even vandalizing their own break – which they achieved by knocking our contest Porta-Potty off the cliff and into the water.
That unfortunate event provided my ticket onto the first U.S. Kayak Surfing Team. At the time, I owned a small 4WD truck with a winch on the front, and I used it to haul the broken, odious and leaky fiberglass shack back up and onto shore. This scored me major points with a man who was already in touch with European kayak surfers, and who schemed about staging a true international event – Matty Kinsella. An intriguing combination of psych nurse and Franciscan friar (Third Order monk), Kinsella also owned a formidable environmental ethos.
I don’t think I would’ve made it on the team any other way. I mean, I could manage to get into final heats on occasion, but have never, ever ribboned. Even so, Matty considered that someone able and willing to go mano-a-mano with a gushing honey bucket ought to be rewarded somehow, so he more or less selected me to be on the team by personal fiat. Which is how I wound up surfing beaches on the west shore of Ireland in the fall of 1988, using my own new squirt boat, a Phoenix Arc.
Our biggest take-away from Ireland was seeing the crying need for a good, standardized format for judging. Won’t call the judging in the Emerald Isle so very awful, but I will say it was obvious was their main principle was: If a guy up on the wave is from your own country, he automatically scores a few extra points. Took us a heat or three to catch on, but afterward, we played by house rules. The upshot was that, just counting the scores from kayak surfing, Team USA won; but if you included the scores from the wave-ski division (something we hadn’t known anything about going in), then Ireland did. So we came home in the same basic fashion that the U.S. had departed Vietnam: declared victory and got out.
Naturally, I can’t speak for them, but I’d say the big take-away for the Euros came from watching our American squirt boats in action. Their fleet of existing surf boats mainly consisted of battered old river slalom boats with pole-vault poles glassed into the hulls to help them stand up for bow and stern enders in shallow water – which the Irish by far considered the classiest way to end a ride. They gaped at the way our squirt boats clung to walls and whipped through turns. A Brit champion paddler named Malcolm Pearcey put some squirt design principles to work in a new surf boat he named the Mega Jester – and a world leader in new surf craft was promptly born.
Back, back, back in the U.S.A., we soon began importing Malcolm’s boats, and American designers soon felt stimulated to come up with fresh wrinkles of their own. And because the breach between the 1960s and the 1990s was being bridged by the growth in popularity of our sport, while the gap between northern and southern California surf lore was also being spanned, some of those new designs happened to include surf kayaks designed by Mike Johnson (like the Mako and Steamer Lane) as well as Merv Larson’s distinctive wave-skis.
So we had tools, and we were developing skills. But not q-u-i-t-e fast enough to yet be welcomed in the major surf breaks. Dennis Judson moved his contest to Steamer Lane, where the mayhem not only continued, but worsened. Board surfers often crashed right through the competition zone, interfering with our rides. Kayakers retaliated by policing the zone themselves, intentionally knocking these rude dudes off their boards. People were tangled up in leashes, cut by fins, fistfights were threatened, dive knives were occasionally brandished, and city cops got called out more than once. Ambulances, too!
Local surfers proceeded to mount a big push with the city officials to ban all paddle craft from Steamer Lane and related breaks.
In this fraught context, Kinsella and I saw that establishment of standardized judging could possibly nurture some crucial improvements. A good system could be used not only to evaluate rides, but also to educate kayakers on boat control and surf etiquette. Kinsella and I examined various surf contest rules, and decided that – at least initially – we had to break the big picture down into relatively tiny parts. We had to build a vocabulary of maneuvers that paddlers would grasp individually, and then proceed to assemble these parts into a good ride.
That was the foundation of the notorious “move-counting” judging system. We had about twenty maneuvers divided up into, one-, two-, or three-point moves. Examples might be, in numerical order, a bottom turn, a cutback, and a floater. Additional points were awarded for moves kept on the green, especially in the pocket, good (read “big”) wave selection, and length of ride. Points were subtracted for interference, snaking, and paddle-out interference. As you might imagine, a system like this made for a heinous amount of paperwork and book-keeping during the contests, and if we hadn’t been young and energetic, and had a large number of volunteers (contestants worked the judging and everything else while also competing), we would never have been able to make it fly.
But fly it did, for about five years. It was gradually displaced by a panel of hired professional judges operating by more classic surf contest rules. How well did that old, “move-counting” system work? Sure, it was clunky and complicated. However, it did spread knowledge that a roundhouse cutback was rather different than a cutback, that you needed to stay aware of others in the break and keep maneuvering in a safe and considerate manner, and that you could always aspire to performing an aerial, even if you’d never yet pulled one off.
The death knell for that system came when many of the international teams absolutely refused to have anything to do with it. But ultimately, that proved all right with me and Kinsella. During the brief span of years when it held sway, it had accomplished its primary mission.
Although the skill and etiquette of the kayak surfers both rapidly improved, the habitual hostility between the boarders and paddlers endured and festered. (“The boarhound and the boar circle as before.” – T. S. Eliot). There seemed no apparent way to break out of it. However, two seemingly small events proceeded to put a crack in the wall.
Among the biggest and baddest enforcers of localism at Steamer Lane was a chap named Vince Collier. This might be a slight exaggeration, but it seemed to me that Vince stood about 6’ 3”, weighed about 260, and had massive shoulders. His nickname was The Bull, and he lived up to it. (Pin a “y” on the end of that nickname, if you wish.) Vince regularly rode Maverick’s, gloried in the Lane when it went big, and was an utter terror to any kook who had the temerity to stray onto his turf, or – worst of all – drop in on him. As was probably inevitable, The Bull developed a few legal difficulties. I believe he was fingered by the authorities for an attack on another surfer. In a roundabout way, I heard that he had expressed remorse. In my capacity as an outdoors writer for a major regional paper, I thought it might be a good time to interview him about violence in the surf zone. I set up a breakfast meeting with him at a café in the Dream Inn.
To say I felt nervous about our meet-up would be a gross understatement. I’d seen Vince slap his board on the water and bellow at intruders, his face flushed beet-red and his braying voice hoarse. The man was a total avatar of winning through intimidation. I had visions of myself staggering out of the restaurant with a fork embedded in my forehead. Instead, he acted the perfect gentleman. And was surprisingly articulate to boot, as he explained to me that he felt it was high time for him to change his ways. I don’t know whether my subsequent Chronicle story, detailing what The Bull had to say about the crying need for civility in the surf zone, helped him out with his legal problems or not. It likely didn’t hurt.
Simultaneously, Judson was tipped by another waterfront figure that a common solution to contest disruption at different sites was: Hire the enforcers as protectors. Judson approached Collier, and they struck a deal with astonishing alacrity. Vince and his pals would secure the contest zone, and he could make a little more dough on the side by having a lady friend run a food booth at the event.
It’s not as if all difficulties evaporated immediately – yet 98 percent of them did. And the Pax Bovis (Peace of The Bull) made it possible for other surfers to take a deep breath, then take a calmer, more rational gander at the rising ability of surf paddlers to handle themselves suitably in the break. About ten years ago, when Maverick’s star and local surf shop owner Peter Mel (aka The Condor) opined that he actually admired the skills he saw paddlers displaying at the Steamer Lane contest, he caught a full ration of crap from other board surfers. Nevertheless, Mel had underscored the way things were trending. I don’t know that paddle surfers will ever find themselves lovingly embraced at all major surf breaks, but as long as they continue to act with respect, it seems they have increasing chances of feeling accepted. Another landmark was reached three years ago, when Maverick’s maven Jeff Clark himself showed up to compete in a SUP division.
So now, in all the years since 1988, there have been international kayak-surf festivals and paddle fests of various types at venues all over the globe – from Scotland to Portugal, from Costa Rica to Australia. And Santa Cruz’s own Steamer Lane has frequently taken a proud place on the global schedule. A profound shift occurred recently, when Dennis Judson transferred proprietorship of the event to Kayak Connection owner David Grigsby. Organizing the event fell largely on the shoulders of a young ripper and Kayak Connection staffer named Mat Hoff.
Grigsby and Hoff have already proven themselves worthy bearers of the torch, bringing in fresh sponsors, new judges, and ramping up the paddle races that used to be a poor cousin of the surf events.
At the opening party on Thursday evening, I asked Judson how it felt to be freed of the responsibilities of putting on the contest, and yet still be able to compete in it himself. He threw his head back, and uttered his trademark cackling laugh.
“Love it. I just love it. And the beauty of this thing is that it pushes you, it makes you go out there and try moves that you might not attempt otherwise. That’s what’s so great about these contests. They totally advance the sport. Individually, and collectively.”