It's not about winning and losing. It's about rides like this. McHugh off to the races. Photo: Gomes.

It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about rides like this. McHugh off to the races. Photo: Gomes.

By Paul McHugh

I stood on the bluff near the judges’ stand right beside Dennis Judson, sipping coffee. Well, Dennis was. What I did was startle him by poking him in the ribs. I almost made him drop his cup straight into the drink.

“Jesus!” Dennis exclaimed. “You’re like the guy in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. ‘Ya havin’ a nice mornin’? Yeah? Really? Well, I can fix that!’”

I quietly demurred. I know that Dennis really didn’t mean to call me Jesus. I’m nowhere near that good. So, I modestly changed the subject. “Boy, look at those,” I said, pointing to the fat, substantial rollers heaving up to fling themselves onto rocks at the base of the cliff where we stood. “I’d call those Goldilocks swells! Not too big, not too small. J-u-s-t right.”

NOAA had called for 6-8 footers at a 16-second interval, and it looked like their prediction had whacked the bullseye. This was just after sunrise on Saturday second day of the 30th Annual Santa Cruz Paddlefest. Dennis and I fell silent as we contemplated the surf. I believe that mentally we were doing precisely the same thing: visualizing ourselves riding these sweet swells during our upcoming heats. My heat, Wave Ski Open, would come at noon, after the tide started to drop – which would only sharpen the crests and steepen the faces on these babies.

Captain Kirk was right: space is the final frontier – especially when it comes to typically crowded surf breaks.

In more time than it takes to tell it – considerably more time, like hours – I finally got around to untying my custom Infinity wave ski from the top of car and toting it down the stairs at Cowells. Two years ago, Dana Point wave guru Steve Boehne and I had put our heads together on specs, then he’d shaped it for me. There might be better tools for wave riders out there, but this board perfectly suits my style (what I have of it). Frankly, the thing’s a monster: 11 feet long, 27 inches wide at the seat, with a pintail and two fin boxes, lined up one behind the other in the center. In the first, I have a 4-inch thruster, in the second I have a 3-incher, next comes the pintail. I find this configuration is directional enough, while keeping the board fast and loose.

Experienced surfers might be able to determine that, if this is my ideal machine, I must like big waves (yes, it does take a big ‘un to accommodate this thing), and my style is likely more “long-boarder” than not. Bingo on both counts.

That meant I winced a tad on Thursday night when Paddlefest director (I think that’s his job description) Matt Hoff spoke about our upcoming contest’s judging standards, and said that most points would be awarded for flashy moves in the pocket. “I want to see the bottom of your boat, and spray coming off of your tail. Length of ride won’t be a primary consideration. If you do four hot moves and bail, that will score much higher than three moves spread out over a long ride.”

Jim Grossman, left, helps his son Buey Grossman, get back out into the surf competition after he crashed into the rocks at the base of the cliff, during heats on Saturday. Photo: McHugh.

Jim Grossman, left, helps his son Buey Grossman, get back out into the surf competition after he crashed into the rocks at the base of the cliff, during heats on Saturday. Photo: McHugh.

I resemble the latter remark. And then in Friday’s modest waves, I deployed that very strategy. The predictable result: I came in 3rd in my heat. Saturdays’ waves now looked far more promising, but I wasn’t about to sprout a whole new set of feathers, if you know what I mean. I’m 65; the somewhat bedraggled plummage I flourish now is pretty much gonna be it, for the foreseeable.

Wave-selection and length-of-ride had been huge considerations, back in the day. But time marched on, striding with its customary jackbooted goosesteps. When the leading ranks stop, they can take a highly polished, steel-capped toe smack in the you-know-what. Surfing in all its current forms has been strongly influenced by the flashy moves of snowboarding and skateboarding – and in the case of kayak surfing, by whitewater rodeo play tricks as well. Whine all you wish, but if you can’t accommodate changing styles, it’s smartest to simply get out of the way.

Actually, I had done exactly that, for about a decade. I thought, we duffers can do more than just take up space – but we do have to admit, that is indeed our primary function. Instead of competing, I would show up at the Santa Cruz event and simply watch the proceedings. But then I had a big Aha! moment. I realized, I should worry not a jot about being competitive. Instead, what I ought to do is cheerfully pay for a berth in a heat, just so I could surf Steamer Lane with only three other dudes on the water with me. Captain Kirk was right: space is the final frontier – especially when it comes to typically crowded surf breaks.

And so it came to pass that, on this Saturday, I hopped on my Infinity ski, and paddled out to the Lane for Heat 15, my shootout at high noon. Not that I planned to really go head-to-head with the other three guys. They could ride in their way; I’d ride in mine. Nevertheless, I had a full squadron of butterflies doing the Lindy Hop in the pit of my stomach. The swells had not only steepened, they seemed to have grown a lot bigger. Even the outer break of Middle Peak seemed close to going off.

McHugh digs for his wave. Photo: Gomes.

McHugh digs for his wave. Photo: Gomes.

I positioned myself well outside of the competition zone, and started ranging the take-off points with landmarks on shore. A brown pelican swooped past, gliding on the pad of compressed air that forms on the front of a large moving wave. “That’s what I should do,” I told myself. “It’s a reminder to just enjoy where I am, and glide serenely, just like that bird.”

Then I looked over my shoulder and noticed that Outer Middle Peak was indeed going off, and about to land right on top of me. I scratched desperately to get over the shoulder, lost the race, and proceeded to get gobbled alive. I reeled the ski back with my ankle leash, saw the next wave was still bigger, and got thrashed again. Finally, laughing, I was able to remount. “Don’t have to worry about getting my hair wet now!” I thought. (Not that I have any hair – except for a white Billy Goat Gruff beard on my chin.)

At the judge’s stand, the horn hooted, the color flag switched to green, and our 19-minute heat clock began to run. My scouting had revealed a good take-off spot just outside a line between the lighthouse and the competition zone buoy. I went there, and as soon as I arrived, a lump reared up behind me. I threw a flurry of strokes, the swell walled, then I was riding and the dial flicked to “game on.”

BIG face. I had plenty of room to play, yet not much time to play, not if I wanted to make the section to my right. So I flung a few cutbacks back and forth on my way toward the bottom, decided not to go all the way down, cruised back up the face, saw the wall was going critical and decided it was time to make my run. I threw my ski on its right rail, leaned forward to weight the nose and started to make the spray sizzle.

The $150 wave. Photo: Gomes.

The $150 wave. Photo: Gomes.

Barely in the nick of time. The crest folded over my tail and foam shot out around me. I turned down to gain more speed, then reset the rail. I saw this wave would hold up and offer me a fast-moving wall that traveled all the way to the judges’ stand. Everything was happening at warp speed now, I was right in the pocket and my adrenalin-fueled focus dialed down to two key concerns: would I be able to make the corner (get past the rocky promontory holding the judges’ stand); and would I be able to bail out over the lip if things got tight?

Can I have the envelope, please! In order, your answers are: Yes and No.

I shot past the corner, the wall collapsed on me, and I had two new concerns: would this thing drive me into the next curve of rocky cliff; and would I be dinged for interference by sliding into the next contest zone, where at this time intermediate SUP surfers were competing.

The answers: Yes, if you don’t do something; and Yes, if you don’t do something.

So I did something. Popped my waistbelt, flipped over, and deployed my body as a sea anchor. As I sank into turbulence, I felt my ankle leash yank hard and stretch my right leg, oh about six inches longer or so. While I waited to bob up through the foam, I grabbed the leash and reeled in my ski. When I could catch a breath, I saw there were more big waves in the set, and the SUP guys could grab ‘em and get on ‘em without worrying any about me.

Good, because I had to worry about me. I got held down and pummeled four more times, but during the intervals was able to frog kick myself and the ski further from the rocks. Then a blessed long interval of low swell arrived, and I was able to remount and scoot out of there. I panted, breathing deeply and rapidly as I paddled back out to the line-up, seeking to recover from oxygen debt.

As I stroked, I thought, “It cost you $150 to enter this contest. But you just rode a $150 wave.”

That particular adventure had consumed nearly half my available time in the heat. Next, I caught a medium-size swell and did what I could with it, which wasn’t much. With only a few minutes remaining, I tried to set up again, but some crossed signals with my heat-mates (i.e. Are you gonna go on this one? Or should I take it? Wait, you’re not going?) meant that I failed to score another ride.

The horn blew, I paddled and rode back to the stairs at Cowells. I slowly climbed up them, marveling that my legs seemed to have returned to approximately the same length. Rinsed my board, strapped it on the car, changed clothes. Carried my heat jersey back to the registration table. Glanced down at the heat sheets, and saw that I’d come in second.

Huh. How about that!

A kayak surfer gets "roofed" by a pitching wave during mid-day heats at the Paddlefest on Saturday (don't have his ID)

A kayak surfer gets “roofed” by a pitching wave during mid-day heats at the Paddlefest on Saturday. Photo: McHugh