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A Kayak Surf Renaissance

Air Time and New Energy Promises Change for Kayaking's Salty and Dynamic Edge

Photos from the 2015 Santa Cruz Paddle Fest: Bryon Dorr & Sarah Blessington of Exploring Elements

While kayak surfing is alive and well in core pockets along the coasts, the salty and dynamic, wave-driven side of our sport hasn't seen much in the way of growth, especially in North America, for some time. The currents, however, are beginning to shift as big air maneuvers generate new excitement and point to a kayak surf renaissance in the works.

First, let's examine the sport's barriers. The high cost of specialized gear couples with the high physical cost often related to the beatings that surf zones can dish out. Add the "kook" stigma (as judged by other board-surfers) that comes with being inside of a kayak, and you've created some staunch barriers to entry. The extreme challenge of finding such specialized demo gear compounds the issue, especially when it's produced by only a tiny handful of North American manufacturers—consisting of a few small-batch waveski crafters on the West Coast and Toronto-based Murky Water Kayaks for surf kayaks. On the other hand, any adrenaline-driven action sport requires expensive, specialized gear. Many surf kayakers also come to the sport by way of whitewater kayaking, which prepares them for the financial and physical realities. Meanwhile, small new surf kayak manufacturers are sprouting up elsewhere around the globe.

And that international stage—most notably the hotbeds of the UK, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Australia—is also where new blood and innovative kayak/waveski designs are currently infusing excitement into surf kayaking. Long-standing surf kayak manufacturers like Mega Performance Kayaks are gaining new momentum with the recent change of ownership, as smaller offshoots like Random Surf Kayaks and Ride Surf Kayaks are also helping produce new, exciting designs. These companies are also building local paddling clubs, like the Surf Kayak Club Sunshine Coast in Australia, as well as using social media to plug their products and stoke the sport.

The North American surf kayak tribe has also recently regained some steam and continues to play a big role in shaping the future of the sport. A few of the younger West Coast surf kayakers, who are also paddlesports professionals by day, are leading the charge forward. Folks like Chris Bensch, the founder of the Pacific Paddle Surf Series (PPSS), and Mathew Hoff, the new organizer of the Santa Cruz Paddle Fest, are working hard to not only promote the sport of surf kayaking, but also to grow the sport through quality organized events, organizing volunteers to help shape the direction of the sport and helping to put together regional surf kayaking clinics and clubs. All of these things take time, especially because only dedicated, passionate volunteers can fuel that grassroots progress.

"Organizing the SCPF this year was a real eye-opener," says Hoff. "As the largest and longest consecutively running surf kayak event in the world, there is some real potential to help the sport. My hope is to use this event to grow surf kayaking."

In particular, the Santa Cruz Paddle Fest is a crucial to promoting and growing the sport. The event hopes to accomplish these lofty goals through being one of the sport's top international competitive paddle surfing events, by fostering positive relationships with local businesses as well as the local surf community, and by being an event that features a beginner's competition, the Cowells Classic, capable of encouraging new participants. With that said, the 29th annual event this year had the lowest turnout for high performance open, master's open and women's open in event history. (This year's WSKA World Championships in Galicia, Spain, June 29-July 5, likely factored into the lower turnout, with international competitors saving their vacation days and travel budgets.) Santa Cruz still sold out though, as standup paddle surfers more than filled the available surf heat spots.

As the buzz and excitement surrounding SUP surfing continues to hum along, North American surf kayaking can only benefit with the inclusion of SUP categories at events, dovetailing off the exposure of standup's growing spotlight. SUP surfing might also help spectators who are familiar with traditional board surfing more easily relate to other types of paddlers in the surf zone. Using SUP to bridge that gap between surfing and surf kayaking will only help fuel surf kayaking's growth. Check out this year's SCPF highlights from Jason Self and Chris Smith, playing to both disciplines' strengths:


2015 Santa Cruz Paddle Fest from Jason Self on Vimeo.

Surf kayaking can also take a page out of the freestyle kayaking playbook, where aerial maneuvers have invigorated a new generation of progressive paddlers. The same rules apply in the ocean, where in every type of surf competition, airs and complex freestyle maneuvers spread like wildfire when captured as shareable media. Surf kayakers are becoming more and more air aware.

In the last few years, airs and truly dynamic maneuvers have become the norm in competitions as scoring structures reflect that shift. With air comes excitement and awe, which in our connected, digitized world, is what brings eyes (and new interest) to a sport or activity. Here's a couple recent edits that showcase of the best of the sport's dynamic potential:


Surf kayaking could certainly use a little new interest and younger eyeballs. Looking over the last five years that I've competed, it's obvious that the median age for North American surf-kayak paddlers is still in the 40s. But hopefully the mix that we've seen lately — young passionate volunteers mixed with capable elder statesmen who still provide a ton of guidance, support and funding to the sport—will attract new blood into a thriving niche paddlesport once again. It will be an uphill battle that will require a wider range of support, but making bridges with the freestyle river and standup paddling communities should continue to yield positive benefits.

The surf kayak tribe needs to unite in more organized and consistent ways in order to entice others to be a part of this exciting dynamic sport that we're all so passionate about. Manufacturers need to continue to push design, in terms of performance, ease of use and comfort, as well as manufacturing, in terms of materials development and price points that are more attainable for beginners. As things get rolling, it is also important to have demo and instructional surf kayaks within easy reach of someone who might be interested in the sport. Events need to continue to be more organized, media-heavy and encouraging of all levels of paddle surfers. We also need to organize clubs — like the one that Hoff and Bensch are organizing this year — that can foster the growth of the next generation of surf kayakers, who are drawn into the sport through friends, events and the excitement they see through published media.

Whether out for a soul surf, scaring ourselves in big thumping waves or out perfecting the perfect air, we all need to build bridges by sharing the stoke with those around us, being responsible stewards of the sport, and better utilizing digital media to fuel the growth and attract more attention to all aspects of our quality surf kayak culture.

— Check out more photos and coverage of this year's Santa Cruz Paddle Fest.