By Paul McHugh
One of my favorite observations of all time came from G. K. Chesterton. "Reality plays a game, called 'cheat the prophet.'"
Truth of it can be located just about any place in the course of human affairs, but is especially easy to find at any affair we try to conduct upon the open sea. Among those, it becomes most readily apparent at a surfing contest.
Sunday morning on finals day at the 2016 Santa Cruz Paddlefest started under a thin, high overcast that seemed to dye all light below it a pale powder blue. Out from a hazy horizon steamed big grey lumps of ocean swells. Each one rose, crested and pitched as it passed Lighthouse Point, launched a flock of misty gulls into the sky, then uttered a loud whap and seething hiss when it expired on mossy rocks at the base of the cove. The waves seemed quite similar to Saturday's 8-foot, 16-second swells. A bit cleaner, perhaps, with more time passing between the sets.
However, according to the 7 a.m. readings of the NOAA weather buoys, I was seeing only a 6-foot, 13-second swell. Sure looked bigger. A weak frontal system was heading our way, too. Maybe it threw in some extra kick that buoys were not picking up on, yet.
I stood by a railing above the cove, gazing out to sea with Dan Crandall. I'd just asked him about his strategy for Heat 8, the first of two semifinals in the International Class (IC) Open competition. Crandall is founder/proprietor of Current Adventures Kayak School & Trips on the South Fork American River. He's also been a consistent winner in various divisions at this fest since he began competing more than twenty years ago.
"Number one, I'd rather be patient and take a Middle Peak wave than anything else," Crandall said. "I'll look for a medium-size wave, one with shoulder that will hold up, so I can run it down the line. Much as I love big drops, the biggest ones are folding over and dying off quicker today. Long run-outs, that's what I want."
"Think so," I agreed. "And Middle Peak's going off more often now. Steamer Lane’s wave looks good whenever it arrives, but it's turned spotty about showing up.” Lead organizer Mat Hoff, also one of the event’s most formidable competitors, is the ultimate Santa Cruz local. Still, I’d watched him go for the Steamer twice in Heat 6, and he’d come up empty.
The Steamer Lane breakers rumble in right at Lighthouse Point, and generally work best with a northwest-angled swell. Middle Peak is the next break to the south, and works best with a westerly or southerly swell.
A voice intruded. "Then he runs in from behind, to swat his knees with a metal bar!" It was Jim Grossman with a big grin on his face as he mimed the 1994 proxy attack on Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by swinging an imaginary bat at Crandall's knees. Grossman then turned to me and assumed an expression of pious innocence. "Oh no, there's no rivalry," he said. "Not in the slightest."
Grossman, a whitewater champ from Idaho, has taken first place often, in multiple divisions, over the course of years at this Santa Cruz event. But just like Crandall, he no longer had a precise idea of how many times that has been. Suffice it to say, these guys have displaced each other on the podium more than once.
A few minutes before my meeting with Crandall, I'd asked Grossman about his own strategy for their upcoming heat.
"Today, big wave knowledge and your positioning will count more than anything else," he said. "As the tide drops, outer reefs might break. My strategy?" He chuckled. "Get lucky!”
“But seriously,” he continued. “It’s best to start off with one really good wave. After that, you've got the luxury to hunt for another. That's the beauty of having judges score your place for two waves, not three during a heat. Mainly, I want to be receptive, not too assertive. Don't try to force things. That generally doesn't work out too well."
I also had asked if he felt any sense of rivalry with Dan Crandall.
"Oh sure, maybe when I was young and stupid," he said. "Not anymore. We've just got too many good friends, and way too much history in common. In terms of winning a contest, yeah, Dan and the King brothers, those guys always pose a threat. But threats can come from a different direction, like in the moves made by new school guys, like Darren [Bason] and Jack [Barker]."
Another competitor, Bryon Dorr, parsed the situation in the International Class Open semis in much the same fashion as Grossman did. Dorr is a gypsy journalist who's covered the outdoors beat in water sports for years, and competed in the surf for the past six. He took third in International last year at Santa Cruz, and was competing this year in a borrowed boat. He’d drawn the second semi, Heat 9.
"I expect Heat 8 will be fairly agro, with serious shoulder-rubbing in the line-up as those older guys compete for every wave. There's three in the heat like that, Crandall, Grossman and Ed King, plus one younger guy, Jack Barker." Barker is the reigning world champion in the International Class.
"My heat, Heat 9, is mostly younger guys" Dorr continued, “I expect our line-up will be a bit friendlier, but you might see some more aggressive moves on the waves. Darren Basson is known to have tricks like this Helix, an inverted 360, in his skill set.”
Grossman walked away from me and Crandall to prepare for Heat 8, while I went with Crandall towards his van. "Nah, there's not much rivalry anymore. We're like a big family out here now," Crandall said. "We all support the other guy when he wins." He paused, his weathered face creased in a smile as his blue eyes twinkled. "That is, if he wins…"
International Class Open first semifinal, Heat 8, 10:20 a.m. Sunday
Dan Crandall – in black jersey
Ed King – blue
Jim Grossman – red
Jack Barker – white.
These paddlers began spreading out into the line-up in the minute after Heat 7 ended. Grossman got up first, on a medium-sized wave that sprouted up between Steamer and Middle Peak. He rode it reasonably well, but made no distinctive moves and earned a modest score of 12.
Crandall positioned himself outside of Middle Peak on surfer's left, and when a big 'un came along, he committed to a slashing right cut across beneath the pitching crest. It was a distinctive Crandall move, quite familiar from contests past, demanding equal parts of boldness and the fast hull speed of an old-school boat. However, it also was the exact opposite of his announced strategy. His big wave did hold up, though, and he was able to sashay back and forth with mild cutbacks in the pocket all the way to the judges' stand. That bagged him a score of 22.
Grossman countered with another medium wave that also held up, and this time he was able to fling slashing cutbacks that went from rail-to-rail, and also threw in a 360-degree flat spin. These were the radical moves this event's director had said judges would look for, and it netted him a score of 23.
Meanwhile, Barker and King had warmed up with 17-point rides, and followed those up with a 20-point ride and a 19-pointer, respectively. They were clean and competent runs, though not particularly decorated with moves. This heat began to shape up as a Crandall vs. Grossman shoot-out.
The third wave for King and Grossman settled their hash. Ed King was lined up outside surfer's right at Middle Peak, Jim Grossman inside and left. A high triangular peak shot up and King got on it, initiating his drop. Grossman needed to make an instant decision. He had three options: let the wave dump and take a beating; go left, maybe make a few turns, and wind up stuck inside the Lighthouse Point cove, perhaps for a long while; or go right, snake King, and hope King got called for interfering with his ride, not vice-versa. He went right. This peak had arms. He and King got mired in the foam pile on the right arm, banging and jostling their boats against each other.
Grossman's announced strategy had been not to force anything. But when his first opportunity occurred to try to force something, he did exactly that. Outcome would be determined by the judges' call.
After that episode, Crandall went for his second wave. It was a mirror of his first. Big, bold, and starting off with a cut across under the lip. He made his section, then let the pocket catch up to him, whereupon he performed his customary side-to-side wallowing until he passed the judges' stand. Score: 23. His heat plan might've been in tatters, but maybe that was a good thing.
Ed King had earned 16 on his interference ride with Grossman, while Jim got 17.
Grossman then appeared totally motivated. He caught two more rides, and worked them to the nth degree, slashing cutbacks whenever possible, and performing another flat spin. His scores were 21 and 22.
Crandall caught one more ride. He was right on the button at Middle Peak, yet a quarter-second too late. He air-dropped off the face, and its pitching crest chased him down. But his subsequent moves precisely fit that wave and he made it past the judges to take a score of 27, which was his heat's highest number.
The three-note klaxon that signaled the heat's end sounded. Grossman and Barker finished with five wave scores, King with four, and Crandall with just three. However, all three of Crandall's scores made it up into the 20s, and so he won the heat. Jack Barker was second, and also qualified for the afternoon final. King (third) and Grossman (fourth) would watch the finals from terra firma.
International Class Open second semifinal, Heat 9, 10:40 a.m. Sunday
Bryon Dorr – in black jersey
Darren Bason – blue
Mathew Hoff – red
Zach Boyd – white
Bason caught the first swell, Boyd the second, Hoff the third, Dorr the fourth. It happened to be a four-wave set, and these guys appeared to be decorously rotating through their line-up. So far, the heat was proceeding precisely as Dorr had predicted. Except: none of the young competitors threw any sort of new-school wave moves. They all simply sought for clean rides, avoiding disaster while lingering in the pocket, then finishing up and hopping off on the lip. Only Boyd poked into the 20s, with a score of 20.
Second wave, Bason caught a boost by courteously bailing off the lip, simultaneously keeping another competitor from getting indicted with a paddle-out interference call, while providing himself with a bit of an aerial move off the backside, for a score of 19.
Meantime, the event announcer sounded like he was going nuts (pretty much a job description for any athletic event announcer) as he ejaculated superlatives about four riders scoring six rides over the course of the first two minutes of that heat.
Throughout it, Dorr steadily roamed the line-up from Middle Peak to Steamers, dropping into more scored rides than anyone else in his heat. Yet he never managed to break into the 20s with any of them.
Boyd took off at Middle Peak, drove his rails, spun in the pocket, worked it hard, scored 24.
Two horns sounded, five minutes left. Dorr got two more rides, Boyd and Bason one each.
Ending status: Boyd, first; Bason second; Hoff, third; Dorr, fourth.
I stood high up on the bluff at West Cliff drive, my eyes blinking, while also thinking about everything I'd just watched, sometimes through binoculars, sometimes through a camera view-finder, sometimes through my prescription glasses. But always and only through lenses of what I’d just found out, versus what I thought I already knew. I wondered if it seemed that way to Crandall and Grossman as well, it they were scratching their chins and thinking about how things had looked to them once they were out on the water and in the heat, versus standing up on the bluff.
Ed King walked past me, dripping, on his way along terra firma following the previous heat # 8, still wearing his wetsuit and helmet, but not his heat jersey. "Think I was DQ'd?" he asked. "Did I interfere with Grossman, or did he interfere with me?"
"Well now, can't say that I really know 'bout it," I responded. "It's a classic Middle Peak dilemna. First guy up and riding down on that peak own it, or does the guy just inside own it? Judges need to make that call. As for me, might've called it on you, since he didn't have much of any place else to go."
"Okay. Could've turned off, at one point," King conceded. "But I thought, I have possession of this wave, and it's a good one, and I want to keep it."
"Can't argue, if id had been me on it, I might've made the same call as you."
As I said that, I thought again about Thursday night, and our pre-event briefing by the pool at the Adventure Sports shop, when I'd queried Mat Hoff on this very question. Is Middle Peak about who's up and gliding on a ride first, or who's inside of that rider? I myself had been dinged by such a problem, both by judges, as well as by other line-up surfers, more than once.
Hoff had said that night that the very first one up and on it, owned it. Meaning, as the judges eventually called it, Grossman wound up out of luck, in this instance. Overall, Grossman performed well at the 2016 Paddlefest, finishing second behind Sean Morley in the Masters Open (Crandall came in fifth).
Yet in IC, Crandall went on to win the final, while Grossman didn’t advance past the semis and finished seventh overall. Key there was that interference call, which went against Grossman, and cost him the score of his second-best wave. I watched him examine the heat sheet which recorded this transaction. He did not look pleased.
As I contemplated all these results, I thought about hope, aspirations, capability, and outcome. None of the competitors I'd interviewed had followed their own game plans. The difference between visualization and performance was particularly striking in the case of the young bucks, with their hopes of performing tricks and flash moves. If the waves had been small, steep, and held up, they would've had a much better chance to inscribe their modern calligraphy on those walls.
But given the larger swells that broke hard and then became soft mounds garlanded with foam piles, they were deprived of the opportunity to do much beside adhere to old-school moves and virtues.
Man proposes; but Poseidon disposes. I guess that's the eternal lesson.