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Photograph by Mary Arman
Paddle Tale: Rusty Sage carves a wave during the final event of last year's Kayak Surf Festival.

Pacific Air Time

World surf kayaking champ and Santa Cruz local Rusty Sage finds new ways to get airborne

By Garrett Wheeler

The drive from Reno to Santa Cruz is approximately 300 miles and hell on the weekends, so when world champion kayaker Rusty Sage considered his options last year, the decision was easy: pack up and move in. Sage, who was first crowned freestyle world champ in 1998 at age 17, had been coming to Santa Cruz from the interior of California for years, drawn to the area's powerful waves.

"I found myself really enjoying the surf, and I was continuously making trips [to Santa Cruz], so I thought, Why not just move?" So move he did. He called it quits as his job in Reno and made the trip to the coast. Now with an abundance of quality surf breaks at his disposal, Sage is making the most of his new home, frequently traveling up the coast and diversifying his wave riding to include stand-up and kite surfing. "I'm in the water a lot," says Sage, "utilizing the ocean in every type of condition. If it's small and clean, I'll stand-up surf. If it's bigger and mushier I'll kayak, and if it's windy I'll kite. I'm trying to be as much of a waterman as I can now that I'm living here."

Rusty and his fellow surf yakers will converge at Steamer Lane March 14-16 for the 22nd Annual Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival, the largest kayak surf contest in the world. Participants from around the globe descend on the Lane each year to compete with the best athletes in the sport, as well as for a chance to surf the famous break with just three other people.

"The Lane is a perfect place for an event like this," Sage says. "Besides being such a great wave, it's also in close proximity to the public. It's a cool feeling to look onshore and see crowds of people checking [the contest] out, trying to understand it."

Though some onlookers may be perplexed at the sight of surf kayaking, riding waves on kayaks is not a new development. In fact, Rusty Sage traces surf kayaking to ancient Peru, where natives used kayaks made entirely of thatched reeds to ride the gentle surf close to shore. It wasn't until the 1960s, however, that surf kayaking became a viable recreational pursuit, and pioneers of the sport like Merv Larson constructed some of the first modern kayaks with the flat rocker design that's still used today. In 1991, the first world championship of surf kayaking was held in Thurso, Scotland. By that time the Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival had already been going strong for six years.

Ancient history aside, the high-performance aspect of the sport is still in its infancy, and Rusty Sage is at the forefront of the modern kayak era. As kayak design continues to progress, Sage and his contemporaries are pushing the maneuver envelope, experimenting with innovative tricks and new approaches to riding waves. "I brought a lot of the tricks I was doing in river kayaking to the surf kayaking, so rather than limit myself to doing only traditional surfing maneuvers--cutbacks, slashes, carves--I started mixing in aerials," Sage says. "Then I'd do variations like the aerial corkscrew or barrel roll. When I first started doing these tricks at contests, I would never win, and it would piss me off--I didn't understand why I wasn't placing well. But now I'm working these tricks in with getting a good, long ride on the wave, which is something the judges look for."

With four world titles under his belt and countless achievements in the sport of surf kayaking, Rusty Sage is undoubtedly becoming a fixture on the winner's podium. And now that he's got the Pacific Ocean in his back yard, the possibilities are endless. "I'm constantly pushing the limits in my own realm of progression," Sage says. "And there's still so much opportunity."

THE 22ND ANNUAL SANTA CRUZ KAYAK SURF FESTIVAL takes place Friday-Sunday, March 14-16, at Lighthouse Point on West Cliff Drive overlooking Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz. Festivities run from 7am to 5pm each day. Free to all.

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