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GOT TO HAVE KAYAK NOW: Kayak surfer Dave Johnston wraps up practice at Steamer Lane.

Ready Oar Not

Kayaks and paddleboards rule at upcoming contest

Story and photos By Curtis Cartier

THE SUN is only beginning to peek its crimson head over the eastern horizon at Steamer Lane, and already dozens of neoprene-swathed bodies are bobbing on boards in the water. Dominating the human flotsam on this picture-perfect spring dawn is the standard cadre of surfers who have spent months, if not years, perfecting Steamer's unique break. But the longboarders and shortboarders don't have the world-famous point break to themselves anymore. Here too this morning are the kayaks—long, pointed bananas split in the middle by helmeted riders clutching double-ended oars in bo staff grips. And among them are the stand-up paddleboarders, upright and tall like Venetian gondoliers.

These days the latter two categories of wave rider are found in ever more frequent numbers in Santa Cruz and beyond. And this weekend, from Friday, March 26, to Sunday, March 28, the mixed company displayed this morning will see its traditional surfer population massively outnumbered when the 24th Annual Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival hits the Lane.

"It'll be a wild time," says all-around ocean addict and event founder Dennis Judson of Adventure Sports Unlimited. "People come from all around the planet to compete in this. It will have the best kayak surfers and stand-up paddleboarders there are anywhere."

The event is the largest of its kind in the world and involves nearly every way imaginable that a person can ride a wave while holding a paddle. At stake are worldwide bragging rights and a handful of prizes like new kayaks and paddleboards for which around 100 skilled paddlers will be competing. Winners in the kayak surf category usually take the podium after spectacular aerial tricks that either end in big points or big disappointments, depending on how they are landed. The contest is also a truly international affair, with folks flying in from more than 10 countries, including England, South Africa, Japan and Ireland. For Galen Licht, a UCSC student who's been kayak surfing for eight years, competing in the contest is one of the only chances he has to stack up against the world's talent in his sport.

"I just hope we get a swell like this in a couple weeks," says Licht, coming out of the water onto West Cliff Drive and hauling his dripping $2,200 Valley Rush kayak back to his station wagon. "People in this sport wait all year for this weekend. You really have to go big if you want to win anything."


New Wave

Most folks outside of Santa Cruz picture a kayak knifing through white water river rapids or drifting at a leisurely pace though scenic estuaries. And when the sport of kayak surfing first popped up in England and the United States around 1988, it was the plastic river kayaks that the pioneering surfers used.

These days, professional grade boats are built from high tech Kevlar and carbon fiber. They're lighter, smaller and tougher, and they allow a kayaker to twist, turn and launch into the air. They can also cost up to $5,000 and may only last a single season in rough waves.

Stand-up paddleboards are decidedly less expensive and are, in essence, large surfboards that can support the weight of an upright person. In 2002, Arroyo Grande wave star Fletcher Burton fashioned and rode a board 24 inches wide and 13 feet long. Back then, he says, Hawaii big wave legend Laird Hamilton was the only other surfer who had mastered the art. After that, he says, the sport caught like wildfire.

"The most amazing thing about stand-up paddleboarding is that it's really catching on worldwide," Burton says. "It's like your own little floating island, and it lets you surf any wave, no matter how small. You have an advantage over regular surfers, and sometimes that can lead to drama."

As Burton suggests, kayak surfers, stand-up paddleboarders and "regular" surfers rarely get along. And on the crowded waves at spots like Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point, tension between the camps can get downright explosive. To surfers, kayakers are too big and too bulky, while stand-up paddleboarders are wannabe surfers who can't paddle with their arms. To some kayakers and paddleboarders, surfers are egotistical purists who think that waves were made for them and them alone.

All the drama of the Streamer lineup will pause, however, for the three-day festival. And, as Judson says, people will "just have fun."

"It's crazy out here, especially this time of year. And us kayak surfers pretty much avoid this place," he says, looking out at the flotilla of surfers that seems to have doubled in size in the hour between 7am and 8am. "Getting this place to yourself never happens, so when the festival comes around it's pretty exciting. And for anyone who has never seen what these guys can do with a board or a kayak, their minds are about to be blown."

To see more photos, visit

THE SANTA CRUZ KAYAK SURF FESTIVAL rides Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz Friday–Sunday, March 26–28. Contest heats start at 7am each day, and cliffside viewing is free. Booths with merchandise, food and live entertainment will be in full swing all weekend. For more info visit

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