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[whitespace] Dave Johnston Swell Guy: Dave Johnston has pioneered some dazzling tricks in the relatively new sport of surf kayaking.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Water Hazard

World champion surf kayaker Dave Johnston prepares to defend his title at Steamer Lane

By Christa Fraser

JUST MOMENTS before the Santa Cruz Surf Kayak Competition last year, Dave Johnston made sure to buckle his seat belt. The waves at Steamer Lane were bigger than they had been in a while: "They were 10-foot, crushing monsters," Johnston recalls.

If he was thrown off a big wave, he could be driven underwater. The force might eject him from his small kayak, and he didn't want to be quit of his boat during the contest. He craved the ultimate control over his boat so he could perform his acrobatic moves more precisely. So, before his first heat of the day, he took an old, quick-release diving weight belt and rigged it to his kayak seat.

"If I flip, and I don't come up, they are going to have to come get me," he said, half grinning.

He flipped many times during the competition weekend, wowing the crowds with his unique moves, always righting himself. His Kevlar boats, however, did not fare so well. Both of his surf kayaking boats broke in the big surf, as did one of his paddles.

Johnston vividly remembers the setup just before he broke one of the boats, which he had borrowed for the contest. He started on the left side of a large middle-peak wave. He carved to the lip, "did a nice floater" and then landed flat on the water.

"I was driven under," he recalls, "and the boat 'tacoed.' I knew I was in trouble when my legs were coming up toward my head."

Being held under a big wave in a boat that's coming apart is an experience that's hard for the uninitiated to imagine.

"It's silent under water," Johnston explains. "I usually close my eyes and imagine what's happening. You feel weightless and like you are floating just before you go through the washing machine."

That courage and panache are what make Dave Johnston the best surf kayaker in the world--and he has the trophies to prove it. Though he didn't take home any honors at last year's local competition, his determination and style earned him the top prize for Men's International Class in the biannual World Surf Kayaking Championships. He also nabbed a second place in Men's Freestyle (first place went to fellow Californian Ken King).

The events were held two years ago in the warm waters outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in a town called Barra. The contest took place just after a storm that brought in juicy waves.

"For me, it was like having the best vacation of my life and getting a prize for having the most fun," he says.

Water World

THIS YEAR, for the second time, the World Championships and the Santa Cruz Surf Kayak Festival will be combined and hosted in Santa Cruz at Manresa State Beach and at Steamer Lane. Santa Cruz also hosted the first-ever United States surf kayak competition in the mid-'80s.

Besides being an individual competitor, Johnston is a member of the overall champion team, USA West. The team took first place in Brazil and will be defending its title this year. The team knows how to take home the gold, a record it started by winning the International Surf Kayaking competition in Ireland in 1988.

At 38, Johnston is not the oldest member of his 16-person team, but he is the only one with kids. Dave and his wife, Sheila Campbell (who is the official team chiropractor), recently celebrated the birth of their second child, Ruby. They also have a 6-year-old son, Robin. It should come as no surprise that Johnston is a family man--the San Jose native is the ninth child of 11 siblings.

Johnston, who has lived in Santa Cruz for 21 years, majored in physics and math at UCSC. He is also the director of the university's kayaking program, teaches classes for Santa Cruz and Capitola Parks and Recreation departments, and runs his own kayak outfit, Venture Quest Kayaks on Beach Street. And as if ripping it up on the water wasn't enough, he also competes in Ultimate Frisbee, a sport he says he loves nearly as much as kayaking.

Surf Kayakers
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Tricks of the Trade

JOHNSTON'S LIFELONG passion for kayaking began while he was teaching kayaking classes for Western Mountaineering, once located on Pacific Avenue. His first love was whitewater kayaking, a sport that is akin to playing pinball with your body on a moving conveyor belt full of powerful currents, waves, recirculating holes and large obstacles.

For a while, Johnston participated in Class V whitewater, the most challenging level of river kayaking. But the experience of being brutally held under and recirculated twice in "keeper holes"--the meeting spot of two currents moving in opposite directions--tempered his enthusiasm for pushing the limits in whitewater.

Nonetheless, he still enjoys some whitewater paddling each year. He descends the San Lorenzo River after big storms, and has also kayaked the Grand Canyon.

About 15 years ago, Johnson decided to switch over to surf kayaking in the ocean.

"The thing that I like about it is that you are connected to your vessel. When you get tossed by a wave, you aren't thrown off," he explains. "It's great for doing tricks."

Most impressive is one of his signature moves, which he calls the Karate Chop. His recipe for the move?

"Hit the lip, then throw the boat around in a 360-degree turn, cartwheel or barrel roll off the lip (depending on the wave). When the stern smacks around and hits the front of the wave, it looks like a karate chop."

While those kinds of acrobatics are essential for scoring the kind of points it takes to win, they can be the decisive blow that crumples an expensive boat.

"I am known as a boat abuser," Johnston admits. "I put my boat in between myself and harm's way."

Yet Johnston insists that pushing his skill level is more important than the expense of replacing his boats. "I get a deal on the boats, and I try to push the limits. I don't worry about the boat breaking when I am learning new tricks."

The sport and the technology that go with surf kayaking are still relatively new, so there's a good chance that lots of new tricks have yet to be introduced. Old-school veterans have only been in the sport for around 20 years.

"Since it is a new sport, no one has taught me how to do it," Johnston says. "I look to board surfers for inspiration."

Surf Kayaker Photograph by George Sakkestad

Boards vs. Boats

BOARD SURFERS, however, do not tend to share the same reverence for surf kayakers in the crowded local lineups. According to Johnston, "The reason for the stigma is that kayaks are bigger, less maneuverable. They can't get off a wave and out of the way of other surfers and rocks as easily."

"They are great for doing tricks," he adds, "but not so great for public safety. Kayaks are dangerous in a crowd. I want to encourage kayakers to surf places that aren't as crowded as [Steamer] Lane. Normally when I surf the Lane, I take the leftovers. I will be the last one in the lineup."

So where does he recommend fellow surf kayakers go to play and practice?

"I go up the coast, usually to Scotts Creek or Davenport, or go out when there are lots of waves, plenty for everyone."

Because kayakers have the added leverage of paddles, they can paddle out to distant breaks, even those a mile offshore. Johnston suggests paddling "a distance away, up the coast, somewhere sharkier, somewhere with less people." He is confident that kayakers' boats keep them safe from shark attacks.

Because many surfers have protested the contest and surf kayaking in general, contest organizers have made attempts to involve area surfers. Surf ambassadors, like Vince Collier, are hired to keep the waves clear for kayak heats over the weekend.

It's a great gig for the surfers who take the job, too. They are able to surf an uncrowded Steamer Lane--a rarity on a good wave day.

This year, the contest for surf kayakers will offer the same euphoric hopes and exhausting disappointments as any athletic competition does for any aspiring victor.

Johnston says he is in top form for this year's competition, but still he aims to keep his hopes and expectations at a realistic ebb. "It is not fun during the contest when time is running out, and you are praying for a wave. It is not fun when it's close and you lose.

"It shouldn't be all about the contests and winning," he continues, "because then only one person is not disappointed at the end. It should be all about surfing."

Whether or not he keeps his titles this year, the reigning king of surf kayaking has got the ultimate prize in the bag. For Dave Johnston, it is all about the pleasures of the surf.

The 2001 World Surf Kayaking Competition takes place March 13-18. Preliminaries will be at Manresa State Beach March 13-14; final rounds will be held at Steamer Lane March 16-18. For more information, call Dennis Judson at 831.458.3648 or visit www.asudoit.com/KayakWorldChampionships.htm.

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From the March 7-14, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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