My ride — a custom Infinity wave ski, shaped by Steve Boehne. Credit, Paul McHugh

A Duffer’s Personal Drama

I stood beside Dennis Judson on the bluff above Steamer Lane, quietly sipping coffee. Well, that’s what Dennis was doing. Me, I let him know I’d arrived next to him by giving him a vigorous poke in the ribs. It nearly made him drop his cup of brew straight into the surf. (I can fit myself gracefully into any social situation. It’s a gift.)

“Jesus!” Dennis said. “You’re like that guy in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. ‘Ya havin’ a nice mornin’? Yeah? Really? Well, I can fix it!’”

I demurred. I know Dennis really didn’t mean to call me Jesus. I’m nowhere near that sweet. I even have flaws, some of which are detectable.

I modestly changed the subject. “Boy, look at those,” I said, pointing to the fat, substantial waves, rolling up to fling themselves onto rocks at the base of the cliff where we stood. “I’d call those Goldilocks swells! Not too big, not too small. J-u-s-t right.”

NOAA had called for 6-8 footers at a 16-second interval; it looked like their prediction had scored a bullseye. I met up with Dennis just after sunrise on Saturday second day of the 30th Annual Santa Cruz Paddlefest. He and I fell silent as we contemplated the surf. Mentally, we were likely doing the same thing: visualizing our rides on such sweet swells amid upcoming heats. My own heat, Wave Ski Open, would come at noon, after the tide started to drop – which would sharpen the crests and steepen the faces on these babes.

Sampling the peace and beauty of a dawn patrol. (You can see my board has the proper displacement for a man of my size.) Credit, Dawn Garcia

My Vehicle is a Monster

In more time than it takes to tell it – considerably more – I got around to untying my custom wave ski from the top of car and lugging it down the stairs at Cowells. Dana Point shaper Steve Boehne and I had put our heads together on design specs, then he’d built this ski for me. There might be better tools for wave riders, but this board suits my style (what there is of it) to a “T.” Frankly, it’s a monster: 11 feet long, 27 inches wide at the seat, with a pintail and two fin boxes, lined up one behind the other in the center. In the first, I have a 4-inch thruster, in the second I have a 3-incher, next comes the pintail. I find this configuration is directional enough, while keeping the board fast and loose.

Experienced surfers might assess that, with such a rig such as my ideal, I must prefer large waves (yes, indeedy). Consequently, my style is more “long-boarder” than not.

I winced at the opening night party when Paddlefest director (I think that was his job description) Mat Hoff announced a few new judging standards, saying the highest scores would be awarded for flashy moves in the pocket. “I want to see the bottom of your boat, and spray coming off of your tail. Length of ride won’t be a big consideration. If you pull four hot moves and bail out, that will score much higher than three moves spread over a longer ride.”

Well, dang! That latter strategy is very much my own.

With the first day’s modest waves on Friday, I deployed my strategy to a rather predictable result: I only came in 3rd in my heat. Saturdays’ waves now looked more promising, but I wasn’t about to sprout a new set of feathers, if you know what I mean. At my age, the plumage I’ve shown thus far is pretty much all anyone shall ever see, going forward.

Length-of-ride and wave selection had been top point factors, back in my day. Yet time had marched on, as is its wont.

Cruisin’ along on a small wave. Credit, Dawn Garcia

A Skateboarding/Snowboarding Hex

Surfing in all its forms has been injected (inoculated? Infected?) by the flashy moves of snowboarding and skateboarding. And in the case of kayak surfing, by whitewater rodeo tricks as well. A curmudgeon can whine all he wants, but if he can’t adopt or at least adapt to changing styles, it’s smartest to just get out of the way.

Which I’d done, for about a decade or so. Rather than compete, I’d show up at the Paddlefest and merely observe the proceedings. Then my big Aha! moment came. I realized, I shouldn’t worry about being competitive any longer. Instead, I ought to cheerfully pay for a berth in a heat in order to be able to surf Steamer Lane with only three other dudes out on the water with me. Captain Kirk was right: space is the final frontier – especially when it comes to famously crowded surf breaks.

And so it came to pass that, on this Saturday, I hopped on my Infinity ski, and paddled out onto Steamer Lane for Heat 15, my shootout at high noon. Not that I planned to really go head-to-head with the other lads. They could ride in their way; I’d ride in mine. Nevertheless, a squadron of butterflies did the Lindy Hop in my stomach. The swells had not only steepened, they seemed much bigger. Even the outer break of Middle Peak seemed poised to go off.

I positioned myself outside of the competition zone, and started to range take-off points with landmarks on shore. A pelican swooped by, gliding on the pad of compressed air that forms on the front of an onrushing wave. “He’s showing what I should do,” I told myself. “Just enjoy the place where I am, and glide in serenity.”

But I looked over my shoulder and noticed that Outer Middle Peak was about to land right on top of me. I scratched desperately to get over the swell shoulder, lost that race, and got gobbled alive. I reeled the ski back with my ankle leash, saw the next wave was still bigger, and got thrashed again.

Finally, laughing at myself, I was able to remount. “Don’t have to worry about getting my hair wet now!” I thought. (Not that I have hair.)

Blastin’ back to the pocket on a larger wave. Credit, Tom Gomes

Dropping on the Set Wave

At the judge’s stand, the signal horn hooted, the color flag switched to green, and our 19-minute heat clock began to run. I’d noted a good take-off spot just outside a line between the lighthouse and the competition zone buoy. I went there. As soon as I arrived, a lump reared up behind me. I threw a flurry of strokes, the swell walled, then I was riding and a dial flicked to “game on.”

BIG face. I had plenty of room to play, yet not much time to play, not if I wanted to make the section to my right. So I flung a few cutbacks back and forth on my way toward the bottom, decided not to go all the way down, cruised back up the face, saw the peak was about to topple and decided it was time to make my run. I threw my ski on its right rail, leaned forward to weight the nose and started to make spray sizzle.

Barely in the nick of time. The crest folded over my tail and foam shot out around me, whapping into my spine like buckshot. I turned down to gain more speed, then reset the rail. I saw this wave would hold up and offer me a fast-moving wall that traveled all the way to the judges’ stand. Everything was occurring at warp speed now, I was right in the pocket and my adrenalin-fueled focus dialed down to two key concerns: would I be able to make the corner (get past the rocky promontory holding the judges’ stand); and would I be able to bail out over the lip if things got tight?

May I have the envelope, please! Riii-i-p-p. (Scan.) OK!

In order, sir, your answers are: Yes and No.

I shot past the corner, the wave wall thundered down on me, and I had two fresh concerns: would this thing pound me into the next curve of rocky cliff; and would I be dinged for interference by sliding into the next contest zone, where at this time intermediate SUP surfers were competing?

The answers now: Yes, if you don’t do something; and Yes, if you don’t do something.

So I did something.

Popped my waistbelt, flipped over, bailed off my board, and deployed my body as a sea anchor. As I sank into harsh turbulence, I felt my ankle leash yank and stretch my right leg, oh, about six inches longer. While I waited to bob up through the foam, I grabbed the leash and reeled in my ski. When I could catch a breath, I saw there were more big waves arriving in the set. The SUP guys in the next contest zone could grab ‘em without worrying any about me.

Good, because I had to worry about me. I was held down and pummeled four more times. And I’ll tell you the truth. Amid the experience, I got myself to chill and conserve breath by mentally repeating the mantra of Jay Moriarity after he took his famed big, heinous, first wipe-out at Maverick’s: “Remember, this is what you’ve trained for.”

During the intervals I was able to frog kick myself and the ski a few yards further off from the rocks. Next a blessed long interval of low swell arrived, and I was able to remount and scoot on out of the impact zone.

I panted while I paddled back out to the line-up, seeking to recover from severe oxygen debt. As I stroked, I thought, “It cost you $150 to enter this contest. And you just rode a $150 wave.”

But a downside was, dealing with that ride and its turbulent aftermath consumed nearly half my time in the heat. Next, I caught a medium-size swell and did what I could, which wasn’t much. With a few minutes remaining, I tried to set up again, but some crossed signals with my heat-mates (i.e. Are you gonna go on this one? Or should I take it? Wait, you’re not going?) meant that I failed to score another ride.

The horn blew, I caught a ride back to the stairs at Cowells. I climbed up them, marveling that my legs seemed to have magically returned to the same length. Strapped my wave ski on the car, changed clothes. Carried my heat jersey back to the registration table. Glanced down at the heat sheets, saw that I’d come in second this time.

Huh. How about that.

Drivin’ hard to make my section on a big wave. Credit, Tom Gomes

About to bail off into a close-out and get clobbered. Credit, Tom Gomes