Southland kayakers score in NoCal surfing contest

Santa Cruzin'!

By Mark Sanders, California Kayak Friends


Jack Brisley of San Pedro and California Kayak Friends, wins 3nd place at Santa Cruz Paddlefest, 2014 (photo by Peter Donohue)

Production Plastic Open

1. Sean Morley Fairfax; 2. Shawn Hartje San Rafael; 3. Jack Brisley San Pedro; 4. Daniel Wells Santa Cruz

Kayak Intermediate Open 

1. Rick Wright, Bend, Ore.; 2. Mark Sanders, Costa Mesa; 3. Robert Frisbee, Oswego, Ore.; 4. Shelly Palmer, Carolina Beach, N.C

I don’t know how many years ago I saw my first video of a surf kayaker surfing at Steamer Lane for the Santa Cruz PaddleFest–I just remember the wave was perfect! Not a giant wave, more like a watery escalator continually adding more shoulder to ride on. I’ve wanted to surf there ever since. But the Santa Cruz contest always seemed out of my league, until I found they had a novice division. With my disappointing showing at another contest last November, I decided that was the best bet for me and I could at least get my first real look at genuine Steamers.

So I entered the open division of the two day Cowells Classic, while Jack Brisley (a well-known SoCal extreme kayaker) entered the new Production Plastic division of the full-blown Steamers Lane contest. Having only just gotten over some bad back trouble, I was a bit leery and not in great shape. And though I consider it my worst surfing boat, for lots of reasons, I decided to surf my Dagger RPM Max (a relatively conservative plastic surf boat). I really just wanted to get on the water and catch a few waves; I didn’t think I’d have much chance to compete.

Saturday morn I arrived to check in for my heat and found really lousy conditions. Wind and drizzle that would fluctuate with heavy rain all through the day. Steamer’s had some decent wave action, but it was quite windblown and the area for the Cowells competition had nothing! I really considered whether I wanted to brave the wet, cold and wind just to bob around on the ocean for 20 minutes! But they postponed the event till 2pm hoping for a change in the swell and the next day things were supposed to get a lot better, so I was a go.

While waiting by the tents, I ran into Sean Morley and mentioned to him that Jack Brisley was competing too. He  said, “don’t mention his name! %#%@ beat me in our heat yesterday!” I caught up with Jack, who’d started the day before me and he said they’d had great waves on Friday and he’d had a great heat. Of course, this category was made for Jack as he loves surfing his plastic Necky Gliss (an agile plastic surf boat). He was upset that the rocky launching area required scratching up its pristine hull.

Jack Brisley’s heat:

By 2pm a good sized swell arrived. Before making the long climb down the cliff steps to the water, I sat in my car to avoid the pouring rain. Nervous, I launched early to be able to watch the heat in front of me, but ended up at the meetup zone almost an hour before my heat. While it gave me plenty of time to get some feel for the conditions, it also gave time to get chilled to the bone. I met my competitors, a nice group, but two of them were in flashy HP boats. But we were all easy going about getting on a wave and no one ever had to fight for a ride!

The waves we were riding were essentially the same as the Steamer’s except with the steepest end chopped off by the point (watch video above)! You could watch the monsters form at Steamer’s and follow it to our zone, albeit with a bit less energy.  There was quite a bit of trepidation as I dropped down that first face. I made it a rather short ride along the face before pulling out before the rest of the wave broke to head back out.

My main goal was to get at least three rides so I could get a full score. Second and tertiary goals: don’t capsize and avoid the cliff! I seem to remember making some nice moves on some waves and getting stuck in the white water till that third goal seemed in trouble. Rides were alongside the face of the waves, but tough to come over the crest to get out clean. I had no idea what my competitors were doing, but I felt a sense of relief and redemption for my prior competition and that debacle. Now and then, I tried to remember I was having fun! But while I’d lamented the lack of waves earlier in the day, I now wondered what these big rides meant for the next day, where the forecast called for 7 footers at Cowells.

I awoke in the morning not to rain, but pea soup fog, but when I got to the beach, there was sun and blue sky. I saw the amazing waves flying through Steamer’s. The SUP (Stand-Up Paddleboard) category was competing and they were tearing the waves like no other SUPers I’ve ever seen.

Those waves were BIG, but the trajectory was less at the cliffs and more parallel to the coast and there was that endless shoulder I’d envied. I’d never been near waves this big, but that shoulder still looked like a safe way out of trouble, as long as you remained wet-side down. These guys weren’t playing it easy, as evidenced by the broken SUP lapping against the rocks.

Jack Brisley was up at noon and I was there to video his heat. The waves were still big, but they headed a little more towards the cliffs. The heat before had been tearing it up, but when Jack and two others of his heat assembled in the big wave corridor, they were hit with a 3-4 minute lull! Sean Morley avoided that trouble by coming in close to the cliff to score early on some inside waves. Finally some waves showed up and I could swear Jack was at eye level with me on the cliff on top of some of those brutes! Soon they were all speeding down the faces of waves looking for a clean get-away.

Sean came flying in on one and was out of sight by the cliff, when the lifeguards all of sudden came to life. Either he came out of his boat, or his skirt imploded, but he was soon powering his way clear, half submerged with water. It was close to the end of the heat and the rest of the crew continued getting great rides.

The early morning conditions had been amazing, but my heat wasn’t until 3:20pm and the afternoon condition began to deteriorate. Waves at Steamer’s were still big, but the strong onshore wind meant we’d have to be finding the critical peak of the wave at Cowells. I was feeling looser, but the waves were definitely bigger than the day before. I think it was my second wave of the day that was my biggest ride. I remember dropping in, standing on my foot pegs to keep my bow from burying. I really think my RPM Max boat helped me here with its extra volume. I came down the trough and made a right and was flying alone the face of the wave.

Usually this is the time you’re looking for the end of that shoulder to make your exit, but there was no exit in sight! I was flying along with enough time to remember to hyperventilate, because I knew I wasn’t going to get out from under this wall of water. Foam blowing off the crest and into my face didn’t help the breathing process. I turned myself down wave as it broke and got spit forward by the mass of white water.

Perhaps I looked like I knew what I was doing, as I fought my boat flinging from side to side. Finally, I planted a high brace and fought to get out of the white stuff before I reached the rocks. When I was finally free, I thought that might be a good way to end my heat, but I couldn’t remember how many waves I’d had and figured I had to head out for more.

I tried to add some smaller waves to my dance card before I realized the wind and my last ride had me well out of the real surf area. I hurried back and was able to get a couple more short rides. Near the end of the heat, a good sized wave peaked up.  The waves had been big and fast, but I don’t know how they scored, as I was more interested in living through them than trying any fancy moves. But wherever I ended up in the mix, I was happy with what I’d been able to do while riding my glorified barrel.

I met up with Jack Brisley back at the main tent where we waited for the award ceremony. It was quite touching, as the man who started the SC Paddlefest was giving up the reins after 28 years in charge! I saw more than a few of the winners from my last competition where I lost go up to receive their award for this contest.  Two of the biggest winners, quite a surprise to me, were two young paddlers from the Basque Country who took first and second in the High Performance category.

Along with nice medals, there was some nice money handed out for some categories. One sponsor donated money for the first and second place winners for the Production Plastic kayak division. They spoke of how these boats were how kayak surfing began, they being the only boats available in the early days. And they mention the courage it took to ride waves like we’d had. Sean Morley got to pick up a check for first place. Jack Brisley took the 3rd place medal.

And as for the Cowells Classic, they called out the 3rd and 4th place winners, which seemed to leave me out of the mix, but then, turns out I pulled out a second place finish! It is truly more than I thought I could manage when I started.

And I have a year to wonder if 2nd place at Cowells means I’m ready to brave Steamer Lane next time.

Full results from the event:

Mark Sanders

California Kayak Friends

California Kayak Friends:  — The Ventura County group usually meets Sunday mornings at about 9 A.M. at Kiddie Beach in Channel Islands Harbor, Oxnard South of the Coast Guard Station on Victoria Ave., to do paddling much less difficult than described above.

also read (includes event results)


Mark Sanders is a kayaker, writer and musician, residing in Costa Mesa. He never dreamed he’d be doing anything like this 5 years ago.

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