Chapter 1: Daunted
The swell and breaking waves seemed to come from every possible direction as the wind picked up and the tide dropped - it was already a stormy day that looked more menacing by the minute. Kelly and Tree chose steep drops on waves breaking right by the exposed, seaweed coated Mushroom Rock. Squeezed into one of Kelly’s surf kayaks, I could no longer feel my feet despite removing a ton of foam from the bow. I looked at Greg and asked, “Okay, I guess we start catching waves?” He shook his head and then then built up the courage to surf one. The Surfline forecast predicted a 3-5 foot day, instead the waves were more like a blustery 6-9 feet.
After watching Kelly take another steep take off right by the rock, I saw her several attempts to roll as a large set pounded her upside down hull dragging her upside down. I was in over my head and ready to try and catch the smallest wave in the set I could find just to shake the fear. Right as I mustered the courage to catch a wave, a large set came through before I could paddle further outside. One really large one caught me as I back surfed for about 5 seconds (which felt like flying and was, in hindsight, fun) before the wave steepened and flipped my boat end over end.
I waited upside down, feeling the pull of the undertow weaken, then tried roll attempt one. Fail. Then roll attempt two. Another fail. On my second attempt, I caught a glimpse of the next wave about to break on top of me. Instead of holding my breath and waiting, I decided to bail. I wiggled out of the kayak right before the wave broke on me and held onto the boat as we both got dragged a bit. I felt so embarrassed. I hadn’t swum in years and it hurt my pride to wet exit after only trying twice when I encourage my roll students to try three, four, sometimes five times before giving up.
Kelly performed a great deep water rescue because we were a good quarter mile from shore and I wiggled back into my kayak and practiced rolling again while Tree spotted me - this time successfully. In one way, I felt relieved: the worst that could happen kinda happened and I was fine. The conditions were deteriorating and we all decided to paddle back to Mavericks Beach together. Greg and I caught some smaller waves closer to the beach and I felt my courage come back, just barely.
Once on shore while emptying the remaining water from the kayak, I thought to myself: maybe I’m just not meant to do this.
Chapter 2: Hopeful
Around Thanksgiving last year, I signed up to compete at the Cowell’s Classic, the beginner/intermediate division at Santa Cruz Paddlefest, a three-day kayak and stand up paddle board surfing event that takes place at the well-known breaks Steamer Lane and, it’s little brother, Indicators. Several of my close kayaking friends had began surfing only a few years before and I watched as their joy and expertise grew.
This perennial event brought the community together in such a beautiful way. The different divisions for advanced and intermediate made competing very approachable. For the past three years, Cali Collective has hosted a pre-competition surf clinic to help competitors prepare for the event and bring enthusiasts down to practice on Santa Cruz’s dreamy waves. Since taking part in the first clinic, I always had competing one day on my radar but didn’t feel ready.
After surfing in whitewater boats for the past three years, I thought signing up for a competition would motivate me to level up my skills and get into a real surf boat. That it did.
Chapter 3: Hold up … what is surf kayaking?
I should probably pause here to describe surf kayaking. Surf kayaks come in a few different shapes and configurations but they’re kind of like a surfboard on the bottom with a kayak on the top. Some have fins (high performance) and some don’t (international class). They can be long, up to 9 feet and beyond, or short and nimble. Surf kayaking is like surfing but you catch a lot more waves because of your paddle and the ability to quickly build speed. It’s easier to control your positioning on the wave. But unlike a board, in which you use your feet and weight for control, with a surf kayak you use your butt, legs, and, to some degree, your paddle. Paddling out is sometimes harder and sometimes easier depending on the waves and swell period.
I got into surf kayaking, because I love kayaking and I love surfing. In the same session, I can catch two times the number of waves on a kayak that I can with a board. I feel so much more nimble in the surf in a kayak than I do most time on a longboard. After I first surfed a Dagger Axiom while assisting at the second ever Cali Collective surf clinic in Bolinas, I quickly got hooked. I bought my own Axiom the next week.
My dear friend and co-conspirator/instructor, Kelly Henry, kept trying to lure me out of a whitewater boat and into a proper surf kayak. For two years, I wouldn’t budge. I was having so much fun in my Axiom that I didn’t see the point. It was comfortable and I never missed a roll. In other words: I rarely challenged myself.
Chapter 4: Nervous
After signing up for Santa Cruz Paddlefest, I excitedly told Kelly I was ready to “get more serious about surf kayaking.” That’s when she invited me to join her, Tree, and Greg at Mushroom Rock a few weeks after she and Tree had gotten back from the World Surf Kayaking Championships in Portrush, Ireland. After the setback of swimming that day, I questioned whether I should go back to the Axiom or even compete at Santa Cruz PaddleFest at all. Kelly and Tree encouraged me to start trying different surf kayaks and actually practice rolling them. It sounds like simple advice to follow, but when you’re nervous and hard on yourself, like I was/am, you want to minimize the potential for failure. Mostly, I put saving face before progress.
Chapter 5: Feeling Myself
Coming back to the Bay after spending much of December and January travelling, I needed some instruction and more time in the surf, so I signed up for Kelly and Sean Morley’s surf kayaking clinic through River & Ocean. That class was a turning point for me in a lot of ways.
For one, Kelly and Sean are two amazing instructors whom I admire and any time spent with them -- either playing in the surf as friends, as a student in their classes or instructing or assisting in a co-taught class -- is gold. With the class’ focus on getting ready for competition, my own focus in turn shifted from a negative intention: don’t embarrass myself in front of people I respect to a more positive intention: let’s try some new things in a comfortable environment. I’m grateful to Mat Hoff for letting me borrow his Mega Banshee for the class. This was the first composite surf kayak I tried that took the fear and discomfort out of surf kayaking for me. The Banshee is long, fast, turns great, and is easy to roll. The other students in the class were friends and skilled boaters most of whom I’d surfed with in the past and felt comfortable pushing myself with. The instructors, the boat, my classmates: the trio made me feel re-invigorated about surf kayaking.
Two weeks later, I got the opportunity to safety boat for Mat Hoff and Marcel Bieg during their Paddle Golden Gate Symposium surf kayak class at Dillon Beach. Seeing students and instructors alike have so much fun and tirelessly go for wave after wave gave more inspiration. That’s also where I fell in love with a new boat. I’m grateful to Lily Kelsey for letting me test her Mega Bullit S during that class. The boat surfs and catches waves like a champ and is just as easy to roll as my Axiom. On so many waves, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t flip at times when I surely would have in other surf boats - this kayak was so forgiving. Needless to say, I bought the boat.
Chapter 6: Ocean Beach Is a Great Teacher
As the event neared, the nervousness and ego crept back in but my spirits remained high. On a small, 3-5 foot day, I decided to join my boyfriend, Julien, at Ocean Beach and surf my new Bullit while he board surfed. Paddling out was a bit of a struggle and got derailed by hopping out to help a friend get a fish hook unstuck from her wetsuit (!). But once finally out, I made my way to the outer break and started surfing the smallest waves I could find. After a few short rides, I built up the courage for a bigger one. The ride went great until it peaked again going over another sandbar and dumped close to shore. After another dumpy ending and a close call with a hydrofoil SUP, I decided to call it a day just 45 minutes after paddling out.
Something about that session, mostly being the sole surf kayaker and getting into dumpy surf, brought my nerves back. Friends told me to “chill out” and “it’s only your first competition - don’t be nervous!” In one conversation, I finally admitted that a large part of my nervousness stemmed from not wanting to fail in public and risk peers or students seeing me as a less capable instructor in all aspects of paddling, not just surfing. I couldn’t shake the fear of failure.
Chapter 7: Santa Cruz PaddleFest
I woke up early in Santa Cruz the Thursday before the even started to join other lady surf kayakers for the annual Cali Collective clinic. It was so windy and rainy, I thought for sure we’d cancel it. But when we got to the parking lot, Devon Barker-Hicks declared, “come on ladies, let’s get changed quickly so we can get out before conditions worsen.”
Per usual, I moved at a sloth’s pace pausing to ask Kelly as many questions as I could think of while putting on a cold, wet wetsuit. Once on the water, the fun kicked into high gear. The vibe on the water -- as with all Cali Collective events -- is nothing short of magical. I felt inspired, challenged, supported, and stoked. Cowell’s served up some nice but windy surf while we held mock heats and received excellent feedback from Devon, Kelly, and Tree. After that session my new intention really sunk in: oh, wait, this is what it feels like to focus on the fun.
The next two days were an amazing whirlwind of hanging out, supporting friends while they competed at Steamers, and soaking in Haven’s handmade wooden hot tub. On the day of my heat, I felt grateful to share waves with friends. Paddling out, Melissa, gave me a pep talk, I thanked the ocean for the opportunity to play in it and headed out to warm up.
When the horn blasted signaling the beginning of our heat, we paddled out and I took the first wave. Miraculously, I didn’t feel nervous at all; I just felt lucky to be there in the moment, able to surf this amazing break with rad ladies while some of my favorite dancehall beats vibrated from behind the judges' booth (it’s Santa Cruz, after all). I even felt sad when the 20 minutes was up. The photos taken of me that heat depict a scene of pure joy: laughing, tongue out, upside down, grooving in my kayak on the green.
Fixing My Intention
At the risk of sounding cheesy, what I've learned is a lesson in intention-setting. The nervousness and fear I experienced in the weeks leading up to the event evaporated because I fixed my intention from a negative focus to a positive focus -- from ugh, don’t embarrass yourself to holy crap, this is an amazingly fun opportunity. That new intention imbued my performance with a lightened sense of possibility rather than an ego-driven averseness to failure. And at the end of the three-day fest, I had surfed my butt off, I had fun with some fearless ladies, I watched some of the best surf kayakers and SUP surfers in the world tear up Steamers, I got first place in my division and won a whole bunch of really cool sunscreen. I hope to come back. Every year.