A wooden sign at a remote beach in Central California is carved with the words “dangerous surf.” That is why, on the first weekend in December each year, surf kayakers descend on Jalama Beach. In their tiny boats, they are hoping to ride big waves kicked up by winter storms.
LOMPOC, Calif. — By BILL BECHER
Say “surfing” and “California” and most people picture a tanned young man in board shorts standing on a surfboard. Kayak surfers don helmets and neoprene tops, and stuff themselves into what look like short river kayaks, but with a flat, surfboard-like bottom and fins.
Using a double-ended paddle for power, surf kayakers launch from the beach and watch the breaking waves, timing their entry so they can punch through a smaller wave.
Wedged in tightly for maximum control, the kayak surfers cannot jump off when they wipe out or easily duck-dive under a big wave like a board surfer. They have to ride out a mistake upside down, with their heads in the water like keels in the surging whitewater, until they can Eskimo roll back upright.
“You have to stay calm and accept the beating,” said Rusty Sage, a member of the United States West Coast kayak surfing team that won the world championship in Costa Rica in 2005. Sage is also a former national champion freestyle river kayaker. Because whitewater for kayakers is in limited supply in Southern California, many river kayakers cross-train in the surf.
When things go right in the surf, it is a rush like no other. A few quick paddle strokes match your speed to the hurrying wave, you plunge down the steep face and make a bottom turn that sends you shooting along the curl.
“The feeling when you catch a big wave can’t be duplicated in life,” Sage, 25, of Reno, Nev., said in a telephone interview. “You come off with a scream of pure excitement.”
While the screams were more muted this year at Jalama — the waves were not as monstrous as in previous years and fewer kayakers showed up, about 30 — the mornings produced eight-foot glassy waves that delighted the kayak surfers, who shared some waves with a pair of dolphins.
“Dolphins like to have fun,” said Erik Miller, 44, a United States West team member from Idaho. “Dolphins are my favorite people to surf with.”
Along with the dolphins, some of the best surf kayakers in the country often show up at Jalama.
Randy Phillips, 52, a local and a kayak designer who some consider to be the godfather of kayak surfing, has been organizing the event he calls the Jalama Expression Session for 11 years. He said it was modeled after get-togethers that board surfers had in the 1960s to show off their moves without the pressure of competition.
“There are no fees, no judges, it’s just a gathering,” Phillips said.
Jalama also attracts what he called “the brain trust” of kayak design. Because surf kayaking is such a niche sport, there are only a handful of surfboat manufacturers, and most come to Jalama to show off their latest designs.
Modern surf kayaks are hand-built using light and strong carbon-Kevlar composite materials. Phillips’s designs are handmade in England. The kayaks have pockets in their flat surfboard-like bottoms that allow kayakers to add and adjust the position of plastic fins. The fins help the boats track in the water and maintain speed on a wave.
While surf kayaks have borrowed terminology and design elements from surfboards, that does not mean board surfers always see sit-in-a-boat surfers as kin. Some call kayak surfers “butt-surfers” and yell “stand up” when they see them on a wave. At California’s more crowded surf breaks, animosity toward kayak surfers is not uncommon.
“The majority of board surfers don’t like to be around their own kind, so how could you expect them to accept another form of surfing?” Phillips said.
But the vibe at Jalama, a remote, curving, sun-soaked beach, is laid-back and friendly. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train rumbles by over a steel trestle and palm trees provide a bit of shade. Jalama is the only public beach on 38 miles of coastline.
“There is a place for everybody,” said Don Kline, a surfer from Valencia, Calif.
Phillips said his philosophy was, “Give a wave, make a friend.” With powerful paddle strokes, surf kayakers can catch waves that board surfers cannot and can surf in more adverse conditions. So Phillips advocates letting board surfers catch a wave first, and letting them have the easier-to-catch waves.
“It’s all about sharing the stoke and sharing the waves,” he said.
It is also about observing the unwritten but rigid etiquette of surfing, or as some call them, “the rules of engagement.” For example, the surfer closest to the peak of the wave owns the wave, and others need to get out of the way. Snaking — trying to get in front of a surfer near the peak of a wave — is a no-no.
On a Saturday night at the Jalama Expression Session, Phillips set out barbequed tri-tip sirloin and chicken, chili beans, salad and garlic bread. A cooler filled with margaritas stirred with a broken paddle is another tradition. After the sun set, the kayakers watched video of the day’s exploits and carnage projected on a portable screen, yelling and laughing.
At dawn the next morning, the kayakers paddle out through the pounding surf, and sit patiently beyond the breakers, waiting for that one perfect wave.