PADDLING OUT: 31st Annual Santa Cruz Paddlefest

Chris Bensch paddling out in practice. One of my favorite shots from this year.

The Santa Cruz Paddlefest is always a highlight of my year! The gathering of the paddle surf tribe in Santa Cruz, CA, to surf the world-class waves on offer at Steamer Lane, is a special time and place to be alive. The Lane always seems to deliver the goods for the competitions, but every once in a while throws the event a curve ball, like this year.

Pelican’s are just awesome, and really hard to photograph well.

Just a pigeon, but an awesome pigeon photo. Thanks for the suggestion Julie Mitrovich.

Always have some friendly sea otters to surf with at the Lane, but rarely with babies.

Always a ton of beautiful flowers blooming along the cliffs this time of year in Santa Cruz.

This year’s curve ball was some pretty stormy weather on the first day of the competition. Winds were howling onshore, swell was in the water, but chaotic, and the rain was coming down hard. Early in the afternoon event organizers had to call off the rest of the day’s competition heats, as there were growing safety concerns, and it was becoming hard to find surfable waves. This was only the 2nd time in the event’s 31-year history that any competition heats were cancelled. This year it worked out for the best though, as the cancelled Friday heats were made up Sunday morning, in much better surfing conditions.

Buck & Kyle survey the scene before gearing up for practice.

CA Women’s Watersport Collective free surf clinic before the comp.

For me, this year was sadly like many others, where I didn’t get out in my surf kayak at all between competitions. For this one I hadn’t even been in any sort of kayak in months, but still showed up and paddled out. I surfed for about an hour each day for six days strait, with three of those days practicing before the competition. I can honestly still say that I’m not sure if my roll is any good, as I never flipped over in those six days on the water. Not something I really worry about, as I’ve been teaching rolling for over 17 years, but something that stays in the back of your mind when you haven’t done one in many months, especially when on the water in challenging conditions. I’ve been dealing with some back pain issues lately, one of the main factors that has kept me out of a kayak, so I didn’t really want to aggravate things by practicing rolling.

Tyler Lausten going for air in the messy Friday conditions.

The wind and rain was so bad Friday that the judges huddled under the judging platform, after it was partially dismantled so it wouldn’t blow away.

I competed in two classes again this year; International Class (IC), which is a 3m or longer kayak with out fins and High Performance (HP), which is a shorter than 3m kayak with the option to use fins. Both are crazy fun, but also very different in style, technique and feel.

The BBQ at Adventure Sports Unlimited Thursday night is the traditional event kickoff.

The annual Friday night happy hour at Olita’s on the SC Warf.

Friday night party at Ponos is always a good time. The raffle was held there this year, and I won a new Werner paddle!

My IC heat on Friday was in the middle of the day, just before the competition was called off for the day. It was a very chaotic surf zone and I was sliding all over wave faces, with the combination of choppy water, high wind and no fins, getting a 3rd place finish in my 4 man heat. Saturday’s IC heat went much better, as I surfed a number of fun quality waves and got a 2nd in my heat. Luckily high scoring heats and those placements snuck me into the IC final on Sunday, where I was able to get on the podium with a 3rd place finish. I managed to catch three waves in that final heat, two of which were worthy scoring waves and one of which was just a massive late drop and a soft shoulder. HUGE smiles were on everyone’s faces after that final!

Dennis Judson, event founder and 70+yr old kayak surfer, is just a badass! I can only hope to be crushing it like he does in my 70s!!!

This is the spot most competitors tried to avoid being, stuck between a big set and the cliffs/rocks. We had just one swim and one broken paddle in this zone this year.

Jim Grossman was the most dynamic kayak surfer this year. Yes, he stuck this floater!

Arguably the premier event at the Santa Cruz Paddlefest is the HP Open Class, as any gender can compete and the short finned boats offer up some of the most impressive dynamic maneuvers possible. Once again I think I underperformed in this class, ending up in about 16th place, out of a 23 person field. My HP heat on Friday was canceled due to the weather. My HP heat on Saturday morning was a frustrating one that found me hunting for waves. While I did come up with one really high scoring one, I couldn’t find anything else to surf in the 19min heat, landing me in 4th place. On Sunday morning I was able to make up the cancelled heat from Friday, and did well with a second place finish in the heat. Sadly a 4th and a 2nd won’t get you through to semi-finals in such a stacked field of competitors. The up side is that I was able to refocus on taking great images during the semis and finals of HP Open.

Mat Hoff, event manager, tearing it up in the HP Open final, earning himself a 2nd place finish.

A HUGE thank you has to go out to Mathew Hoff and Tiffani Hall for organizing this world-class event, and continuing to due justice to its storied legacy. I’d also like to personally thank Buck Johnson for the use of his Murky Waters Salsa IC kayak, as without it I would not have been able to get on the podium for the second time in my five-year history with the event. A shout out also has to go out to Tom Shores for having me aboard his powerboat, which allowed me to get all the on water shots this year.

The kayak ladies cheer on the SUP ladies.

The water rescue crew was onsite and attentive all weekend.

The SUP surfers put on an impressive show, no matter what wave conditions were thrown at them.

For more of my images & coverage of the 31st annual SCPF check out these posts:

Canoe & Kayak- WAVE WARS: The 31st Annual Santa Cruz Paddlefest

SUP The Mag- Santa Cruz Paddlefest Gallery and Results

For even more of my images from this year’s SCPF check out these FB albums:

FACES: Santa Cruz Paddlefest 2017

SHORT BOATS: Santa Cruz Paddlefest 2017

LONG BOATS: Santa Cruz Paddlefest 2017

SUP: Santa Cruz Paddlefest 2017

For full results & events details check out the SCPF official website:

Photo of me in HP Open, by Paul McHugh.

Photo of me in the IC finals, by Paul McHugh.

The IC Podium.

Tom Shores piloted the support/photo boat all weekend. The on water shots are thanks to him. Cheers…

Classic Steamer Lane signage 🙂

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