Surf kayakers and stand-up paddlers took to the wind-torn breakers at Steamer's Lane Friday to compete in the first day of the 26th annual weekend long Paddlefest, the largest paddle surf contest in the world.
Stormy conditions are expected to last through the weekend.
"Last year, the contest was abbreviated because there was this huge storm that shut us down," said competitor and local surf kayak hotshot Dave Johnston, 49, who is the current world champion surf kayaker in the masters division (ages 40+). Johnston hopes the wild weather won't make a repeat of last year's competition.
"it's almost déjà vu. But this year it doesn't seem like it will be as bad," said Johnston. "There should be some huge waves, which will be really exciting."
The choppy conditions presented the perfect chance for paddle surfers to show why their sport is suited for stormy conditions, as they are faster and more nimble, which allows them to catch waves that other surfers would never dream of.
"That's what a kayak is- it's like a tow-in; you can get a lot of power to catch those big waves," said Dennis Judson, event director for Paddlefest.
"That's why Laird Hamilton invented the stand-up paddle board, because he wanted to get to places like Jaw's without using a jet ski. "
The competition has divisions for stand-up paddle boards (SUP), surf kayaking and waveski, which is a kind of seated surfboard, and each division draws stiff international competition.
"This is a great venue," said Johnston. "People can watch from the cliffs. You can see all the action; you are practically right in it."
The opportunity to hot dog on Steamer's crisp wave so close to the audience on West Cliff Drive has created generations of surfing addicts in Santa Cruz, and is a large part of the allure that draws international competitors to Paddlefest.
"That's why this is one of the best competitions in the world, even though its not like a World Championships or even a National Championships. People come from all over the world because the wave is so great," said Johnston.
This year's contest features competitors from Australia, italy Spian, France, Ireland, England, and Scotland. Previous Paddlefests have had competitors from Brazil, Japan and Costa Rica.
The surfers are judged by the quality of the rides they catch, explained Judson, the event director; and style points mean a lot.
"It's the length of ride, but you've gotta to do something on the wave. And it's gotta be spectacular. The maneuvers to make are ariels, tip-floaters, and cut-backs, and reverse ariels. That's gonna be a winning ride."
Judging the sport can be tricky, however, as style is often in the eye of the beholder.
"That's the problem with surf contests – that's why this will never be an Olympic event – because you can never predict it," said Judson.
The contest will continue through Saturday and Sunday, and the wild weather may present some exciting results as the contest continues.
"When it's big, it's exciting because there are a lot of wipe-outs and 'is he going to make it?' kind of stuff, " said Johnston.
For event schedules, and more info, check Paddlefest's website, www.asudoit.com/kayak_fest/