Thursday, May 21, 2009
Buck Johnson promised thrills and spills. The sea delivers both.
Spills come first, as I’m paddling through the white water, out past the breakers, which seems a bit like throwing uppercuts at a wall while the wall throws buckets of saltwater in my face. And sometimes the wall flips the kayak and spits me towards the sand.
Johnson, an international champ who lives in Prunedale, shouts words of encouragement. He’s already paddled out to calmer waters – so has my fellow newbie, who’s athletic and anxious to catch his first wave. He surfs. He kayaks. But neither he nor I have ever tried surf kayaking.
Johnson, on the other hand, is a pro. He’s been competing for six years, and took home two prizes at the 2007 World Surf Kayak Championship in Basque Country, Spain, winning first place in Masters Long Boat (a 3-meter kayak without fins) and second in Grand Masters Long Boat.
The world championship, held every two years, will be in Portugal in July. Johnson’s not competing this time around, “But I’m looking forward to 2011,” he says.
When he’s not training, or competing, or working his day job (he’s an EMT), Johnson teaches surf kayak lessons with Monterey Bay Kayaks. The four-hour classes use open-deck surf kayaks and are open to all skill levels, with no previous lessons required. On the flip side, more experienced kayakers can work on paddling in rough water and improving surfing skills.
Board surfing know-how isn’t needed, either. Johnson’s son surfs, and he’s tried to teach his dad, but Johnson hasn’t been a quick study: “I still can’t stand up.”
~ ~ ~
“In the class, the emphasis is fun, etiquette and safety, and not always in that order,” Johnson says. “It’s big on etiquette, how to play with other people in the surf. If there are other people on the break, you take turns. It’s one of the biggest things in my mind. The surf kayakers need to learn to behave with others in the surf.”
Johnson’s big on maintaining polite relations between kayakers and “boardies,” too. As an instructor, he’s a welcoming ambassador for the sport, explaining and demonstrating technique – paddling through waves, surfing, “mooning the beach” to bring the boat to shore. He’s also a safety net of sorts, encouraging us to play and instilling in us the confidence to do it while he watches, offering helpful tips and praise. During the lesson, we laugh loudly and often, at ourselves and each other – when a kayak flips, or someone gets a face full of white water, or an oar unexpectedly separates into two pieces while surfing. And we cheer when one of us has a good ride.
The class begins on land, and the classroom is a sandy spot on the Salinas River Beach. Johnson’s graying curls escape beneath an “Old Guys Rule” cap while he builds a wave in the sand. “The waves will peak up and dissipate on the side,” he instructs. “Surf either left or right depending on what way the wave is breaking.”
And, he says, there are three things to keep in mind: “One is catching the wave. You’re paddling, and you drop down onto the wave.”
“The next is we ride the wave. Use the energy of the wave to propel us for a long distance.
“The third: Surf the wave, up and down the face. Do cutbacks.”
Today, as first timers, we’re aiming for numbers one and two: catching and riding the wave.
After the classroom part of the lesson covers safety, etiquette and waves, it’s time to wetsuit up.
“Let’s play,” Johnson says.
~ ~ ~
Paddling improves with help from Johnson: “Pretend you’re sticking the paddle into tapioca pudding,” he says. “Dig in, and pull your butt to your shoulders.”
We watch the swells and position ourselves. We’re lined up, and ready to catch a wave.
“Start paddling!” Johnson says. I start paddling hard, and catch the first wave. It lifts the kayak and breaks right, and the boat speeds parallel to the shore. It’s a long ride, and my best of the day. Eventually it slows, and instead of pushing into the wave with my hip, I lean out. The kayak flips and I’m underwater, popping out of the top of the boat while it – and the waves – rush over my head, and make me appreciate the neon-yellow helmet.
Curious seals and otters pop up nearby and wonder about the neoprene creatures cheering and laughing when they catch a wave – and when a wave catches them. From the shore, a couple watches the kayaks do much more than paddle gently through smooth waters.
Yes, Johnson was right about thrills and spills – adrenaline-boosted paddling, the rush of riding the wave, plunging into salty seawater – we just didn’t realize they could happen simultaneously. Every time we get knocked out of the kayak, we emerge from the water smiling, and paddle as hard as we can back out through the waves for another ride