David Desertspring and George Gronseth at Pacific Beach.
It had been quite a while since I played in the surf zone. Even though my previous experience in the surf was not that bad (I never had to wet exit), I am still haunted by memories of the first time I got pummeled by the waves at Neah Bay. I vividly remember the anxiety in those moments bobbing up and down in the swell outside of the surf zone, waiting for my turn to paddle back between the waves, attempting to make it to shore without getting totally thrashed. Somehow my timing was always off and before I knew it a big wave would pick me up, turn me sideways and throw me toward shore in a big pile of foam.
Well, I figured it was time to confront those fears again, so I signed up for a weekend ocean surf class with George Gronseth’s Kayak Academy
. One of the best features about Kayak Academy classes is their small size. There were only two other students in our group and both had taken the same class before in the summer.
Heading out into the waves.
George Gronseth holds his classes at Pacific Beach. The gentle slope of this beach consistently produces friendly−sized waves close to shore no matter how big the ocean swell may be. Huge waves could be breaking a mile away from shore. They reform, break and reform again, producing smaller, manageable waves closer to shore.
George has you follow a progression to get the feel for handling a kayak in the surf. The first thing he wants you to do is swim and body surf with a paddle, PFD and helmet on. It gives you a good sense of the power of the waves and gets you used to the cold water -- important because you'’ll probably spend some time swimming, especially if your roll isn’t bomb proof. It’s hard work and you quickly realize how difficult it would be to swim any meaningful distance in those conditions.
Sit-on-top surf kayak. It has thigh straps but I couldn't stay in long enough to roll after a capsize.
The surf goes way out there.
Next he has you paddle a self−draining sit−on−top surf kayak. I tried a couple different sit−on−tops, a Wilderness Systems Kaos and a wider one. Both were equipped with thigh straps that gave you the ability to edge the kayak or even roll it. Whenever I capsized in them though I fell out immediately so I never rolled either one. It was easy enough to jump back on it and get surfing again anyway.
Once you become comfortable with the sit−on−tops you progress to a whitewater river kayak. The kayak I was in didn’t handle in the waves as well as the Wilderness Systems Koas did. It would catch a wave but I found it harder to keep it from spining around once it got to the bottom.
By the end of the day I was sitting in a sea kayak. Of course you can’t expect a sea kayak to handle as well as the smaller boats in the surf. It's much more difficult to turn that thing around for one thing, especially when the waves were close together. My goal was to practice going out and back through the surf under control, timing my advance to avoid waves breaking on top of me, or getting surfed back in. At Pacific Beach there was actually no getting completely out of the surf zone for me. I only went out as far as I was comfortable before turning around.
Occasionally I would spot George out playing on the bigger waves. He shared with us some impressive stories about paddling in really big surf during the La Push Pummel
one year. The waves were 25 ft high and he was one of only two kayakers who showed up for the event. He needed to paddle a mile out to get beyond the surf and would sit and wait in the huge swell until smaller sets would come in. Not only were these waves high but they had a lot of “back”, meaning they were very thick and carried a tremendous amount of power. Just imagine trying to paddle out against that, trying to avoid having a thousand of pounds of water crash down on you, knock the wind out of you, and surf you backwards and upside down at 20 mph.
The famous Aloha Tavern.
We ended the day at the famous Aloha Tavern, a Pacific Beach landmark that dates back to the 1920s. I’m guessing it was started by some surfer, thus the name. This place is the real thing: friendly locals, dogs sleeping on the floor, pool tables, rustic tables made from slabs of fir, Christmas lights year-round, and posters of bikini−clad girls all over the ceiling. They serve beer in Mason jars. Honestly, I didn’t think places like this existed anymore. I assumed that the entire country had been Starbuckified by now. As I tried to sneak a picture of the painting of "The Clam Digger's Sweetheart" over the bar one of the locals asked me, “Hey, is that one of them new iPhones?” Not a place where I would normally hang out (latte−sipping, Prius−driving suburbanite that I am). After a Bud Lite though I felt right at home.
The Aloha Tavern. Painting on the left: "The Clam Digger's Sweetheart".