July 8, 2002

At California Beach, Turf War for the Waves


In the beginning, the swells at Steamer Lane belonged to a few strong surfers. They would arrive at the dawn's early light and ride the waves all day, never stepping on dry ground until the big red ball of the sun slipped into the Pacific.

And it was good.

Then came the summer Sunday surfers. The boogie boarders. The beginners.

This was not good. But it was hardly the worst of it. Worst of all, for many of the surfers in the original Surf City, U.S.A., are the sitting surfers, the surf kayakers.

Like skiers and snowboarders, surfers and surf kayakers, who paddle out to the same breaks and ride the same swells, want to be in the same places at the same time. But here in Surf City (where Hawaiian surfers introduced surfing on the mainland in 1885), the water war seems personal -- and gets ugly.

Just mentioning ''surf kayak'' to long-boarders at Steamer Lane, the most popular surfing spot in Santa Cruz, prompts the gag reflex, and vice versa. Things have gotten so bad that every March, when the surf kayakers hold an international competition, fights -- as in fist fights -- break out between the long-boarders and the kayakers. Antikayak graffiti not fit to print are scrawled in the restrooms off Lighthouse Point, home of the Surfing Museum. Surfers have started a movement to ban kayaks from the surfing zones, which is generating outrage among surf kayakers around the world.

Any surfer at Steamer Lane will say what Charlie Garcia, 22, a surfer from San Jose, said the other day, ''Kayaks have no place here.''

The waves were measly, almost comically small, and surfers were out in force, while surf kayaks were nowhere in sight. Still, Mr. Garcia was riled at the very thought of them. ''They're just dangerous,'' he said with a shudder. ''One wipes out in front of you, they can take you down with them.''

Therein lies the fight, at least on the surface. Surf kayakers, surfers say, create a hazard when they flail around a wave in their boats, slapping around long-boarders who have only their bodies to pit against them. But surf kayakers, surfers say, also ruin waves -- and surfing -- by taking off on the flap of the swell, chopping it up.

''Most surfers don't want to surf with kayaks,'' said Anthony Ruffo, who belongs to a group of professional surfers who call Steamer Lane their spot. Still, Mr. Ruffo said, he has nothing against recreational kayaks. ''Most just want to wade in the water and see the sea otters and lions. There has to be a compromise here, somewhere.''

Santa Cruz, long known for its peace-loving, compassionate ways, has been trying to reach a compromise. In the spring, the city created a kayaker-surfer committee, which has been meeting to adopt guidelines for safety, water etiquette and self-regulation. Ideas have ranged from having kayaks and surfers rule the waves on alternate days to relegating kayakers and surfers to separate spots.

''They're now working on writing a code of etiquette,'' said Jim Lang, the Santa Cruz parks and recreation director.

For several years, a group calling itself Surfers for a Safe Berth complained that the city was flouting a state law requiring vessels to stay 900 feet from city beaches. In 1990, Santa Cruz changed its characterization of kayaks from vessels to water sports equipment to allow the kayaks to surf. That change, complains the Surfers for a Safe Berth, violates civil rights laws because it was made without giving surfers a chance to be heard.

But the group's efforts to have the old law reinstated has brought e-mail protests from surf kayakers around the world. Steamer Lane has become the site of the largest surf-kayak competition in the world, but many of the angry e-mailers point out that surfers own Steamer Lane almost every day of the year.

Dave Johnston, 39, a professional surf kayaker who was the world champion twice (and currently ranks third in the sport), said he gave up trying to ride the swells in Santa Cruz long ago.

''When I first started surf kayaking 20 years ago, I made the mistake of mixing with the surfers,'' Mr. Johnston said. ''But I soon found out if I did that I wasn't going to have any fun. I was going to be harassed, be called names -- say, 'Stand up and surf like a man!' -- and it wasn't worth it.''

Most surf kayakers who know the surf culture of Santa Cruz stay away, he said. No surf kayakers were to be found at or near Steamer Lane on four visits to the spot over two weeks. But once in a while a surf kayaker still wanders into the waters, Mr. Johnston said.

Mr. Johnston, who rents kayaks and kites in a shop off the boardwalk, said the kayaks he rents are recreational, for sightseers who want to get close to the animals at Seal Rock or to glimpse the other marine life.

''Surf kayakers like me go about 10 miles from here,'' Mr. Johnston said. ''There are more sharks, and the waves are choppier, but you get to have them to yourself.''

He was lamenting the momentum for a ban on kayaks at Steamer Lane (''The city seems to be tilting that way,'' he said) when a surfer friend wandered into his shop and into the conversation.

''The surfers here hate everybody,'' said the friend, Jim Morrison, 33. ''I was born here, and I've been surfing all my life, and I've never had a problem with a kayak. But there's always been something for the hard-core surfers to complain about.''

Mr. Johnston laughed. ''Kayaks can catch more waves. Surfers are at a disadvantage, and they don't like that,'' he said.

''Exactly,'' Mr. Morrison said. ''When I was a kid, it was long boards versus short boards, or surfboarders versus boogie boarders, or Eastsiders versus Westsiders.''

He called the phenomenon surf rage. ''It's just like road rage. Everybody wants to be in the same spot at the same time.''

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