Dan Crandall in his happy place, about to drop from the crest of a steepening wave. Credit, Paul McHugh
Your Heat is ON
One of the best aphorisms I’ve ever run across is this sweet bit, from G. K. Chesterton: “Reality plays a game, called ‘cheat the prophet.’”
It’s particularly apt for surf contests.
Sunday morning on finals day at the 2016 Santa Cruz Paddlefest began with a sky cauled by a thin, high mist that dyed all light beneath it a pale powder blue.
Out from a hazy horizon stormed large grey lumps of ocean swells.
Each wave rose and crested as it passed Lighthouse Point, launched a flock of mist-gulls into the air, then made a loud whap and seething hiss as it expired on rocks at the base of the cove. The waves were similar to Saturday’s 8-foot, 16-second swells, but a tad cleaner between waves, with a longer interval passing between sets.
According to the 7 a.m. readings of the NOAA weather buoys, I was seeing only a 6-foot, 13-second swell. However, it looked bigger. A frontal system was heading our way, too. Maybe it threw in some extra kick that buoys were not picking up.
A surfer pitches his kayak on a rail before even making a bottom turn, as he looks to beat the close-out. Credit, Paul McHugh
Map Out a Strategy to Win
I stood gazing out to sea with Dan Crandall.
I’d just asked him about his plan for Heat 8, the International Class (IC) Open final. Crandall is founder/proprietor of Current Adventures, Kayak School & Trips in Coloma on the South Fork American River. He’s also been a consistent winner in various divisions at this fest since he began competing twenty years ago.
“Number one, I’d rather be patient and take a Middle Peak wave than anything else,” Crandall said. “I’ll look for a medium-size wave, one with shoulder that will hold up, so I can run it down the line. Much as I love big drops, the biggest ones are folding over and dying off quicker today. Long run-outs, that’s what I want.”
“Think so,” I agreed. “Middle Peak’s going off. Steamer Lane wave is good when it arrives, but it’s spotty about showing. Mat Hoff’s a local and I watched him go for Steamer at start and end of Heat 6 and he wound up kind of empty on it.”
Steamer Lane breakers rumble in at Lighthouse Point, and generally work best with a northwest-angled swell. Middle Peak is the next break to the south, and works best with a westerly or southerly swell.
A new voice intruded. “So then he runs in to swat his knees with a metal bar!” It was Jim Grossman, a big grin on his face as he mimed the attack on Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by swinging an imaginary bat at Crandall’s knees. Grossman then turned to me and assumed an expression of pious innocence. “Oh no, there’s no rivalry,” he said. “Not in the slightest.”
Grossman, a whitewater champ from Idaho, has taken first in many divisions, over many years at this Santa Cruz event. Like Crandall, he no longer has a good idea of how many times that’s happened. Suffice it to say, these guys have pushed each other out of prime spots on the podium more often than once.
Sticking to the wall for a run down the line. Credit, Paul McHugh
Rivals and Pals
I asked Grossman about his strategy for the heat.
“Wave knowledge and positioning count more than anything,” he said. “As the tide drops, outer reefs might break. Strategy?” He chuckled. “Get lucky! Best to start off with one good wave. After that, you’ve got the luxury to hunt for another. That’s the beauty of having judges score for two waves, not three during a heat. Mainly, I want to be receptive, not assertive. Don’t force things. Generally that doesn’t work out well.”
I asked if he felt a sense of rivalry with Dan Crandall.
“Sure, maybe when I was young and stupid,” he said. “Not anymore. We’ve just got too many good friends, and way too much history. In terms of winning a contest, yeah, Dan and the King brothers, those guys always pose a threat. But threats can come from a different direction, like in moves made by new school guys, like Darren (Bason) and Jack (Barker).”
A classy and glassy Steamer Lane swell. Credit, Paul McHugh
Prediction is Thankless
Byron Dorr parsed the International Class Open final the same way as Grossman. Dorr’s a gypsy journalist who’s covered the outdoors beat in water sports for years, competing in surf for the past seven. He took third in International last year at Santa Cruz, and entered that division again, using a borrowed boat.
“I expect Heat 8 to be way aggro, shoulder-rubbing on the line as older guys compete for every wave. Three in the heat like that, Crandall, Grossman and Ed King, plus one young guy, Jack Barker – a current IC champ, though he’s just 21.”
“My heat, Heat 9, is all young guys” Dorr continued, “like Darren Bason (a champion Brit paddler, now in Australia, where he builds his own boats). Our line-up will be friendlier. We’ll express our aggression by trying to hit moves, like a helix.”
A helix is an upside-down, 360 degree rotation, after which a paddler hopes to land right side up, still surfing the wave. Like I said: snowboarding and rodeo moves…
Grossman went away to suit up for Heat 8, while I walked with Crandall towards his van. “Nah, not much rivalry. We’re like a big family out here now,” Crandall said. “We all support the other guy when he wins.” He paused, his weathered face creased in a smile as his blue eyes twinkled. “IF he wins…”
Dan Crandall takes an air drop down a steep wall, to start the highest-scoring ride in Heat #8. Credit, Tom Gomes
International Class Open, Heat #8, 10:20 a.m. Sunday
Dan Crandall – in a black jersey
Ed King – blue
Jim Grossman – red
Jack Barker – white.
The paddlers spread into the line-up.
Grossman rode a medium wave that sprouted up between Steamer and Middle Peak, but its wall was too small and short-lived for him to make any distinctive moves on it. A score of 12.
Crandall positioned himself outside of Middle Peak on surfer’s left, and when a big ‘un came along, he committed to a slashing cut beneath the pitching crest. It was a distinctive Crandall move, demanding boldness coupled with the quick hull speed of a long, old-school boat. But that ride was the exact opposite of his announced strategy. His wave held up, and he was able to sashay back and forth with mild cutbacks in the pocket all the way to the judges’ stand. That bagged him a score of 22.
Grossman countered with another medium wave, but the wall on this one held up. He flung slashing cutbacks that went from rail-to-rail, and also threw in a 360-degree flat spin. These were the radical moves this event’s director had said judges wanted, and it netted him a score of 23.
Meanwhile, Barker and King had warmed up with 17-point rides, and followed those up with a 20-point ride and a 19-pointer, respectively. They were clean and competent runs, though not particularly decorative. This heat began to shape up as a Crandall vs. Grossman shoot-out.
The third wave for King and Grossman settled their hash. Ed King was lined up outside surfer’s right at Middle Peak, Jim Grossman inside and left. A high triangular peak shot up and King got on it, initiating his drop. Grossman needed to make an instant decision. He had three options: let the wave dump and take a beating; go left, maybe make a few turns, and wind up stuck inside the Lighthouse Point cove, perhaps for a long while; or go right, snake King, then hope that King got called for interfering with his ride, and not vice-versa. He chose to go right. This peak had long arms. He and King got mired in the foam pile on the right arm, banging and jostling their boats against each other.
Grossman’s announced strategy had been not to force anything. But when his first opportunity occurred to try to force something, he did. It’s like “buck fever” in hunting; big wave excitement sometimes just takes you over. The outcome would be determined by a judges’ call.
After that episode, Crandall went for his second wave ride – a mirror of his first. Big, bold, and starting off with a cut across under the lip. He made his section, then let the pocket catch up to him, whereupon he performed some easy, side-to-side wallowing till he passed the judges’ stand. Score: 23. His original plan might be in tatters, but dumping it looked like it had turned out as a good thing.
Ed King had earned 16 on his interfered ride with Grossman, while Jim got 17. Afterwards, Grossman looked ultimately motivated. He caught two more rides, and worked them to the nth degree, slashing cutbacks whenever possible, and performing another flat spin. His scores were 21 and 22.
Crandall caught one more ride. He was right on the button at Middle Peak, yet a quarter-second late. He air-dropped perfectly off the face, and its pitching crest chased him down. But his subsequent moves precisely fit that wave and he made it past the judges to take a score of 27, which was his heat’s highest number.
The three-note klaxon that signaled the heat’s end sounded. Grossman and Barker finished with five wave scores, King with four, and Crandall with just three. However, all three of Crandall’s scores made it up into the 20s, and so he won the heat.
The heat sheet and scores for Heat #9. Credit, Paul McHugh
International Class Open, Heat #9, 10:40 a.m. Sunday
Bryon Dorr – in black jersey
Darren Bason – blue
Mathew Hoff – red
Zach Boyd – white
Bason caught the first swell, Boyd the second, Hoff the third, Dorr the fourth. It happened to be a four-wave set, and these guys appeared to be decorously rotating through their line-up. So far, the heat was proceeding as Dorr had predicted. Except: none of the competitors threw any sort of new-school wave moves. They all simply sought for clean rides, avoiding disaster while lingering in the pocket, then finishing up and hopping off on the lip. Only Boyd poked into the 20s, with a score of 20.
Second wave, Bason caught a boost by courteously bailing off the lip, simultaneously keeping another competitor from getting indicted with a paddle-out interference call, while providing himself with a bit of an aerial move off the backside, for a score of 19.
Meantime, the event announcer sounded like he was going nuts (pretty much a job description for any athletic event announcer) as he spewed superlatives about four riders scoring six rides over the course of the first two minutes of that heat.
Throughout it, Dorr steadily roamed the line-up from Middle Peak to Steamers, dropping into more scored rides than anyone else in his heat. Yet he never broke into the 20s with any of them.
Boyd took off at Middle Peak, drove his rails, spun in the pocket, worked it hard, scored 24.
Two horns sounded, five minutes left. Dorr got two more rides, Boyd and Bason one each.
Ending status: Boyd, first; Bason second; Hoff, third; Dorr, fourth.
I stood high up on the bluff at West Cliff drive, my eyes blinking from absorbing so much glittery sunlight, while also thinking about all I’d just watched – often through binoculars, at times through a camera view-finder, but preferably through my sunglasses. I analyzed the performances through the twin lenses of what I knew, versus what I thought I knew. Did it seem that way to Crandall and Grossman as well? I wondered if they were scratching their chins and comparing the way the situation had looked to them once they were out on the water and mired in the pressures of the heat, versus the way it originally had seemed from up on the bluff.
Ed King walked past me, dripping, on his way along terra firma following the previous heat # 8, still wearing his wetsuit and helmet, but not his heat jersey. “Think I was DQ’d?” he asked. “Did I interfere with Grossman, or did he interfere with me?”
“Well now,” I responded. “It’s a classic Middle Peak dilemma. Does the first guy up and riding on that peak own it, or does the guy who launched deeper and later, and riding just inside the first guy own it? Judges need to make that call. If I was a judge, I might’ve called it on you, since that particular wave didn’t leave Grossman much of any place else to go.”
“Okay. Could’ve turned off, at one point,” King conceded. “But I thought, I have possession of this wave, and it’s a good one, and I want to keep it.”
“Can’t argue. Had I been surfing it myself, might’ve made that same choice. In both your cases.”
I thought again about our pre-event briefing by the pool at the Adventure Sports shop, when I’d queried Mat Hoff on this very question. Is Middle Peak about who’s up and gliding on a ride first, or who’s inside of that rider?
Hoff had said that night that the very first one up and on it, owned it. Meaning, as the judges eventually called it, Grossman wound up out of luck. Overall, Grossman performed well at the 2016 Paddlefest, coming in second behind Sean Morley in the Masters Open (Crandall came in fifth). Yet in IC, Crandall took first, and Grossman came in seventh. The interference call was key, since it cost him the score of his second-best wave.
So the entirety of Heat #8 results looked this way: Crandall, first; Barker, second; King, third; and Grossman, fourth.
I contemplated these results, considering hope, aspirations, capability, and outcome. None of the competitors I’d interviewed had followed their game plans. The difference between visualization and performance was particularly striking in the case of the young bucks, with their high-performance tricks and flash moves. If the waves had been small, steep, and held up, they would’ve had a much better chance to etch their new age calligraphy.
But given the larger swells that broke hard and then became soft mounds garlanded with foam piles, they were deprived of the opportunity to do much beside adhere to old-school moves and values.
Man might propose; but Poseidon disposes. That is surfing’s eternal lesson, I’d say.