By Patricia Sanchez
When the World Championship of Surf Kayaking comes to Steamer’s Lane next month, two Slugs expect to compete for the title.
Defending World Champion of Surf Kayaking Dave Johnston and his U.S. National teammate Galen Licht are both kayak instructors at UC Santa Cruz. Licht, a freshman, is also the founder of the UCSC kayak club.
Johnston, an alumnus, is fresh off last year’s World Cup win in Portugal and was awarded the “best wave” video in the world for a ride he recorded in Santa Cruz last year. Now he is hoping to add the world championship to his resume right in his own backyard.
“I’m just hoping that we can get some good waves,” Johnston said. He has been surf-kayaking for 20 years and knows the Lane like the back of his hand. But Johnston strategically practices away from the crowded Santa Cruz beaches.
“I like to go up to Davenport or go up to Scotts Creek away from the people,” Johnston said. “[There] I can get loose and crazy and not worry about wiping out.”
Licht, his opponent and teammate, acknowledges the advantage Johnston has competing in his hometown.
“He’s lived in Santa Cruz for 20 years and knows these waves better than anyone else,” Licht said. “So it makes it hard to win against him.” Licht knows that Johnston, his mentor, will be a formidable foe.
“Dave is on a roll—he has won internationally and he’s at the top of his game,” he said. Licht’s first kayak surfing experience was actually alongside Johnston, about four years ago.
“[Johnston] is so experienced and knowledgeable—I can learn a lot from him,” Licht said. Although somewhat new to the sport, Licht has been a river kayaker for some time. Despite a recent neck injury and the stiff competition, he is still confident and ready to excel in the contest.
“I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve that hopefully will keep me in contention,” Licht said. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time and I’ve put my money and a lot of work into [the event].”
Licht is unfazed by his recent injury.
“Somebody said I should wear my neck brace when I go out, but I should be okay by then,” he said.
Dennis Judson, who heads the committee in charge of coordinating the World Championships, is excited to host an international event here in Santa Cruz.
“This is the largest contest of its kind in the world,” Judson said. “Everybody from around the world comes to surf this wave. Every major kayaker that thinks of himself as a surf kayaker will be here.”
Judson said that the goal of hosting the kayak surfing festival is “to get people to come into our ocean—to rub shoulders with experts and learn how to do this thing.” The event caters to spectators as well as competitors as booths are set up by kayak manufacturers to present their latest equipment.
Success in the sport is based not only on the consistency of the contestant but also on what he has to work with. The types of surf kayaks used has changed rapidly as the sport has gained increased exposure.
“There were kayaks that came out of the attic that [the contenders] sort of dreamed and made up,” Judson said. The advancement in technology has contributed to the emergence of bigger and better tricks such as aerials within the sport. But according to Judson, a 30-year surf kayaking veteran, the key to putting together a good ride has less to do with tricks and more to do with waves.
“In this contest it’s really about consistency, getting the right wave and being able to pull it off.”