surfer Galen Licht tells unique stories of his kayaking adventures around the world and surfing in Santa Cruz. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Surfer Galen Licht tells unique stories of his kayaking adventures around the world and surfing in Santa Cruz. Photo by Devika Agarwal.

On days when the weather is calm but the Pacific Ocean is not, the coastline of Davenport is peaceful except for the occasional kayak riding out in the waves.

Galen Licht, a student at UC Santa Cruz and winner of the Men’s High Performance at this year’s Santa Cruz Surf Kayak Festival at Steamer Lane, paddles out to the neighboring town to practice the sport of Surf Kayak, which he picked up eight years ago.

City on a Hill Press sat down with Licht, a native of Marin County, to talk about the beginnings of the sport and this year’s eventful festival.


City on a Hill Press: First of all, congratulations.

Galen Licht: Thanks.

CHP: So how did you learn about kayak surfing, and what spurred your decision to pursue the sport?

GL: I picked it up from a Santa Cruz kayak surfer Dave Johnston. My brother worked for Johnston and he introduced me to surf kayaking. I actually learned to river kayak and sea kayak first. My dad owns a kayak company in Marin, so I learned at a young age.

CHP: When did you start competing for kayak surfing?

GL: My first contest was in 2002 in Santa Cruz. They had a Junior category for anyone under 18 years old. There was also the Plastic Pro Challenge event, for the kayaks made out of plastic. I did very well, but it was a really long time ago. My first real major competition was during 2003, when the U.S. Surf Kayak Team went to Ireland for World Championships. My twin brother and I were recruited to kayak surf for the junior part of the team. The first year we did this, I placed fourth overall, and the team as a whole placed third.

CHP: Have you competed at the Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival before?

GL: I competed in the same event as this year, and placed second. Last year was the first time I made it to the final heat. Actually this year, before the festival, I only practiced for two weeks because of a back injury. I’ve been competing in this festival now for about eight years, but one year I had a broken hand, another year I had whiplash, so it hasn’t been every year in a row.

CHP: How were the conditions the day of the final? Was it really as perfect as everyone said?

GL: The weather went from terrible to really good, really fast. In the morning it was high tide, but the tide dropped and we had some bigger, really nice waves. The waves made it really challenging because of how [the contestants] had to line up by the cliffs, and those who got the advantage were those who didn’t care about their kayak the most. That was the hardest part of the competition, in my opinion. Where the sport is going, many of the other competitors were looking for faster waves — with a faster wave you can showcase more of your dynamic maneuvers.

CHP: You finally placed first, and beat out Dave Johnston to do it. How would you consider your performance that day?

GL: It felt good. [After] many of the other competitions there was always a little bit of regret when you watch the tapes and you feel like, ‘if I’d just done this,’ or ‘did one more move here,’ that would’ve changed the outcome, but the finals felt really good. For the first two weeks, it was marginal but, during that last day, I didn’t make any mistakes because there wasn’t any time to make them. With the 19-minute limit, I knew if I made one mistake that would’ve been it.

CHP: Are there other competitions held for kayak surfing that you participated in? How did you do in them?

GL: On October 3, I competed in the Davenport Classic and it was the first time I had won something of that caliber. It was nice because it was the first day of the season, and hopefully I’ll be able to make it to National Championships in North Carolina in November.

A year from then, World Championships will be at the same place — hopefully I’ll be there too. I’ve been to three World Championships, the first was in Ireland, one was in Costa Rica, and another in Portugal. I’ve even spent two months in Chile. It’s really cool that I’ve gotten to travel for kayak surfing.

CHP: Let’s talk about the club you started here at UCSC. Is the UC Santa Cruz Kayak Club for anyone interested in kayaking? What’s the demographic of your group?

GL: Mostly [it’s for] beginners who have never done it before. The original thought was to create a place where experienced kayakers could gather and make trips, but kayaking is a really expensive sport to get into so our group gives people who have never done it before the opportunity [to try it]. We focus on river kayaking and surf kayaking, because the recreation center has many trips for sea kayaking. Our group goes out and kayaks, and also provides a social circle of friends.

CHP: Lastly, what do you enjoy most about kayak surfing?

GL: I like the feeling of surfing and riding the waves. You use the water and waves to harness the energy that the earth provides. It’s really about going with the flow. It’s also attractive because the sport is not very popular. I enjoy the sport, and I enjoy the people. I’ve seen the sport revolutionize — at the beginning the boats were different, the rules were different and the movement has come really far. What makes me keep doing this is that I want to stay competitive at the highest level.