A depiction of the work known as "The Great Wave" by Japanese artist Hokusai.
Coast Life

Surfing during a tsunami? Here’s why some foolish Santa Cruzans like me would do such a thing

Yes, I was one of them Saturday morning at Pleasure Point — amid a sea of high school surf contestants. But there are reasons that some of us Santa Cruz folks are different than others and would want to put themselves out there into nature’s grasp with little to go on. We’re a bit different when it comes to pushing the envelope.

Paddling a surfboard into the ocean with a tsunami bearing down doesn’t seem wise by any conventional standards.

The word itself — tsunami! — terrifies most humans.

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But some of us Santa Cruzans are proudly unconventional and always have been. It is a lesser-known part of the Keeping Santa Cruz Weird movement — call it the salty-skinned, sun-kissed and perhaps a little high-on-sunscreen-fumes department.

It’s particularly part of who Santa Cruz watermen and women are, many of whom also proudly surfed the 2011 tsunami and consider the four- and five-story waves of Mavericks within their reach.

Not sure I’ll self-attach the waterman label, but I am one of those briny-skinned fools who accepted the risks of surfing Saturday morning in what became my second tsunami surfing safari.

It proved to be fun, strange, tricky and exhausting.

And I’d do it again for sure.

For me I think it involved equal parts memory making — or FOMO avoiding, as I knew friends were going — and witnessing a natural phenomenon up close.

I assume some of those feelings went into the nonchalant decision a group of adults made when they went ahead with a high school surf contest at Pleasure Point despite the knowledge the ocean was likely gonna get a bit wild and funky an hour or so into the contest.

I was one break over from the contest zone and, sure enough, by about 8 a.m. an already morning-sick ocean surface turned full-on washing machine, set to super-turbo agitate mode.

What ridable waves there had been became almost indistinguishable between the sloshing crests everywhere you looked. I began to haplessly paddle, along with the friends who had joined me, toward the main Pleasure Point stairs.

Pleasure Point began to look like a washing machine about 8 a.m. Saturday.
(Via Surfline)

The turbulence just under the surface of the water made it feel like we were going nowhere fast, like paddling on a treadmill made of molasses. And it was largely true.

It took every ounce of back- and shoulder-muscle power for us to get within viewing distance of each of the three exits along Pleasure Point. None of them proved to be very safe options given the 5.6-foot high tide and unpredictable surge being created by the tsunami.

All we could do was dig deep and keep on paddling through the aquatic quicksand.

There was not enough sand to get good footing before the staircase at 36th Avenue; the moss-covered rocks with zero sand made 38th a poor choice. All we could do was dig deep and keep on paddling through the aquatic quicksand, making it around the next outcropping and hope things were calmer at the Hook.

As we scraped our fingertips against the ocean’s surface with all we had left, we found a sweet reward. It wasn’t just calmer; the entrance to the stairs looked like a Lake Tahoe inlet. It was like that part of Soquel Cove was being completely buffered from the tsunami-induced turbulence right around the corner.

The Hook proved to be the place for calmer waters to exit the ocean on Saturday morning.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Our feet hit the plentiful sand with relief. No need for a precisely timed scramble up the stairs. We caught our breath after we climbed them and did the long walk back up the point with tired shoulders and a strange sense of accomplishment.

We aren’t the type of surfers who dream of taming Mavericks. We know our physical limits, and mostly abide by them, when major swells arrive.

But even though surfing through a tsunami sounds like an overly aggressive move, the experience is unique enough that somehow you want to be out there in the wild, taking in the rare sensory details up close. Perhaps we’re trying to snatch some control out of the uncontrollable.

I think that’s what drove the decision to hold the surf contest. It’s certainly not meant as an excuse for what more lucid minds might deem inexcusable. But from a purely explanatory perspective, many of the parents and volunteers involved are lifeguards, firefighters and are part of the water rescue scene of Eastside Santa Cruz.

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Those who grow up here in junior lifeguard programs, play water polo, go into the fire- and water-rescue professions have a different perspective on water safety than the general public. It leads to a more confident approach with the ocean, no doubt.

And it’s not to say the decision made was the most prudent, particularly on this day. It was perhaps an overconfident approach, especially with so much unknown about how a tsunami might manifest more than a decade after the first one.

Solely from a legal perspective, it’s hard to believe the insurance policy needed to put 120 kids into the ocean Saturday included a “Yes on tsunamis” clause.

Solely from a legal perspective, it’s hard to believe the insurance policy needed to put 120 kids into the ocean Saturday included a “Yes on tsunamis” clause.

On the other side of town, organizers of another youth contest — put on by San Clemente-based USA Surfing at Steamer Lane, an event with far fewer local surfers participating — took a more pragmatic approach, canceling competition before it began.

“The biggest thing is that a tsunami advisory is in effect,” a USA Surfing rep told the Sentinel. “We’re operating under an abundance of caution.”

Steamer Lane
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Meanwhile, the head of the Santa Cruz Scholastic Surf League, Marc Susskind, was telling me about the feedback he’d been getting from kids and parents who had no regrets they tried to sneak in a surf contest amid a tsunami. “One for the books,” he said.

For right, wrong or otherwise, this is more how much of Santa Cruz rolls.

And I get it. I did it myself.

I said yes to yet another tsunami experience.

And, like the first time, I will remember it for a very long time. I even went to breakfast with one of those friends who joined me on this adventure and clanked my extra-spicy Bloody Mary glass against his pomegranate mimosa. It was that kind of morning.

And not just just for us old guys. I saw numerous excited, adrenaline-fueled teenager faces on the walk back up East Cliff. They were stoked on being part of a natural spectacle, making memories.

One, just getting back to her car, saw us and said with eyes wide and excitement in her voice: “You guys did it too! It was wild out there, wasn’t it?”

Yes, we did.

Yes, it was.

It’s just who some of us Santa Cruzans are.

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