Joe Carberry hardly assuages my Ontario boy fears of surfing in shark-infested waters when he tells me the two-metre-long Great White is nicknamed "Fluffy."
Carberry, a few other locals and I, the lone Canadian, are about to hit the water for a late-afternoon session at San Onofre State Beach near San Clemente, located midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, for my first crack at stand-up paddleboard (SUP) surfing.
"Don't worry, dude," Carberry says as we pull on wetsuits behind his truck in the busy parking lot. "I haven't seen him yet, and I've only heard a few instances where he's nudged surfers."
Until Carberry mentioned Fluffy, I was looking forward to trying the fastest-growing trend in surfing. Though SUPs have been around since the 1960s, when Hawaiian beach boys propelled their longboards with oversized canoe paddles to earn a few bucks by snapping photos of tourist surfers riding their first waves, the recent paddleboard rage was ignited by big-wave surfing icon Laird Hamilton and buoyed by tabloid images of Jennifer Aniston and other Hollywood stars toning their scantily clad bodies on flat water.
I've met up with Carberry, the editor of the upstart Standup Paddler magazine, to experience the sport's wave-riding roots at some of California's best breaks.
A stand-up paddleboard is essentially an oversized surfboard. The one I'm issued is 3.3 metres long and weighs 13.6 kilograms, making it awkward to carry across the beach at San Onofre. The board's extra-wide and -thick dimensions give it the buoyancy to support a standing paddler.
It feels comfortably stable when I climb aboard, assume the recommended forward-facing, feet-shoulder-width-apart posture and lean on my paddle, which measures slightly longer than I am tall. The sense of stability vanishes, however, when I attempt to paddle through my first wave, a minuscule one-foot growler that promptly dumps me in the chilly 15-degree water. I shudder at the realization that I could be spending more time than I'd like in Fluffy's underwater world.
But with a few tips from Carberry - "bend your knees, balance your weight equally and paddle through the wave" - I manage to make it beyond the breaking waves to deep water, where a knee-high swell rolls steadily, without another wipeout.
The upshot of surfing a paddleboard is that it's far simpler to catch a wave this way than it is on a traditional surfboard. First off, it's easier to assess wave height and choose an appropriate wave from a standing position. More important, a stand-up paddler doesn't need to master the intricacies of rising to one's feet from a prone position to surf a wave - the crux move of board surfing. I watch Carberry eye a metre-high swell, plant a few deft paddle strokes, shift into the classic surfer's pose and take off like a rocket toward the shore.
Emulating his well-practised technique is tough, but by bracing with the paddle to compensate for my shifty balance, I'm able to pull off a few modest rides. I'm heartened when Carberry shouts across the water, "Brah, you're totally surfing!" Inspired, I paddle vigorously and ride a wave momentarily - before my board catches an edge and I'm launched face first into the water. I scramble back aboard, acutely aware of every strand of seaweed that brushes my feet.
The next afternoon, we pull into the parking lot at Doheny State Beach, another popular SoCal surf spot in Dana Point. Carberry says Doheny's more sheltered conditions and "clean" break makes it an ideal spot for beginners. From shore, the ocean looks flat. But every few seconds a set rolls in and a handful of the dozens of board surfers milling in the water will pop up and ride knee-high waves.
The waves are smooth-faced and predictable, and unlike San Onofre, there is no wind - and, best I can tell, no Fluffy - to contend with. I'm able to surf waves immediately, my best rides carrying me more than 100 metres at a time. When I meet up with Carberry outside the break, he shows to me how to sidestep up and down the board to position it in the "sweet spot" of the wave. The idea, he explains, is to weigh the front end of the board to catch the wave and then to quickly shuffle back to the tail to "carve the face."
"What we really need are some bigger waves," he says before digging in, catching another roller and nonchalantly tucking his paddle beneath his arm, rocking from heel to toe to carve his board across the wave like a snowboarder in powder.
For today, the occasional waist-high swell is good enough for me. As the sun sinks into the Pacific, the crowd of surfers thins and I paddle over to the beach's prime break. I spot a steep and glassy wave, paddle like hell and tiptoe gingerly up and down the board. I've found the sweet spot. For a few fleeting moments, I feel weightless as my board planes down the wave, its combing whitewater carrying me all the way to shore.
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