Author expands on his background, the film version of Saltwater Buddha and his thoughts on surf localism
By Pete Gauvin
The first chapter of San Francisco author Jaimal Yogis’ book, Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea, is about running away from his home in Sacramento at age 16 with a one-way ticket to Hawaii. His adventure didn’t last long but it left lasting impressions.
Yogis, now 30, sat down with me recently at the Java Beach Cafe in view of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. He talked about his background, how he nearly became a Buddhist monk, how he came to write his book and the effort to turn it into a film. We also discussed his evolving perceptions on surf localism, the subject of his book chapter, “Surf Nazis Have Buddha-Nature Too,” excerpted in the issue.
Yogis had an unorthodox upbringing as a military brat whose parents were into Eastern philosophy. From ages three to six he lived in the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago, where he first gained an affinity for playing in the ocean. From there his family moved to Sacramento. After his parents got a divorce he became a rebellious teen, getting into mischief and drugs. He bought a one-way ticket to Maui, left a note on his pillow one day and slipped out, never telling his parents where he was going.
He only lasted a few weeks before his father, an Air Force man, convinced him to come home. But he was there long enough to catch the surfing bug — and the Buddhist bug, as well. The ladder via a copy of “Siddhartha,” the Herman Hesse novel, he’d brought with him.
Knowing he had to get out of Sacramento, Yogis arranged to spend his senior year of high school in France. While there he visited the monastery of Thich Nhat Hanh, the exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk and noted peace activist.
“The minute I got there, I thought, ‘This is my calling. I’m supposed to be a Buddhist monk,’” Yogis says. “By now my parents were used to me having these crazy ideas, so when I called them saying, ‘I’m not going to finish my year here of high school. I’m just going to join the monastery.’ They were like, ‘Finish the damn year of high school and then you can become a monk.”’
He did finish, and when he got back to California he went to live in a Buddhist monastery, first in Ukiah and then Berkeley. Just a few weeks from ordination and making a lifelong commitment at age 18, the abbot of the monastery came to him and encouraged him to go to college first.
“The one lifestyle that came back to me as a nice alternative to the monastic life was going back to my childhood dream of getting good at surfing and living the sort of island life.”
He left the monastery and enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, majoring in religious studies.
“Ever since then, those two things, surfing and Buddhism, were basically my tools for coming of age and getting through all the growing pains that you go through in your teens. And that’s why I probably ended up writing the book.”
While in college, Yogis traveled as much as possible, living in Santa Cruz for a bit, and spending six months in India.
“When I got out I realized I had a degree in religious studies from the University of Hawaii, which is pretty much the epitome of uselessness as far as a job went. So I was just kind of scouring for a potential livelihood and I thought of journalism.”
Columbia University had a dual master’s program in journalism and religious studies.
“I thought I can’t get into this program but if could it would allow me to keep adventuring and keep traveling and keep surfing and also maintain the philosophical and spiritual interests that I had.”
He spent the next couple years trying to build up his credentials. He managed to get into Columbia by arguing that his travel skills gave him a background of experience.
“At Columbia, this was my shot to finally be a credible member of society, to be a serious journalist and so I was doing a lot of environmental and political stories.”
After graduating, he took a breather from hard news and wrote an article about surfing and meditation for Shambhala Sun, a Buddhist magazine.
“It was just a simple, short article about how surfing and Buddhism overlap. I wasn’t too impressed with the article myself but to my surprise it kept getting republished in all these magazines. … Eventually the UTNE Reader wanted to republish it and they said, ‘We can’t pay you but we could put something in your bio about what you’re up to.’ I wasn’t really up to anything that impressive but I just said, ‘Well, I’m writing a book about this actually.’ It just kind of popped out. So they put in my bio that Jaimal Yogis is writing a book about Zen and surfing.”
A week later he happened to be back in Maui for the first time since he’d run away, when he got a call from a publisher, Wisdom Publications, one of the largest publishers of Buddhist books. They wanted to publish the book he was “working on.”
“I was immediately nervous that they were going to want me to be a surfing Buddhist guru or something, where I expounded on the Dharma and the way things were. I was like, ‘You know, I’m only 25. I’m not the wisest of characters but I do have a lot of good stories from this adventure I’ve been on since I was 16 and ran away … If you let me just tell these stories, I’d love to.’”
ASJ: How long did it take you to write the book?
“When it came down to it I wrote it in about a year. But then the editing and they held it for about a year before launching and now it’s been out for about a year.”
ASJ: How’s the film version of Saltwater Buddha coming along?
“It’s good. We have a great team … and no money (laughs). We’re starting to lay down some tracks … and we’re sort of getting funding incrementally. It’s a slow process. But we’re psyched about it because we’re using it as a way, in part, to start working with this nonprofit, Surf for Life, which is trying to create volunteer opportunities for surfers all around the world. They’re starting in Costa Rica by building the first high school ever in Puerto Viejo, which is a great little surf-Rasta town but it’s also a great town for the drug trade and a lot of the kids get roped into that.”
In addition to telling some of the stories from Saltwater Buddha, the film has merged with the effort to build the school. “It’s made it much more meaningful to me. In the beginning I was like, ‘I don’t know how much more I can deal with my own story.’ I’d been reading it and reading it. I’d been on a book tour. I was kind of getting sick of hearing myself talk.”
“I’m incredibly passionate about this project. I feel like education saved me from being some runaway. … (Having written) a book about my odd path to getting a really good education after being a potential dropout, I feel really lucky that it’s put me in the place where I can be a spokesman for an organization that’s trying to give these kids the same sort of opportunity I had.”
ASJ: So you’ve got some funding hurdles to clear. What’s your timeline for releasing the film?
“We’re hoping to get it on the 2011 film fest circuit. That would necessitate a few miracles. But so far that’s kind of been the style of the story’s trajectory, so we’re not counting that out from happening.”
ASJ: Do you have any partners in the effort?
“Save the Waves is one of our sponsors, as well as Las Olas Surfboards, an eco-surfboard company in San Francisco, and Surf Stronger, which is a surf fitness company, as well others … but we haven’t partnered with a big funder yet. … We’ve set it up so that depending on how much you want to give you can own a portion of the film. So we’re looking to partner with individuals or companies who share the vision. If people want to get involved they should go to saltwaterbuddha.org and contact me or one of the team members.”
ASJ: You mentioned that your perceptions on localism have evolved since you wrote the book?
“You’re in such a gorgeous environment when you’re out surfing and you’re hopefully doing what you love that it still seems ridiculous to me the number of conflicts that happen in the water. … The whole theme of Saltwater Buddha is that were not just separate individuals. We’re like a living organism all here together. And the surf community is no exception. And like it or not we’re all sharing these breaks.”
“I really have a high respect for the way that Australian point breaks function. They’re very streamlined and there is that said and unsaid sort of etiquette to them.”
ASJ: How is that different from American point breaks?
“Well, and American too, actually. I think that countries where surfing has been around for a while have developed a system that is often enforced by the locals. When you have a lack of that in countries where surfing is newer, there can be anarchy that develops that can make it a less enjoyable experience.”
“So I’ve tried to see localism in that perspective. I don’t think it needs to be done in such a way where there’s fighting and all of that, but there is a necessary respect that needs to happen in surfing. To play the devil’s advocate with my chapter on surfing in Santa Cruz, I think it can serve a purpose and can make for a safer lineup.”
ASJ: Do you think things are more aggressive in Santa Cruz still?
“I’ve surfed there recently and I’ve had better and better experiences. I really feel that the surf community in general is sort of evolving to a place that’s more ecologically conscious and also more accepting of different kinds of surfing. With role models like the Malloys and Rob Machado, these guys that are just watermen, it seems like there’s a lot more tolerance in the water than there was even seven or eight years ago.”
“I find a lot of times the most ridiculous outbursts of localism occur in these breaks where there’s no need for it. Where it becomes useful sometimes is when you’re surfing a dangerous point break and there may be somebody who really doesn’t belong in the lineup. And that guy who says, “You know what bro, this isn’t for you,” can sometimes save someone’s life.”
“(Having some) understanding can change a lot. When I see some guy who’s trying to make his break exclusive, I don’t think that’s cool but there’s usually a context for it and it might have served a purpose for that individual.”
“The key to me is to figure out a way for kids to feel that pride and respect for their area — ‘Oh yeah, I grew up surfing here, skated in this park, or played baseball on that field’ — without it being something that you need to hate the other side about. It’s just like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. You’re from here. I’m from there. You can come to my break. I’ll go to your break.’ But you can still have that pride without making it exclusive. I think that’s where I’d like to see localism go. Because the idea of being a local and really understanding your community and your surf community and your break, I think is awesome.”
Even a casual kayaker can circumnavigate Big Blue with a little pluck, common sense and an early start
By Robert Frohlich
Call me Ishmael. For I, too, am occasionally drawn toward making spirited voyages. Each spring I circumnavigate Lake Tahoe in my kayak. The point of paddling around Tahoe’s 72 miles of shoreline isn’t to get from A to B, but to find something, face something, and to spit in the eye of Father Time.
Of course the scenery isn’t bad either. There’s no better way of experiencing Tahoe’s waters than by kayak: You commingle with a smorgasbord of lake life typically missed on larger craft — from bald eagles along Rubicon’s shoreline nesting in the tops of dead pine trees; the fish-eating white bellied plumage of osprey hawks; the huge stands of Whitebark Pine and masses of Mariposa Lillies and Pussypaws that surround Thunderbird Lodge on the East Shore; shoaling water turning dark blue in the outer trench to a lemony transparent blue in the shallows.
And when the solitude of deserted water begins to pall, head in to shore. Landmarks abound. Comb the water’s edge for arrowheads and carved stones left over from the Washoe Indians who fished the lake more than 200 years ago; or encounter sybaritic pleasures such as the lakeside Beacon Restaurant at Camp Richardson, the clean, easy going yachter’s paradise under the shadow of Mount Tallac.
I always put in at the Sunnyside Resort south of Tahoe City. My first night I spend in Emerald Bay at the boat-in campground. The next night at the Nevada State Park near Zephyr Cove, and my third evening at Sand Harbor, 15 miles south of Incline Village. Being neither experienced in ocean navigation or a rough-water paddler, I keep close to the lake’s edge. The only time I go into wide-open, offshore water is shortcutting from Sand Harbor across Crystal Bay to Kings Beach. I start early, before boat traffic, and paddle my heart out for six hours each day.
Though the water is often quite calm and often shallow — sometimes less than six feet deep a football field from shoreline — paddling Lake Tahoe isn’t always a mellow trip thanks to gusting winds out of West Shore canyons, or from the freshening afternoon breeze that builds daily out of the south. Weekends, an overkill of boat wake laps toward shoreline like the constant wave tank in physics class.
Being a practical middle-aged fellow I care no longer for foolish risks nor needless expense. I paddle the waters of Lake Tahoe every summer to celebrate my love affair with mountain life. Maybe it’s to be hypnotized by the silent sweep of scenery slithering across North America’s largest alpine lake. Maybe it’s the peace I find within myself, the sense of motion where I am central, energized, and serene.
“Let them talk of their Oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories,” Ishmael said in Moby Dick, “but give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.”
Give me a watertight ocean kayak, a good paddle, and a good eye to steer them by, and I will point my ship into Tahoe’s expanse at a moment’s notice. Let it batter and blow and do its best to beat me back. I will prevail, and find out what stuff I’m made of. I will become the harpoon Fedallah aimed at the White Whale: conscious, hopeful, and never giving in.
Robert “Fro” Frohlich is a well-known Tahoe-based journalist for newspapers and magazines. He has published two books:” Mountain Dreamers: Visionaries of Sierra Nevada Skiing” and “Skiing with Style: Sugar Bowl 60 Years.”
Veteran High Route guide Doug Robinson and company pay tribute to the long, lost tracks of Otto Steiner
Story and photos by Doug Robinson
We’re backing down the north face of Mt. Stanford, kicking soft, loose steps, and I’m scared. Not that Michael Thomas, right above me, will lose it and take me out on his way down – though that’s possible. This one, crossing over the last huge peak, was supposed to be easy. Instead, it went vertical breaching the cornice, and the steepness below, pretty unrelenting, still makes me squirm. Clearly, that photo we were banking on was taken somewhere else.
An unsettling question lurks in the depths. Will it slide? Will the whole face sigh as it submits to gravity, crumpling around us? I think back to waltzing into my first steep Sierra gully on Matterhorn Peak back in the ‘60s. Floundering upward in loose snow, skis long since abandoned. Then we roped up, now we do without. Really, it’s equally useless either way. That day we hadn’t the sense to worry about it avalanching. This time we’ve scouted and seen big spontaneous releases a canyon over, and talked for hours with Sue Burak, the backcountry avalanche forecaster in Mammoth. Unusual sliding layers are threatening us with hidden depth hoar and slick crusts long-buried since January. But it’s getting late. Time to get off this nearly 14,000-foot peak. We suck it up and commit, shadowing the edge of a rock ridge as we descend. How did it come to this?
You’ve all heard of the Sierra High Route, right? Best-known ski tour in the Sierra, ever since Dave Beck led its first traverse in 1975. David was the leading ski guide in this whole range when the big nordic ski boom came along in the ‘70s, perfectly positioned after leading cross country tours through the awesome trees on the Sequoia National Park side of the crest.
I followed Beck across the next spring guiding my own group, and got hooked. Now I’ve traversed the High Route a dozen times or more and, riding the crest of our surge in backcountry skiing, written it up for several magazines. “It’s all marketing,” my ex- once said, before she quit marketing herself to me, and in that enthusiasm I called this tour the High Route of the Americas. Not to be out-hyped, Outside magazine upped the ante to “best ski tour on the planet.”
The Sierra High Route really is that good. Terrain, snowpack and weather all collude. Legendary guide Alan Bard reckoned there were four ranges on the planet where all three ingredients pushed the spring skiing into the running. After sampling them, and after beginning to nudge us all in the direction of shorter, fatter skis, Alan pronounced the High Sierra to be the king range. I’ve travelled a bit myself – skied the namesake Haute Route through the Alps and even pushed my skis to within 10 miles of Everest – and I can only agree. With a smile. No, make that a broad grin, as I pack a Hawaiian shirt to jump on the High Route one more time.
Mayday! Mayday! The rites of spring are upon us. Everyone else is so over skiing, they’re stacked up in the fast lane homing in on the beach in Santa Cruz. Excellent time to reverse commute, sneak out of my home in Surf City™ and head for the alpine zone.
Oops … what are the intrepid ski mountaineers up to now? Could they be cowering in pouring rain, tucked under the covered porch of the nature center in Sequoia National Park, unwilling to face this deluge in the campground like dozens of fearless family campers?
As they pack up and dry out their gear strewn about the Wolverton parking lot, who should appear, likewise heading onto the High Route, but Craig Dostie, the founder of Couloir magazine. Obviously the cognoscente agree that up this high, May is the best season to put ski to snow.
Not to complain here, because the High Route is simply uncanny in the way its line strings together one stretch after another of perfect bowls as it chases this high divide across the range. But, well, let’s say it all started with noticing the tantalizing slopes of Midway Mountain. See, half way across it teeters over its high point on the 13,200-foot shoulder of Milestone Mountain. Then the High Route drops off the Kings-Kern Divide heading for the rolling terrain of the Tyndall Plateau to exit over Shepherd Pass. I took a photo of Midway’s huge open slopes – never been skied – and over the years the shimmering spring corn in that snapshot kept surfacing in my dreams.
I waited a decade – no, more – for the right team. Michael Thomas is the dream client, so strong I could take him on the first ascent of Lost, an 18-hour, 20-pitch marathon, edging toward 5.10 up the unclimbed SW quadrant of Mt. Whitney. When I collapsed into the summit shelter at four a.m., pleading for a nap, Michael shouldered the rack and rope, hiked out to Whitney Portal by dawn and drove back to work. (More unclimbed ridges await right next to Lost; I taunt you.) If anything, Michael is an even better skier than climber, gleefully launching himself down steeps where I fully hedged, clutched my ice axe and kept kicking steps. Then there’s Jay Kumar. Jay showed up in my climbing class at Foothill College, then segued into an apprentice guide. Ever the dirtbag, Jay found a second-hand pair of second-string skis on Craigslist, complete with bindings for $50. He proceeded to fully tear up the place.
In the weeks before we pulled out of Wolverton, the western roadhead, Jay and I had scouted in from the east over Kearsarge Pass, spying on the highest reaches where no one seemed to know much about the Kings-Kern Divide, especially on skis. We had left two food caches. And I was freshly down from placing a first camp with more food and fuel up ahead of us on the Tablelands. It wasn’t so much that our 10-day trip would be a mini-expedition, but the fierceness of the terrain, where we launched over and around eight more peaks that all grazed 14,000 feet, gave us real pause.
Cruising the start, on the so-familiar High Route, it was cool to meet parties streaming across from the east. The big news by 2009 was the way folks were ripping it up. Fat skis and stout boots have emboldened skiers to make tracks on virtually every gully and smooth face that could be reached from the High Route. Beautiful tracks, shredding tracks, tearing-it-up tracks. We had our own moment the morning we tilted into Deadman Canyon. Throw off the pack, submit to gravity. It is billowing terrain, huge succulent rolls that invite abandon. The corn is silky, yes, hissing under our tips as our edges dig into the next broad arc. Wings of glass.
I was glowing with pride for what backcountry skiing has become. Clearly the times were ripe to up the ante by venturing to follow the crescendo of this, the most rugged of all the east-west divides in the High Sierra.
The weather had turned stunning. We never pitched our tent, sleeping night after night in the open. And day after day our biggest threat was sunburn. Well, there was also the dark cloud of blisters from Michael’s new boots. Jay and I turned away squeamishly from his hamburger heels, sure the trip would abort. Somehow he hung tough. Anyway, who could walk away from this sweet snow?
The phantom member of our team was Sue Burak. She’s the backcountry avalanche forecaster for the Eastern Sierra, based in Mammoth. Her bread and butter is educating backcountry skiers who launch themselves, often cluelessly, into the Sherwins above town. But Sue’s heart tugs to the heights of the Sierra Crest, and in the run-up toward our trip I would buy her dinner at Toms Place, the rustic resort hamlet off 395 at the mouth of Rock Creek Canyon, to pick her brain about the quite unusual hazard layers lurking in the high north-facing gullies. She could not quite pull away from analyzing snow pits and writing forecasts to come along with us. And those anomalous, threatening conditions of 2009 — more reminiscent of Colorado than California — are becoming a scientific paper.
Halfway across, Milestone Mountain is a kingpin. All over the southern Sierra you can see its distinctive summit shaped like a flat-topped desert spire perched atop its peak. There we diverted off the High Route, eager to climb into that snapshot of Midway Mountain. Timing is everything, and that day we missed the window for perfect corn, settling for great second-class clambering up its eastern ridge, went right over the 13,666’ summit to a glory run that stretched for miles down the west face. We had arrived on the Otto Route.
David Beck wasn’t the first. Nearly 50 years before, Otto Steiner kicked into his bindings and headed east. He was a nordic ski racer from Austria, a champion. One of the best of Europe. A handful of them were imported to fuel an early surge in North American skiing in the 1930s. His cohorts found the sites of Sun Valley and the great ski fields of the Canadian Rockies. Those places just happened to be convenient to the transcontinental railways that just happened to be paying their salaries.
Otto Steiner was the first to ski up onto the perfect sweep of the Tablelands, marveling at the wide-open terrain. His wooden nordic skis were light and skinny and springy and his rucksack held little more than a primus stove and a scattering of cross country waxes. Three days later he was over most of what’s now the High Route and down on the Kern River, soaking in the hot springs. No fool that boy. Tomorrow maybe he’d glide over toward Mt. Whitney before turning back to Wolverton. Two High Routes, one out and one back, without bothering in between to descend to civilization east of the Sierra. All alone.
Otto Steiner is nearly forgotten. I have David Beck to thank for pointing him out, though Beck’s guidebook Ski Touring in California, still the best ever written, is long out of print.
The first three peaks of our new line remind me of starfish, with long, cliffy ridges for arms. The arms stretch east and west as the divide trends north. Hence we cut a long eastern meander just to get onto the face of Midway, then a two-mile westerly diversion to finally clear the end of another of its arms and start back up toward Table Mountain. Totally flat on top. Total cliffs for sides. We skied past it to the west, finally catching a break under the northern leg of the table. I’ll call it Turntable Col. It led to the first of our drops down northerly chutes, squeamish of stability. We bivied high again, on rolling slab again, under enticing unclimbed walls again, in a canyon with no name.
Two days later we arrived on this north face of Mt. Stanford. Actually we’re on the east face of its north ridge. I’ve spent enough time picking apart the journals of California explorers — going all the way back to a three days crossing of the Big Sur mountains in the tracks of a single paragraph from Portola’s journal of 1769 — to know that accuracy counts. Michael can’t stand it any longer. He’s up on his skis, cutting great arcs across the steep face, leaving a rooster tail of damp snow. Power skiing. It is truly awesome to watch. Within seconds he’s 700 feet below us.
We pull up to camp on the flat top of a giant boulder. It’s our throne room in a sea of white. We break out the Scotch to celebrate. Tomorrow’s trajectory is laid out before us, a series of bowls so perfect they dwarf any ski area on the continent. We will swoop across the John Muir Trail in a blink as it picks its way unseen over a rocky landscape still smothered in white. Then on to kiss the flanks of Junction Peak, sealing our traverse where the Kings-Kern Divide meets the crest of the Sierra.
The North Face of University Peak the day after will be icing on this cake, though truly we are so tired that clawing our way over its west ridge is a bleary effort. Finally the inevitable willow thrash and dinner at Still Life – how can this be? – the finest French restaurant for 200 miles in the tiny desert town of Independence.
The classic High Route was born perfect. The way it unfolds terrain is so natural, effortless. It flows. Our new Otto Route, on the other hand, is gnarlier. We ended up doing about double the High Route in days, elevation gained (and — yeah bro! — lost), in effort and commitment and seriousness. It definitely crossed the rope-and-ice-axe line into ski mountaineering. The Otto Route can look forward to 50 years of fine-tuning. Even big variations. It has long open beautiful slopes, sure. But some of them slide right by an entire peak, or even three, of the Divide we’re weaving. Every time you turn around there’s the suggestion of another steep gully slashing through jagged terrain that has never felt the bite of a ski edge.
Have at it. I can’t wait to see this one evolve.
OCSC Founder Anthony Sandberg has been teaching people to sail — and set sail — for 31 years
By Pete Gauvin • Photos by Martin Sundberg
Sailing on San Francisco Bay is one of the iconic adventures of Northern California, combining a maritime wilderness amid a jewel-like urban setting with a robust natural wind generator that pumps out stiff breezes as reliably as Tim Lincecum unleashes a heater, which is to say nearly all the time — or in the bay’s case, nearly every day.
Yet it’s likely many more people have been to a San Francisco Giants game to see “The Freak” pitch than have been sailing on the bay, a freak of nature in its own right.
While millions scurry daily along the shores and across the bridges of this 400-square-mile inland sea, far too few ever get out on the water. It may be the defining landmark of our region and regarded as the best sailing location in North America, but for many it’s more of an inconvenience than a resource.
“Only about 5 percent of the eight million people who live in the Bay Area have actually been on the bay in any form,” says Anthony Sandberg.
And if not for him there might be a lot less.
Sandberg is the founder and president of the OCSC Sailing school and club based at the Berkeley Marina. It used to be known as the Olympic Circle Sailing Club, but when you become as established as OCSC has — widely considered the top sailing school in the nation, ranked as one of the best places to work, written up in major magazines and newspapers, featured on TV and radio — you’ve earned the right to go exclusively by your acronym.
That’s where the exclusivity ends though. Since he started OCSC 31 years ago, Sandberg has been on a mission to democratize the sport of sailing and shake the image that it’s an elitist hobby that ranks somewhere between country club golf and race car driving in its public accessibility.
At OCSC, you can experience sailing on the bay for the cost of a cheap date: For $40, you can join one of their Wednesday evening sails and barbecues, or take a two-hour introduction to sailing course.
Fittingly, OCSC’s beginnings were anything but pretentious. When Sandberg started the school in 1979, he was 29 and had no money. He rented a shack with a phone on the Alameda Estuary and launched OCSC with one boat, a borrowed J/24. He lived out of his Dodge van and subsisted on cans of tuna and baked potatoes for the first six months.
“I looked at the bay and I had sailed virtually everywhere on earth and I thought I could reinvent this sport to make it more accessible and bring back honor to this sport … by teaching people how to sail capably, comfortably and confidently in a full range of conditions.”
In 1980, he was joined by his partner and current CEO Richard Jepsen. Together they took OCSC straight to the dump, literally — the municipal garbage dump that was located at the Berkeley Marina at the time. It was the place Sandberg had in mind all along.
Talk about a site going to waste … Despite its trash-heap moorings, Sandberg realized that it was the optimal location for getting out on the heart of the bay, directly across from the Golden Gate wind funnel, with minimal putt-putt time before you could hoist the main and unfurl the jib to some of the most challenging, beautiful, rollicking sailing imaginable.
Indeed, it would be hard to design a better open-air classroom for teaching sailing. Bay sailing is both the ideal training ground and gateway drug to the larger watery world. They say if you can sail on the bay — with its tides and currents, hefty wind and waves, shipping traffic and frenzy of other boats — you can sail just about anywhere.
Thirty years later, OCSC has recycled its corner of the former city dump into a six-acre “campus” with three docks, a fleet of 50 sailboats, and a staff of 80 enthusiastic people, including more than 40 instructors.
Most notably, OCSC has taught more than 25,000 people how to sail.
One of Sandberg’s secrets to sailing: There’s no need to own a boat.
It takes money to own a yacht. It takes skill to actually sail one. Too many people confuse sailing with ownership, he says, which is why most boats sit idle in marina slips rather than venturing out on the bay.
“The average use for your average privately owned boat is two days a year,” he says. Why? “Most boat owners aren’t comfortable sailing in the full range of conditions you encounter on the bay and they have no one to sail with.”
Some days, particularly weekdays, nearly all the boats you see out on the bay are from OCSC. This was the case when Sandberg and his assistant Tony Samour took us out for a short sail on a 36-foot J/105 on a sparkling blue, mildly breezy Thursday in April. (It was April 15, so maybe those owners we’re searching for one last write-off?)
Starting OCSC with a borrowed boat taught Sandberg that he didn’t need to own sailboats to have a successful sailing school—a revolutionary concept at the time. Today, nearly two-thirds of OCSC’s sailboats are the property of other people. OCSC maintains the boats and shares the revenues collected from renting them with the owners.
Another of Sandberg’s secrets to sailing: Have lots of friends to go out with any day of the year.
“It’s not fun unless you have playmates,” he says as we cruise toward Angel Island. “Why have just a couple friends to do things with when you could have a thousand?”
No surprise, both of these hurdles are cleared by joining OCSC: Boom, you’ve got access to a fleet of 50 boats from 24 to 50 feet and more than a 1,000 fellow sailors to assemble a crew with.
A standard membership runs about $500 (a one-time initiation fee), with monthly dues of $59. Not pocket change, but compare that to the myriad costs of owning a boat. Peanuts.
Stories from Sandberg’s travels and eclectic background unravel with the breeze as he coaches his neophyte crew aboard the J/105 and explains the workings and philosophies of OCSC.
Beyond the bay, OCSC leads sailing adventures, “flotillas” of chartered boats, all over the world — Mexico, Central America, Europe, the South Pacific, Patagonia. It also leads non-sailing adventure travel trips to places such as Antarctica and Peru.
As the front man for OCSC, Sandberg designs several new trips every year and then, of course, must personally vet them. When the world is your oyster, you’ve got to sample it first.
“When I’m designing a trip I lead the first one, take notes, refine it, then turn it over to my staff to lead,” says Sandberg, now 61. “The two that I keep doing myself are Turkey and Antarctica … I’ve been going to Turkey for 40 years. I’m crazy about archaeology and history and classics, and I have a lot of Turkish friends.”
This year’s OCSC Turkey Flotilla is Sept. 11-25, and he’ll be departing for Antarctica once again in February.
Perhaps this is the manifest career destiny of an erudite Norwegian with benevolent Viking blood, the son of a top resort chef, who grew up bodysurfing in Hawaii, spent his teen years in Lake Tahoe, went on to Dartmouth where he was on the skiing, rowing and sailing teams, studied political science, became embroiled in the anti-war movement, crewed yachts in Europe, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal before deciding he wanted to follow his passion for sailing into business.
Sandberg’s life philosophy is worldly, curious, social, less restrictive and more empowering. He personally takes up two new activities every year. This year, it’s road biking and salsa dancing. And it’s that sort of enthusiasm for challenges and exploration that he fosters at OCSC.
Indeed, if anyone is living his gospel better than Anthony Sandberg, and making a living at it, I’d like to know who that is … and publish their how-to book.
OCSC draws a broad and diverse mix of people to its classrooms and docks. On any given day you can meet a bartender, a Silicon Valley tycoon, or a group of East Bay inner-city school kids on an OCSC-sponsored field trip.
Expect to see a lot more female skippers in the Bay Area in coming years. Though sailing has a reputation for being male dominated, 50 percent of OCSC’s students are women, says Sandberg. In other schools, typically only about 20 percent are women.
Another distinguishing characteristic: OCSC uses a three-to-one instructor ratio for all its courses so students get more individual attention and hands-on experience. At many schools the ratio is six-to-one, Sandberg says.
“Our courses come with a guarantee,” he adds. “We’ll keep teaching you until you get (certified), for up to three months.”
There are three core US Sailing certification courses at OCSC: Basic Keelboat, Basic Cruising, and Bareboat Cruising. The first two prepare you to be a confident skipper of smaller boats (under 30’) on San Francisco Bay, while the bareboat program qualifies you to skipper larger charter boats anywhere in the world.
There are dozens more advanced and specialized courses, from spinnaker sailing and racing to coastal passagemaking, celestial navigation, and boat repair.
“Seventy-five to 80 percent of the people that walk in our door for the first time want to be able to bareboat charter in the Caribbean,” says Sandberg. “Then they get into it and their goals change and their world expands.”
OCSC uses J/24s, the most popular one-design sailboat in the world, as its primary training boat. They now have 22 of these versatile and responsive boats in their fleet.
“I want people to be complete sailors,” says Sandberg, steering the 36-footer back to the marina as one of their J/24s heads out.
“We try to encourage them to learn on smaller boats. This is fun (sailing a boat with a big wheel), but where you develop your real skill is there (on a smaller boat with a tiller) … I want to see you sail a 50 or 60 footer with the same deftness that you have on a more basic boat.”
That’s the natural order of things when learning to sail with OCSC: Start small, start local, and then go big and as broad as you desire. Anthony Sandberg is happy to show you the way.
A three-hour and 20-year tour with the founder of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation
Story by Bruce Willey • Photos courtesy of Pelagic Shark Research Foundation
The January sky is a cold slab of gray, wet with fog, that settles deep into the bone. Nearly a half-mile off Año Nuevo Island, 25 miles north of Santa Cruz, Sean Van Sommeran, founder and executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, kills the motor.
We drift and wait. Fifteen pounds of elephant seal meat wrapped in a mesh bag off the back of the boat sends a faint, greasy streak across the surface of the water.
Año Nuevo has long been a breeding ground for seals, sea lions, and the infamous North American elephant seal, an impressive apex predator in its own right about the size of a grizzly bear. The abundance of pinnipeds makes for a literal smorgasbord of protein-rich blubber for the great white sharks that patrol the waters off the island.
Sharks investigate anomalies in their environment, whether it’s an electrical field, splash, something bleeding. Which partly explains the thin piece of plywood jig-sawed into a cutout of an elephant seal tethered to a rod and reel by a heavy-test fishing line.
“It’s exactly, precisely like fly-fishing, only not even vaguely similar in any sort of way,” says Van Sommeran.
We wait some more, the wait made easier by Sean’s keen banter, a boundless mind atop a short and stout body that looks as if it was hewn from a beam of old-growth redwood. Anthropology, politics, world history, and yes, sharks, make the cold, long wait if not bearable at least entertaining. Skipping from one tangent to the next in a lingering surfer drawl, Van Sommeran seems perfectly at home on the sea, rocking comfortably with the swell. And then …
“Visuals? Incoming. Six o’clock,” Van Sommeran says. The crew in the 22-foot Chris Craft springs into action. “There it is. Coming around the bow. Look alive!”
How could we not? Yes, there it is, the unmistakable sleek form of myths and legends, the beast capable of striking the ultimate fear of being eaten alive, silently glides just under the surface of the water, bigger than what would fit on a movie screen and certainly bigger than a TV nature documentary.
It circles us slowly — all 18 feet of it — making the 21-foot boat seem suddenly puny in comparison. First the nose, then the dark vacuous eyes the size of bagels, followed by its corpulent and scarred middle, the dorsal fin trailing ringlets of water bubbles on the trailing edge. And then its long slender back leading to a tail, effortlessly sweeping lazily back and forth. Rather than fear, I am overcome by its tremendous beauty and can’t take my eyes off it.
Her actually. Most of the great whites here are females, and as she rolls on her side she exposes her sex or rather the absence of claspers (male sex organs for sharks). Van Sommeran entices the shark to the back of the boat by giving the seal meat a sharp tug. She disappears. We wait. But a few minutes later, as if unable to contain her curiosity about us, she reappears, nudging her huge blemished nose past the portside stern. Leaning way over the side of the boat, Sean, with the accuracy of a stone age hunter, thrusts a small yellow tag into the back of the shark near the dorsal fin with a lance. She doesn’t even flinch.
She comes around a few more times before vanishing as easily as she appeared. Only the eerie call of the navigational buoy a mile away and the squawk of a gull interrupt the silence. Everyone in the boat searches the water. The adrenaline fades, but not the high associated with witnessing one of nature’s most revered apex predators in the flesh.
That was more than eight years ago, and the memory of it is one that will never disappear. For Sean, no doubt, it was just another day at the pelagic “office” though his office is a cubicle as big as the Eastern Pacific Ocean. We kept in touch over the intervening years, and I rode the high seas with Sean as he tagged blue sharks in the Monterey Bay; waded into the muck of the Moss Landing’s Elkhorn Slough to tag the prehistoric-looking guitar fish and leopard sharks. Watched PSRF grow and struggle to stay alive against all odds. Sometimes I didn’t think they’d make it. But this year marks the foundation’s 20th anniversary and Van Sommeran and the foundation he helms shows no sign of giving up the fight to save sharks.
“Initially I wanted to continue being a fisherman/mariner,” Sean says, “but as I grew up and realized it’s not what it once was. What was there for my father and grandfather is no longer there. And I’m not good at anything else.”
The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation began at time when the attitude about sharks, as Van Sommeran puts it, was “save the sharks; save syphilis.” We’re driving through Santa Cruz in Sean’s Mercedes. Shark research isn’t the lucrative, high-roller career it might appear to be, though. The car is 25 years-old and a moldy wetsuit in the backseat gives off a whiff of kelp forest. No, saving sharks doesn’t even pay for the gas.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1990, Sean founded PSRF under the umbrella of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute. At the time there were no regulations in place to protect sharks.
“The first priority and motivation for the foundation was to gather data that was lacking,” Van Sommeran says. “That vacuum of data, pointed at by the fishery officials, was the rational for not taking action. Well give me a minute, and I started collecting the data and doing the work. Population base, movement, migration and with that understanding map out a way to protect if not manage the shark. Back then it was a weird thing. There were vast deserts of ignorance.”
Van Sommeran has lived a life absolutely transfixed by the natural history of sharks. When he was 10 he would often swim with leopard sharks under the Capitola Wharf. He admits to catching the sharks with a hook and line so he could be closer to his passion. When he was 12, the same year Jaws hit the theaters, Van Sommeran was already working on commercial fishing boats, his father and grandfather’s longtime occupation. Coming out of anchorage early in the morning off Año Nuevo, the boat motored past a large shark biting a seal he remembers witnessing a shark attack on an elephant seal.
“I was stacking anchor chain and stowing anchor,” he recalls, “when I notice birds going nuts and big pool of red water and then recognized the churning masses within to be a big shark shaking and mawing on the seal which was flooding the surrounding seawater with thick red blood that one could easily mistaken for a paint spill.” Sean ran to the wheelhouse and pounded on the door. The skipper was indifferent and continued to smoke a cigarette and drink his coffee. “But I was poisoned for the rest of my life,” Sean says. “I was like wow, shaking, like I’d just seen T-rex. It was the manifestation of all my childhood fantasies.”
Van Sommeran possesses no formal marine biology degree. His knowledge is hard-won; a practical education completed at sea writ large on his weathered face instead of a diploma hanging on the wall. This fact, among others, has put him at odds with many of the personalities and fixtures of the establishment — UC Santa Cruz, Moss Landing Marine Lab, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Much like a modern-day Ed “Doc” Ricketts, the self-taught marine biologist immortalized in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and “The Sea of Cortez,” Van Sommeran says he has often been treated like a Sherpa on Himalayan expeditions. “’Can you step out of the way so we can take a picture of the hero?’” he says, jokingly. “I don’t feel underappreciated. I feel concealed and confined.”
Van Sommeran says his reputation has been dragged through the proverbial mud in an attempt to discredit him and the foundation’s efforts. He was first consulted and then became an outspoken critic of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s (and other aquariums) efforts to keep sharks and other pelagic species in captivity. Though he doesn’t think it’s impossible to exhibit sharks in aquariums, he is against the practice because of the high mortality and collateral damage in the efforts to gather specimens for the display. “Its like slave ships,” he says. “For every specimen that reaches the ‘arena’ 15 die in the effort to even reach the short term tenure at the aquaria.”
And his once friendly and symbiotic relationship with UCSC has been severely strained. In 2002, an article published in the scientific journal Nature broke open the theory that great white sharks, once thought to inhabit near-shore environments, were actually migrating throughout the oceans. In other words, great whites, the article stated, are pelagic — from the ancient Greek word for “open ocean.” Hailed as a new chapter in shark research, the study tracked six sharks with satellite tags that recorded the water temperature, depth, and position of the animal. One great white, tagged around the Farrallon Islands off San Francisco, managed to end up in the waters of Hawaii.
There was one problem though. The article, authored by marine scientists from Point Reyes Bird Observatory, UCSC, and Stanford Marine Station failed to credit Van Sommeran’s contribution to the study. The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation was forced to sue to get their money back and name on the study. They won, however Nature Journal reneged on the agreement to publish an erratum regarding the misrepresented data.
The irony, of course, can be found on PSRF’s logo, a great white shark emblazoned with the word pelagic. Van Sommeran had long suggested that great whites ranged the open ocean instead of staying near shore. The technology just wasn’t there to prove it.
Coming from a commercial fishing background, he’d identified long line and harpoon fishery related debri (a type of commercial deep sea fishing technique) that often impacts great white shark populations. By way of his anthropology interest, he knew that great white shark teeth had showed up in the Polynesian archeological record. In addition there was an earlier conjecture that white sharks might be following humpback whale migrations and calving rhythms between Hawaii and the Eastern Pacific.
So when microwave telemetry finally became small enough and relatively cheap (about $4000 a piece), Van Sommeran was eager to test the theory out. But he feels that honor, the “gold medal” for his pioneering shark research in Monterey Bay was ripped out of his hands despite prevailing in the lawsuit. “No good deed has gone unpunished since then,” he says.
And over the years he hasn’t made a lot of friends with commercial diving operations. Back in the mid-90s, in the name of “eco-tourism,” were taking divers out to Año Nuevo and dumping large amounts of chum in the water and feeding, even entangling the great whites which Van Sommeran had recently helped gain protected status in California waters. Using the recently established California protected status and the guidelines from the then newly appointed Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation teamed up with the Santa Cruz Chapter of Surfrider Foundation to campaign against chumming and feeding white sharks, arguing that it was not acceptable within a so called marine sanctuary, was not good wildlife care, and that it was interrupting ongoing conservation research. And it could be dangerous to humans as well. After all, Waddell Creek, a mere two miles away as the gull flies is a veritable “rookery” for another kind of marine mammal with toys—surfers, kite surfers, and wind surfers.
“Don’t feed the animals is one of the most basic tenants of wildlife care,” Sean says. “We all know what happens when bears associate humans with food, whether it’s a chipmunk or a killer whale — especially animals that bite things. But I’m not anti-shark cage diving, I’m not anti-shark tourism, just don’t feed the animals. You don’t go whale watching and feed the orcas.”
What’s more, when there’s a media feeding frenzy regarding a shark attack, it’s Sean whom they call, not always some big wig shark researcher at a major university or marine lab. Besides his rapid-fire delivery of shark issues and the fact that he always down plays the panic while putting it all in context, he gives good quotes.
And here, on our drive between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, is where Sean goes off on another enlightened tangent. Abbreviated, three-blocks worth of traveling time snippet:
“You know free-range chicken versus deranged chicken, genetically modified chicken. Would you like that free-range, organically grown hand-strangled or would you like that genetically modified, slowly electrocuted under a blue light chicken? People have no idea. Same thing, ah I’ll have the ahi and no one really thinks of a 1,500-pound fish that looks like a polished aluminum fighter plane. Oh it’s a sandwich, comes in a can that a filthy fisherman caught for us. There’s no appreciation for it. Modern people have no context. Ah, hamburger. Try rodeo clowning one of those cows down then make your self a burger and see how good it tastes then. It comes in cellophane. You can’t get a damn toothpick without it coming wrapped in cellophane these days. That goes down the drain, ends up in the ocean looking like a piece of plankton and some invert (ebrate) eats it, gets gut busted and dies, and chemicals accumulate in the fishes and rises up the food chain. I pick my teeth, I want to eat, I want to do all this stuff, but it’s just a matter of organizing the picnic as opposed to walking up and dumping it down and kicking it across the lawn. So yeah, if I had to sum it up, the purpose is to gain better understanding for the purpose of better management.”
We drive down Highway One, the March wildflowers in the freeway medium in raucous bloom. We’re heading to the Watsonville Airport where Sean will catch a helicopter flight to Big Sur and back as part of a twofold project he’s working on with Specialized Helicopters. The company offers “Sky Safaris” to tourists and Sean acts as tour guide while keeping an eye out for basking sharks and other wildlife of scientific interest.
Basking sharks, Sean tells me, used to be so numerous off the California coast that they were deemed a hazard to navigation. Fighter pilots used to strafe whole groups of them for bombing practice during World War II. Before that the Monterey Yacht Club had a recreational harpoon fishery. For 50 cents one could row out in a dory and harpoon a basking shark. “You’d get the Nantucket sleigh ride,” he says, “until you got bored or the animal expired, whatever came first, and then you’d go back to the harbor in your tennis cloths.”
It’s also come full circle since the basking shark provided the inspiration for Sean to put PSRF in place. Van Sommeran was working as a seasonal aid for the California Department of Fish and Game for tuna, salmon, and rockfish project. The budget caved in and he and 500 other employees were let go. He went back to work at the gas dock at the Santa Cruz Harbor where he’d worked off and on since high school. A commercial fisherman came in and told Sean there were 30-40 foot basking sharks off of Lighthouse Point. Sean jumped in a skiff and went out for a look, tagging as many as a dozen of the sharks in the coming days.
At first people thought they were giant great white sharks, but once they learned they were harmless plankton feeders, that’s when the trouble started. “They were scooting around like big lethargic carp,” Sean says. “And then you had guys who were snagging it with hooks and just cut the line. There were guys on jet skis using the (dorsal) fin as a ramp to do jumps off.”
Sean founded PSRF a few months later.
We pull into the airport outside a helicopter hanger. Best way to locate the now elusive basking shark is with an aircraft. Which is where Specialized Helicopters fits in. Based out of Watsonville, Specialized Helicopters helps Sean locate the basking sharks where Sean wears two hats as researcher and tour guide. Today, Sean will fly out over the coast and down to Big Sur and back with pilot Chris Gularte in a small helicopter a tad bit smaller than a VW Bug. Normally I’d be invited along for the ride, but two more passengers (one for a flight training) have showed up at the last minute, bumping my seat.
As Gularte and his student inspect the helicopter, Sean and I wander the tarmac. I ask him if the last 20 years have been worth all the effort. He ponders this for a few nanoseconds and says: “All I ever wanted to do was marine science and conservation. I’ve developed this reputation of being combative but it’s a matter of translation. The combative, uncooperative part is I insist on doing it (shark conservation and research) when everyone else says don’t do it. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I sleep on the floor.”
Sean climbs aboard, a long telephoto lens and camera in his lap. The helicopter fires up and the blades spin into a whir before lifting off and heading out to sea.
A chapter from Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea
By Jaimal Yogis
In Hawaii, I saw a few fights break out. But I never had any personal collisions with the so-called “localism factor” until I came back to the mainland— or, as the Rastafarians in Hawaii call it, “Babylon.”
After six months at Kalani, I figured I couldn’t live in my heavenly little A-frame forever, so I moved back to California for college classes. To keep up what Rom taught me, I went to that little college town called Santa Cruz: liberal bubble of idealism and drum circles, of health-food stores that out-number Starbucks, of really good cold waves, and, as I would soon find out, angry surfers.
At first I was too tucked away to notice them. I found a quiet studio in Aptos next to a park of redwoods and lolling ferns. Fog cloaked my bedroom windows most mornings and I meditated before dawn to the sound of trickling dew. I could walk to a good beach break and to my new job at the Farm Bakery. I fell in love with a pretty Santa Cruz girl and we tried to be healthy, spiritual do-gooders: yoga classes, monthly beach clean-ups, hospice work, lots of raw vegetables. All was well in the Santa Cruzian cosmos. And I could generally avoid surfing in town where the so-called Surf Nazis roamed.
I first heard this name in my oceanography class. “That’s what people call those assholes,” said a surfer from L.A. who sat next to me. “And they really are Nazis, man, I swear. They think they own the ocean. Man, L.A. was better than this.”
“Well, you expect it more down there. I thought northern Californians were supposed to be more friendly.”
“Not in Santa Cruz, man.”
To be fair, angry locals exist everywhere there is a combination of two things: good waves and male surfers. Serene as our sport can be, put a bunch of testosterone-crazed men in close proximity competing for anything, even just fleeting bursts of saltwater, and there will be problems.
On the whole, I’d say Barton Lynch, the 1988 surf champ, got it right when he said that surfers are “more cocky and judgmental than any group of people in the world.” And Santa Cruz surfers are known as the worst. Not that there aren’t a lot of friendly surfers in Santa Cruz, but the Nazis do enough heckling, shouting, and beating to eclipse the others.
I suppose it’s not their fault. Aside from the cold water—usually about fifty-five degrees—it would be hard to design a better surf locale than Santa Cruz. The entire bay faces south, which means the northwest winds that pound the rest of northern California blow offshore in Santa Cruz and keep the waves tidy almost every day, year-round. Santa Cruz is open to gentle south swells all summer. And in winter, the powerful northern swells that overfill many northfacing breaks get parceled, manicured, and groomed as they bend into the Monterey Bay and collide with Santa Cruz’s sedimentary reefs.When all the right factors combine, it can be a stunning sight.
At some point long, long ago in the dark ages of surfing—before the invention of the wetsuit—Santa Cruz surfers were a brazen, chill-tolerant few with the pristine sanctuary to themselves. But Jack O’Neill changed everything. In 1952, he invented the wetsuit and opened his first real surf shop in Santa Cruz shortly after. The wetsuit* allowed even old ladies, small children, and wimpy Buddhists onto the waves; Santa Cruz transformed from hippie town with a few polar bear club surfers to hippie town with a surf-driven economy. Today, the area seems to have more surf shops than it does gas stations. And from Sunset Beach to Scott’s Creek, when the surf is good, thousands of wet-suited surfers descend on the sea and fill every nook and cove, competing for anything that ripples, refracts, or gurgles.
It’s still a great place to be a surfer. But you have to feel a little bad for the born-and-bred Santa Cruz surfers, whose solitary Eden has been opened wide to every over-eager UC Santa Cruz student, every Silicon Valley drudge fending off a mid-life crisis, and every newly christened surfer coming back from six months in Hawaii and trying to beat culture shock.
So, of course they try to defend their turf—not that that justifies some of their actions. But everything is created by causes and conditions.
* For which, Mr. O’Neill, I am very grateful.
I finally witnessed genuine Surf Nazi rage at a well-populated town spot called the Hook. It was a crowded, small day, and there was much more jockeying for space than surfing going on. But it was also sunny. The air was clear. And everyone who wasn’t getting waves—all but about seven guys—probably figured just sitting in the water was still better than whatever else they had to do.
After an hour or so, I watched three grinning boys paddle out with their shiny new gear, jabbering about girls in their dorm or something. They weren’t terrible surfers. They just had terrible judgment. They paddled directly to the wrong take-off point and dropped in on the wrong guy, a stocky blonde with a chin like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“What the fuck are you doing?” the Arnold-chin guy yelled.
“Surfing,” the boy replied.
It was a brave response. But the wrong one. Within minutes, the boys were slipping on seaweed and ducking hurled rocks. The boys darted back into their SUV, not even bothering to change out of their wetsuits.
Arnold-chin and his friends were proud of themselves. In their minds, I imagine, they were doing their duty: protecting their pristine shores. The three of them laughed about it for a good fifteen minutes— “They were so fucking scared”—and on and on. Then they went back to their conversation about the previous night’s exploits.
“I was sooo wasted. Keyed. Seriously.”
“I know, dude, how many times did you use the Nword?”
“About thirty. But I don’t mean it like that, man.”
Perhaps they had earned the name Nazis for a reason. Anyway, I didn’t want to deal with them. So I surfed conservatively, smiled a lot and apologized profusely whenever I came close to breaking a taboo. It worked for a long time. But then one day, I was in downtown Santa Cruz during a big winter swell. Normally, I’d have headed to one of the more secluded coves up north, but I only had ninety minutes before class.
So I drove down to Santa Cruz’s most famous and crowded spot: Steamer Lane.
The Lane became famous in the ’60s as a good training spot for Makaha and Sunset and other bigwave Hawaiian surf spots. It has since become so “localized” that even the parking lot is divided between locals and non-locals. In other words, before you even touch the water, you know where you stand in the pecking order. And because the wave breaks in perfect view from the Santa Cruz surf museum and lighthouse, a popular tourist lookout, the Lane is like a surf auditorium built for show-offs. It breeds the worst in localism and the best in surfing acrobatics.
Not surprisingly, the two often go together.
I’d surfed the Lane a handful of times and I knew where I stood. I parked in the tourist lot and walked to the lighthouse to have a look. The railing on the cliff was brimming with families flashing cameras, students playing Frisbee, and mobs of surfers, all of them gawking.
“OH! MY! GOD!” I heard someone shout. And then I saw it. In the surf slang of the moment, the Lane was “going off”: ten-foot faces backlit by a warm sun unwrapped across the inlet like a magazine cover. I’d heard the Lane got good. But I had had no idea it could do this.
Dozens of surfers spread out in tight-knit groups like little islands. The best surfers waited in a pack at the most dangerous spot behind the jutting cliff. I watched a big set come in. The surfer furthest behind the cliff caught it, streamed down the face, narrowly missing the cliff’s edge as the wall of water collided with the sediment and shot white spume twenty-five feet vertically. “Oohhh,” the tourists cooed. “Sick,” said the surfer next to me. “So critical.”
I grabbed my board and climbed quickly down the cement steps into the water. On a sign near the entrance, someone had written, “You’re not a local until you’ve lived in Santa Cruz for seven years.”
Charming. Just six years and eight months to go.
I paddled to middle point, a peak safely away from the rocks. And despite the crowd, surprising myself, I got a few very good rides; the waves were setting up in a predictable line, almost like—I hate to say it—a surfing video game. Plenty of room to carve around on the face, time to think about your next snap.
A few professionals (and lots of aspiring professionals) were out in the lineup. Everyone, even the women, seemed to be doing their best alpha-male impersonation: jaw thrust forward, eyes steely, shoulders back, no smiles. Only the good old boys were talking at all, cracking inside jokes to let everyone know that they did indeed own this wave (in case we somehow forgot).
It was a quintessential Santa Cruz day. Between waves, I watched in envy as guys like Darryl Virostko, known as Flea, pulled floaters and aerial maneuvers like his board was an extension of his body. He was like a human-board hybrid. A herd of seals was sunning on a nearby rock. Purple and yellow flower bloomed like fireworks. The cliffs twinkled like new sandpaper.
Peter, a guy I knew from English class, was out at middle point, too. He surfed the Lane regularly and said he’d never seen it so good. “This is rare beauty,” he said. “Santa Cruz gold.”
“I think these may be the best waves I’ve ever ridden,” I told him.
“They may be the best waves you’ll ride for a long time, too. This swell’s gonna be over by tomorrow. Get ’em while you can.”
Middle point was plenty of fun. But after months in Hawaii, I had a chip on my shoulder. And before long, I paddled over toward the pack near the cliff. The waves were steeper over there, barreling in an almond shape as they rumbled by the cliff’s edge.
I was a little nervous. I still hadn’t gotten a good tube ride, ever.
The art of getting inside the wave looks easy in videos and magazines. But it’s actually about as difficult as threading a needle wearing mittens and a blindfold. Making it out of the tube was the hardest part for me. Almost every time I’d made it in, the wave had swallowed.
I knew I had to prove myself if I was going to sit behind the cliff and get any respect. And again, I got unbelievably lucky. On the first wave I paddled into, as I passed the cliff, the lip leapt outward like it was reaching for shore. I ducked, pressed my body close to the face, and a thin sheath of water just fell over my shoulder. It was like ducking behind a waterfall, like breathing underwater, like being shot through the barrel of a shotgun. It was all of this, and also like nothing else. It was my first real tube. I wasn’t deep inside the hollow section, but I was definitely in the shade of the lip, enough for the periscope vision I’d been dreaming about. I heard hoots from the crowd before the wave spat me out in a burst.
I felt like I’d just won the lottery. I wanted to scream to the tourists: “I know what it feels like, suckers!” But one never breaks stoic coolness at a spot like the Lane. Never. So I acted the part—just one of the boys.
But as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” I paddled back with fierce confidence: back arched, stare forward. I figured everyone had seen my wave and that everyone would gladly give me waves the rest of the evening. I paddled deeper into the pack and waited.
But then I made a slight faux pas. Okay, a big one. On my next wave, I didn’t even look to see if anyone was dropping in before me. I just rode, like Tupac, nothing but open wave ahead—pure freedom. And as I rode—yeah! yeah!—I heard a voice: “HO-HO-HO! HO-HO-HO!” Unfortunately this was not a festive greeting. This meant in surf-speak: “Get the hell out of my way, now!”*
* I have no idea which surfer started saying “HO” to signal that the wave is already taken. But it seems to be used all over the world now. I know one surfer who has tacked on a “Merry Christmas” when the other surfer gets off the wave. And unrelatedly, but in an interesting coincidence, repeatedly chanting “Ho” is also what Zen monks in Japan intone on their begging rounds—it’s the Japanese word for “Dharma.”
I looked back to see a surfer in a bright red wetsuit. And no one wears a bright red wetsuit unless they really want to be noticed. He was barreling down the line right toward me, screaming now: “HO! HO!”
Technically, it was his wave. And I tried to follow etiquette and pop off the back of the wave. But for some reason, when I did that I didn’t bring my board. I jumped off, diving over the lip. Thus, I was safely out of the way, but my board was not. And it tripped him. I was all set with my overdone apology when I heard him scream. “Errrggghhhmotherfucker!” Oh man. He was angry, very angry. He paddled toward me spewing words in what almost sounded like fast-forward.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I am really, really sorry! I tried to—”
“Hey, I said I was sorry.”
Despite his poor manners and slurred speech I felt bad. It was my fault. If I hadn’t been pretending I was Kelly Slater, it wouldn’t have happened. I apologized again and expected the incident would be over. I wasn’t going to get out like he wanted me to. He didn’t look older than twenty-one and he wasn’t even a great surfer. Besides, everyone gets dropped in on from time-to-time. It happened a thousand times a day at Steamer Lane. He would let it go.
But for the next twenty minutes, the red-suited bandit and his friend, a guy in a bright blue suit and a fluorescent orange top, taunted me with more homophobic obscenities and fast-forward surf slang.
It was really annoying.
And I wasn’t going to fight them. For one thing, judging from their crew cuts, bright suits, and political incorrectness, I figured they probably had older brothers with black monster trucks waiting in the parking lot to run over Buddhist surfers. Secondly, I don’t think I could effectively hold my own against an aggressive starfish if I wanted to. And thirdly, back at the monastery I took a lifelong vow against killing (and fighting) that I’d upheld thus far—with the exception of a few mosquitoes, which I regret. And since I’d broken most of the other vows many times over, I wanted to maintain at least one. I tried to ignore them:
“Deedadeee. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts.”
But after the tenth time the red-suited surfer yelled “faggot” at me, I began to lose my patience. Perhaps if he’d been a little bit more creative—“Hey sea horse, are you pregnant?” “Hey hippo mouth”—I would’ve taken it in stride. But faggot? It was as if these guys had been stuck in a time warp—Miami Beach, 1985—and had suddenly beamed down to Steamer Lane just to test my patience.
I paddled away, but I couldn’t surf at all well. My chest began to tighten.My ribs compressed. I felt nauseous. I was getting… angry. And that was not good.
Good Buddhists don’t get angry, I told myself (unhelpfully). And every time I looked at their bright suits, the anger grew. And every time the anger grew, I got angry at myself for getting angry. Suddenly, on a beautiful day with the best surf of the year, nothing felt right.
The water was cold. My hands were clammy. I started hating everyone, all the stupid surfers, all the ridiculous followers who just wanted a cool surfer identity, which was the only reason they were out.
Unlike me—obviously the only soul surfer left— they were obstacles. Flotsam.
Shantideva, a famous Indian Buddhist philosopher in the eighth century, said that a single moment of anger can destroy eons of good karma. The law of karma, of course, is the causal notion that wholesome deeds always yield wholesome results and unwholesome deeds inevitably lead to unwholesome results. What you reap is what you sow, basically.
Me, I didn’t quite believe that karma worked so straightforwardly just then. But anyway, I figured I should heed Shantideva’s warning and not act out my anger. Plus, I didn’t think I had much good karma to spare. I’d only just started being an official do-gooder in that year. And in all honesty, the beach clean-ups were more of a way to spend time with my girlfriend,who seemed to never have enough time to see me because she was always saving the earth.
So I told myself, “I need to handle this peacefully. I meditate. I’m spiritual. The red-suited demon is just a test. Remember Siddhartha, remember Mara.”
I dug deep into my Buddhist training.
I tried to analyze the anger. Hui-neng, the Sixth Ancestor of Zen, said of the enlightened mind: “The ear hears sounds but the mind doesn’t move.” I’d heard the sounds (“hey faggot”), judged them, and reacted by tensing up. That reaction was based on my perception of a fixed self—a self I felt was currently under threat and in need of defending—my memory patterns, and cultural programming, and this reaction was the proximal thing causing me to suffer. Sure, the guy was a bit uncouth. But he wasn’t shoving my own burning anger down my throat. The anger was coming from inside me. In principle, I had a choice.
Then I recalled that the Buddha said that the causes of anger were frustrated desire or wounded pride. I didn’t want to admit it, but obviously my pride had been wounded, a lot. “Learn to surf,” the jerk in red had said. In the space of a wave, I’d gone— in my own mind—from one of the best surfers at the Lane, to the worst. And really, I was more angry about that than anything.
I took a deep breath and recited my little Buddhist catch phrases: “Just surf, Jaimal. Present moment.
Everything passes. Nothing permanent.”
It helped. But I still felt queasy and still kind of wanted that red-suited devil-child to faceplant in the cliff.
So I moved on to stage two: generate compassion. I silently recited the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s discourse on loving-kindness: “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” I tried to see the brightly colored homophobes as fellow humans who were in the same boat of suffering, who wanted to be happy, just like me, who wanted good waves, just like me. But I couldn’t do it.
I found myself visualizing throwing spiny purple sea urchins at their heads, each one lodging itself in their stupid little faces.
So what about something more human, I thought, something witty? What would Dave Chapelle say? Or Mr. Miyagi? No. No. I racked my brain for something that would teach these boys a lesson. I remembered that surf writer Dan Duane (one of my writing heroes) had a similar encounter with a teenager at Steamer Lane and, in his book, he’d said to the kid, “I could have an Uzi in my car.” You know, just to shake the kid up a little. That was pretty clever. Yeah, I’d tell these guys I had an Uzi—oh, who was I kidding? If anyone had an Uzi, it was their older brothers with the freaking monster trucks.
The whole situation sucked.
I couldn’t calm down. And I couldn’t surf. And I couldn’t say anything to them. And I obviously wasn’t as spiritually evolved as I’d imagined. And I was probably repressing my anger into a spiky little bomb that would erupt years from now and turn me into a serial killer who preyed on people wearing red.
I tried to catch a wave and fell. The red-suited devil saw me fall and yelled again, “Faggot!
Man, he was a little shit. But I tried to fake it, play it cool. I met eyes with him a couple times, grinned and raised my eyebrows as if to say, you’re not bothering me so you might as well give up. But he knew he was bothering me. He splashed me. “Isaidgohomestupidfaggotidiothomoyou’renotwelcome
And then, something strange happened, something cool.Well, first I threw more make-believe sea urchins at his head. But then something cool happened.
As he continued shouting, I watched his face in more detail. When he yelled, it contorted and tightened; it reminded me of a sick pig. The veins in his throat bulged. And it was obvious when I looked closely: the red-suited devil was not having a good time. In fact, he appeared to be in just as much pain as I was, and his pain was self-inflicted, just like mine. And he just couldn’t let go, just like I couldn’t— despite all my spiritual training.
We were both holding on to this thing, this monster between us. And now that I saw it, I could almost feel it hovering there, tangible. It was wrapping its stickiness around our throats—and we were helping it. We were grabbing on to it tightly, believing it was part of us. But it wasn’t. It was a thing we’d each created. It was a bad wave we’d caught and it had closed out and was holding us down. All we needed to do was let it pass. All we needed to do was stop grabbing at it.
And when I saw this, I did let go—a little. And then a little more. I let myself breath more naturally. And when I did this, I even felt kind of bad for the guy. And when I felt kind of bad for the guy, as if on cue, he and his buddy paddled in. As they walked up the steps, they continued shouting nonsense. The red-suited kid even stood on the cliff for a few minutes flailing his arms and screaming obscenities that I couldn’t even hear. I had to give him points for perseverance, but silhouetted against the sky, he just looked like he was having a seizure.
“What’s up that guy’s ass?” said Peter, who’d been surfing middle point the whole time and hadn’t heard the incident.
“I dropped in on him. But he seems to be more angry at life in general.”
“Yeah. Apparently. Must have a hell of a home life. What’s he saying?”
We laughed about it a little, about the ridiculousness of fighting while playing in the waves, and the knot in my chest started to untie. I was still a little mad, but more at myself than at the kid. The redsuited guy seemed like a caricature of anger.
Or maybe a bodhisattva who’d come to compassionately demonstrate what can happen without anger management skills.
A burly samurai once came to a Zen master and asked the master, “Sensei, please teach me the difference between heaven and hell.”
“Why would I give an uncouth cretin like you such a high teaching,” the Zen master said, in apparent disgust. “You’re a worm. You’re less than a worm. You’re a stupid samurai.” Samurai were never treated this way in ancient Japan and the samurai grew instantly enraged. His eyes bulged and he raised his shiny sword, ready to slice the little monk in two.
But the Zen master didn’t flinch. (They never do.) He said to the samurai, calmly, “That, Samurai, is hell.”
Suddenly, understanding the teaching, realizing that he was about to kill a holy man because of his own pride, the samurai’s eyes filled with tears. He put his sword down and his palms together in reverence. He bowed deeply.
“And that,” said the master, “is heaven.”
Looking back over thewater, I noticed it was actually a fabulous day. The sun, now a dark orange, was beginning to sink behind the cliff. The water was turning from a jade green to an oily black flecked with points of light. Brown pelicans, with their pterodactyllike wingspans, skimmed the water, reading the wave lines better than any of us. A spotted harbor seal near the cliff raised its whiskered head above water and glanced around before diving back down.
I breathed the cold salt air in deeply.
Jaimal Yogis lives in San Francisco. “Saltwater Buddha” is his first book.
For more on his writing and other projects, including the film version of “Saltwater Buddha,” visit his website, www.jaimalyogis.com
Long-distance swimmer Jamie Patrick dips into the water to break records and save our blue planet
Story by Bruce Willey
People like Lance Armstrong, Lynn Hill, and Shawn White were put on this world to remind most of us we are mere mortals. Add another to the list of super achievers to humble and motivate —swimmer Jamie Patrick.
Yet to call him a swimmer is a gross understatement. He’s one of the world’s elite long-distance, open-water athletes intent on not just records, but raising awareness about the planet’s water supply in the process.
This June, Patrick, 39, will begin his quest for what he is calling the T3 Series. He will begin by swimming one length of Lake Tahoe, 22 miles, to break the fastest crossing. Then later in the summer he will swim two lengths of Lake Tahoe, 44 miles, to be the first to accomplish a double crossing.
And then finally, Patrick will swim Lake Tahoe not once, not twice, but three times to raise awareness for water issues, something us mere mortals must pay attention to lest we live up to our name. He’s dubbed the 66-mile swim aptly enough The Tahoe Triple and it will take him over 30 hours in the cold (55-60 degree) water sans wetsuit. If he’s successful he would beat the world record for the longest high-altitude swim.
But this is just a warm-up of sorts. His ultimate goal is to swim the “Ocean’s Seven.” Like the mountaineer’s version of the seven highest summits on each continent, the project reads like a pelagic geography lesson: The Irish Channel, the Cook Strait, the Moloka’i Channel, the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugru Channel, and the Strait of Gibralter.
Patrick, a San Francisco-based athlete, already has more than 50 open water swims, 75 triathlons, a quadruple Ironman Triathlon, and a Triple Ironman to his name.
“He has merged his love for water and ultra athletics to create positive changes in the world,” says friend Jaimal Yogis, author of “Saltwater Buddha” who recently swam to Alcatraz and back with Patrick. “And that’s what it’s all about. If anyone can complete the Tahoe Triple and the Oceans Seven, it’s Jamie.”
ASJ caught up with Patrick after a training session.
ASJ: What was the inspiration behind this current project? How are you training for it?
JP: I have been a swimmer all my life. From the age of seven, I have been in the water. Swimming competitively through college, I then began racing triathlons. Swimming has given me many things in life. Most of all happiness. The Tahoe Triple, T3, was born out of my desire to give back to the thing that has given me so much — water. In the process of preparing for this goal, breaking the high altitude record for open water swimming by swimming three lengths of Lake Tahoe, I will be completing what I am calling the T3 Series. This will entail two swims prior to The Tahoe Triple — a single crossing and a double crossing of Lake Tahoe.
ASJ: Tell us more about the film. What is it about?
JP: I have partnered with filmmaker Martin Sundberg. Martin’s passion for water is no different from mine. Our goal, through our film is to help ultimately create a relationship between those that watch our film and water. Rather than create a typical documentary about the epic problems our society faces when it comes to pollution, global warming, etc., we hope to inspire those that view our film to take their own action. We want to show how individual actions, simple and/or record breaking, can inspire others to act and ultimately catalyze change. We believe that recreation is one of the most effective ways of stimulating environmental stewardship. Through recreation, we become better acquainted with our natural resources. Through that relationship, we begin stewarding those resources and become motivated to ensure their longevity. In this case, the resource is water. Through my swimming and Martin’s visual presentation for water, we hope to inspire those that watch our film to take their own action.
ASJ: What’s it like swimming such a big lake? What goes through your mind on a big swim?
JP: Swimming such distances is both physically and mentally demanding. The body goes through periods of extreme pain. Like other ultra-distance athletes, overcoming these obstacles will ultimately result in success. Unlike ultra-runners or ultra-cyclists, ultra-swimmers lack the visual stimulation that one gets while running or cycling. Having your face in the water for up to 35 hours with nothing to look at is very difficult. The mind begins to play tricks. Preparing mentally is the most important part of attempting something of this magnitude.
You can read more about Jamie’s adventure at www.thetahoetriple.com
We have a wealth of rivers, but have yet to join the wave of building community whitewater parks
By Pete Gauvin and Wendy Lautner
Ask any California kayaker about the quality of whitewater rushing out of the Sierra each spring and summer and you’ll likely get the posture and poise of a rich kid telling you how much his dad makes in a month. There’s a reason we’re smug – California has whitewater like Bill Gates has millions.
But if you’re not a kayaker, if you don’t spend rainy, snowy and/or spring evenings refreshing flow sites, reading and rereading guidebooks, plotting your work schedule based on weather reports, gluing gaskets into dry tops and the like, chances are you wouldn’t know the extent of the wealth we have tumbling at the bottom of dozens of mostly remote canyons from the Kern to the Klamath.
For all of our natural wealth, whitewater kayaking on the whole is less observable and prominent in California. One reason for the gap is that while communities in many western states and across the country have built whitewater parks to revive river frontages, create greenbelts, clean up streambeds, improve fish habitat, celebrate the intermingling of waterways and townscapes, and, yeah, to provide some wholesome outdoor recreation — California has, for the most part, watched this trend from behind its rip-rapped levees.
In Colorado alone, there are now nearly 30 whitewater parks, more than a quarter of the country’s total. This is attributable to Colorado’s mountainous geography, of course, as well as its strong outdoor community, which in turn begets a vigorous concentration of whitewater boaters. The parks are often located in ski resort towns but also in urban centers, such as Confluence Park on the South Platte River in Denver, and in towns such as Pueblo, Salida, Boulder, Golden and Pagosa Springs.
Elsewhere in the West, there are also whitewater parks in cities such as Spokane, Boise, Missoula, and Ogden.
Closer to home is Reno’s Truckee River Whitewater Park, just steps from downtown’s casino district. It is routinely cited as one of the finest examples of a successful whitewater park/river rehabilitation/community beautification project in the country. The $1.5 million park has far exceeded expectations as an urban renewal project since the city and two casinos pooled their chips to get it built and opened in 2004.
In addition to its year-round community benefits, the park hosts one of the largest and most popular whitewater festivals in the world, the Reno River Festival. The seventh annual Reno River Festival, May 7-9, is expecting some 40,000 people to attend to watch top kayakers compete in freestyle and downriver competitions and soak in the festival atmosphere, which includes live music, free kayak clinics, a muddy fun run, an outdoor expo, and food and beer vendors. This year organizers have added a downriver standup paddleboard race as well.
Reno’s park has been so successful that the neighboring city of Sparks built its own whitewater park a couple years ago just a few miles downstream at Rock Park. So Nevada now has two whitewater parks to invite people to play in and gain respect for the Truckee River, and in turn other rivers.
A little to the south, the Carson City area is also realizing the benefits of improved river access. On May 22, local officials will cut the ribbon to mark the opening of new park facilities for whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Carson River Aquatic Trail, which includes a 9.3-mile Class III run between Carson City and Dayton.
Behind the Wave
California, on the other hand, has yet to join the flow.
To date, there is not a single significant whitewater park project constructed in California. The only ones that might qualify are the quasi-developed park on the Kern River in Kernville (a decades-old dam mitigation project) and the rough-hewn artificial rapids at the site of the abandoned Auburn Dam project, below the confluence of the North and Middle Forks of the American River. The “Auburn Play Park” actually features some promising hydraulics, but public access is lacking; there’s no riverside parking (it’s two miles up hill), no facilities, and no improvements to the bank area.
In California, many towns and cities turn their backs on their waterways, channeling them behind levees and the backs of buildings, where they become riparian dumping grounds, strewn with litter and shopping carts and industrial debris, rather than natural assets for the community to enjoy. This is often due to historical land-use patterns and the threat of flooding. True, many of these streams are not suitable for whitewater boating, but in some cases they could be. Moreover, they can become community draws that benefit much more than just a small group of kayakers — from dog walkers and baby stroller pushers to fishing line casters, young naturalists, ankle waders and rock skippers … Everyone enjoys a nice water feature.
Take the Truckee River, again, as an example. Flowing through its namesake town, a mountain community with a high concentration of outdoor enthusiasts, including kayakers, the river has few public access points. On the west end of town, a collection of auto and industrial yards back to the river in what is otherwise one of its prettiest stretches. Through town, private homes back to the river, and historically this area was the town’s dump. It’s still a lovely stretch of river with some small natural rapids and good fishing, but it’s degraded by poor access and the presence of rebar in the riverbed. This is true even in front of the Truckee River Regional Park, which would be a natural spot to provide better river access, cleanup the rebar in the river and perhaps add some whitewater features to what is now a rocky, boney stretch.
It seems a little backward, doesn’t it? The neon-lit, vacancy riddled casino towns downstream in the desert have better developed river access than the sporty mountain town with which the river shares its name. (And this is true not just at the whitewater parks, but at multiple parks along the river in the Reno area.)
It’s no wonder then that the teenager roundly considered the best young kayaker in the nation, the current Junior Freestyle World Champion, 16-year-old Jason Craig, is from Reno. It’s difficult to develop tennis champions without tennis courts, baseball players without baseball diamonds, golfers without golf courses, skiers without ski areas … and paddlers without easy access to rivers.
Broadening the Base
Dave Steindorf is the California Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, a national non-profit that works to protect and restore rivers and public access to them. He believes the first thing that needs to change to buoy chances for whitewater parks in California is the terminology.
“I think we do ourselves a disservice when we say, ‘whitewater park,’” he says. “It alienates people. A surf wave is just another swing set or a slide in a park area, it’s just another toy to play on.”
In order to expand the support base from the relatively small community of river users to a broader swath of the public, Steindorf believes that advocates for whitewater parks need to refer to them more generally as “river parks with whitewater amenities,” or something along those lines.
Space, Water, Gradient
Beyond the language the more concrete problem in California, says Steindorf, is the lack of suitable locations. “There aren’t many places out there that actually have free flowing rivers” due to dams, hydropower projects and agricultural diversions.
Jim Litchfield, designer of the Reno and Sparks parks and director of the non-profit Truckee River Foundation, says that despite California’s numerous rivers there aren’t a lot of opportunities for river parks within communities.
Beyond money and political will, “a whitewater park requires three things – space, water and gradient,” Litchfield says. In the Sierra foothills, rivers don’t flow through many towns; they’re in the bottom of canyons, while the towns are on the ridges, like Auburn. And in the valley, river towns may not have enough gradient, though it doesn’t take much.
But it’s a big state and there are still plenty of locations with the potential for river parks with some boater amenities in California.
One reason that’s made the rounds for the lack of success in getting any approved is that California’s more stringent environmental regulations and gauntlet of overlapping jurisdictional agencies make it near impossible to win approval for any project in which there would be a disturbance or modification of a natural riverbed, even if that riverbed had been altered and degraded previously.
But Litchfield says that’s a myth. “In the past the regulatory process has been looked at as an obstacle rather than a process. But as rigorous as it is, it can be worked through.”
And with greater awareness of whitewater parks and their benefits, he thinks there will be more receptivity from officials in coming years. “There’s a fundamental shift occurring with examples like Reno and Salida, Colorado, that river recreation can be integrated into the heart of the community,” he says.
There are a number of California cities and towns that Litchfield points to that have vital and revitalized riverfront parks, such as the American River Parkway in Sacramento, Bidwell Park along Big Chico Creek in Chico, and the Sacramento River through Redding.
More recently, the city of Napa completed a massive flood-control project that embraces the Napa River through downtown with Euro-style bridges, terraces and a paved bike and walking path. The project has helped transform and revitalize the downtown, and improved recreational opportunities such as cycling and flatwater kayaking.
While these examples don’t incorporate whitewater amenities, they are examples of cities that have strived to integrate rivers and stream developments into the fabric of the town to improve the environment for the benefit of the entire community.
As a recreational asset, the American River Parkway is a shining example. It extends 23 miles from downtown Sacramento east to Nimbus Dam (Lake Natoma), where the bike/walking trail continues another 10 miles to Folsom Lake. The parkway is a thriving multiple use area complete with a paved bike paths, hundreds of unimproved trails, picnic areas, and lots of river access.
“It’s quite the deal,” says Ron Storks, a policy advocate for Friends of the River. “It’s a cherished part of the community with a real rich history.”
The American River Parkway is such an asset to the community that the recently incorporated city of Rancho Cordova chose to design its city seal with a kayaker playing on a river wave.
But that’s a little misleading; the parkway doesn’t feature much in the way of whitewater. Kayakers used to flock to the popular, natural feature called the San Juan Wave/Hole, but river flooding in 2006 seemed to diminish this rare urban whitewater feature from its once retentive but forgiving nature to a less-than-ideal surf wave.
No Cookie-Cutter Approach
When it comes to whitewater parks, you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach from one community to another, says Litchfield, whose company Fluid Concepts has designed and consulted on a number of river park projects in addition to the parks in Reno and Sparks.
“The Reno park is truly a unique venue,” Litchfield says. “The location has great weather, a supportive industry and economy, Reno has a relatively large population, and we can depend on the river for good, clean water (flows).”
Yet even with everything the Reno park has going for it, the road from concept to creation wasn’t easy. “What kept it going was endurance, enthusiasm, and legitimacy,” Litchfield says. “It started out as a kayak-centric whitewater park, but where it really got its legs is when the idea became more of a whitewater park for general usage. Then we got the Nevada Commission of Tourism on board and things started moving forward.”
There are no plans for additional whitewater parks on the Truckee River, he says. “I’ve talked just as many or more communities out of developing as I have into developing their river into a whitewater park,” he says. “The reach upstream of Reno on the Truckee is a really nice reach. We wouldn’t want to go in and try to ‘make it better.’ I’ve often said that the enemy of good is better.”
What are the future prospects of whitewater parks in California? You could say they’re dam good.
Dams are required to go through what is called a “re-licensing” process overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to ensure they are “operating within the public interest.”
This spells opportunity for river advocacy groups like American Whitewater. AW’s Dave Steindorf is among those leading the effort to use these re-licensing processes to demand that lost recreation from damming these rivers be mitigated.
“I’d say in the next 10 to 15 years we’ll see a lot more whitewater parks in California as a result of FERC re-licensing,” says Litchfield. “These things require an often unrewarded passion and commitment. I can’t over encourage Californians to get involved with American Whitewater and find out what is going on with projects on their local rivers.”
A Whitewater Park in Oroville?
One major test of the dam re-licensing process is already underway.
This winter, as part of the re-licensing of Oroville Dam, the California Department of Water Resources, the dam’s operator, issued a $250,000 feasibility study on constructing a whitewater park at one of three potential sites below the dam. Completed in 1968, it is the tallest dam in the United States (770 feet) and impounds all four forks of the Feather River.
Developing a whitewater park in Oroville was an idea first suggested by American Whitewater as a means of mitigating the lost whitewater opportunities that were flooded when Lake Oroville was created. The top whitewater park designers in the country have drooled at the potential here with its substantial year-round flows (ranging from 600 to 6000 cfs) and possibility for a course of more than a mile in length.
“American Whitewater’s focus is to restore and protect rivers,” Steindorf says. “And one of our successes is to get licensees to look at the impact of a project on recreation. Oroville is a really good example of a community getting together to bring their river back. The local community is very interested in this project and this is coming from people who are not just whitewater boaters.”
The “not just whitewater boaters” part of the equation is huge because less than 1 or 2 percent of California’s population could be classified as whitewater boaters, according to DWR’s “Feather River Whitewater Boating Feasibility Study.” Steindorf realizes this number is like a drop in the bucket and unlikely to wield much sway with state officials.
He argues though that the number of people who would actually benefit from a whitewater park on the Feather River extends far beyond so-called boaters. “More than 700,000 people per year use Lake Oroville. These are the numbers we should be drawing from to calculate interest in a whitewater park.”
Calculating interest is crucial. The DWR study considers three sites for the construction of a whitewater park in Oroville, ranging in cost estimates from approximately $150,000 up to $20 million. The amount of perceived interest will likely play a big role in deciding how much money is worth spending on a park.
The conclusion of the 228-page study? Well, it’s a bit vague.
The report notes that the continuous year-round flow of water below Oroville Dam provides “potential synergisms for whitewater boating opportunities.” Of the three sites considered — a small instream park at “Bedrock Park” and two artificial channel parks, “Fish Barrier Pool” and “Riverbend Canyon” — the study ranks the Fish Barrier Pool site as the most feasible alternative with the fewest constraints, as tops for drawing out-of-town paddlers, for holding competitions, and bringing in revenue to the Oroville community.
The site includes more than 26 acres of state-owned land on the west bank of the river. According to a conceptual design done by the city of Oroville it would allow for a winding course more than 4,000 feet in length with novice, intermediate and expert features in two channels, along with trails and pedestrian bridges, and terraced seating and observation areas for spectators. Sounds like it could be spectacular.
But the feasibility study stops well short of an all out endorsement and appears to pave the way only for more studies. “The potential economic viability and environmental constraints need to be well understood before any of the concepts described in this report move forward,” it states.
Steindorf says they were hoping for a more concrete recommendation from the feasibility study. “The primary issue with the study is that it does not lead us to a very clear path of what park option, if any, should be developed in Oroville. For $250,000 they should have been able to answer that question.”
So, hold your surprise, it doesn’t look like paddlers will be surfing waves at a whitewater park in Oroville anytime soon.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Wendy Lautner of Truckee is an accomplished kayaker and whitewater instructor with a long resume of remote river canyons in California and beyond to her credit. Pete Gauvin, also of Truckee, is an intermittent river paddler who prefers less committing runs closer to home. Both would like to see more opportunities for paddlers in our communities, if only to encourage people to explore the natural richness we have in the more remote folds of our state.