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Whether surfing or skiing off cliffs, stand-up racing or filming great whites, this homegrown California waterman is in his element
By Pete Gauvin
If such a thing as a California Action Sports Hall of Fame existed, Chuck Patterson would win unanimous induction on the first ballot. Then the committee would need to go out and solicit bids to build an extra wing just to document the breadth of his exploits on water and snow.
Chuck’s body of work is that deep and diverse and innovative.
Now 42, he’s been making his living as a fulltime sponsored athlete for 20 years. Not in one sport mind you, but a quiver full — as an extreme skier and snowboarder, professional windsurfer and kiteboarder, big-wave surfer and stand-up paddler.
Indeed, CWP (his middle name is William) has groomed himself into the ultimate waterman in the same vein as icons Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, two of his mentors and contemporaries in big wave tow-in surfing and stand-up paddling, the latter of which has become Chuck’s bread-and-butter sport over the last five years.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve managed to make a living pursuing a bunch of different sports. Each sport just seems to lead to the next and compliment each other,” says Chuck, in typically humble fashion.
When I talked to him in May he had just returned home to Dana Point from the Battle of the Paddle festival in Hawaii, where he faced off against the world’s top SUP paddlers despite recovering from a staph infection that kept him out of the water until a week before the event. (The BOP California edition, which Chuck won in 2008, is Sept. 24-25 in Dana Point.)
Though not in top form, Chuck was there as much to be an ambassador of the sport as he was to compete. The amicable 6-2, 220-pound hulk of muscle with the broad white smile is one of the most traveled, recognizable and versatile figures in the sport.
In addition to racing, he’s surfed his SUP boards on big waves from Maui to Mavericks. “It’s a really challenging wave,” he says of Mavericks. “You’ve got to move around a lot to find the peak and not get annihilated.”
In 2009, he was the first SUP rider to surf the Cortes Bank break more than 100 miles off the San Diego coast.
For his body of work, he was named Mr. SUP of the Year 2010 by the online magazine and networking site SUP Connect.
In the past year, he’s also distinguished himself for his fearlessness in a couple unique and inventive ways.
Dances with Sharks
Last summer, Chuck became a media and online video sensation for intentionally paddling his SUP board out to film and take mug shots of great white sharks that had been sighted off San Onofre Beach. Using an extension pole rigged with a GoPro waterproof camera, he paddled his Hobie SUP race board out to the spot the shark had been seen and within minutes was being circled by a 7’-8’ juvenile shark. Later it turned out there were two sharks.
“From the vantage point of an SUP you can see a lot more,” Chuck says. “Someone pretty much saw a shark everyday in the summer there, and so far they haven’t attacked anyone.”
You can watch Chuck’s video, “Me, My Shark and I,” on Vimeo and YouTube and get a laugh from reading the comments about the size and composition of Chuck’s family jewels. For details and perspective on the encounter, read Chuck’s blog at chuckpattersonsports.com.
Since then, Chuck has done some filming with National Geographic for a program due to air in the fall.
Ski Boots in Big Waves
From one “Jaws” experience to another, entirely different, this past winter he followed the biggest swell of the year to Maui’s famed tow-in surf break at Pe’ahi (a.k.a. “Jaws”), where he’s surfed many times before.
This time, though, he brought his ski gear.
Bringing to fruition an idea that was hatched more than a decade before while living in Tahoe and skiing at Squaw with his good friend, the legendary Shane McConkey, Chuck took to the surf with ski boots, ski poles and a pair of custom Starr Surf Skis mounted with alpine bindings, which he’d done some R&D with a few times at smaller tow-in breaks along the Central California coast.
Years before, McConkey, who once took water skis down an unreal run in Alaska, had told Chuck, who split his time between skiing in Tahoe and surfing in Maui, that he was the perfect man to flip the paradigm and bring skiing to the surf.
“I jokingly tried it 10 or 11 years ago in Hawaii using jumper water skis,” says Chuck.
But he didn’t pursue the experiment any further until last year when he was impressed by some video of the fusion efforts of fellow freeskiers/surfers Cody Townsend of Santa Cruz and Mike Douglas of Whistler. They had experimented using the same custom skis and alpine boots.
Chuck thought they had potential to be taken to a bigger canvas. But during his trials with the equipment on the California coast, he found something was missing — ski poles!
Why bother with ski poles, you ask?
“Yeah, it looks pretty funny,” Chuck admits. “But for me growing up skiing, poles were not for pushing — they were to help give you a nice tight body position, control and balance. So even though it’s a pain to hold onto the (tow) rope with them, I thought they helped me achieve a better body position and improved my balance on the waves.”
One look at the video of Chuck bombing face-forward down these monster waves traveling at 30 miles per hour, legs independently jack-hammering on the wind bumps, and you can begin to see his point.
“Unfortunately, there was so much wind with the swell, it kind of knocked down the waves,” says Chuck, sounding a little dissatisfied with his Jaws’ skiing debut. “It was the worst conditions you could probably do it in, but there was so much media there, it was a go. I ended up getting three really good set waves. Of course, the next day conditions improved considerably but the hype was over,” so those rides weren’t documented.
Evolution of an Amphibian
Like the three stacked protein shakes he downs each day, Chuck is a blend of his Nor Cal roots and the So Cal surf lifestyle soaked in his mom’s German-Austrian blood lines, with heaping dollops of Tahoe and Hawaii time thrown into the mix.
Raised in the Bay Area in the Piedmont/Oakland Hills by an American father who was a nuclear physicist and a mom who had been a ski racer in Europe, Chuck was skiing by the time he was two and a half years old. The family — he has a sister, Janet — spent a lot of time in Tahoe over the years. In the ‘80s, his mom became a top windsurfer and Chuck started windsurfing when he was 10.
By the time he graduated high school, the extreme ski scene was emerging and Chuck moved up to Tahoe in 1986 and started skiing Squaw everyday while working at his mom’s lodge. Alvina Patterson owns the Holiday House on Tahoe’s north shore.
Though he was considering college, his higher ed plans were derailed when he got an offer to compete on the windsurfing tour. It was the perfect summer compliment to his ski lifestyle.
“I learned more by traveling and being on the road competing then I could have in college,” Chuck says, “and I was pushed by my dad’s doubts that I could make a living in extreme sports.”
While his athletic roots come from his mom, Chuck credits his father with giving him an analytical, scientific, disciplined way of approaching extreme sports.
“It really came about in skiing, thinking about the equations of jumping off cliffs,” he says. “I’m very much an observer. Being able to observe and study stuff before jumping in and then apply my talent to it, helped me stay in one piece.”
In addition to shooting for magazines, Chuck competed in extreme skiing and big mountain events as a skier and snowboarder. He was combined champion four years in a row.
Meanwhile, spending his off seasons in Hawaii, he was on his way to becoming a complete waterman. His surfing and windsurfing background led to tow-in surfing and kiteboarding, and eventually, back in California, stand-up paddling.
“Skiing was a great platform to launch in to all the other sports I do, especially big-wave surfing because you don’t have a fear of heights and speed,” Chuck says. “Dropping off a cliff and skiing out the bottom is kind of the same thing as dropping a 70-foot wave and outrunning an avalanche of water.”
A little more than 10 years ago, he met his wife Susan in Tahoe and was drawn down to her home in Southern California. He had learned a lot about sponsorship and the media from his mom, and being in the global epicenter of surf industry allowed him to leverage his pursuits.
“I’ve certainly learned more about the business side,” he says, “and the importance of training hard and staying healthy.”
Care and Maintenance
Chuck is not the prototypical wiry surfer. If his bodybuilder-in-surf-trunks build doesn’t intimidate great whites, as the “Shark Hunter” cartoon by illustrator Jason Wood suggests, then there’s no hope for the rest of us.
Despite his large frame and muscled physique, one that he admits is “not the perfect body makeup” for all the sports he does — though he’s not too dissimilar in size from fellow linebacker-built watermen like Laird and Kalama — he’s been able to remain relatively injury free.
“I’ve been really lucky. I’ve only broken two bones in my body,” he says. “I’ve blown both knees really close to needing surgery but I’ve been able to rehab them. And I’ve suffered a number of gnarly lacerations, especially from kiteboarding and surfing.”
On the other hand, he credits his mental toughness and physical strength for being able to push through punishing moments in racing and training, and to bounce back after taking a beating in the surf.
It’s not by accident. He works hard at it, rising most days at 4:30 a.m. to begin a two-hour cardio-endurance training workout at the Sport Performance Institute in Laguna Beach. “It keeps me honest,” he says of the dawn patrol workouts.
He then heads home and runs his dog, followed by a 6-8 mile paddle on his SUP out of Dana Point Harbor, which allows him to check out the surf to see if he wants to go back out for a session. He generally trains on a 12’ 6” board so on race days he feels a little faster when he hops on a longer board that can better float his weight.
To this schedule, he somehow regularly fits in weight training at another gym.
In the afternoon, he’ll go to work in his home office for a bit, staying in touch with sponsors, firming up his calendar with events and clinics, writing for SUP magazines and websites, and updating his blog. Then he’ll finish off the day with another workout like mountain biking or surfing.
“I like to mix it up,” he says. “It’s been a perfect formula to be ready for any sport I might do and anywhere I might go.”
In winter, that might mean scratching his skiing itch by making the eight-hour drive from Dana Point to his former playground of Squaw Valley to once again huck cliffs for professional photographers like Hank de Vré and Ryan Salm, even if he’s barely touched snow in a couple years.
Or it might mean booking a flight to Hawaii with less than 48 hours notice to arrive in perfect time to catch a massive swell. “Then the minute it gets small we’ll follow it back to California,” he says. Sometimes he’ll even track a system from Hawaii to the California coast and then on to Tahoe for a couple feet of fresh pow.
Without a doubt, SUP is Chuck’s biggest passion these days and, more than anything else, key to his continued livelihood as an athlete over 40. The sport is allowing him to continue to be at the forefront of a fast growing, popular, healthy activity just about anyone can enjoy, even if they have no background or interest in surfing.
“It’s amazing, you see it every where you go now. It’s expanding and exploding every six months,” he says. “It goes right along with all the other sports that I’ve done and is a combination of all those other sports.”
Sponsored for years by Hobie SUP boards, Chuck surprised the industry recently by switching to Naish out of Hawaii. Founded by famed windsurfer and kiter Robby Naish, the company remains big internationally in those sports as well as stand up, making it a good fit for Chuck.
Still it was not an easy decision.
“I was with Hobie for six years and they’re a phenomenal company, but a lot smaller than Naish,” Chuck says. “That’s the hardest thing as an athlete to balance the business side of things with the personal side and still be able to train and travel and compete.”
And Chuck does a lot of that.
He’s competed in a number of SUP surf contests (he’s won the SUP Surftech Shootout at Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane twice) and upwards of 50 races in the last few years. He’s won the popular Ta-hoe Nalu event on Lake Tahoe a couple times, among others.
His biggest payday ($10,000) came when he won the inaugural California Battle of the Paddle in 2008, just three years after he tried the sport for the first time.
“That’s when I knew it was legit,” he says.
From Skeptic to Fanatic
Like many surfers, Chuck’s first impression of SUP was that it was a novelty. “Then I decided I would just give it a try because I’d watched Laird and Dave Kalama doing it in Maui,” he says.
There were no SUP boards available so he started by using a tandem surfboard in 1-2 foot surf. “It was very humbling,” he recalls, “but every day I went out, I learned something new. It was constantly challenging and I was hooked.”
“I get more water time now then I ever did when I was just a surfer,” he adds. “There are days I go out now that I wouldn’t even touch the water previously. With an SUP you can go out and have a good time no matter what the surf’s doing, even on little days or when it’s windy, you can still go out and explore or do a downwinder. There are so many different aspects of the sport that you never get bored with it.”
When it comes to the proliferation of SUPs in the surf lineup, Chuck thinks there’s widespread awareness among SUP riders that behaving like wave hogs is unacceptable, but constant education will be required as more people get into the sport.
“I surf as much as I stand-up paddleboard so I understand,” he says.
Though he usually seeks more remote breaks on his SUP, if he’s out at a crowded break he’ll call out sets for the surfers because he’s able to see the swell further out. “I’ll let them have the first waves and I’ll take the last one of the set,” he says.
The initial backlash among surfers toward SUP has died down as more and more surfers give it a try, often in secret, he says.
“Lots of pro surfers are taking up stand up and adding it to their mix. Guys with open minds are looking at it as another way to be on the water and train. … It’s really cool to see. The minute someone tries it, they find it pretty addicting.”
As anyone that’s met him knows, Chuck loves to share the stoke by introducing people to the sport. At SUP races and festivals across the country, Chuck teaches “Paddle with the Pros” clinics with women’s pro Karen Wrenn. (They’ll be at the inaugural Battle of the Bay in San Francisco on Oct. 29.)
It’s hard to imagine that the sport could ask for a better, more accomplished ambassador than Chuck Patterson — even if he’s never elected to any ‘Action Sports Hall of Fame.’