Profile: Big Wave Dave

WORLD CUP: 21st Annual Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival March 16-18, Steamer Lane

World Champ Looks to Add to His Portugal Victory on Home Surf

Photo: Foto-Reportagem

Name: Dave Johnston

Age: 44

Home surf: Santa Cruz

Occupation: Kayak instructor, outfitter and Sherpa

Career Highlights:

  • 2006 World Cup Champion, Portugal
  • 1999 World Champion, Brazil
  • 2006 US National Champion, Cape Hatteras
  • 2002 US National Champion, Outer Banks
  • 8-time US Team member
  • Winner of the Grand Prize in 2005 Best Wave Video Contest

Favorite moves: Cartwheel in the tube (aka “karate chop”), a roundhouse 360 off the lip.

Most memorable ride: One of my most memorable rides was at Davenport Landing on a very big day. I managed to catch a wave from way outside at the north point, surf it across the channel in front of the beach and link it with a wave coming the other direction from the south reef. That was one hell of a ride!

Biggest wave ridden: I have ridden several waves in the 15-20 foot range at Davenport and Middle Peak at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz. But when I’m on the wave I don’t have time to think about how big they are, only about how to pull it off without any problems.

Scariest moment: Riding storm surf at the Lane, a big section pitched over onto me and just obliterated me, removing the paddle from my grasp. After hand-rolling upright, another huge wall of water and then another drove me closer and closer to the cliffs. While sitting in my kayak about 20 feet from a death trap of car-size boulders with person-size gaps between them, I realized that the next big set wave was about to deliver me into an ugly reality.

Rather than bail on my boat and swim the half mile to the beach, I started backpaddling furiously with my hands. The wave swept me up and perched me on top of the rip-rap pile where I quickly exited without injury. This was probably the luckiest I’ve ever been. Not as brutal as swimming in class V though.

Future of kayak surfing: High performance carbon-kevlar surf-specific boats are incredibly fun surfing machines. The more whitewater boaters try them the more they’ll be heading out to surf in the ocean. That’s great as long as they practice good surfing etiquette toward other surfers already there. Or better yet, surf away from crowds in places that you have to paddle a little ways to get to. Find the perfect wave and ride it all by yourself.

Who else to watch in Santa Cruz: Rusty Sage rips; he’s last year’s champ. Also Jono Stevens, Demany Smith, Jeff Burlingham, Ken King, Dick Wold, Sean Morely, and Vince Shay are all ones to watch.

Secret weapons: Having local knowledge and my new boat the Murkey Waters Twist with the quad-strap system.

Favorite surf spot outside CA: Easkey, Northern Ireland

For more information on the Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival, visit

The competition starts Friday, March 16, at 7 a.m.