After a great weekend of SUP surfing and kiteboarding in Santa Cruz; the next morning I followed the swell down the coast and met up with Eric Akiskalian from Towsurfer.com and surf photographer Mike Jones of Azhiaziam.com for a mid morning tow surf session. After my first wave skiing session a couple weeks ago, I really wanted to see how these wave skis worked on a steeper faced wave that had a little punch to it. My optimal goal is to ride these skis in the tube; I just have to find the right wave with a good swell and smooth conditions.
The storm that was pushing the swell down the coast, had a lot of strong winds associated with it, making it a challenge to make the call where to go. We studied the conditions early morning and decided to go for it even though there was a light wind blowing. Sometimes you can wait for days for perfection, but half the fun is about the adventure and you never know what you may find unless you go. After 30 minute of getting the jet skis, boards, wave skis etc all ready to go, we were cruising our way out of the harbor. After a quick bumpy ride up the coast we checked a couple breaks and decided to check a below sea level reef slab that breaks about a mile off shore. Sure enough with the low tide and building swell, there were a couple fun pits to be had.
I towed my partner Eric into a couple nice glassy runners for an hour and then when we switched I opted to give the wave skis another shot in some solid, steep, fast racing pits. Ever since I tried the wave skis a month earlier, I really wondered how they would handle in ledgy fast waves with the obvious consequence of getting plowed and going over the falls with skis on. deep in my mind, I know it’s possible to get a tube with these skis, it’s just how big and can they hold an edge at high speed without blowing up??
This time I was better prepared with biodegradable liquid soap to slip my feet into the tight ski boots. Skis on, life vest and ski poles; hand me the rope, I’m ready to do some major R&D. Eric throttles the ski and pulls me out of the water to the outside, where we wait patiently for a set wave. A couple minutes later, I’m up and gliding into my first bowl of the day. It’s all about getting your timing right with the way the wave hits the shelf or shallow reef. The speed i get from the whip of the jetski puts me in perfect position and I arc a sharp turn down the face, followed by another arcing bottom turn under the lip of the wave. The high speed takes me a little further past the tube section, but gives me a good idea where I can bleed some speed to set up better for the next wave. “What a rush”.
I kick out in the safety of the channel and grab the rope as Eric passes by me and we zip back out for another. Every wave, I get better and better at managing my speed and control over the ever changing conditions. The light onshore wind leaves a slight crumble on the lip making it hard to get a clean tube, but still smooth enough to get some great rides. The great thing about this wave, is that it breaks perfectly almost in the same spot every time and if you miss time the right bowl section, you can still turn hard Left and ride it out the other way. like a perfect A frame.
After about 15 waves, my confidence is peaking and I start to get a little too comfortable and thats when mother Nature gives me a good slap in the gut. I whip into this wide set wave and let go of the rope a little too early making me too late to make the section and as it closes out, I decide to ride around the exploding lip and get gassed where the white water takes my feet out from under me and knocks the wind out of me. I can’t tell you how hard that hit me, but I felt like I could only squeeze a breath in and out of my lungs the size of a ping pong ball. My skis still on my feet ; I lay floating in a little ball catching my breath for a good 5 minutes.
I got off pretty lucky, laughed it off and grabbed the rope to keep my sanity in check. If you don’t get back on the horse, sometimes that might be your last ride. Eric towed me into a couple more waves and every time after a ride, he would sling me into the next wave on our way out. We call this move, the inside whip because you can arc the ski towards the in coming wave and do a super sharp turn whipping the rider into the face, giving the rider a burst of speed banking into the lip straight into a bottom turn. It’s a huge thrill and if your timing is on, you can almost get every wave in a set.
An hour and 25 waves later the wind started blowing a little stronger and we all decided to call it a day. it was a great full day of hard wave skiing R&D and it gave me a new found respect for the unknown which I can’t wait to explore and push further on the next swell.
A big thanks to Eric for towing me into so many waves, to Mike Jones for shooting photos and to Jason Starr and the McDermatt brothers for custom shaping these great wave skis.
Here’ s a look at the new custom big wave skis that the McDermatt brothers shaped for me for the 50′ ft ++ days for next Winter season. Stay tuned…..
I can remember when I was growing up, drawing those huge perfect waves with a surfer that looked like a tiny ant in a massive tube on my binder at school. Back then it was only a dream and now we are doing it. Like Dave Kalama, I grew up skiing and as I got older started racing and competing in the Extreme Free skiing events. I lived and skied in Squaw Valley, Ca and was fortunate to make a good living traveling and competing, filming and getting photos in the magazines. I learned to surf at 13 years old and started to compete windsurfing shortly after. I spent many early season months before Winter training; living on Maui, Hi and got into the big wave scene surfing, kite boarding and tow surfing. I found that the combination of skiing steep lines and jumping cliffs in the back country really helped me with riding big waves.
back in the later 90’s my good friend Shane Mc Conkey, world Champion free skier and base jumper and I were always talking about exploring the idea of taking water skis out into the big waves in Hawaii and skiing the waves like we do the mountains. In 2000, I got a pair of custom jumper water skis and while living on Maui, got the opportunity to tow into a couple big waves and experience for the first time what I had always dreamed about. The skis were a little too big and boxy, which made them hard to turn; but they could glide for a couple hundred yards with ease. I knew it was more of a stunt; something fun to explore, been there, done that kind of thing; so I moved on.
Earlier this year, free skiers Mike Douglas and Cody Townsend spent 6 weeks on Maui trying several different types of water skis on the waves and really pushed wave skiing to the next level. They had been working with Wave ski builder Jason Starr, who designed several styles of wave skis that really worked well in riding and turning on the waves. they had found that using ski boots with ski bindings mounted to the skis really helped control the ski while edging and turning at high speeds.
Shortly after, I spoke with Jason Starr about giving it another try in bigger surf and in February got a box with 2 pair of Starr wave skis. I mounted some old Salomon race bindings and grabbed a pair of my old ski boots and ski poles and waited for the next swell to give it another go. With the great El Nino Winter we were having, I was not sure if in late March we would see anything big enough to give the skis a try. Finally a small north west swell with warm weather was forcasted to hit over the weekend.
I rallied up the Saemen brothers and Eric Akiskalian with surf photographer Rob Keith for a trip up North in hopes to explore another reef slab that had not been surfed for the last couple years because of windy conditions. Mother Nature, once again shut us down with strong outer water wind conditions, so we decided to drive North to find something more sheltered by the winds that still had a little size.
2 hours later we found ourselves setting up the jet skis and suiting up for a full day of exploration on the water. After a twenty minute jet ski drive down the coast we found a small liquid mountain of a wave that broke off a shelf and peeled right and left into a small bay. The wind had shifted, making the ocean surface a little bumpy, but at this point I was determined to try the skis, no matter what. I quickly unpacked the skis and poles and wrestled my ski boots on, which nearly killed me because I forgot to bring soap to make it easier to slip my wet feet into those concrete shoes. I placed the skis down in the gunnel of both sides of the ski and carefully clicked my boots into the bindings. I grabbed the rope and jumped in the water. What a weird feeling it was just floating in the ocean with skis on my feet; as if I had just fell off the chairlift or something…..
Eric started up the jet ski and pulled me out of the water, so I could get used to the glide and see how these things really turned. Finally a mid sized set wave rolled in and he whipped me into the peak from the side and as I let go of the rope I skated across the liquid surface edging lightly, keeping my speed so I could make it through the inside section, kicking out safely in the channel. That was so weird but so challenging, it was addicting. Eric whipped the ski around me and I gripped the rope and we took off back to the outside in search for another moving mountain.
Every wave I caught, the more comfortable and playful it was carving and gliding deeper into the bowl section. Using the ski poles really made it easier to control my balance and keep my body and hands in a natural position like snow skiing.
On one of the bigger set waves, I can remember dropping into the pocket and watching the wave just start to run on me and as I carved back to the shoulder, the white water just engulfed me like an avalanche and I just leaned hard on the tails of my skis and after a couple seconds of blindness, I shot out like a cannon and glided into the channel. I had a couple close calls like that, but luckily never had to take any nasty beatings. The bindings on my skis were race bindings that had a super high din setting (binding release setting), making it just about impossible for the skis to come off even if I got caught by the lip and thrown over the falls. For that reason, I kept within my comfort zone and slowly pushed it more and more as my confidence got better.
Everything was going well, then as I kicked out of a wave, I noticed that one of my skis felt super squirrelly as if I had broken the tail off. I had lost one of the trailing fins from the tail of the ski that helps it track in a straight line. I dropped into another wave, but could not keep the ski in control and decided to count my blessings and regroup for another day of swell in the future. We packed up all the gear and we slowly made our way back up the coast, stopping off at another fun slab for a couple lucky tubes before heading in. My goal, is to get a tube with the wave skis in the near fand this is the place to do it.
I want to thank and dedicate this adventure blog to long time friend and visionary, World free skiing Champion and base jumper, Shane Mc Conkey. “You are and always will be one of my biggest inspirations”.
I also want to thank Jason Starr, Mike Douglas and Cody Townsend for breathing new life in this great new challenge and I look forward to where we take this…..
Thanks to Eric and the Saeman brothers for your support and to Rob Keith for all of the great photos. Robkeithphotos.com
Stay tuned for more crazy adven
There is a fine art to chasing swell and no matter how prepared you are, Mother nature always throws you a curve ball. This years El Nino pattern has made it a busy swell chasing season, traveling to Hawaii, Oregon, Mexico and up and down the California coast. There is so much work that goes into being at the right place at the right time, but the pay off can be huge. Every swell episode starts with days of consistent studying of swell charts on wind conditions, storm track, swell direction, size of the storm fetch and weather pattern. I also spend hours on the phone getting more educated opinions from several of my weather guru friends and then put it all together at the last minute to pin point the best location to intercept the biggest swell.
Unfortunately this swell hit Hawaii on Christmas day, making it tough to get away; so I decided to catch the tail end of the swell when it hit the West coast. Our plan was to go up North because of the better wind direction and swell size, but we also had our eye on a couple other outer reef breaks that were closer to home, incase the wind switched in our favor. I spent Saturday afternoon packing my truck with all my SUP guns, paddle boards and tow boards; ready for an early morning departure. Just before dinner the phone rang with news that the wind conditions stayed favorable for the outer waters so I quickly called the rest of the crew to change plans and see if we could pull off a miracle and get our good friend’s boat ready to go that night. We couldn’t get a hold of the captain and decided to wait and make the call at midnight to either pack the boat for a 100 mile adventure at sea or drive up North.
Luck was on our side and by 3 am, we were on the boat fully packed with 2 skis, SUP guns, paddle guns, tow boards and a great crew of friends ready to take on the world. We had been waiting for this day for 3 years and finally we were on our way, crossing our fingers that our forecasting would pay off. I had made 3 trips out to Cortez in the past 6 years so this was a dream come true for me. We got a quick safety meeting from the captain “AJ”and good friend and boat owner, Tim Ditty; then decided to catch some much needed sleep as we motored through the night 100 miles out to sea.
Restless, I awoke a couple hours later to see the sun rise through the storm clouds that blanketed the glassy Southern California coast. With another 4 hours to go we cooked a quick breakfast for the hungry crew and tried to get another couple hours of shut eye. Hours later we all awoke to see the first views of the cloud break hitting the Cortez Banks. What a rush, we’re 100 miles out off the coast and perfect 12′-15′ glassy waves are pealing perfectly in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. We see another big boat and notice a couple other skis in the water; could only mean one thing, Team Billabong’s Big wave specialists Greg Long, Twiggy Baker and crew are here.
We rush to get our full suits on, stuff a couple energy bars and protein shakes down knowing it was going to be an all day nonstop session and get the skis ready to unload with the davit (crane) off the boat. We race out to the peak and to our amazement, see 8 guys sitting on their guns waiting for a set. It’s as we suspected; the Long brothers, Twiggy, Kelly slater, Peter Mel, Mark Healy, Nathan Fletcher and 2 others surfing the same dream session that we came to enjoy. After a half hour of scoping the scene, TJ, Bryce, Eric and I zip back to the boat and grab our paddle guns and I my SUP gun and join the fun. “It’s funny how small the world is when your chasing swell; we always seem to run into each other just about every big swell”.
The swell was still building and with 18-20 second intervals it started out pretty inconsistent making it very challenging to find the best place to wait for the sets. The shelf is about 12′-15′ ft deep in a quarter mile + circle and there are 3 distinct peaks that you can surf when the swell is pumping. Most of the guys sat on the last inside peak which we call the West bowl and a couple of us paddled back and forth between the North peak and middles. It was super challenging and took me a good hour before I caught my first wave going because i was too deep for the right. I got super lucky and managed to paddle back out through middles with out getting swatted by any clean up sets. Finally one wave under my belt, now I can relax a little.
The waves here travel about 30 miles an hour, about 5 miles faster then what we usually surf on the coast because the wave energy of the swell comes uninterrupted from super deep and then hits this shallow shelf full force. It’s a totally different kind of wave because when you first get into the wave, it starts out slopey and then when it hits the inside shallower section, it stands up and then just unloads shooting white water sometimes 50′ ft in the sky. When I would paddle for a wave, I would have to stroke super deep and fast to get my board up to speed just to get the glide going fast enough to make the drop because a lot of waves just passed me by like I was standing still.
At low tide there was a long flat spell where we all just sat around laughing and trading funny shark stories to pass the time. It was so cool to see how happy and relaxed everyone was; cheering guys on as they dropped into a bomb and hearing the stories after a great ride or wipe out, Truly Special…..
Later that afternoon, the offshore winds picked up a notch making it even tougher for me to make the drop, witch made for some pretty insane levitating air drops followed by a couple great deep ear popping beatings. One of my good friends, Eric from Towsurfer.com was running safety on the jet ski for us, which really helped everyone get back out especially after a big beating. About an hour and a half before dark, the sets started to pulse with a couple solid bombs. we milked the session as long as we could before going back to the boat to load up the skis for the long journey home. We loaded up, battened down the hatches, so to speak and slowly motored home. Tim prepared an awesome pasta and sausage dinner with his special salad that we all devoured in minutes. It’s crazy how hungry we all were in the middle of our session, but we never went back to the boat in fear of missing a good wave and it was all worth it.
After a good 6 hours of sleep, we finally entered the Harbor entrance and motored to the dock. We all powered as a well oiled machine and unloaded the boat faster then we loaded it 24 hours ago. Tim and the captain and crew were exhausted and all hurried home to catch the last couple hours of sleep before sunrise. I was still buzzing from my Dream trip and could not even think about sleep, so I zipped home, switched out a couple SUP boards for smaller surf, checked the buoys and decided to continue my SUP mission with a 2 hour road trip up North……..
A special Thanks to Tim Ditty for all of his support, photos and the use of his beautiful boat, AJ the captain and his first mate for making it possible and Eric Akiskalian for taking photos and running safety and TJ and Bryce for charging so hard and to my wife Susan for her patience and to my truck “The Road Warrior”…….
“The Day After” TO BE CONTINUED NEXT POST………
When you don’t get the big waves at home, you have to go find them. Anytime the buoys are showing 15′ ft or bigger with light to offshore winds, I’m out the door on a mission.
my phone is ringing off the hook and I’m glued to my laptop studying weather and wave models on the internet to make sure I know where to go to get the best conditions and the best waves. Sometimes it’s a gamble, but that’s what makes it an adventure.
On this particular swell, we had a ton of wind and rain moving down the coast, but there was a small window showing a break in the weather with promising conditions. My partner in crime, Eric from Towsurfer.com and photographer Fred Pompermyer.
We left at 3 am in poring rain and wind all the way up the coast and about an hour from our final destination the weather broke and everything got super calm. We had our sights on a mini slab that always gets super good with a West swell.
We got to the boat ramp, set up the skis with rescue sleds and packed our tow boards and my SUP surf board and paddle, suited up and off we went. Conditions were so perfect, we couldn’t believe it. We got to the off shore slab wave and I will let the pictures show the rest of the adventure and yes, I took a good couple beatings this day; making it that much better.