Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Final Chapter: Flight Level 35, Somewhere Mid-Atlantic

Some thoughts as I head home.

This has been an incredible experience. I realize how lucky I’ve been to be on Team USA West—it’s a complete fluke that I’m here and I’d likely never have made the team via the usual trials process.

It’s been 18+ years since I left North County San Diego for Real Jobs™ on the East Coast, in the Mid-Atlantic (poor surf) and Maine (frigid water), and deep inside I still miss the Coastal California lifestyle of hitting the water on the way to or from work most days. Three years ago. in what was arguably a midlife crisis, I bought my surf kayak, and then to justify the purchase I attended the NOC Surf Kayak Camp with Spencer Cooke, Team USA East, a year later. But really, living in Delaware I don’t get to use the boat much. So I’d been vaguely thinking that I needed to go somewhere for a week this Fall to do a surfing safari when this opportunity arose. It sounded to be a much better alternative. How much better, I had no idea.

Just being on a beach for a week and a half would have been a great vacation, but doing it in the presence of and with the coaching of the best in the world was simply unbelievable. Making new friends from around the world, eating delectable food, the fun, the partying—it all added up to the adventure of a lifetime.

And then there is the Team—five of the most fun, crazy and just plain nice people you could ever hope to meet. In that mysterious indefinable way that happens on occasion, we jelled into something more like a family than a team, and we will be friends and teammates forever.

It’s cost some money, and it will be a scramble to get caught up at work when I get back. No worries, it’s been worth it.

Hmmm…it is only 2 years to the next World Championships….

Final thanks to:

Drew Hayes, my neighbor and purveyor of surf boats, for selling me my boat for really cheap. If things go well, I’ll be seeing you for a new boat.

Kevin Foley, for the loan of your board bag. You’ve got a Team USA West t-shirt coming your way.

Spencer Cooke (, for his expertise and support. See you in the surf sometime soon, I hope.

The PPCS Chowderheads (, for support and best wishes.

Team USA West, for the friendship, coaching, support, and most of all, taking me on this adventure: Jimmy Sensei for the coaching, Wayne-san for the stories and the laughs and the obscure quotes that only us old guys understand, Devon for being an amazingly inspirational competitor, Jeff for organizational wizardry including arranging the loan of a boat for training in Santa Cruz (CA) last month, and Rachael for being such a sweetheart. See you in Santa Cruz if not before.

And last, but most of all, to She Who Is Small But Mighty, for pushing me to go on this adventure. I love you.

Chapter 13 Final Standings

Team USA West: 7th

Jim Grossman: World Champion, Master’s IC
Devon Barker: 4th, Woman’s IC
Wayne Waddington: 4th, Grand Master’s IC
Jeff Hille: 25th (tied), Men’s HP
Rachael Krugman: 17th (tied), Woman’s HP
Carlisle Landel, 7th (tied), Grand Master’s HP

Chapter 12 And Then They Partied

Saturday dawns with a light drizzle for the final heats. Jim, Wayne and Devon are all in the finals. We all hoot and holler for our teammates from the beach.


Devon has her game face on

Wayne tearing it up

Jim Grossman, World Champion!

The award ceremonies were in the evening, held in front of the pool. The finalists in each category come up and are presented trophies by various dignitaries. The Juniors go first, and they set the tone by jumping into the pool together after they get their awards. And so, into the pool goes each group of finalists, to the amusement of the onlookers.

Jim accepts his trophy…

…and goes into the pool

And then they start the team awards. And I quickly realize that they won’t have just the 4 finalists participating, but instead every team will be getting a trophy.

And then will be jumping into the pool.

I frantically begin to get ready, wrapping my camera in a plastic bag, removing wallet and keys and change from my pockets, changing into a team t-shirt, and putting pack, hat and shoes someplace safe. Then up on stage we go, where I accept the trophy and kisses from the cutie assigned the task and, with a little help from my friends on Team USA East, into the pool I go.

I forget to remove my glasses. The pool does the job for me. Oops.

Soggy teammates. The glasses are gone.

After we dry off, we show off our team trophy.

With dozens of people plunging into the pool in the dark, there is no hope of retrieving them until morning. Fortunately, one does not need to see in order to consume mojitos.

Lots of mojitos.

Lots and lots of mojitos!

Carla served them up…

…and we drank them down.


In the early morning chill, Jeff and I stand bleary-eyed on the pool deck, staring morosely into the pool. The water is fairly murky, the bottom has a fairly heavy coating of sand after 10 days of use, and the low visibility is compounded by the fact that only cloud in the sky is obscuring the sun. Wayne joins us after a little bit, but increasing the number of eyeballs on the job by 50% is to no avail. After an hour of hopelessly staring at the shadows on the bottom, we decide that there is no choice but to climb in and begin searching the bottom by Braille with our toes. Wayne heads back to the hotel to change into a swimsuit, while Jeff and I plunge in. Shoulder-to-shoulder, we begin to gingerly sweep the bottom of the pool. And, miracle-of-miracles, on my third pass, I find them!

Chapter 11 The Food Meister

We eat fantastic seafood here. I act as the team taster, the first to try unfamiliar menu items. It seems I can’t lose.

It starts on the second evening, when Wayne and Jeff have salmon. I’m not going for this farmed North Sea stuff, I want a wild fish, and go with the Robalo, which is probably sea bass and perhaps an endangered species so I’m not really doing Mother Ocean any favors, but it is pretty darn good.

The next evening, Jeff announces he is going to have Robalo, since mine was so good. I counter with the declaration that I’m going for the Pulvo, or octopus, because what-the-heck-it-is-on-the-menu-and-you-only-live-once. Everyone looks at me with great skepticism. When dinner finally arrives, I have a plate of the most exquisite chopped-and-broiled-in-olive-oil-and-garlic, tender, and tasty seafood that you could possibly imagine. It is, in the words of She Who Is Small But Mighty, “Plate-Lickin’-Good™”. My reputation is made. For the rest of the trip, people will have what I had the night before.

I continue my food dominance through a Hawaiian pizza that has bananas in addition to the usual ham an pineapple, a monkfish brochette for two (split with Jackie) that is a shish kebab of monkfish and shrimp and onions and peppers, and the Caldeirada (split with Jeff, which turned out to be a seafood stew containing lobster and monkfish and shrimp and other fish and potatoes and other veggies, garnished with hunks of fried bread.

The final night, though, I go back for one last round of octopus. Wow.

Chapter 10 Ambiance

By the way, did I tell you that it is absolutely beautiful here?

Chapter 9 Friends

Valerie Bertrand. Reigning World Champion from 2007, buddy of Devon. She is Team Norway. Competing with 2 broken ankles and torn ligaments acquired within the last month after an encounter with a rock after kayaking off a waterfall. Holy Sh*t!

Brent and Lori. Brent is one quarter of Team Canada, Lori is his fiancée. Brent is like me, a newbie who knows he is in over his head but enjoying every minute of the ride.

Team Scotland. They know how to party.

Jackie Ferguson. Irish girl competing individually.

Chapter 8 Miscellaneous Conversations

Wishful thinking

Wayne: That is one heavy boat!

Me: Yeah

[Note to self: Ask She Who Is Small But Mighty {OK, beg if you have to} ‘Honey, can I please get a new boat?’]
On fame

(Japanese accent): Debon?

Me: Yes.

(Japanese accent): Debon Bahkuh?!?!?!!

Me: Yes.

(Japanese accent): Ohhhh! Debon Bahkuh very famous!!!!
It’s a small world

Me: By the way, Carole Westwood said to tell you: “Hi and Merde”.

Val Bertrand: What!?!?! How do you know Carole?
Why we all drank too much

Carla (bartender and surf photographer of renown): Are the mojitos OK?

John and Eddie (Team Scotland): These are better than what we had in Havana!!

Spectators (in sympathetic pain): Oooooooooooooooooooooo!

Announcer: If the judges scored for wipeouts, that would be a ten!

Are you sure?

Jeff: You know who you remind me of? Steve Martin.

Me: ????
On the better part of valor

Jimmy: Why don't you try Jeff's boat?

Self to myself (after spending 5 minutes cramming myself into Jeff’s boat): Yeah, I could probably roll this boat.

Myself to self (trying to remove the foam implosion-slash-suicide bar that has me jammed into the cockpit and succeeding only after at least a minute of struggle): Umm—I’m not sure we can get out of this puppy if things went bad.

Self to myself: Bad?!? No way! You know you can roll!

Voice of daughter Molly, aged 12, who knows about the unfortunate surfboard-to-the-head incident in Noosa a couple of years ago (with all the seriousness that a 12-year-old can muster): “Daddy, you be careful, ok?”

Me: Um, Jimmy? I don’t think so.
The brotherhood

Brent Daniel (Team Canada): Dude!!

Me: Dude!!

Chapter 7 The Magic Wristband

This is the magic wristband. It marks the wearer as a competitor in the events at Santa Cruz Ocean Spirit. It gets us into the VIP open bar at the Opening Ceremonies (where we, the surf kayakers, proceed to consume all the alcohol allotted for the 3 hour event in less than an hour.) It gets us into the music festival at night for free. And most importantly, it gets us past Carlos the Security Guard and into the boat storage locker so we can get our boats.

When we were first issued our wristbands, we were told that we’d be issued new bands every day. So after Opening Ceremonies, with the VIP open bar and the discovery of SuperBar and Carla’s mojitos and the fireworks show and people jumping into the pool and basically staying up too late because no competitions were scheduled for the next day, three members of Team USA West cut them off before collapsing into bed. Only to find that our boats were completely inaccessible the next day. And, we only had 2 extra wristbands. Neither of which came to me. So there was a day of having to have somebody else grab my boat out of storage for me, until we could get it all sorted out. In the end, I finally got a band, to the relief/amusement of Carlos.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chapter 6--Team Trials

Tuesday was the start of team trials. In this phase of the competition, team members compete in 4-person heats in the following classes:

Junior’s (under 18) High Performance (HP) – 1 slot/team
Junior’s International Class (IC) – 1 slot
Women’s HP – 2 slots
Women’s IC – 2 slots
Men’s HP – 3 slots
Men’s IC – 3 slots
Master’s (over 40) HP – 2 slots
Master’s IC – 2 slots

The way the scoring works is that you get 1 point for a first place finish in a heat, 2 points for a second, 3 for a third, 4 for a 4th, and 5 if you don’t enter a competitor. Lower scores are better.

Each team member can compete in a maximum of 2 events. So you can see that with a team of 6, we’d only be able to fill 12 of 16 competition slots, thus conceding 20 points off the bat.

Twelve teams were competing, most with full teams. There was a first round, after which the top 8 teams would compete again and the scores would be combined for final rankings. Finally, the top 4 teams compete again in the finals--unlikely for us without a full team.

I was competing in Men’s and Master’s HP. Thus, I would compete in 2 more heats at least, then 2 more if we were in the top 8. They were running the competition on two sites on the beach. There was a bit of a panic when we realized that, because of the offset in timing between the two sites, I was scheduled to compete simultaneously at both sites. Fortunately, just as we discovered this and informed the judges at one of the sites, the competition at the other site was postponed for 2 hours for a longboard competition. Problem solved.

My teammates were amazing, scoring mostly firsts and seconds in their heats. My turn in Master’s HP rolled around, and I have to say that my head was in a much better place this time compared to my first competition heat. I’d had time to do some free surfing in the intervening days, and Jim and the rest of the team had been giving me intensive coaching. Nonetheless, I finished up in 4th, though I was in third right up until the end. I was bummed. Because of the long delay, the Men’s HP division was pushed off until early the next morning, after which team scores were to be tabulated and we’d launch right into the semifinal round of 8. We were pretty close to 8th, but it wasn’t a sure thing.

Early Wednesday morning we showed up at the beach. I surfed pretty well in my heat, and of course Jeff and Jim kicked butt, so then we had to wait for the results, which were: USA West in 8th! We were through to the semis!

Once again we were in 2 sites on the beach. My two heats were separated by 15 minutes. First up was Master’s. I got a good ride off the bat, with my teammates screaming and yelling and waving the Stars and Stripes on the beach–it was a fantastic feeling. In the end, I scored a 3rd! Major coolness. Then it was into shore to turn in my jersey (competitors get color-coded jerseys so the judges know who to score) and then sprint up the beach to get my new jersey and then into my boat for the next heat. My teammates dragged my boat to the second site, and then I was ready to go. I decided to go for the biggest waves, which worked to the extent that I caught them, though I really didn’t do anything with my rides. So yet another 4th for me.

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the entire team surfed fantastic, and we actually moved up one spot to 7th. (Call me Mr. 7th, I guess.)

Jeff tearing it up:

Chapter 5--Teammates

Here is the operative adjective for the people on this team: Nice. Extremely nice.

Here are my teammates:

Devon Barker. Professional kayaker, former (2005) World Champion woman’s surf kayaker.

Jim Grossman An amazing athlete. Top 5 in the world in surf kayak.

Jeff Hille Works for Genentech. Jim Carrey look-alike. A team newbie like me.

Rachael Krugman. Soon to be a student in OT. On a team of very nice people, she is the nicest. Another team newbie.

Wayne Waddington Works in construction. The team’s oldest member. Twisted (in a good way) sense of humor. Another world-class surf paddler.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Chapter 4--Internet connectivity

So internet connectivity here is really spotty. I've been trying to post for days, and I keep losing the connection. So be warned. Also, posts will change as I add photos later.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Chapter 3--Quick update

Team trails started today. I paddled one heat today, and one tomorrow. I was still last in my heat, but I also got some nice scores, and was only out of 3rd place by <0.15 points.

The good news: I'm officially tied for 7th in the world in my age group in individual standing.

Tomorrow's heat is early--time for bed.

Chapter 2--The Closet Under the Eaves

So the hotel where I’m staying is nice, and it certainly is inexpensive: €30 per night. I am in room 401, to which Maria, the nice lady who runs the desk and who speaks no English, directed me by pointing upstairs and saying “sempre, sempre” while gesturing in an upward spiral. So up the stairs I go, to discover my cute room on the top floor.

Where I can stand up straight only at the center of the room.

And where I can’t stand up straight in the bathroom at all.

The first night I bashed my head three times in quick succession when getting ready for bed. (OK, I was jet-lagged and I’d been to the Opening Ceremonies where I’d washed ashore with some of the Scotland team and consumed what was arguably too many mojitos.)

So now I’ve pretty much got it wired. Haven’t hit my head since that first night.

But I feel like Harry Potter.

Chapter 1--First Report (Saturday, July 25)

My first competition of the World Surf Kayak Championships was early this afternoon. I'll skip straight to the results and say that I didn't advance from my heat. It was nonetheless an extremely interesting and ultimately fun experience.

I competed individually in the Grand Master's Men's High Performance division. Sounds pretty impressive, huh? Well, you could easily call it the Old Guys Division—it is the 50-and-over crowd.. The good news before I started is that there were a total of 10 competitors-- by definition I am top ten in the world!

The format was 15 minute heats, with the top two advancing to the next level. Best two waves are totaled for total score.

The conditions were sort of marginal--pretty windy, with an extremely rough paddle out through a dumping break, and a very strong longshore current that would sweep you out of the competition area once you got caught inside. Our competition was after the Woman's HP, and it was a bit disheartening to see people get pounded and swim in earlier heats. One of our women won her heat, while the other caught one wave and was trapped inside and couldn't get out to score a second wave and so didn't advance.

I was in the third and final heat of my division, and my teammate in the first heat got swept out of the competition area and didn't advance either.

As I sat on the beach, getting ready to paddle out, I had four goals, in the following order: 1. Do *not* swim. 2. Have fun. 3. Score some points (i.e., catch at least *one* wave) 4. Surf well enough to advance.

Paddling out for my heat, I got *pounded*. It was so bad that at one point I was seriously worried that I'd not even make it out for my heat. But finally, after getting dumped and pounded and at one point getting swept all the way back to the beach, I made it outside.

Once there, though, I missed the signal for the start of the heat. My plan was to hang waaayyyyy outside and pick of some of those waves, then head inside for more scoring opportunities if possible, despite the possibility of being trapped inside. But without knowing how long we had left, and forgetting the signal board on the beach that color-codes how much time is left, I panicked and went inside to at least catch one wave. The problem was that I was then trapped inside. At one point I was swept to the beach, and my teammates came running down to tell me that I was still really close to second place and if I could catch another wave, I might make it into second. Unfortunately, I could never get back outside to catch the second wave.

But in the final analysis, it was pretty fun (though exhausting and with moments of severe thrashing), plus I never swam (there were 2 in the second heat of GM that reportedly took some big swims--I'm sorry I wasn't in that heat!!). And I got a score for my one wave. So although I didn't advance, 3 of 4 goals were met. I think I'm probably 8th or 9th after all the scoring was done, but I haven't seen the standings.

Next up is the team competition. It isn't clear yet what the format will be for this part of the competition, and we don't yet even know when it will begin. We are thinking maybe Monday, but we will know more this evening. Things are always a little up in the air, and we've learned that things seem to happen about 2 hours after posted times.

Meanwhile, it turns out that this event is much bigger than I thought. My expectation of the event was that it would be a prosaic little event with a bunch of kayakers on the beach. Whoa, was I ever wrong. It turns out that we are a part of the extremely large Santa Cruz Ocean Spirit Festival, a music festival with surfing/kite board/skim board/wave ski/surf kayak competitions added on. There is this *huge* tent city set up, with a humongous stage, bars, restaurants, ATMs, a swimming pool (!) plus the contest infrastructure. The whole thing can be seen online at – it includes streaming video, live I think.

Anyway, that's the news from sunny Portugal!


Preface--The Surf Kayaker of Serendip

So how the heck does a guy living in Delaware wind up on the USA West Coast Surf Kayak Team and competing in the World Championships?


It turns out that many of the people selected for the US West Team weren’t able to actually go to the Worlds, so with a month to go the team put out a call in their newsletter (which I receive for some reason) for volunteers for the team. On a whim, I threw my name into the hat, and it turns that because of my experience as a surf kayaker during my postdoc years in San Diego (1983 – 1991; I was pretty seriously into it) and, more importantly, because they must have been fairly desperate to fill out the team, they invited me along for the ride.

She Who Is Small But Mighty ok’d the deal (did I mention that we are all mostly paying our own ways here?), I had enough frequent flier miles for a ticket to Lisbon, and I started to frantically whip this poor late-middle-aged body in shape.

And here I am.