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SITTING DOWN TO SURF'S CHALLENGE : Merv Larson is a long-time advocate of the kayak-style wave ski. Its ease of handling fits a wide range of abilities.

June 22, 1995|KEN McALPINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The film jerks and blurs, befitting home movies of the early '80s, but it shows clearly what may be one of the largest waves ever ridden at California Street's popular point break. The surfer is visible, though his presence is muted by distance and the immensity of the wave. The wave unfolds with loopy grace; masses of water move up its front and sweep over in a thundering cascade. The rider draws up tight and high and shoots past the end of the Ventura Pier.

A quarter-mile later, the wave spreads across the Pierpont Bay in an unbroken wall, shudders for an instant and then folds over. The surfer escapes by turning for shore. He bounces toward the beach in a jumble of white water, ending a ride that began off the mouth of the Ventura River nearly a mile up the coast, arguably the longest ride, documented or not, at California Street. One other oddity: Throughout the ride, the surfer is sitting.

Merv Larson of Ventura, the movie's star, shrugs.

"Someone on a surfboard could have done it," he says.

Though it would pain him to be described in such terms, the 54-year-old Larson is a legend, not so much for the huge waves he's ridden, though that plays a role, but for the vehicle he uses to ride them.

For more than 30 years, Larson has built and ridden wave skis, a mating of surfboard and kayak that has a devoted, if infinitesimal, following in this country.

"As more and more people find out about wave skis, the sport is becoming more popular," claims Roy Scafidi, president of the U.S. Wave Ski Assn. and owner of Island Wave Ski, a Cocoa Beach, Fla., company that manufactures wave skis.

Scafidi pauses. "I wouldn't describe it as a boom, though. I have another job."

Shelley Merrick, Camarillo resident and a wave ski rider of 27 years, is more succinct.

"A lot of people don't know what it is," Merrick says.

That may be the case, but it is also true that Ventura County is home to as rabid a group of wave-ski riders as you'll find anywhere, with Larson serving as their reluctant patriarch. Precisely how many wave skiers ride county waves is hard to say. Larson reckons maybe 30. Other wave skiers put the number as high as 50.

Statistics for the United States are equally elusive. The U.S. Wave Ski Assn. has about 90 members on its mailing list. But, using sales as a gauge, Scafidi estimates that a substantial number of wave skiers haven't been accounted for.

"There are probably 10,000 wave skis out there," he says. "How many people are actually using them at the moment, though, is hard to say."

But one thing is certain. Members of this surfing subculture are possessed of an enthusiasm one might find in someone who has just discovered Bill Gates' PIN number.

"Because you are sitting, you're only a few inches above the water and there's this incredible sensation of speed," gushes Merrick. "But there's also a real flowing, calm grace. When you come down a big wave on a wave ski and you make the bottom turn and you plant your kayak paddle, it's a phenomenal feeling."

The Australians and South Africans are credited with inventing and popularizing the sport, its roots in those countries stretching back into the 1950s. The wave skis' origins may go back substantially further than that. Scafidi says the Peruvians rode vessels similar to wave skis 2,000 years ago.

Though he didn't invent the modern wave ski, Larson has affected the sport both as a designer and a rider.

"Merv has had a gigantic influence on the sport," says Scafidi. "He modified the early designs and started surfing on really large waves."

The sport remains immensely popular in Australia and South Africa, often adopted, says Larson, by older surfers who are looking for something new. But there may be other reasons the sport's disciples are mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s. The skis are expensive, ranging from $700 to $1,000--a tab beyond the reach of a 16-year-old slinging fries.

You also need to be big enough to defend yourself. An adept wave-ski rider can catch gobs of waves and, in increasingly crowded waters, surfers aren't always hospitable. Over the years, Larson has had plenty of run-ins with surfers.

Larson is personally responsible for luring many of the county's wave-ski riders to the sport. Larson introduced Merrick to wave skis in 1968. Roger Macura, a Camarillo podiatrist and wave-ski rider of 18 years, still remembers seeing Larson in a surfing movie in 1969, watching him work magic on aquamarine mountains at Rincon Point.

"There were 10- to 12-foot waves, and he and his buddies were doing helicopter spins across these big walls of water and just darting around everybody on surfboards," recalls Macura. "I knew that was for me."

From Ojai to Camarillo, from Oxnard Shores to Silver Strand, they all know Merv.

Larson is not impressed.

"I've been doing it a long time," he says.

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