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Different Strokes

Wave Skiers' Approach Unique, but Don't Call Them Kayakers


When Steven Moser paddles out at Bolsa Chica for one of his daily training sessions, surfers who haven't seen him before turn to their buddies and mutter, "Oh great, here comes a guy on a damn kayak." Then Moser, the No. 1-ranked wave skier in the country, rips down the face of a wave and explodes into the air off the lip and they shout, "The guy on the kayak is awesome, dude."

"I still run into about three donkeys out of every 100 surfers who try to hassle me," Moser says, "but as soon as they see me catch a wave and they see I have complete control, they realize, 'Hey, he's one of us.'

"We do sit on these things but we're not kayakers. Don't throw us in that category. We're surfers."

But surfers who have to use their arms to propel themselves onto the face of a swell usually aren't overjoyed with the notion of competing for waves with someone holding a paddle. And the battle for space on the waves between sit-down surfers and the stand-up variety--already a full-blown conflict in Australia, South Africa and France--is heating up on Southland beaches.

Heck, they even argue about who came first.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the first known sighting of people surfing was recorded by Captain Cook in December of 1771, when he saw Polynesians riding waves in their canoes in Tahiti. Lt. James King first described seeing Hawaiians standing on surfboards in Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay in March of 1779.

While the Hawaiian version of surfing has become a way of life as much as a sport for hundreds of thousands during the last half century, there are a few avid sit-down aficionados such as Moser who are beginning to turn on a whole new generation of wave riders.

Moser, 28, a global logistics consultant who lives in Palos Verdes, teaches clinics at Paddle Power in Newport Beach, one of the only places in Southern California where you can rent a wave ski. For $65, he gives a three-hour lesson--"or as long as they can last"--that begins in the bay and ends in the surf.

"It barely covers the petrol for the drive," says Moser, who began wave skiing as a teen in Australia and is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. because he was the top American finisher (tied for 32nd) in last year's world championships in Brazil. "But we need to do whatever we can to encourage young people in the country to get into the sport. It's not like a Boogie Board or a shortboard that you can take on the bus or strap to your bike. It's incredibly fun, but it requires a ride to the beach from mum or dad."

Two Basic Designs

Versions of paddle-surfing have been around for nearly 40 years, the first models of wave skis initially developed as an adaptation of the Australian surf ski by a group of Huntington Beach lifeguards headed by Merv Larson, considered by most to be the father of the sport in this country.

Of course, you can ride a wave in a canoe if you want--if you don't mind it swamping and sinking--but most modern paddle surfers fall into one of two categories. There is the California style, using either specially designed kayaks or sit-on-top boards with no fins that are steered primarily with the paddle, and the Australian or international style, using a smaller, lighter sit-on-top board that has a tri-fin set-up and is maneuvered mostly by switching body weight.

Both designs have flat or concave bottoms, a kicked-up nose that planes high in the water to allow quick turns, and rails somewhat similar to surfboards. The sit-on-top varieties have quick-release waist belts and ankle straps. Some also have thigh straps.

They range from about $500 for beginner models to nearly $1,500 for top-of-the-line designs of both the California- and Australian-style boards.

"It's very much like the difference between short surfboards and longboards," said Steve Boehne, who shapes wave skis for Infinity in Dana Point. "The Australian-style boards are seven to eight -feet long. I build primarily the California style, which are eight to 11 feet long.

"The longer waterline paddles faster and consequently catches waves easier than the shorter Aussie skis. A long ski glides into a wave early and does big, smooth turns. Because there's no fin, you sort of slide into a turn before the rail bites into the wave. They're also easier to master for a beginner and almost effortless for a good kayaker."

But top competitors such as Moser use the Australian boards to pull off moves no kayaker who hasn't mistakenly plunged over a waterfall ever dreamed of--360-degree spins in the air, where the board rotates like a helicopter blade, and aerial re-entries.

"The wave ski has come a long way," Moser said. "The pro international boards are very light, 12 to 14 pounds, and built to allow for very critical maneuvers in the fastest section of the wave. It's almost like snowboarding while sitting down.

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