Body Surfing at Steamer Lane

Drastic Fun

CopyRight @ 1998

You can always pick up something nice off the cliff.

I have always thought that rodeo bull riders were just a bit nuts. You must have a really drastic need for fun if you hop on something that powerful and that mad. Well, Here I was, about 150 yards from shore at Middle Peak, Steamer Lane, trying my own version of that fun. I guess I just got real lucky. It was the beginning of a set and there was this monster coming. I could see it rising more than 200 yards past where I was and all I could do is wait and hope I was positioned well enough. These are too big to chase around after much.

At the time, I didn't know how hard it is to catch one of these big waves while bodysurfing. It was a huge wave with about a 20 foot face. You have to take off really late as the wave is fully starting to break. I took off using a feet together dolphin kick and both my arms. I didn't know at the time that you don't ride Middle Peak towards the cliff. I certainly was learning. I went straight down the face and pulled hard to my right. It is too fast. I was flying and water was spraying everywhere. You have to hold your breath all the time for the inevitable moment when the waves tires of you and puts you in the cold water spin cycle. In waves like this, you are just a rag doll. Amazingly though, I had successfully caught it and was riding it tubed inside the wave. There was nothing to see. It was just darkness and splashing water. Every 10 seconds or so, you blow out your air and suck in another breath to hold and keep blasting along. When in a wave like this, you intimately feel its power and well know that to it you are just another small spray of foam. It died out calmly. The end of the ride was not near catastrophic as I had expected. Then as I turned around some, I bumped into a rock. In a fraction of a second I realized without accepting, that the only rock out here was near the cliff, more than 150 yards from where I had started. I had been tubed for the whole ride. This was the first time I had ever tried bodysurfing at the Lane.

It has been made clear to me that it is really called Steamer Lane, but with my hearing it could be anything.

Update 03/01/2005. I'm going to go ahead and claim to have ridden the largest wave that has been bodysurfed in California. You're welcome to disagree, just send me a note at To beat my claim, you have to have ridden on a wave bigger than anything Steamer Lane can produce. I think I can also claim to be the first one to have bodysurfed Middle Peak at Steamer on a big day.

I rode as big a waves as Steamer could produce from 1975 to about 1986. That means days when third peak is regularly breaking. Also, since I stayed outside most of the time (to avoid the boards... if any were out), I was taking the biggest waves available. Now you can call a wave what height you want. I think the biggest that Middle Peak can produce is at most, what, 14 feet measured the old way up the back. The faces were reqularly 20 feet tall. I think they got maybe 25 feet tall. It gets deceptive because the bottom of the slope. Whatever you want to call that height is fine by me, but that's what you have to pass to convince me you have ridden a bigger wave.

So what do you do when you can't go diving? On Friday evenings, I used to drive my van to Pidgin Point about mid-way up the San Francisco Peninsula. It is a beautiful area of primitive windswept coast and redwood groves in the forested mountains. It was a great place to park my van with a pizza and a book. Sometimes I would get up in the morning to a lake like ocean with kelp forests on rocky reefs that went on for miles. I could dive in the calm shallow waters for hours. Sometimes though, I got up to howling wind and huge waves that turn into smashing rollers at the first feel of the outer reef. Those days, I go back to town and go body surfing.

From shore, it is called Light House Point. It is north of the Boardwalk, along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz. In the water it is called Steamer Lane. Long ago some unfortunate steam ship named it by going aground there. The surfers just call it The Lane. It is arguably some of the biggest and best surfing in California and certainly some of the coldest. There is a small surfing museum there now. A nice thing about the Lane is that you can enter the water by climbing in off of the Point and it can put you pretty much past most of the surf. This is an incredibly popular surfing spot. There are mountains coming in across rock reefs here. Waves like this will draw me like the siren song.

A little local came out at the Point for some sun.

Big waves can come in there all year long, but from November through February, you can expect pretty constant surf. On a map, Light House Point aims due south past the southern edge of Monterey Bay, with a pretty clear fetch for waves right on all the way down to Antarctica. Sometimes, some monsters come rolling in.

There are two main areas to surf, the Point and Middle Peak. There is also third peak, about a half mile out in something like 40 feet of water. No one really surfs it, but it is a good gauge to go by on a really big day.

The Point has excellent, fast waves that are pretty good for the short boarders. If you catch the shoulder bodysurfing, it can be an excellent ride. You can take off straight, turn at the bottom, go to the top and take off again. If you try to ride across the top, instead of going to the bottom and turning, forget it. You will get launched. The wave then slows for a bit and then it speeds up again as it meets the break coming the other way from Middle Peak. Riding into that carelessly will get you splattered, but if you accelerate with all your strength, you can hit the oncoming break with enough energy that it cannot pick you up and you pop out the back. Realize, even on a small day, where these meet is a hard hitting 4 foot wave, in very shallow water..

This is not a great photo, but it perfectly shows about the best route you can take at the Point. You can get 3 radical rides on one wave.
Go from Point A all the way down straight, turn hard at the bottom and go straight across, then straight up to Point B. Turn down and go straight. Now notice the edge of the break goes straight in front of Point B. Don't rush down the wave, because it slows there and you may have to swim to stay in it. Then it is rising into a perfect tube wall in front of you as it gets over flat rock in about 1 foot of water and meets the tube coming from Middle peak closing out from the other way. You lock your legs and stand on your fins as hard as you possibly can as you head into the oncoming tube and you come out the back.

Really the Point can produce some big waves, probably over 10 feet, but it's pretty hard to bodysurf past about 7 feet. Basically the wave is too fast. Aside from that, at that size it makes a huge tube that just slams down in front of the wave. Besides, the surfers on shortboards love it for its speed and at the Point, you are mostly inside of them. Sometimes, if the boards miss it, you can take a big one, but you have to be far from the Point or you will not make it out anywhere. It can be deadly out there and if you make a mistake, you risk getting in the little cove/cave under the cliff. Getting out of that can be a hassle.

I surfed the point a lot. There are a lot of board surfers there though and a bodysurfer is suicidal to tangle with them on a wave. On a medium large day though, there are enough waves to clear out the boards with one nice wave left over for me. The boards take off earlier on the wave and they must cross the small cove south of the point to get past the cliff. While that is easy enough on a decent day, on a small day, the wave can break against the cliff as it leaves the cove. Well, there was this guy on a purple board that I was used to seeing. He tended to cut off people more than was really polite and I used to get annoyed, because he would take waves that were only so so for him, but would have been great for me. This was especially true on smaller days. One day he took off a bit late. I was in deeper water, looking from about even with the cliff and the wave was going to break right on it. There was this nice tube about 5 feet high in front, perhaps 6 feet from the cliff, just breaking so that it would hit flat against the cliff. One thing. The guy on the purple board was in it and he had very little room to work with to get past the cliff. He was just hunched up in the tube, pointed straight out my direction, perhaps 2 feet from the rock. He made it and I thought that that is what you learn to do when you snake a lot of waves.

We love the offshore wind. It makes nice rainbows even if it can drown you in the spray.
It also holds the waves back until they are vertical walls that are easy to take off on.

Taking off and riding a big wave is a thrash. You have to start with a foot together dolphin kick and use your arms, to get the speed to catch a big wave before it is too late. As you go down the wave, you must change to a flutter kick to be able to flatten your body out so that you slide on the water. Forget your arms. It's to late for them to do much, good or bad. Then if the wave hits the back of your legs, they are going to instantly cramp. Ignore it. At this point things get easier. Just go with the ride, oh, and get ready to get off when you have to. You would rather that you got off gracefully by ducking down or whatever, rather than the wave tiring of you and doing the big cold water spin. But if you are well positioned on the shoulder, you can twist your body to send yourself back up the wave and then drop straight down again. It is one of the ultimate thrills you can ever have.

There was this one big day. The waves were cleanly going over Seal Rock that was about 60 yards off the point. There were a bunch of surfers standing high up on the point, waiting for the bottom of the set so that they could get into the water and get outside the waves before the big ones started churning the area again. Well I thought that I would show them just how mobile I was compared to them. There was a break in the waves so I just trotted down the point and jumped in. I was swimming out fast, but it didn't matter. This was a lull in the waves, not the bottom of the set. The top of the curl coming in was probably 12 feet above the water in front of it. Nice tube. Bad luck. I went down, but you can't escape a wave like that. I was deep, then I was flying up to the top, then I was going down. I hit the bottom flat on my back. That's about 12 feet deep there. I have been scuba diving in the spot. I got off pretty easy.

Dan took a picture of me jumping in all akimbo, though realistically I usually just stepped
in at the bottom of the point. Notice the bare feet and the Diver Duck Feet fins.

Occasionally, some youngster would get a bit territorial. Some people don't much like anyone, let alone a bodysurfer. Well, I'm extremely vulnerable to boards. I don't mind some twit going to the effort to spray me as he goes by, but once they aim for me or kick the board at me with those oh so sharp tips, it's time for some strategy of discouragement. I just swim down and pick up some fair sized rocks and start playing with them on the surface. The reminder always seemed to work.

While the Point has good surfing with big fast waves, the radical surfing at Steamer is the monsters on Middle Peak. These start to rise on Third Peak, more than a half mile from shore and build and move around as they work their way over the reefs on the way to the shallower water where they break. It's a huge area. You cannot predict well, where any wave is finally going to break. They are not as fast as the Point. All their power goes into size.

On a calm day you can see that the area is a huge kelp bed.
Where there is kelp, there is rock and it makes for great breaks.

Realize, on a Big day, to get 4 rides bodysurfing Middle Peak is a good day. Board surfers can go around the waves and current. On a big day, after a ride that brings you inside, a bodysurfer may as well swim the rest of the way to shore, get out and walk back to the point to get back in the water. Surfboards can get above the currents. The bodysurfer is in them. Don't ever try to swim against a fast ocean current. At Steamer Lane there is heavy seaweed growth. I always hold on to it. I'm strong, but swimming against those waves is a waste of time. When a wave, large or small comes, you have to go down and hold onto the bottom. Even a small wave will carry you back 30 yards and that can not easily be made up. Giant waves come and you dive for the bottom and clutch on. You have to relax to conserve air. You want the wave and its moving water to be all the way past before you come up. You can hear rocks moving and banging together, sometimes big ones, sometimes quite near. Then you drift up and better be prepared if there is another big wave following. You may be swimming constantly for hours. Getting winded is not an option.

Middle Peak makes a huge break. Mostly people surf it away from the cliff. The ride is on a shoulder there that tips as it breaks and keeps on tipping. Even a wave this big is not too hard to bodysurf away from the cliff. Towards the cliff is a big burley tube and is not recommended on the biggest days. My first ride at Steamer was on a wave just like this one. I rode it almost all the way to the cliff.

One weekday morning there were mid size waves, so I was just a bit inside Middle Peak. It was a workweek, so there were few board surfers out. I took off on about an 8 footer. It was the best ride I ever got. For about 100 yards I rode this smooth shoulder, turning up and down the face of the wave like a board. I came out and there was this girl there. She said that was the most amazing ride she had ever seen. Being my usual calm, cool, composed self, I said something like "wowbestrideinyearscan'tbelieveflassdjrerug;werig;jhg4rg". She did a bit of a disappearing act. What an awesome experience.

You take off on a wave and are carried along using so little power of the wave that it shows little more than a ripple in your passing. Yet the power it has can always be felt and sometimes it will accelerate you like a rocket. Sometimes though, even when you're in a nice graceful ride on top of the water, you know that it has a hold of you. You may not be in trouble or need to get off, but you notice that when you try to adjust your position or direction, you are in a grip that doesn't move for you, any. It can get spooky. You know you can lose at this game. Well, sometimes you do. Then what? There is nothing like scraping to get past a wave and it doesn't work. It may just be a ride backwards into the cold water spin cycle. Once in a while though, you are going to find yourself to be a small part of the leading edge of a big curl. You are going down, fast, and with a monster coming down right behind you. It's time to make like the cartoon character that falls over the waterfall and then swims uphill. You are both still gonna go splash. The only bet actually is to swim some and do anything to get away from the leading edge. Then at the last second, I flip so that I am in a ball and will hit on my back. It's really not all that bad.

There is another... mistake that I have made occasionally. I call it "scooping water" and I've never really figured out exactly what causes it. It is really impressive though. It will bring you to an instant stop in a large wave. It only happens on a big wave when you are going pretty fast. I assume that part of my wetsuit, my hood or collar, gets pulled open and "scoops" water. Both parts are extremely well sealed, so I am not sure how this happens, but one second you are shooting along in a wave the next second you are stopped and water is coming out of your eyeballs. Literally, you are out of the wave and stopped. This means that you have rebounded off the wave, because not only has the ride ended, you are behind the whole wave. There is a lot of energy involved in that equation. Also there is a lot of water in your suit and your eyes and your nose and your ears. It is a pretty catastrophic stop. It takes a while to get the water running out of everything, and that still leaves about 15 gallons of really cold water in your suit. It's a very sobering experience.

So you think you can't catch a broken wave bodysurfing... I was out with a Boogey Board on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. There was a nice swell that was easily over 7 feet, and lots of surfers. I had used Boogey Boards at other places and thought that it might be fun on a truly big wave. Besides, getting a ride body surfing, with all those other surfers, would be tough even with all these waves. Well, what did I learn. It wasn't a glassy day. Usually on a fairly big day there is wind and reflected chop. Catch a big wave and you are going to be pounding through this chop at high speed. It's not like body surfing or even a board. You don't cut through it. The large flat Boogey Board pounds. It pounds so much it will rattle your teeth. You quickly learn to clutch the leading corner to hold on and try to remember never to bring this thing out in big waves again. But, I was there. I was going to ride what I could. Well, I was sitting outside a bit as I tend to, when a really nice set started rising over the third reef. I got lucky. I was positioned well and got a great takeoff on the first and biggest wave. It was fun, pound, pound, pound, crash. I don't remember the details of that. You never do, but I came up eventually and behold, my Boogey Board was long gone. The leash had ripped loose from my arm. Big surprise. Well, it was going to be heading around the corner towards Cowells Beach. With the crowd and the distance I had to cover to get it, I figured it would be gone unless I could get creative. I had always wondered if it could be done. A wave is a circle. When in breaking waves, surfers always naturally conform their body to a shape that cannot pick up energy from the wave. The opposite shape as the circle. There was the brother of that last wave coming along in a few seconds and it was near as big. Why not lay down in the water moving in the same direction as the wave. When it hits from behind, roll forward so that you conform to the shape of the wave. It should pick you up and carry you along. The only drawback is a question of where your head and the rocks will be while you are wheeling through the water. Well, I did three rolls and came up near shore. Head was intact. I got the Boogey Board. It can be done.

One foggy evening, verging on storm, I wanted to surf. It was late, but whatever. I got there and a rarity, there was almost no one in the water. I had a full suit, hood and gloves for the cold water, though I was barefoot under my fins, as usual. The waves were coming in at 8 to 10 feet out on Middle Peak. That's a fairly big day. Well, I wanted to surf. I hopped in at the Point and was seriously getting sloshed around by the wind and storm chop. There were only 2 other board surfers out and they were a ways away. They didn't know about any bodysurfer. I had gotten a couple of half descent rides when I saw a seriously big swell coming in. I figured "cool, I'm just at the shoulder of it". I took off. It was a big un. I was blasting along right in the shoulder of the wave in what would have been perfect position, on a nice day. It wasn't a nice day and I was feeling the power of this storm wave. It had a good hold on me. I got about even with the cliff, which is good, because even a wave like this is going to die around here eventually. Not so good. It wasn't dying or even slowing and there are some rocks that stick up here some at low tide. I was at the bottom of the wave, moving really fast and I could see this head sized rock sticking up in front of me. At times like this you register how odd it is that there are no other surfers out in the water with you and the dusk is falling and the water is nasty. I yanked back and didn't hit anything, but I figured I had gotten to surf enough for the day.

One way to test your lung capacity is to take 2 waves in a row. It is not often that you can do it, but sometimes you came out of a big wave at Middle Peak a bit early. When you come up again, there may be another one bearing down on you. It's not hard to dodge, but wasting an opportunity, when it is so hard to get a ride, seems silly. Each wave is a bit of an exertion though. After that second one, you had better relax, let the wave wash you to shore, breathe, and hope that you don't pass out.

Another way that I occasionally used to test my lung capacity... I am not a real good board surfer, but I did board surf there occasionally. It's much easier with a board to dodge waves or swim against currents. Remember though, because of the size and shape of the area, the rule of Steamer Lane is 'you are going to get caught inside eventually'. It doesn't matter how far out you sit, a bigger wave is going to eventually come along and get you. It's not so bad with a board. You go flopping around and come up. Position yourself and swim like crazy out of the way. There is one other situation though, but don't worry, when it happens you have time to catch another breath. If it's a fairly big day and the waves are 8 feet or more, you may find yourself inside and scraping to get over a wave before it breaks. You make it over and start sliding down the back of the wave. That's fine. What isn't so fine is when you are sliding down the back of this big wave and still you find yourself going backwards, uphill. You are going to go over backwards into the roughest part of the wave. Like I said, don't worry, you will have time to grab another quick breath and you better, cuz you are going to be down for a while.

Getting out of the water is simple. Go in the cove there and climb up the stairs that were so thoughtfully put in. Of course getting to the stairs may present some small problem. Realize, those waves are whipping a lot of water along the shore. Now on a board, that is not so much of a problem. You can cross over currents. Again, if you are bodysurfing, it doesn't work that way. Miss that cove by 15 feet and you aren't getting to it. It's a long way to the next good exit at Cowells Beach. You always have the alternative of climbing out on the rocks and going up the cliff. I dare say that some people enjoyed watching me bodysurf there, just as I enjoy watching the surfers. I dunno, I'm too far out and too busy to look. I do know that there was a crowd on top of the cliff when I got up there. I said this was a big day. there are breakers hitting right on the rocks at the base of the cliff. You have to be patient and calm to sit 10 feet from the rocks, waiting for the waves to quit smashing on them long enough for you to make a dash. I climbed up on a rock and grabbed the one above it. Then the next wave hit right on me and I had to be flat against the rock so that I couldn't be pounded into or off of it. Then you climb, while the waves are hitting you. Above the rocks is about 40 feet of steep soft cliff. Like I say, there were a lot of people watching me when I got up. I'm not sure what they were hoping to see.

The Middle Peak line up at sunset. Those are bigger than they look.

There are waves enough for everybody,

But sometimes, it's nice to have your own.

The days I liked best were the huge days that might get up to 15 feet. A few longboarders are out there, but the skate boarders on their short boards can't handle it. Realize that on a 15 foot wave, with a 25 foot face, there is all kind of chop from wind and reflected waves. If a shortboarder goes hauling down a wave and hits a 2 foot chop, they will get launched. I have the body weight and strength to just cut through that. The longboarders have no interest in messing with me. I guess they figure that any nut was welcome and anyway, there are enough waves for everyone. On big days, the waves are starting to rise on the reefs 300 yards out. While they do follow the reef, they are very hard to predict and how far can you swim without a board anyway. You have to take off as the wave is breaking. The waves on Middle Peak tend to tip instead of curl, so you don't usually get launched. Still, on a wave that big, that tip may suddenly become the curl of a 5 foot wave and that is going to produce quite a blast when it hits the face of the wave with you in the front of it. You had better be ready to hold your body rigid and bounce. Then there is always that chop I mentioned. If a reflected wave hits the front of a big wave as you are just taking off, it's going to suddenly increase the height of that wave by quite a bit and you are going to get quite a curl coming down on top of you. There may be nothing you can do. In waves this big, the water is going to be so deep that at least you pretty much don't have to worry about hitting the rocks on the bottom. You hope.

I remember out on one of the really huge days at Middle Peak. There were only about 3 long boards out and one was an 'old coot', probably in his 50's. It was not all that uncommon actually to see older guys out on long boards, but I was surprised to see him out on such a big day. He seemed game and out there no one is in the way of anyone else. I remember looking down a slope of a mountain at him as he jumped off his board. The shoulder away from the cliff was so big that he had just started sliding down it better than he wanted to. Then all the long boards left.
I look at this and I think "did I really do that"? That wave looks huge. Did I really wait behind the boards and take as big a wave as came in? There really is not much of the actual experience that sticks in your memory of it. Waves do not fit well into memory. I remember the trick to doing it though. I know how it can be done and that is a key. Just the right place to take off and hope that some backwash doesn't make it too exciting. Wait until it is too late to take off and just fin straight down like crazy.

Now you've got yourself positioned on the horns of the bull, ride it. Its got a 25 foot high face that's at an angle and it's moving fast with the weight and power of a freight train. That means that you are going to accelerate straight down for about 75 feet or so. It feels like it's going to rip your wetsuit off. You're sliding in a groove, but it's not necessarily smooth. You may be pounding your way through chop on the way down. The power is unreal. You hope that you can see in all the spray. If you can control your decent and turn, you may be able to get high on the wave again and ride it some more, but at Middle Peak, it tends to be just that, a peak and it's falling on you. You might as well just go straight down in the front of it. As you reach the bottom, the wave is no longer exploding, but it is a 10 foot wall of white water churning behind you. Now is time to flip under and get out of it, but you are still in a lot of moving water. It's time to swim to shore, go around and try it again, but no doubt about it, that is about the wildest ride you are going to ever have in your life.

Here is a bit of an addendum, that I had no idea what to do with, so it's just going to go here.

I used to do a lot of body surfing at Zuma Beach as well. It is quite different than at the Lane. For one thing, it is on sand instead of rock. Anywhere along the miles of clean sandy beach is just about the same as the rest. This makes the break quite different as well. Instead of the wave breaking fairly consistently and predictably as it rises on the rock reefs, it can break anywhere. If you see big waves down the beach a ways, they will soon be where you are. These waves don't have well defined shoulders where you can ride to get out of the main part of the wave. They don't usually tip, they are tubes that throw out and crash. At the Lane, you can ride huge waves that continue to break as the reef gets shallower. At Zuma, they just rise and break. A 5 foot wave at Zuma is more likely to break you than a 10 footer at the Lane and the water is much shallower. Also, while there are currents that will carry you along the shore at the Lane, at Zuma, the water builds up along the shore until a rip current forms to carry it out again. The water is clear and the diving there is pretty interesting. It's a fun place. I spent hours and hours there. A couple of times it was memorable as well as fun.

I went with my friend Kevin, many times. The lifeguards would be chasing people out of the rips and would quite pointedly ignore us. Often, we would go in the late afternoon and there would be almost no one in the water. A lifeguard would wander along the beach just inshore from us.

I am very heavy, so I would ride the waves with a style that wasn't practical for most people. I would cut the wave, like a seal does when they ride waves. The wave falls on you, but it is already knocked down enough that it cannot well tube. Kevin is a big enough guy, but he would ride like most people and slide across the surface of the tube and dive out when the wave was going to smash onto him. This often led to him being much higher on the wave than me. A couple of times he just landed on my back and stood up.

One of the biggest days I ever went out, we were all alone in the water. It was huge for Zuma. We were getting rides, but like happens on big days, we weren't getting too many. You are constantly swimming to catch waves, dodge waves or get out of rips. We had gone out twice and come in for a breather. Kevin decided he was done. I wasn't quite through. I went out through a bit of a lull at the bottom of the set. My two personal lifeguards were watching from the beach. A huge set came in. I had no interest in that trouble and stayed outside, out of the way as wave after big wave crashed through. It calmed a bit and I knew that there would be huge rips carrying the water from the beach. These will carry you way too far from shore. I saw one form about 30 yards to my right and started swimming the opposite direction. This isn't a sure thing though and sure enough the real one started to form in front of me. When all that water is trying to get away from the shore, a number of rips will start, but usually, there is going to be one main one that really manages to get moving offshore through the surf. The smaller ones will subside into it. Well, that big one was forming just a bit in front of me. I turned around and swam as hard as I could. I was signaling the lifeguards on shore that I was still well composed, by swearing up a storm as I swam. They could guess that I might be a bit nuts, but I was doing the right thing to get out of trouble. I got away from it and decided that really, this was too much of a good thing. Things were bigger than an hour earlier. Grace and control be damned when the ocean starts to get deadly. It was getting to be the bottom of the set, meaning that the breakers were down to about 7 foot faces. I just moved in any way I could and let any wave headed for shore grab me any way it wanted. Two waves were enough to carry me through the surf. I saw the lifeguards look at each other and shake hands. When I got out I just casually walked past them and one sort of called to me. I asked if anything was wrong. He quickly said 'oh no, we just didn't want to get wet".

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