Monday, August 25, 1997
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Section: Metro
Page: B-1

Racers Make Their Own Waves

69 Paddleboarders Use Only Their Arms in 32-Mile Race From Catalina


The sky was dark, the sea cold and, off in the far distance, the lights of the mainland twinkling apparitions.

A cannon boomed.

Cheers rang out--and nearly six dozen hardy souls flopped Sunday morning onto long, skinny paddleboards. Building to a full sprint, they edged out of the protected cove of a Santa Catalina Island harbor and into the restless sea, accompanied by the gurgling of escort boats and the steady slap-slap-slap of the waves beating on their boards.

As the first flecks of pink light painted the eastern sky, the Catalina to Manhattan Beach paddleboard race roared into steady throttle--a 32-mile test of skill, strength, will and endurance as well as a celebration of Southern California's unique surf culture.

To win the Catalina Classic, as the race is called, is to achieve nearly godlike stature at the beach.

To finish is to gain the immense respect of one's peers.

To compete is to be accepted into a fraternity of "watermen," those men--and almost all are men--equally adept at swimming, surfing, diving, boating and paddling. And to carry on a culture that dates to such venerable icons as Tom Blake, who some 70 years ago shaped the first modern paddleboard from wooden planks.

Nowadays, boards are made of fiberglass and foam. But contestants still paddle with their hands--no oars--while they sit on their knees or lie flat on their tummies on special boards 12 to 20 feet long, shoulders churning with piston-like repetition.

The race takes 5 1/2 to 9 hours. From Catalina, racers head almost due north toward a buoy off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, then to the Manhattan Beach Pier.

* * *

"It's like doing a marathon with your hands," said veteran paddleboarder Mickey Munoz--with the added challenges of seasickness, hypothermia and the crossing of a crowded shipping channel.

Leaving Catalina's Two Harbors at the island's isthmus, the sea was glassy, the winds calm.

Through the San Pedro Channel, the wind picked up a bit and the sea gained a slight chop.

Nevertheless, conditions were good enough that it became obvious early on that the paddlers had a chance to break the race record, set in 1987 by Gene Rink, now 32 and a Los Angeles County firefighter: 5 hours, 21 minutes.

As Ventura County lifeguard George Kabris, 32, rounded the buoy nearly four hours into the race, he was on record pace.

The stretch from the buoy to the pier, however, is the toughest part--with paddlers forced to fight another condition, a swift current.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the field stretched out behind him for 9.8 miles.

Who would volunteer for such punishment? So many people that entry to the event was limited to those who had qualified in one of four prior races this summer off the Southern California shore.

Why? It's not for fame or fortune. Top finishers get trophies, no cash.

Instead, paddlers said, it's a spiritual thing. "You start and you get into this aura," said Giles Douglas, 46, of Encinitas, who works as a contractor. "You keep your arms rolling and your mind tuned, and you go."

* * *

Fueled by the enthusiasm of Douglas and others, paddleboarding is in the midst of a renaissance. It's a resurgence with strong roots in Southern California's past.

In the 1930s, after Blake revolutionized the shape and weight of boards, making them smaller and lighter, it "caught on like wildfire," said Craig Lockwood, 59, of Laguna Beach, who's something of the poet laureate of paddleboarding--a newsman and playwright as well as accomplished waterman and paddleboard designer.

"You see these old photos, you see these lineups of boards, an infinite line of guys, all getting ready to take off in a race," Lockwood said.

The Catalina Classic was begun in 1955, launched by a young Los Angeles County lifeguard named Bob Hogan. Initially, it was known as the International Paddleboard Championship.

A few years later, in the early 1960s, the surfing boom began in earnest--and paddleboarding all but "hemorrhaged and died," Lockwood said.

* * *

A storm forced cancellation of the 1961 Classic, and dampened enthusiasm for any more contests until 1982, when two more county lifeguards, Karl "Buddy" Bohn and Weldon "Gibby" Gibson, revived it.

Ten paddlers turned out for that 1982 race, according to a story a few weeks later in the Easy Reader, a South Bay weekly newspaper.

After a few years, the race grew to a consistent field of about 30 or 40 paddlers. The 1995 field amounted to 43--including Hogan, then 63 and battling glaucoma. He completed all 32 miles.

Since then, the field has grown significantly. Last year, it was 64. This year, 69.

"I never figured [paddleboarding] would come back this strong. You really make the old guy proud," Bohn said earlier this summer at ceremonies after one of the qualifying races, a 14-mile mini-marathon from Cabrillo Beach to Torrance.

A combination of factors has turned increasing numbers of surfers to paddling.

First and foremost are the crowded conditions and resulting tensions often found at surf spots, called "breaks."

* * *

Paddlers can avoid that antagonism. In addition, surfers obviously need waves; paddlers don't.

"The surfing environment is now so cutthroat," said Charlie Didinger, 52, an assistant principal at Banning High School in Wilmington. "In this group, though, everybody helps everybody."

Added Mark Levy, 40, co-owner of a Redondo Beach coffeehouse: "We call that the 'waterman's spirit.' It's what surfing should be about--what it used to be about."

Capitalizing on that spirit, paddling clubs have sprung up in various beach towns--just as local surf clubs were popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

"The whole thing has an old-style feel to it, a real old bitchin' flavor," said Tim Ritter, 36, a Redondo Beach painting contractor. "In the '90s, things are so different than when I was a kid. But paddling is like surfing was when I was a kid, and that's what's fun about it."

The race is not always fun.

The 1996 Classic was described in The Surfer's Journal magazine as the "paddleboard race from hell." Winds gusted to 20 mph, swells rose to 6 feet; a third of the field dropped out, many from seasickness, some from sheer exhaustion.

Conditions this year were far more favorable.

* * *

Rink led the race early Sunday. But he dropped out after about 2 1/2 hours, explaining to those on his escort boat that he'd hurt his arms Saturday in a fall and didn't want to risk severe injury.

Kabris, who took over the lead, never relinquished it, finishing in 5:23, a bare two minutes behind Rink's record. Kabris said he was not disappointed: "I'm always amazed I can do it. My first goal every year is to finish. It's an added bonus to finish first. And cream of the crop to almost break the record."

Second was Brian Zeller, 27, a San Diego County lifeguard. Third was Buzzy Kerbox, 40, who lives on Maui and paddles to stay in shape for what he likes to do best--being towed into 40-foot waves, then surfing the towering giants.

* * *

As the morning gave way to afternoon, as family and friends surrounded the racers just south of the Manhattan Beach Pier, the top finishers stayed on the beach to cheer for the others--even the stragglers.

And as Catalina disappeared into the afternoon haze, Zeller, nibbling at cubed fruit in a plastic cup, squinted out at the sea and shook his head in amazement. "You can't even see Catalina from here," he said. "It's just amazing to think that all these people paddled on these skinny boards all the way from there to here."


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