Once you get by the hilariously cliched surfer's gibbering narration, the appreciation of the size of the wave and the very real possibility of some serious carnage begins to set in. If you couldn't figure out if the paddler just got lucky or was dialed in and in total command of an otherwise absolute smackdown, you're not alone.
Surfski News: Where are you from---originally and now?
Rich Sprout:: I am from a town called George, it is on the southern coast of South Africa. Cape Town is the closest big city. I now live in Newport Beach California.
SN: Age and Occupation
RS: I am 35 and have been paddling since 2008. I am a Fireman in Anaheim.
SN: What boats and paddles do you use?
RS: I use a Fenn Elite S surf ski and a Fenn LS lifeguard ski. I use a Meek A series medium paddle.
SN: Can you tell us a little about your background? How long have you been paddling and when and how were you introduced to the surfski?
RS: I was first exposed to Surfskis while I was a teenager lifeguarding in South Africa. I was impressed at how fast they could get in and out of the surf.
I didn't have enough money to buy one or a car to put it on either. At that point I had no idea what a downwind was.
A few years later I moved to Newport Beach California and became a lifeguard. I would sit in the lifeguard tower at the wedge and watch these massive swells run hundreds of yards along the breakwater in and outside of the harbor. I wanted to ride them.
You can't surf inside the harbor and the swells on the wedge side were too fat to catch on a surfboard because the water is so deep until it reaches the shore. That got me thinking, there was no law that said you can't kayak inside the harbor mouth and you can catch just about any wave on a Surfski.
The problem was I didn't know how to paddle.
I kicked the idea around for years until one day I googled Surfski for sale. Up came Ocean Paddle Sports, a Surfski business ran by Pat and Deanne Hemens. They were based in Costa Mesa, down the street from where I lived. Pat is also South African. We had been rubbing elbows for years and somehow missed each other. Pat and Deanne set me up with a beginner ski. I took it down to the harbor and took it for a spin. I spent a lot of time climbing back into it but when I was upright, it felt amazing. So smooth so fast and so difficult. I was hooked. I took the ski back to Ocean Paddle Sports and upgraded to a faster one.
I spent the whole winter falling in and chasing Deanne (former Olympic K1 paddler) around the harbor at the Newport Aquatic Center.
Deanne and her group were training to do Molokai so through her I got to meet several other very accomplished K1 paddlers. Cliff Meidl, Phillipe Boccara and Rami Zur to name a few.
My plan was to learn to paddle fast and then catch waves. Well, that was the plan until I did my first proper downwind. I loved it!
What a great feeling it was to surf waves a mile out to sea.
Shortly after I started racing on the local circuit in Southern California.
Surfski News: What about your competitive history? Do you still compete and if so, how much?
RS: I did races from San Diego up to San Francisco but anytime there was a solid south swell, I would head out to the harbor mouth and the wedge.
I raced pretty successfully on the southern and Northern California circuit and then got into K1 paddling. After 2 years and thousands of flat water miles, I was selected to represent USA at the world championships in the K1 1000m.
I made the semifinals and was happy with that result. I was having problems with my forearm and hand going numb and then hurting.
I was diagnosed with compartment syndrome and told to rest a few months or have surgery.
I decided to cool it for a while and went back to ski paddling, but this time, it was going to be lifeguard spec ski racing. I bought a surf spec ski and started training in the surf. I have represented USA and California several times in international lifeguard contests as well.
I did races from San Diego up to San Francisco but anytime there was a solid south swell, I would head out to the harbor mouth and the wedge.
I don't race as much anymore. I spend most of my time working and teaching my son (6) about the ocean and how to surf. I have done very little mileage these last few months. My last race was the Gorge Downwind Championship. I finished 10th. It was an amazing event- thank you Carter Johnson!
SN: What were some of your personal highlights?
RS: As far as racing goes, I try to rate my success by my performance rather than my result. I love winning, but if I won because I got lucky or because there weren't many fast paddlers in the race, then it doesn't feel that good. I would rather give it everything I have from start to finish and come second than have an easy or lucky win.
You learn a lot about yourself in a tough race.
I always enjoy racing against Phillipe Boccara and Carter Johnson. They are both very tough competitors and they don't give up. If I can beat either of them, I know I have raced well.
SN: The surfski seems to be going strong on the right coast---How is the scene in Southern California?
RS: Surfski seems to be growing steadily here in SoCal.
There has been a boom on the lifeguard Surfski scene, especially with the girls. In lifeguard races we use a spec Surfski. They all have to weigh 40lbs and be 19' long. You race from the beach, out through the surf, around a few buoys and then back to the beach. The waves play a huge factor and there are some pretty spectacular wipeouts. The fastest person doesn't always win. There is loads of strategy and skill involved.
I have spent the last few years coaching the California State Surf Racing Team. We had some really good performances at USA lifesaving nationals this year in Hermosa . Beach.
Most paddlers from South Africa and Australia get their start on Lifeguard Spec Surfskis. Paddling has given me so much and taken me all over the world. I am extremely thankful for this. Coaching and promoting Surfski to these young athletes is my way of giving back. I would love to see Surfski become as popular in the USA as it is in South Africa. SN: Can you describe your experience on "the wave"? Your timing looked like you didn't have a second to spare. Were you in complete control or did you just hit the gas and hope for the best?
RS: I had just got back from the world sprint kayak championship in Hungary so I was in pretty good shape at the time. I paddled out of the harbor with a friend so we could do a workout. I could see the waves breaking over the jetty on the way out the harbor so I convinced my friend Shaun to come take a look. What I really wanted to do was ride some of them but I knew he wouldn't go there if I told him.
I caught a few waves way far out and rode them, but I was pulling out very early. I was getting speeds of 24 -27kph on my gps. Waves at the wedge get very steep very quickly. I spent years life guarding there so I have studied the break pretty well. I caught a longer wave and rode it to the inside before I pulled out. When I looked over my shoulder I saw the wave in question rolling along the harbor jetty like a freight train. At first I was pissed because it was definitely the wave of the day and I could have had it if I didn't catch the one before. But I was on the inside now so I weighed my options. Sprint to the shore or paddle across in front of the peak.
I opted to paddle across as I was already headed that way and I also wanted to get closer and possibly get a bit of a ride on the shoulder. I was confident that I could make it so I only paddled as hard as I needed to. I looked at my gps later that day and my speed was 14.6kph. A good ski paddler can get a ski up to about 20kph in a sprint. If you watch the video, you will see that I stop paddling when I am in the wave.
The wave was beautiful. The color, the shape, the sound. It was perfect. The feeling of flying up the face of the wave and then down the back of it was unforgettable. There was a lot going through my head. Excitement, fear, disappointment, relief, respect. I would say that I was 100% in control of myself. And 100% confident in my skills and ability. I wouldn't have been there if I wasn't. I have spent a lifetime in the ocean, I have learned that you can understand her but you can not control her. When I saw the wave I had a good idea of where it was going to break and I knew I could get past there.
SN: What height would you estimate the wave to have reached?
RS: The ski I was in was 21' long. The peak of the wave dwarfs my ski. I would guess that the wave was about 30' high. The size of the wave isn't what makes the wedge dangerous, it is the intensity and the volume. There is a lot of water moving at the wedge and it breaks in very shallow water. But I never really caught that wave. I was on it, but I wasn't riding it.
SN: Do you routinely paddle out through similar surf? Is this the largest wave you've ever paddled?
RS: I have a good friend that lives in Kauai, he runs Surfski Kauai and has plenty of skis. I travel there a few times a year to surf and paddle. If there is a good swell the waves can get about 20' They break on a reef and there is a very deep channel next to it so you have less chance of getting closed out on or getting caught inside.
The rides are really long - a few hundred yards.
I have had several amazing experiences in my ski. Other than that day at the wedge, I would say that paddling into massive waves on a double ski with my best friend Dylan Thomas in Kauai and paddling downwind in huge conditions in Hood River with my friend Carter Johnson have been really memorable.
I'm not that much into racing anymore. Rather I prefer to push myself and paddle in really big wind and waves.
Extreme conditions make for extreme fun.