Santa Cruz: The Real Surf City

Story and photos by Will Clark

The early morning sun woke me up by blasting its bright rays through the open window at the foot of my bed onto my face at 7 a.m.



Its warmth felt comforting after a chilly, northern wind had been sweeping in and out of the room all night. This same wind now carried the smell of cold sea air through the window and the sound of waves crashing up against Santa Cruz’s West Cliff, as well as the silence in between sets. I slowly got myself up out of the ocean of blankets atop a make shift bed in the corner of the room and waded through the forest of empty beer bottles that blanketed the carpet. As I approached the third story window overlooking Steamer’s Lane, a voice emerged from a pile of pillows and sleeping bags in the opposite corner of the room. “What’s it look like?” Glassy, slight offshore wind, swell lines on the horizon. Looks perfect. But before I had the chance to answer, a figure appeared at the top of the stairs that led to our third floor living room turned temporary bedroom. He gazed at us through a curtain of unkempt, sun-bleached hair with bloodshot eyes and grumbled, “Get up… there’s waves.”

Santa Cruz, California, situated about 60 miles south of San Francisco is unlike any other town in California. It’s almost as if it’s a place that’s stuck in the past, with all of its inhabitants living a much slower paced lifestyle. For the first time in a while I couldn’t hear the constant buzz of a nearby freeway or see the bright neon lights of 24-hour fast food restaurants that line the bustling streets I call home. The surf there is unlike anywhere else in California. We would wake up, eat breakfast at the little taco shop down the street, and drive up West Cliff in search of waves. It seemed as though the waves got better and better as we drove into each bay lining the coast. We would start at Steamer Lane, the most crowded break in Santa Cruz, and drive north, checking Getchell Street, Swift Street, and Stockton Avenue until we finally got to Natural Bridges and Marine Labs. Everywhere we looked there were little open face sections that would wall up into a barrel. And no one was surfing. When there’s as many surfable waves as there are in Santa Cruz, it’s easy to find a break of your own.

Each day I was there pretty much played out just as the first day did. Wake up, eat breakfast, look for waves and surf until it’s dark. There was never really any question in terms of the days activities, it was just sort of assumed that we would spend our days scanning the coast, checking the online forecasts and driving up and down West Cliff, waiting to see that one wave that would decide where we would paddle out. It was simple. It was easy.

Everything just seemed to be set at a much slower pace in Santa Cruz. In the four days I spent there, I don’t think I saw a speed limit sign over 25 miles per hour, and drivers actually obeyed it. Everything seemed so close. Our choice of local coffee shops was either a short skate into the outskirts of downtown or an even shorter walk to the historic boardwalk down the street. We skated everywhere that was too far to walk and only found the need for a car when the waves were good somewhere farther away.

I didn’t really want to leave Santa Cruz. I hadn’t had enough. There was so much more to be explored, and so many more waves to find. I left Santa Cruz with more than I had when I arrived though. It reminded me of why I started surfing in the first place. It reminded me of how much fun it is searching for waves, and the satisfaction that comes from making the first drop in on a wave you’ve never seen before. It reminded me of the excitement and anxiety of not knowing what creatures are lurking below your feet, and how it feels to see a shark fin in the distance and not say anything in hopes it was a dolphin. As much as I didn’t want to leave, I am confident Santa Cruz will remain much the same until my next visit. I can only hope that it will stay that way, one of California’s last real sleepy beach town.