It's a chilly, gloomy morning at the Santa Monica Pier, and today's crop of tourists, zippered into hoodies and sweatshirts, aren't going to get any of the California sunshine they came for. But on the sand, throngs are shirtless or in wet suits, eager to jump into the cool ocean water.
While most surfing competitions are limited to a few top surfers competing on a few waves, today's Santa Monica Pier Paddleboard Race is far more egalitarian. It's more like a municipal marathon than a high-level competitive event — there may be a few elites out in front, some sponsored competitors, but the majority aren't in it to win it. They just want to be a part. Proof of this is provided again and again throughout the day.
The announcer shouts over loudspeakers, “The race is starting in five minutes, which means 10:30 a.m. That's not surfer time, that's actual time.” Everyone heeds her warning, almost.
The first group of prone surfers paddle out on their boards, followed by a second wave of standing paddleboarders, pushing their oars against the tide. After a round of cheers, the encouraging shouts of spectators eventually die down as the racers go out of earshot and round the buoy.
Several moments later, a guy comes running down the pier steps and onto the beach, calling to friends, “Have they left yet?” Nods all around, so guy quickly tears off his shirt, grabs his paddleboard and lunges into the water, paddling heroically, well after the last of the racers are already about to disappear around the pier. There are a few grins, but mostly hoots of encouragement for his gumption at joining the race so late.
Another five minutes elapse, and then the scene is repeated a second time, with another guy who's shown up even later.
Given the long and rich history of paddleboarding at the Santa Monica Pier, it's surprising to learn this is only the second year the competition has been held.
Since the 1930s and '40s, the Pier was home to a number of paddleboarding clubs, both male and female, and legend of the sport Pete Peterson even had a workshop on the pier where he made the world's first hollow paddleboards.
“You look at photos of people on the beach in the '20s, '30s, '40s, the beaches here are jammed full of people,” says Joel Brand, organizer of today's event. “It's incredible, far more people than now. Because this is where the Red Line, the street cars, came out to.
“Who had swimming pools? Where would people learn how to swim? They would come to the beach, they were drawn to the ocean. So lifeguards were very important. In fact, Santa Monica had one of the first full-time lifeguard services in California because of these huge crowds that came here.”
So paddleboards, being a standard part of lifeguard equipment, became a natural part of the scenery, and the Santa Monica Pier became dually the cradle of the lifeguard profession and the sport of paddleboarding — which is the only form of surfing that can reliably happen off the pier because of a wave-killing breakwater
“What is it about the pier?” Brand continues, clearly entranced. “Why is it that just you can lay some wooden planks 500 feet over the ocean, and it will draw millions of people? If you put the same restaurants and the same amusements somewhere else on land, it wouldn't do the same. There's a magic to standing over the ocean. And you feel that magic when you're on a surfboard, when you're on a paddleboard, and you can feel it when you're on the pier. It feels like you're doing something a little bit dangerous — 'I shouldn't be hovering over the ocean.' It's a wonder.”
With the rise of regular surfing in the 1950s and '60s, paddleboards fell out of fashion, but recent advances in board technology have the extremely user-friendly, less conditions-dependent sport poised to rise again, and Brand sees this as an opportunity to share his respect, passion and love for the ocean.
At today's race, the youngest entrant is 9 years old, the oldest 74 — a testament to the exceptionally welcoming nature of this sport.
But for Brand, the most important thing about being a part of this event isn't the competition, but getting into the ocean.
“There's a certain weight that gets lifted off of you when you're out there,” he says. “You're out in the wild. The ocean is the wild. I look back at the land, and from all of the things we construct around our lives, there's a separation. It's healing.”
The paddleboard race may resemble a marathon in that it welcomes all comers, but that's as far as the analogy goes. As Brand points out, “Nobody runs marathons because they love the pavement.”