Stomping Grounds: Santa Cruz

Stomping Grounds: Santa Cruz (5:23)

The "real" Surf City, Santa Cruz is home to tasty waves, tastier pizza, and a whole lot of history. (5:23)

Santa Cruz is a place of radical juxtapositions. The redwood majesty of the Santa Cruz Mountains collides straight into the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Powerful winter swells interrupt an otherwise tranquil existence in Monterey Bay's kelp beds. Rampant liberal activism lives harmoniously next to a robust agricultural industry. Silicon Valley tech execs and dirty hippies share falafels in peace, while somehow dorky college students and too-cool surfer bros co-mingle. For a multitude of reasons, over the years the town's attracted one of the most interesting and eclectic cross-sections of people, and right there in the middle of it all has always been surfing.

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"There are a lot of guys that grew up surfing here who's parents were hippies in the '60s," explains Adam Replogle, one of the pillars of Pleasure Point for the past 20 years and, surprisingly, one of only two surfers from Santa Cruz to ever make the World Tour. "They moved down from the City [San Francisco] as the scene up there changed, and for a lot of us those are kind of our roots."

But surfing's roots in Santa Cruz run much deeper than that. In fact, when it comes to wave riding on mainland America, it's Ground Zero. In 1885 a triad of Hawaiian princes, Edward, David and Jonah Kalaniana'ole, were posted up at a San Mateo boarding school when they hopped over the hill and out to the coast. They pulled the wagon train over at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River and spent the day riding homemade redwood planks. Hence, the surf industry was born … sort of.

With a water temperature that rarely gets above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and can dip down into the mid 40s in winter, it took awhile for the sport to take hold. But in 1938 another Hawaiian, a guy by the name of Duke Kahanamoku, rolled through town, and things kind of took off from there. The Santa Cruz Surfing Club was started that same year, and shortly thereafter Pleasure Point, located on the east side of town, became the spot.

The early days were rough, with wool sweaters and jug wine the only defense from the cold. Necessity being the mother of invention, it's little wonder that eventually the wetsuit and leash would come to be invented in Santa Cruz. In 1959, Jack O'Neill moved his surf shop in San Francisco down to Santa Cruz. Not long after, Jack and his brother came up with early prototypes of the wetsuit. Surfing would never be the same.

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These days Jack still lives in his house on the cliff at Pleasure Point, and the waves are still as good as ever, but the town's most definitely gone through a lot of change. For one thing, there are a lot more options out there for surfers.

With nearly three dozen world-class -- or almost world-class -- breaks spread from the furthest reaches of the town's west side, to the plethora of points on the east side, there's something for everybody. Most iconic is Steamer Lane, with its picturesque lighthouse and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum located on the point. A natural amphitheater-like setup, "the Lane" is one of the main surfing focal points in town, and home the to Cold Water Classic.

"We all grew up there," says Matt Rockhold, who grew up bouncing between midtown and the west side. "Everybody starts at Cowell's, then eventually you graduate to the Lane. Right there in that one little stretch is like one of the best waves in the world to learn on, then out the back is this sick, world-class wave that has so many different looks depending on what the swell and tide's doing. It's like the sickest spawning ground for a surfing community."

The east side is home to Pleasure Point, the Hook and a host of other fantastic waves. "Both sides of town have their own personalities and their own high-quality waves," says Replogle, a lifelong eastside surfer. "We're all friends and we all surf together, but there's definitely a tendency to stick to your little zone and surf your spots. It's a friendly rivalry, and maybe one that could only exist in Santa Cruz because of how many good spots there are."

And changing the entire dynamic, not more than an hour's drive up Highway One is Half Moon Bay, which is home to Maverick's, California's premier big-wave arena. "You have all these crazy waves here in town," says Zach Wormhoudt, who surfs both town and Maverick's equally well, and designed the new Santa Cruz skatepark. "For a lot of us Maverick's was just the next logical step. Guys like Richard Schmidt and Vince Collier had been going up there, and for a kid coming up, it's just kind of the natural progression of things."

With its own little micro-industry up there, it makes sense that there would be an incredible stable of board builders and wetsuit makers. Shapers like Doug Haut, William "Stretch" Riedel and Geoff Rashe are staples in the community, as well as labels such as Santa Cruz Surfboards and Surf Tech. O'Neill's flagship shop is still on the corner of 41st Avenue in Capitola, and other operations like Freeline Design, which was originally opened by Peter Mel's dad, John, in 1969, and the Hotline wetsuit factory are also go-to spots for the local surfing populous.

And the cast of characters that make this crazy wheel go round are unique unto themselves. From World Tour vets like Adam Replogle and Chris Gallagher, to aerialists like Jason "Ratboy" Collins and Matt "Rat" Rockhold, to class clowns like Shawn "Barney" Barron, and big-wave heroes like Peter "Condor" Mel and Darryl "Flea" Virostko, you'd be hard pressed to find a wider array of talent in one surf community anywhere in the world. And while most of those guys broke onto the international scene in the early '90s, reigning NSSA National Champ Nat Young is poised to do great things. Last year he became the youngest surfer to ever win the Cold Water Classic, and he's been on a roll ever since.

Perched on Highway One, nestled on the northwest corner of Monterey Bay, the Santa Cruz surf scene is most definitely a study in contrasts. From the start of surfing in California to today's state-of-the-art progression, from slow rolling longboard days at Cowell's to heavy, near-death experiences up at Maverick's, anybody that knows anything knows that Santa Cruz is one of surfing's most influential stomping grounds.