Steamer Lane

Multifaceted reefbreak located in Santa Cruz, California; the epicenter of Santa Cruz surfing since the 1940s. Steamer Lane, named for the steam-powered boats that motored past in the 1930s on their way to the nearby Santa Cruz wharf, is made up of four separate but overlapping breaks: 1) The Point, a shifty right-breaking wave located to the north, is best from four to six feet, favors a south or southwest swell, and can produce a hair-raising takeoff as the wave explodes off a jutting rock point. 2) The Slot, another right, is located just a few dozen yards north of the Point, and breaks best on west or northwest swells. While the Point and the Slot sometimes offer tube sections, both are for the most part thick-based waves that invite high-performance moves. 3) The eye-catching Middle Peak breaks left and right, with incoming waves humping up across a series of reefs projecting out more than a mile to sea. Middle Peak breaks dependably on north and northwest swells, but is best on a southwest. 4) Indicator, in the lee of Middle Peak, is best on a five- to eight-foot north or northwest swell, can produce 300-yard-long rides, and spills into an easy-breaking wave known as Cowells.

The entire Steamer Lane wave zone is protected from the brutal northwest winds that shut down virtually every surf break north of Santa Cruz in spring. Summer brings long periods of small to nonexistent surf; water temperature ranges from the upper 40s to the mid-60s.The waterfront cliffs that make Steamer Lane one of the world's most spectator-friendly surf breaks would regularly, in the pre-surf-leash era, devour lost surfboards. The surf leash was in fact invented in 1970 by local surfers Roger Adams and Pat O'Neill—son of wetsuit magnate Jack O'Neill—in direct response to the high material cost of riding the Lane.

While members of the 1938-formed Santa Cruz Surfing Club may have strayed up the point toward Steamer Lane on occasion (native Lloyd Ragon rode there as far back as 1937), they usually stayed at Cowells, and the Lane wasn't regularly surfed until after World War II. First-generation Middle Peak surfers included Peter Cole, Rod Lundquist, Fred Van Dyke, Bob Teitsworth, and Karl Vesper. In the '50s and '60s, Steamer Lane was presented in the surf media as one of California's gnarliest breaks, not only featuring big waves, as Surfer magazine wrote in 1961, but "the coldest water available, giant bull kelp to bring your ride to a screaming halt, an occasional killer whale, a few sharks, and several miscellaneous forms of sea life to scare the pants off you." Steamer Lane has been known for decades as one of the sport's most crowded breaks—particularly since the advent of the surf leash—and today up to 150 longboarders, shortboarders, and bodyboarders will be out at the same time during a good swell.

Though Steamer Lane produced dozens of talented surfers in the '60s and '70s, including Roger Adams, Joey Thomas, Robert Waldemar, Kevin Reed, and Vince Collier, none had any real impact on the national or international scene (aerial progenitor Reed excepted) until soft-spoken Richard Schmidt began a steady climb in the early '80s that would eventually land him in the top rank of big-wave riders. By the end of the '90s, a group of punkish Lane regulars—including Darryl "Flea" Virostko, Shawn Barron, Jason Collins, and Ken Collins—were known to surfers worldwide as first-rate aerialists or big-wave riders, or both. At the end of 2012, Steamer Lane local Nat Young qualified for World Championship Tour, and a year later was named 2013's rookie of the year.

Steamer Lane was the site of the $700 Santa Cruz Pro-Am in 1967, the first shortboard-era pro contest; from 1988 to 1990 it hosted the world pro tour O'Neill Coldwater Classic; in 2012 the Coldwater made a one-off return as a top-ranked competition. Hundreds of other amateur and pro events have been held at the Lane over the decades.

In 1986, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum opened in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, located just to the east of the Point. Steamer Lane has been featured in more than 40 surf movies and videos, including Barefoot Adventure (1960), The Endless Summer (1966), Totally Committed (1984), Players (1995), The Kill 6 (2002), and One California Day (2007). "Steamer Lane" was the name of Tab Hunter's character in Columbia Pictures' 1964 movie Ride the Wild Surf. Josh Pomer's grim 2010 surf-and-drugs documentary The Westsiders was filmed in part at Steamer Lane.