As a marine wildlife photographer, sea kayak/SUP outfitter and former hard-charging surf kayaker and boat designer, Vince Shay is no stranger when it comes to all things California Pacific. Growing up exploring the waters of the Central Coast, he founded Avila Beach Paddlesports with his wife, Emily, in 2009 “as a friendly neighborhood paddling shop.” But their sheltered location in the marine-life-rich waters of Port San Luis Harbor also lets Shay pursue his other passion: photography (www.VincentShayPhotography.com). In fact, he’s known as the “Sea Otter Whisperer” for his uncanny knack for getting up close at personal with wildlife.
Paddling Life caught up with him between sessions for his thoughts on taking photos, the evolution of surf kayaking and its designs, running an outfitting business during the pandemic and more.
PL: Yo, Vince, good to catch up. Let’s start with your main passion: what do you like about taking photos?
Shay: I love that I am always learning. Everyone’s perspective is different, and that’s what’s so exciting about the digital photography age… so many more people can take photos, with way less of a learning curve than from using film. This creates some incredible talent and images we wouldn’t have seen in the past.
For many years, I was stuck in making ‘money’ from photography. I started taking its business side more serious right when digital cameras came and changed everything. More people, less opportunities for those who had been around. Working freelance for mags wasn’t paying much and the only real opportunity to make money was shooting weddings, real estate and portraits. This was not my first love and I only seemed to take photos when I was paid…it was a job, and not that fun anymore.
These days, I don’t really care if I make any money and it’s not a job for me anymore. It’s more about what I like and if others like it and want something to hang at home, I am happy. You have to love what you’re taking images of to get good photos. Light and the sense of the image have to have some ‘movement’ and sort of tell a story. Photographers sometimes just see a shot as a beautiful moment, but that always bored me. Most of my images, especially the whale shots, have stories associated with them. I love talking about each image and telling its story; the viewer can relate even though they may have not been with me but they can imagine they were.
PL: How do you get such awesome shots?
Shay: I’m self-taught and started my journey down this path using a Nikon FA film camera when I was 17 in 1987.
These days I mainly focus (and sometimes not so focused) my lens towards the ocean, where I seem to spend most of my time. I’m a photographer and artist specializing in abstract, ocean and all things life. It’s all about pleasing myself. If others like what they see and the image moves them to feel emotion, then I am honored they feel like supporting my efforts.
Ever since I was young I’ve always seemed to see patterns and try and portray that. Patience and seeing light is key, but not the only thing. Sometimes I just take the shot and see where it leads. Or I have a vision where I’d like to go with it and then try to make that happen. I used to be resistant to using Photoshop and still don’t manipulate photos much; I try to stay as real to my vision as I can.
My dream was to become a National Geographic photographer. But I’m very happy now, at 52, to be living my other dream: married to my soulmate, running a thriving outdoor company, and sharing my vision with others.
PL: Any tips for aspiring photographers?
Shay: I get that a lot. The only thing I’m super critical of is that sometimes photographers’ horizon lines aren’t straight. A really great photographer I knew when I was younger told me that if I were to make sure I never showed an image with a crooked horizon line I’d be way ahead of the curve. It stuck with me.
PL: Any tips for those wanting to take pictures of paddling?
Shay: Be a paddler first. For me, as I started to become more interested in surfing kayaks, I’d been a surfer since I was young, but I also had paddled kayaks for many years. And I still spend most of my time in the ocean. Taking images of paddling is like anything, I suppose…you have to love it.
PL: What do you love about the Avila area?
Shay: Avila Beach is a little jewel. For paddling, the area is protected and scenic, which is great for beginner paddlers. Since we started Avila Beach Paddlesports in 2010, the area has changed a lot. We were the first real company to ever call Avila Beach/Port San Luis Harbor home. This area of Port San Luis was mainly a recreational and commercial fishing port so we really had to create all the systems that are in place now to allow paddlers to navigate the waters safely. We’re in a harbor, but our area isn’t fully protected from the elements and we are considered open ocean so safety was super important. So was creating a beginner-friendly touring component so beginners would learn the fundamentals, as well as having a focused on education.
PL: When’s the best season to come paddle?
Shay:Avila Beach, like any area on the coast, is still subject to wind and swells. We typically tell people who want to visit and paddle that the conditions are almost always perfect, no matter the time of year, from 9 am-11 am.
PL: How has the outfitting business been during the pandemic?
Shay: When the state’s first shutdown occurred for all ‘non-essential’ businesses, we had to close the doors from March 13 thru May 20, 2020. To re-open, we had to restructure the company. We changed to a reservation system, shut down all paddleboard and kayak tours and focused only on rentals. This allowed us to enable our clients to feel safe with some social separation. With our tours we’d often have 20 strangers and we didn’t feel we could operate safely that way. When we figured out the protocols to operate, we still didn’t know how some of our regulars would feel about the reservation system because they were so used to walking in anytime they wanted. But they’ve always supported us, so they understood. Everything ran very smoothly and we managed to service more people since we opened the doors in 2010. And that’s just the rental side, but 12,000-15,000 people a year. And in 2020, during a pandemic, we were able to do much more. So, the pandemic didn’t hurt us to bad. People just wanted to get outside and exercise and we helped facilitate that.
PL:What’s more popular…SUP rentals or sea kayaks?
Shay: When there’s a good wind direction and it’s not very strong in Avila Beach, SUPs do very well. We can rent more kayaks throughout the day because paddling in a kayak in wind is much easier than a SUP—at least the direction the wind typically prevails here in Avila Beach.
PL: Let’s talk Vince the invincible…what was your best ranking on the surf kayak circuit?
Shay: Haha, that’s a great question. It’s been so long I can’t remember. It was a lot of fun and I met many great people who are still friends, but rankings never mattered to me. I sort of remember I did pretty well, though. And I liked designed surf boats. I liked well-designed kayaks more than I cared about who was the best. Some of my best memories are when I got an email from someone saying they loved a design I did. That still happens after so many years and I still see photos from around the world of people still surfing my designs. That’s what I’m the most proud of.
PL: What’s your take on the state of surf kayaking today?
Shay: In California, surf kayaking was always a hard sell to try and get younger people involved. By the time I moved on to pursue my paddlesport company in 2009, the sport was all but dying. Contests were starting to include SUP and SUP was taking off. Which was a good thing, but there was so much more money in SUP than surf kayaking and waveski surfing, so those sports just ended up fizzling. Some of the younger surf kayakers were making a go at promoting contests and creating clubs in hopes to get more paddlers involved. Even though many passionate people worked hard to support the sport, the contests, where paddlers from all around the world would meet up, just didn’t have the interest of the few surf kayakers and waveskiers who were left.
Contests were expensive to run and the SUP industry had more paddlers and money. It was apparent that by around 2013 the largest surf kayak and waveski event that I had been attending since 1998, the Santa Cruz Paddlesurf Contest, would very soon just become a standup paddleboard event only. And who could blame the directors for doing so?
The money was just never there to enable more sponsored river kayak paddlers to become involved. Surf kayaking is just too small to attract big names to the sport. I think surf kayaking tried to focus on ‘legitimizing’ the sport and make it more structured, but it just didn’t work. The sport’s more about a group of people coming together and having a good time kayak surfing.
PL: Are the surf kayak designs still getting better?
Shay: When I first got involved in 1998 we were trying to surf kayaks that, although fun, weren’t really indicative of the ‘new school’ of younger athletes. Randy Phillips, Leo Leukas, Kris Soderman and Preston Holmes were realizing a kayak that may truly surf somewhere in the middle of how I surfed a longboard and a shortboard There was lot of R&D in those early days and some pretty neat designs coming out.
From 2001-2005 I always said that the talent of the athlete was limited by the kayak design. Back then some real talent was coming up and giving the sport a try, but the designs were limiting them. Then things changed between from 2004-2009, with designs shaping the way the current designs are created and how they’re surfed today.
From what I’ve witnessed at contests, and videos and boat designs I’ve seen, today’s kayak designs really are refined and work great. They’re now on the same level of the athletes, which makes watching surfing those craft truly exciting.
PL: Describe your perfect paddling outing
Shay: Since I paddle mostly my standup board now, my perfect paddling outing would be my Avila Beach to Pismo Beach standup paddleboard downwind run in about 25-30 mph West to Northwest winds with dolphin and whales frolicking next to me. Good times!
For more of Vince’s photos, visit: www.VincentShayPhotography.com