Breaking the Waves

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 07

Surrounded by fog and wary of the rough waters near shore, the three kayakers head farther out to sea — and encounter birds, dolphins and big swells before Crescent City

We hiked up the bluffs at the mouth of the Smith River at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday to take a look at the surf break on the bar and gain a read on our fate. Four- to six-foot-high swells were occasionally building up and breaking as waves all the way across the bar.

Heavy surf at Point St. George forced the paddlers far out to sea. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
Heavy surf at Point St. George forced the paddlers far out to sea. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle

“Now, I guess we’ll find out what kind of men we are,” said Bo Barnes, one of my companions on this 400-mile sea kayak voyage.

It was a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off. In our heavily laden small boats, getting out over the bar would indeed be a test.

Barnes and John Weed, paddling together, hit a lucky window of low swell and made it out without incident. I was not quite so fortunate. I took a pitching wave right in the chest. It poured a buffeting wake-up blast of cold saltwater over my head.

Then we were outside, powering over the rollers and plunging deeper into a thick mat of cold fog.

Only two days after Labor Day, suddenly it became winter.

Paddling Into Gray Gauze

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio had predicted heavier weather would arrive. As we paddled offshore into gray gauze, the swell strength increased to 8 feet. And these were long, sleek, fat seas, sent a long way from the disturbance farther west. I grew concerned about how much bad weather would be delivered to us over the course of the day.

Meanwhile, navigation was a concern. Chart and compass were useful, but my small, deck-mounted Global Positioning System became crucial in the fog, which reduced our world to a tiny globe of blue water and fuzzy mist.

We could hear the roar of the growing surf crashing on the beach to the east. That was one zone we did not want to get swept into, and we also had to be wary of “boomers” (near-shore rocks and reefs) that make large swells suddenly jack up and break. And we suspected that the rough rocks extending seaward from Point St. George, some 10 miles ahead, might be a zone of serious trouble.

So we set course 20 degrees farther west than I’d planned, to give ourselves plenty of seaway.

For a few hours of steady paddling, all went well — except for Barnes and Weed getting on my case for going too far out front without turning around to check on their position. True: I had expressed my inner tension by paddling too fast, simply assuming they would keep up. It was a lesson in team dynamics.

The ocean was giving us a show. Common murres, the deep-diving seabirds, appeared occasionally, drifting closer as we paddled. Some of the birds, fearless or curious or both, let us get within a few yards while they eyed us.

At 2 p.m., I rafted up with Weed, our kayaks alongside each other for stability and safety, while I made a radio check with Chronicle photographer Mike Maloney on shore. A pod of pygmy dolphins cruised by, the short black cutlasses of their fins arcing benignly through the water.

We were also treated to an aerial dogfight between a Caspian tern and a parasitic jaeger that sought to filch his lunch. Combat between two skilled fliers continued for nearly a minute, until the tern dropped its baitfish. The jaeger nailed it in one deft plunge and flew off in triumph.

Treadmill: Following Seas. Countervailing Wind.

But the swell continued to grow, reaching 10 feet. These were following seas, which was good news in a way, since they pushed us along, boosting our progress. However, a countervailing wind sprang up from the south, stalling us at the top of the crests.

My GPS revealed a speed of only 1-2 mph when we were stalled and a top speed of 7.5 mph when shooting down the largest swells.

“Feel like you’re on a treadmill?” Barnes yelled to me.

By 3 p.m., things were getting a tad serious. We had planned to be in Crescent City by then, but we were just approaching a line of breakers extending out from Point St. George for more than a mile. Visibility had improved, but the headwinds stalling our progress ensured we would be exposed out there for a lot longer than we’d planned.

Tired rom heavy exposure to wind and wave, Paul McHugh surfs into a beach near Crescent City. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
Tired from heavy exposure to wind and wave, Paul McHugh surfs into a beach near Crescent City. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle

If the swell grew any larger, it might start breaking on us in the open ocean. Since it was coming from behind, we wouldn’t be able to see a tumbler coming that could spill us.

But it wasn’t like we had a choice. We were committed. The only way to get out was by going ahead.

Hours later, we skirted the last of the large point rocks, then determined we could turn in ahead of the huge mound of Castle Island — where as many as 14,000 Aleutian geese roost during their annual migration.

Two men aboard a small fishing boat, bobbing in more sheltered waters, started at us incredulously as we paddled in from the open sea.

Abruptly, our crisis was over. We had “rounded the horn.” We were out of the swell, the wind had died down, and Crescent City’s smooth pebble beach extended in a long, calm swath before us. We made landfall.

I broke out some chunky peanut butter and Ryekrisp for a snack that was gobbled, and Barnes brought out a plastic bottle of Jim Beam for a few celebratory sips.

Paddling around the Battery Point light to enter the harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
Paddling around the Battery Point light to enter the harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle

Paddling through rock gardens, awash with small wind waves, was a delight compared with what we had just been through. We made it around the entrance to Crescent City harbor and into a small, sheltered cove on Whaler Island, where we’d been given special permission to camp, at 7 p.m. — about four hours later than I’d planned to arrive while I sat in my office in San Francisco a few months earlier.

Well, as the old saying goes: “Man proposes, God disposes.”
We were cold, wet, tired and hungry, but full of that odd elation that comes from surviving a hazard.

“Arghh. That was a long day, landlubbers,” Barnes said. “Man, when it gets gnarly like that, my paddling technique goes all to hell.”

“Me, too,” I said. “I grip that paddle shaft too tight, for too long.”

“Yep.”

“Great day,” Weed said. “I love it when the seas threaten to clobber you, then they back off from it just a bit.”

Wind Whistling Around Whaler Island

We slept deep and long that night. And woke up to hear wind whistling around the rocks of Whaler Island.

A man in a pickup pulled up nearby to talk with us. It was Steven McGhee, 44, a commercial fisherman aboard the Thumper — one of the men who had observed us rounding Point St. George.

“From that angle you were taking, we knew you weren’t just casual kayakers,” McGhee said. “We thought, where are these guys coming from? But we figured you looked like you knew what you were doing.”

Now, that may or may not be. But on Thursday, we knew what we weren’t doing — trying to paddle through a predicted gale all the way down to our next stop, the Klamath River.