Stengel Beach to Stump Beach, November 24th 2007.

To get together with some of my kayaking buddies during the Turkey Day weekend, I planned a paddle in my local waters. We launched from Stengel Beach, an access in Sea Ranch that has a spectacular set of stairs to get to the sand. The stairs only go half way down and then you go the rest of the way on a large slab of rock. Not the easiest place to carry a kayak down to the water but it has one of the shortest trails from the parking lot of any Sea Ranch public access.

We launched over some surprisingly rough sets of waves and headed south. The swell forecast was for a day of calm water between days with the normally large swell this time of year. We were disappointed by surprisingly large waves that kept us from getting close to a beautiful coastline with lots of caves, arches and coves. Looking at the forecasts in more detail later I saw that I made a typical mistake: The forecast was also for long period swell, which rise up into large waves as they approach the shallow water close to shore.

However the morning was clear and sunny, the coastline beautiful to look at even from a distance. We had a calm cove picked out for our lunch break and didn’t expect any trouble. Some of us went behind many of the offshore rocks for the adrenalin rush of the rough water there. Behind one set of rocks I recognized an arch that I have been through several times. But the large swell on this day completely closed out the arch.

When we arrived at Black Point I saw a crack in the cliff that looked like it might go clear through. I may have been through here on a calm day but didn’t recall for sure. I shouted at my friends to warn me about large waves but don’t know if they heard. Then I went through the crack. The tide was a little low and I had to maneuver back and forth to make it through. My friends could not see me after I turned the first corner and may have wondered if I was OK. Just before the end I saw the water sucking over a shallow ridge. I waited for a wave to put a little more water over this and then paddled hard. Just as I thought I had safely made it out of the crack the water suddenly started really pulling hard. It pulled me back into the crack over the shallow ridge. This is typical behavior of the trough in front a large wave and sure enough a wave came down the crack and slammed into me. I kept the boat pointing straight and shot out of the crack again to safety this time. I waited in the calm water for a while and watched first John Somers, then Dörte Mann and finally Dave Littlejohn brave the crack to follow me through to the other side.

I had promised my friends a calm cove to stop in for lunch, and wanted to take them to Fisherman’s Cove. However, that cove was past Stewarts Point. The danger of Stewarts Point is that it has a calm protected sandy beach and I knew there would be a movement to stop there. I wanted to continue on so when I arrived first I bypassed the beach and headed through a slot in the point. The slot was very shallow and so was the water on the other side. A wave came in and got my face wet as I paddled out. Don Fleming followed me through and then the two of us waited for everyone else. We saw John come far enough through the slot to see us. But a large set of waves was breaking in the shallow water then. When the ocean calmed down for a minute, I raised my paddle to tell him it was safe to come out now. When John came out to join us, he informed us that everyone else would be coming the long way around shortly.

From there it was a short distance to the mouth of Fisherman’s Bay, a south facing cove that has calm water when the typical northwest swell is running. We landed on a gravel beach that was littered with beautiful pieces of naturally polished abalone shell. The approaching end of abalone season was one reason that I wanted to stop here. Inside my kayak I had all my free-diving equipment, including a 25 lb weight belt. I had been afraid to roll my kayak all day for fear that this belt would come loose, bang round inside, upset the trim of my kayak, break the kayak or even me! I put on my gear and discovered, as I had hoped, that this remote cove, fronted by private property, was loaded with abalone. I was easily able to get my limit in shallow water and was soon back on the beach to join my friends for lunch.

During lunch the tide retreated rapidly and exposed rocks where we had landed before. We launched on the last corner of gravel and continued south. The sky had become overcast but the sun peaked out between the clouds from time to time and painted the water beautiful evening colors. We all started looking forward to landing and retiring for dinner.

We had left a car at Stump Beach to shuttle the other drivers back to Stengel Beach. As I approached the narrow cove outside Stump Beach I thought I saw waves breaking all the way across the entrance. I knew that this was a common illusion and didn’t worry much. Waves break at both sides of the entrances to coves and your eye connects them together. I pulled ahead of my friends to check it out and saw several other sets break at the entrance. I had trouble figuring out where a safe place to enter would be. As I paddled between the arms of the cove I saw no waves breaking for several minutes. I slowed to a stop before a line of foam. Foam like this usually collects in calm places and I figured that this was a safe place to watch from.

Suddenly the nose of my kayak dipped down and a huge wave rose behind me! I backpedaled and just managed to keep my kayak from taking off for shore. The wave broke all the way across the entrance of the cove. I looked over my shoulder and saw and even larger wave coming! No time to turn around I backpedaled as fast as I was able and climbed over this wave just before it broke. Behind it was another huge wave and another one and I just kept backing up as if my life depended on it! My friends had stopped farther out and watched me blasting backwards over the tops of waves that must have risen as high as sixteen feet!

I was tempted to wait for another calm window and race for shore. But Ruth Cooper turned her kayak out to sea and started paddling away. She said: “I am not landing there. Just call the Coast Guard now”. I padded after her and told her that there is a south facing cove with calm water only another mile farther south. Everyone else agreed that this was what we should do and this is what we did.

When we turned into Gerstle Cove the water was so calm it was lapping like the shore of a lake. Is this really the same ocean only one mile away? The tide was very low and a strip of sand was exposed on a normally rough rocky beach. We had a very easy landing. Gerstle also has a road coming down close to the water so we didn’t have to carry our kayaks as far as we would have at Stump Beach, once someone hiked a mile or more back to get one of our cars! Don hiked up to the parking lot and soon hitched a ride with some SCUBA divers who were leaving. They took Don to the entrance of the park but were going south and refused to give him a lift north one mile to Stump Beach! So Don hiked along the side of Highway One for a mile and a quarter to get to his truck and come back to rescue us. Our main worry was the rest of the cars parked at a county beach that closes “at sunset” and has a very strong looking wooden gate to trap us behind. But we made it in time and surmounted the last obstacle of the day. Cheated Death Again!

All text and images Copyright © 2007 by Mike Higgins / contact