Avila State Beach, Saturday March 29th 1997.


The next morning everyone met at the Cayucos State Beach. This was a mild sandy beach with kids playing in the water. The tide was out, however, creating a dumpy area just offshore where the waves rose up and broke noisily. Joan Weiner suggested that we drive farther south to Avila State Beach which was protected by the San Louis breakwater and harbor, so that is where we went. While we were setting up our equipment at this beach a pod of dolphins swam by! I saw at least 5 of them at once through my binoculars. They looked enormous so I'm guessing that they were bottle-nose dolphins, although I don't know if those actually hang out around here. As soon as my equipment was ready I charged into the water to paddle with the dolphins. But they were long gone when went looking for them.

We headed southwest away from the harbor and along a rugged coastline. The water was much calmer on the surface today, but large smooth swells came by regularly. With smoother water these swells were even more noticeable than the day before but everyone seemed comfortable with them. We paddled into a little cove called Pirates Cove. Not because swashbuckling pirates stopped here, but named during Prohibition when people illegally imported wine and beer into this cove. There was a natural wharf in a shelf of rocks and man made steps carved into the rock cliff. Who was fooled by this import operation? My bet is that the local authorities were in on the deal.

We paddled past a beach called Shell Beach that had a lot of surfers in the water. We stayed well away from shore here! Around the next point the shoreline got rocky and interesting and we finally got to do some paddling in rock gardens close to the cliffs. One area had a nest of little arches all carved out of one big piece of rock. There was a little sandy beach behind it, so I zoomed in for a landing and took a picture back out through the arches. A little past this point, Joan and I were paddling pretty close to shore when we heard a shout from the other kayakers. A large swell came in and rose up menacingly over us.

This swell looked like it was going to break and I wanted to turn straight into it. Unfortunately Joan was between me and the open sea and I had to paddle west a ways to get past her. I started to get the sinking feeling that we were both going to get wet, or at least surfed out of control towards shore. I concentrated on getting west of Joan so her boat wouldn't be in position to hit me on it's way by. Apparently the reason the wave looked like it was going to break was because there was a submerged rock in the water here. I am afraid that Joan's efforts to get out to sea placed her directly over this rock when the wave hit. The wave broke almost vertically around Joan's boat with a hollow booming sound. This vertical splash makes me think there was a reflected wave there at the same time creating a "haystack". My efforts to get west took me out from behind the submerged rock and the wave didn't break around me at all. Just dumb luck on my part. But I was only six meters away and had a ringside seat for Joan's bad luck. I could see the bright yellow boat inside the wave before the breakers hid the action and roared past me. When the white water cleared behind me Joan came up outside of her boat.

I turned back and asked her what she wanted me to do to help. There are a bunch of different ways to rescue a swamped sit-inside-kayak but I have never bothered to learn them. It occurred to me just then that if I intend to paddle with other people who have this kind of boat it might be a good idea for me to learn some of these rescues. I was hoping Joan would tell me what to do but she was afraid that another large wave was coming. The only advice she gave me was "Get away before the next wave comes"! I figured the best thing I could do was to try towing her boat out past the place where the wave broke. I started unhooking my bow line to use it as a tow line. But before I got organized, a whirlwind of activity buzzed past me closer to shore. It was Penny Wells. Watching her in action would have been worth the trouble of getting soaked myself. Before I had time to see how it was done, Joan's boat was upside down and drained of water, then right side up and rafted up to Penny's boat, ready to board again. I have got to learn how that is done! Joan was still focused on the waves coming in and Penny growled instructions in her "novice clinic instructor voice" (Joan's description). "Get back in your boat now"! An army private would have walked on water to obey. Joan was soon under way, safely out to sea, pumping out the small amount of remaining water, and attaching her spray skirt again. She stayed conservatively far from shore for the rest of the trip. I know that feeling!

The next point of interest was an area of carved rocks and caves. One large rock had a huge chamber under it, making me wonder if the whole rock was hollow underneath. I zoomed into this chamber and hooted to hear the echo. We learned later that this area was an important local Indian area. They fished from the rocks and buried their dead in the caves. If we had known this earlier we could have looked for pictographs on the cave walls! Inside the big chamber, the water was only a meter deep or so. On the other side there was a small opening leading to a narrow stretch of water before the cliffs. I decided to go this way. As a wave came in behind me, I surfed across the shallow chamber and out. The top of this opening was low enough that I was happy to have my helmet on as I zoomed under it. Actually, I didn't even clip the opening, but the helmet was comforting.

After I went through the cave Lee lined up to follow me through it. Before he could start, however, two other kayakers came up close to shore and started through from the opposite direction. Lee waited for them to come through, but they took a long time to build up courage. So long in fact that a large wave came when they finally started through. Lee whistled loudly to warn them about the large wave but they didn't pay attention. (I heard this whistling and assumed that Lee was whistling in the cave for fun like my hooting). Lee watched one of the kayakers make it over the large wave, then the second kayaker was knocked over. This kayaker stood up in the shallow water inside and was knocked over again by the next wave. His kayak washed out of the cave and all the way to the cliffs and Lee watched him limp after his boat. He must have hurt his leg in the rough water inside the cave. As a result of all this, Lee didn't get to go through the cave until we were on the way back an hour later.

Paddling close to shore behind this hollow rock, I came upon Penny looking into several small caves that went straight into the vertical cliff. She went into the right opening, and I went into the left one. We met in a beautiful little chamber with shallow water and a sandy beach that was under water on the largest waves. Both of us had sit-on-top kayaks (Penny's a rigid fiberglass Tsunami Rangers model, serial number 11). This allowed us to jump out, turn the boats around in the wash of the beach to ride back out of the cave over another wave coming in. I came back to this chamber a few minutes later to remove my wetsuit and pee in privacy. On my way in I waved at some people up on top of the cliff. I wonder what they thought I was doing in there all that time.

We paddled a little farther and stopped offshore from a small inaccessible beach. I thought I heard a consensus growing that the waves were too rough for a landing. I thought I heard that everyone (especially Joan) wanted to go back to Pirates Cove to land in the calm water there for lunch. This is when I went back to the cave in the cliff for a rest stop (I told Bryant Austin, one of the BASKers where I was going). When I came back out, I couldn't find the rest of my group at first until I noticed most of them already landed on the beach. I zoomed back and arrived in time to be the last one on the beach. I thought they would have been a little more concerned about my welfare, since I had told them I had a dozen brownies to share for lunch!

The brownies were made by Margie, my sister, and by now she should have been at Avila beach with Scott, (her husband), Michael, and Sarah (their kids). The original plan was to return to Avila beach for lunch and go to a fish and chips place. Scott and Margie were invited to join us, but now it was already 1:00 PM and there was no way we would make it back in time for lunch. Fortunately all us kayakers had brought something to eat and after we were done sharing we each had more than enough for lunch. Margie figured out that we would not make it and took the kids out for lunch without us. After lunch, we launched the "surf chickens" first. (This is Joan's self depreciating term for herself, but all her friends are trying to convince her that she should be elevated to "cave bunny"). Lee and I stood in the surf and pushed everyone else out over the waves. We made them decide when to push so they couldn't blame us if it didn't work out for them. But it worked great for everyone. Even Penny figured she might as well take the easy way out and let us give her a shove. Then Lee put on his spray skirt and let me push him out over a wave. All alone on the beach, I found a few butterflies in my stomach that Joan probably would have recognized. I originally planned to sit and rest after all that wading and shoving in the surf. But I saw one medium sized wave coming in with an expanse of calm water behind it. I grabbed my boat, ran down the beach, threw it over that wave when it broke, and paddled out with no problems. Despite the rough swells at sea, I had phenomenal luck (or great skill) with every single launch and landing this weekend.

On the way back I paddled very close to a harbor seal without realizing it. Joan called out to me that this seal had a baby with it! I slowed down to take a picture, but felt guilty about bothering mom and her pup. The baby seal looked very stub-nosed, even compared to the harbor seal norm. It stared at me with curiosity and no fear. The mother seal did not try to get away like these seals normally do. Probably balanced between fear of me and fear of leaving the pup. I guiltily swam away to leave them in peace.

I had left a marine radio with Margie so we could get in contact when I was on the way back. When we came around a point and I saw the pier I started trying to call them on the radio. I had chosen channel 68 to contact them on and left the other radio tuned to that. But when I started listening to that channel I found a continuous conversation between all the fishermen out in the San Luis Obispo Bay. I wish I had chosen any other channel! Finally they stopped talking and I tried to call Margie or Scott. I heard snatches of conversations as the large swells cut off my horizon and exposed it again. I heard one fisherman talking to "Margie On the Beach" and asking her if she had a cocktail in her hand, but I never heard her answer. I heard someone (sounded like Scott) explaining to a fisherman "he's lost". But the only person who talked back to me was a fishermen who told me that he was the FBI. Before I got within a few kilometers of the pier, my batteries started running low and I could no longer transmit at 5 watts. When I turned the power down to 1 watt, the radio stopped complaining about transmitting, but nobody answered me until I actually came around the pier. Then Scott called and asked if that was me, and I was able to tell him yes.

As we approached the pier, a Coast Guard helicopter flew by and hovered near the beach. I wondered if they were trolling for the kayaker trying to initiate a call on channel 68 instead of channel 16 like I am supposed to. Then several zodiacs and other Harbor Patrol boats buzzed around the pier area. We were afraid that someone had gotten in trouble in the surf, but it turns out they were merely practicing rescues. We got back too late to see the guys taking turns rescuing each other, but when Penny asked them to pose for a picture, two of them jumped back in the water!

When we got right up to the beach the waves were very rough, the roughest we had seen all weekend. Joan joked that perhaps she should ask the Coast Guard to give her a ride over the surf. She bailed out of her kayak on purpose and swam it ashore rather than get tumbled in it. One other kayaker, Don Fleming, apparently got tumbled ashore in his boat but I was too late to witness that. The thing that impressed Don the most about the power of the waves was when they sucked his neopreme booties off in the surf. Bryant went in before me and got a lot of good advice from everyone else on shore. Half way through the surf they shouted at him to come in now, but he shook his head no and backpedaled. A very large wave went under me and rose up until I could no longer see Bryant. The wave waited until I was sure it was directly over him before it broke. The observers on shore said this is exactly what happened, but then his boat miraculously shot back up out of the broken water "like a rocket" and Bryant zoomed straight to shore. I let two more large waves go by, then followed a medium sized wave in. I followed that wave all the way to shore without even getting water splashed on my hands. The kayakers who had a rough landing turned their backs on me in disgust.


All text and images Copyright © 1997 by Mike Higgins / contact