Paddling Santa Rosa Island

An adventure, when successfully completed, leaves a mark.  The mark reminds you of your capabilities and it gives you a true sense of what real danger is.  The confidence you gain softens the edges of anxiety that creep up on you in your daily life.  When you do something gnarly, something that scares you, and you conquer it, nagging worries fade a little.  Your experience makes you hard. 

That is what we were looking for, an adventure that would make us less soft, and a little more badass than we were before.  There were seven dudes committed this year, and the idea for the adventure was this: We take a charter boat to Santa Rosa Island, one of the outer islands in the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura.  We bring inflatable paddle boards and camping gear.  The boat drops us off at Becher’s Bay, we inflate, load our gear, and paddle 12 miles around the island to the southern side where beach camping is allowed.  This was “backcountry camping”.  Where we were going, there is no water available, no picnic table, no bathrooms, no ranger station, and no cell service.  We spend two nights camping and exploring, and paddle back to where we started. 

Santa Rosa is known for its regular, steady, and significant winds, which usually come from the northwest, flowing down from Point Conception, where they send open ocean swells into the cliffs on the northern facing side of the island, pummeling the coast, and carving out some of the most bitchin’ sea caves in the world.  While paddling south, you can take advantage of the wind, but obviously, paddling back into the wind is a different story.  The wind was our main concern as it could make or break the trip, and depending on its strength and direction, our plan might be impossible to execute.

With respect to gear, for an adventure like this, you need items not necessarily laying around the garage.  First, you need a rig, an inflatable paddleboard.  Why inflatable?  Because many charter boats will not take a 14-foot hard paddleboard.  And it can’t be just any old inflatable.  You need a well-made board, which will remain rigid while carrying you, your 40-50 lbs. of gear, and 25 lbs. of water.  The board needs to be tough because it will inevitably be thrashed through the surf when landing, and when you drag it out of the surf, possibly over rocks.  It needs to have tie-downs for gear.  It needs to be big and stable to keep you upright while negotiating the open ocean.  And it somehow needs to be light enough and compact enough while deflated to be packed into a backpack.  Eventually, after some research, I settled on the Starboard Inflatable Touring Deluxe, 14’ x 30”, and she was perfect for the job. 

Day 1:

We arrived at 11am on the island.  We were the only paddlers on either kayak or SUP on the boat.  Along with about 30 backpackers, we disembarked.  We grabbed our gear and headed down the pier only to realize that the beach was only accessible via ladder from the pier down fifteen feet to the beach.  So the seven of us formed a daisy chain to get our gear down to the sand.  We lined up the boards when they were finally properly loaded, stabbed our paddles in the sand, and took a killer picture which told the story of an adventure about to begin.    

We are ready to hit the water

We hit the water later than we wanted to, about 12:45pm.  The winds were light, thankfully at our backs, and we had a moderate swell gently pushing us forward.  For four miles, we crossed Becher’s Bay at a moderate pace, about 3 mph, which meant we would be looking at 4 hours of paddling minimum (if conditions stayed the same).  We cut the bay in a straight line, preferring expediency to sight-seeing.  Out there, about a half mile from shore, there were no kelp beds, no fish, and no rocks to see.  We were aiming straight for the far point on the horizon at the end of the bay, and saving some time.   

The serenity descends on you while paddling in calm water.  Only the sound of our paddles slipping into the water, and an occasional gurgle from the swirling consecutive eddies behind us could be heard.  There was little conversation.  The absence of noise, even jet noise, was noticeable, and we soaked it in.    

We made it to Skunk Point at the end of the bay, where we made a right turn, finally out of Becher’s Bay, and turned due south to run down the eastern side of the island.  At the Point, we discovered a coveted break and a small boat anchored nearby, the only boat we’d seen on the island.  Three of us who were in front of the pack made some small talk with the three dudes on the boat, one of whom oddly happened to be the actor Gerard Butler.    His line from the movie 300 rang in my head, “Tonight we dine in hell!” 

We delved into miles four through eight down the eastern side.  Again, we were faced with a choice of cutting the bay to save time or hugging the coast in an attempt to avoid adverse current, wind or swell.  Three of the guys opted for the inside line, and the rest of us went on a straight-line theory, which turned out to be a bad choice.  The inside line, although longer, was the way to go, given the near-shore southward current.  The four of us on the outside slogged it out against the current and lamented the progress our friends were making ahead of us inside.

Just short of East Point, when we finally got there, we circled up for a rest.  Two of the guys swam with a mask and explored the abalone beds.  We jumped in to cool off, wrapped our legs around kelp so we wouldn’t drift away, talked, and fueled up on energy bars and beef jerky.  A few harbor seals poked their heads out of the water warily, our only companions.   

Time to cool off

After a brief rest, we started digging with our paddles again toward East Point, knowing we had to haul ass because it was near 4pm.  Before we rounded the point and started to head west toward our destination, we could see the wind whipping over the hills to our right, a northwest wind, which meant we were about to get kicked in the teeth.  From 100 yards away from the Point, as the breakers rolled in, we could see the curl being licked off the top by the gusts, and the spray was swept away to the east.  The rays of the low-lying sun rainbowed the spray.  It was beautiful, but we knew what it meant – – that this was going to blow.

We flipped the switch on the reserve tanks and paddled a wide berth around the breakers.  As we paddled out to sea to avoid the waves and cleared East Point, and made a right turn to head west, we lost any benefit we had from being near land and shielded from the wind.   The wind was loud and persistent, which slowed us down, and we began a long, long sequence of “left only paddling”.  Any paddling on the right would immediately give the wind the break it was looking for, and before you knew it, you were pointing out to sea. 

Every man put his head down and hacked at the water to get in close to shore and out of the wind.  I went into a permanent hunched position and paddled left, left, left, 100, 200 times.  I made wide sweeping arcs with my paddle on the left, turned the nose to the right toward shore and tried to get myself as close as possible to the breakers.  The breakers were pulverizing the cliffs and reflecting back at us, meaning we were facing swells from our left and right. 

A few of us made it into the lee, and we sat on our boards just beyond the breakers, taking stock of the situation.  The pressing issues were (1) can we really make it all the way to our destination in this nonsense?; and (2) if not, where are we going to camp?  Theoretically, we were permitted to camp anywhere on this stretch of the island, i.e., anywhere on the southern beach.  But that was just a ranger’s rule.  The issue was that there was no beach to sleep on. It was high tide, and there was not much beach at all.  Most of the southern side was sheer cliffs with perhaps a few feet of sand, not enough for camping.  So we had no choice but to press on against the chop and wind until we could find a place to camp.

We all gathered together and pow-wowed.  We considered beaching ourselves right there and looking around to see if there was enough sand to sleep on but we all knew it was hopeless, we would have to find a larger beach.  We agreed we were going to have to find a place to camp as soon as possible because the sun was quickly dipping.  So we continued on, this time closer to shore, still fighting the wind. 

Eventually, a strand of beach materialized as we peered with squinted eyes into the sun.  We tried to judge the shadows on the beach, and tried to discern whether there was room to camp.  We decided to head for a spot where a canyon ran down to the water, and where the ridge created a small area protected from the wind.  As we approached the beach, we tried to time the break correctly, and paddle into shore without wiping out.  Not all of us were successful, which provided entertainment for the rest.

Wet and exhausted, we dragged our boards up on a small sand berm against the cliff face, and took stock of our new home.  In the shadows of the cliff to our west, we noticed several lumps in the sand.  We walked over and saw 30-35 elephant seals laying around, nearly all of them lifting their heads and staring at the aliens who had just rudely invaded their world.  They were only about fifty feet away from where we had pulled our boards up the beach.  They had snagged the best beach real estate anywhere on the southern side of the island, at least from what we’d seen so far.  When they saw we were no threat, they laid their heads back down, closed their saucer-sized black eyes, and went back to sleep with a snort.

Our new home was a long, narrow strand of soft, very fine, brown sand, extending under sheer cliffs for about half a mile.  Where we set up camp, at high tide, there was only 10-15 feet from the cliff to the uppermost limit of the creeping tide.  This meant we would have to camp directly under the cliffs.  The seals had claimed the shadiest part of the beach and the part with the most sand to lay on.  We were not about to challenge the 1,000 lb. bull seal who was managing his harem for the spot.  He looked prepared to defend it and more than once, he showed us his teeth as a warning. 

Back off

We set up tents and started getting our gear together.  No fires were permitted on the island, so as the sun went down, we cooked up dehydrated meals over our Jetboil stoves, and then marveled as the stars began to appear. 

With no fire, and a long exhausting day, we racked out fairly soon after it got dark.  Just before bed, I took a short walk down the beach and enjoyed the lunar-like silence between the crashing waves.  Only a faint glowing of light pollution over the cliffs could be seen where the mainland was far to the east.  To the west, Jupiter outshone the stars around it.  What beauty. 

Day 2:

We were up early.  There was nothing scheduled and no real desire on anyone’s part to break camp and head further west to our original destination, mainly because we were concerned that this would mean our paddle back to the dock the next day would be longer.  So we decided to stay put.

Each of us at different times walked down the length of the beach and looked at what could be found along the shore, including a dead sea lion that had washed up, its head mysteriously missing.  We joked about how a large female white shark named “Murphy Jean” who had been tagged, was recently “pinging” near Santa Rosa.  MJ must’ve gotten this one we said. 

We also had to find a suitable place to do our business, so to speak, and then to wash off in the surf.  (You haven’t lived until you’ve gone No. 2 while staring into the eyes of an elephant seal).  We then fidgeted with our gear, charged our Gopros, and one of the guys busted out his micro drone for some sweet overhead video of the coastline and our campsite. 

Before long, we decided a table was needed and several of us went to work on a table made of stacked paddleboards.  We dug a trench on each side in the sand for our feet and piled up sand benches.  Once our table was set up, we worked on shade by setting up a tarp over the table.  We had a complete canopy over the table and with that, we pooled our stores on the table and proceeded to eat the entire day, like hobbits. There was breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, post-lunch nibbles, pre-dinner munchies, dinner, and after-dinner snacks. 

As far as activities, one of the guys decided he was going to go on a training run around the island, as he was training for a 50-mile race coming up.  The only problem was he had to get off the beach and the only way out was to scale a cliff.  Because the seals were piled all over the canyon entryway, he could not get past them to scramble up the canyon, so he had to find another way.  He eventually scaled a cliff using all four limbs through the scratchy shrubs and made it to the top, waved at us from 250 feet up and ran off.  He told us not to worry unless he wasn’t back by 1pm.  We wondered what the hell we would do if he did not show up at 1pm, because there would not be much we could do. 

Several of us went for short exploratory paddles to see what was ahead had we kept on going the day before, and as suspected, there appeared to be no further beach for a long way.  Just more cliffs and rugged sea caves, being imperceptibly carved out each day by the crashing waves.

It was a perfectly uneventful day, which was just what we all apparently needed.  We all knew tomorrow would be different.  We expected a long hard day of paddling, much of it against the wind.  We were unanimous in our decision to get up and on the water at sunrise to give us the most time possible to get back to the dock for the boat’s arrival at 3pm.  Before bed, we shared our collective booze, and toasted each other with boxed wine, whiskey in a flask, and tequila in a water bladder. 

Again, the sun went down, the stars quietly appeared and announced themselves one by one by one.  And we again privately marveled at our evident insignificance.

Day 3:

The sun rose over the black water.  We had already broken camp, eaten breakfast and had our coffee.  Several of us were straddling our boards, and waiting for everyone to get through the surf when we heard someone curse.  One of the guys, while he was trying to get through the surf, got his board stuck in the sand by the shorebreak, his fin lodged deep and when the wave rolled his board sideways, the fin snapped off. 

About to set off on the paddle back

No one had a spare fin.  I kicked myself for not bringing an extra.  A small ripple of panic went through me as I processed what it would mean if he could not paddle back.  Do we tow him?  Do we fold up his board and put two men on a single board?  He was now facing a long day of paddling into the wind with no fin.  Without a fin, the board would not track on a straight line, and would fishtail with every paddle, making his paddle even slower, longer, and infinitely more miserable.  To my amazement, he said he would make it work and started paddling.  We all just sort of shrugged and started paddling after him, seven dudes paddling toward the sunrise, back the way we came.      

The sea was calm and oily in the early light, the wind was minimal, and the sun painted the cliffs red.  We were shocked at how calm it was, having heard the day’s forecast, and we were pleased with ourselves when we rounded East Point, again avoiding the breakers with a wide turn around the point.  We again took a break at the same kelp forest where we had stopped two days before.  And suddenly, the wind arrived.  We took stock of the situation and decided to steer a course near shore to avoid the worst of it. 

Heading toward East Point

We tacked on the miles, hunched down against the wind, and all along, our fin-less friend could do no more than three paddles per side as his board wound its way up the coast, like an old fat dog wagging its tail. 

When we finally got near to Skunk Point, we could see chaos up ahead.  Swells converged on the point from two directions, and a 10-15 knot wind whipped up the swell from behind the headland, making it seemingly impossible to pass.  We were supposed to round that headland, hang a left into Becher’s Bay, and fight our way headlong into the wind back to the pier.  Once again, however, the problem was that we could not take the shortest route around the point given the waves.  We were going to have to go further out to sea beyond the break and then try to turn into the wind while bearing its full force.  

We all landed through the surf on the sand and pulled our boards up the shore to take a rest and scope out Skunk Point and devise a strategy.  The beach landing jacked up our heart rates and made it obvious to us that we were already gassed from the miles we had already paddled against the wind.  One of us suggested we forget paddling around the point, and that we carry everything over land across the sandy spit and launch again in the bay to avoid the worst of it.  I initially protested but it became apparent it was the right thing to do.  Gathered at the highest point in the sand, we surveyed the area.  It was like the Sahara Desert.  There were sand dunes and desiccated bones of unknown animals strewn about.  There were strange animal tracks and innumerable burrows in the sand. 

We got to work.  We unpacked the gear from our boards, and each of us with probably 50-60 lbs of gear, started carrying it all to the other side of the spit.  With paddles, boards, and camelbaks, it would mean two trips each. For the next hour, we carted our stuff back and forth across the dunes. 

Schling says where the hell am I?

When we got to the bay side, we re-stowed our gear on the boards and got back on the water.  The surf was heavier here from the windswell, and we each faced a harrowing ordeal getting up and over the face of the waves on a heavy gear laden board, but we all did it without too much trouble, now practiced in the art. 

Immediately after conquering that task, we realized that any right-paddling at all would send you right back into shore and through the surf again, as the wind relentlessly pressed us.  So, it was to be left-paddling for the rest of the day, which sucked hard.

Each of us summoning our inner caveman, we suffered alone.  We drifted apart and then into small couplets.  We all dealt with the situation in our own way.  I went in tight to shore with one of the others and tried to take in the scenery, looking into sea caves, looking for fish in the kelp.  A couple of the guys stopped for lunch, which had the unfortunate result of requiring them to paddle back against even tougher winds because as the afternoon went on, the wind only got stronger.  Several of the guys got down on their knees to make a smaller target for the wind.  But their toes and knees suffered for it, the skin slowly shaving off with each stroke.

We eventually made it, and with some time to spare.  We paddled directly to the dock, pulled our boards up on the steel deck and rolled them up into their bags on the spot.  We had some cell coverage there and called the wives to let them know we made it safe and sound.

The boat arrived on time and took us back to Ventura.  On the boat, we cracked beers and high-fived our blistered and cracked hands.  We basked in the feeling of a mission accomplished.  The adventure was just scary enough and just hard enough to make it an accomplishment truly worth savoring.  As I sat back and watched Santa Rosa fade in the wake of the charter boat, I felt like a badass among badasses, and feeling like a badass is priceless.  It’s the reason you venture.  

All the badasses

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