Five paddleboards laid on the grass at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, paying tribute to an ebullient morning sun. The sight of the boards themselves, pointing out to sea, and strewn with gear, made my heart swell.
Morning walkers with their dogs seemed to linger with curiosity. They looked furtively at the boards, the paddles, the water packs, hats, and life vest belts piled all around. The five of us fidgeted with our gear, preparing to launch.
“What are you guys up to?” an elderly man asked, as his curious cockapoo sniffed my feet.
“We’re gonna paddle down to San Clemente and camp. And then on to San Onofre the next day.”
“Wow, that sounds amazing.”
Yes, yes, it does.
We got a bit of a late start the first morning, which was a problem given the 16-mile journey ahead of us, but we hit the water with enthusiasm. The surf was minimal at the sheltered beach below Heisler Park, and it was no problem getting through the surf while remaining relatively dry.
My buddy K. was a newbie to long-distance open ocean paddling, and he was on a board he borrowed from me, my 12’6 Hobie. The Hobie is a stable board, but on the open ocean, and being a new paddler, I thought this could be a very long day for the K-man. But K. was an Ironman, and if he could pull off that insane feat of endurance, he could handle my proposed little paddle to San Clemente. I was impressed that a guy who had never done any open ocean paddling was up for it; he might even enjoy the pain.
We paddled past main beach in Laguna and settled into an easy pace past the cliffside hotels.
I looked back, and K. was in the drink. I saw his head pop up, with a big smile on it, and he climbed back on the board, with the paddle in one hand, and sprung to his feet again, wobbling a bit from side to side.
He said, “Man, Jer, this thing is a little squirrely.
“You’ll get the hang of it,” I said.
The five of us eventually spread out over 50 yards or so and settled into an easy pace southward.
My buddy S., with a doctor in psychology, approached the paddle like he was facing a tedious session with a client. He put his head down, and paddled with calm deliberation. He was on a brand-new board he purchased for the occasion, a heavy and wide Naish 14’ board, and it seemed like he had a powerful unseen inertia moving him forward. The board plowed ahead long after he stopped paddling, shouldering swells aside, as if a tiny motor was affixed underneath. F. complained out loud that he had to take three strokes for every one of S.’s to maintain his pace.
After about an hour of southing, close to the 1000 steps beach, F. said, “Guys, I have to make a call.”
“What? Why?” said J.
“I have to make a call. Just wait here.”
With that, F. paddled off to a cove, which was poised picturesquely underneath several 20 million-dollar homes. The four of us linked up by putting a foot on another’s board, and formed a rough square about ¼ mile offshore. We laid down on our boards, rested, snacked, and waited.
F. was sitting on his board on shore, and fiddling with his phone for what felt like forever. We were itching to get going. But I thought it was pretty cool that here we were, on a weekday, and F. was working from his paddleboard – a nice perk of our modern world.
After what felt like an hour, and much complaining and haranguing, I woke up J. as F. came bounding back through the surf out to our little floating square, and we started down the coast again.
Splash! K. was back in the water.
We slowly moved past 1000 steps beach, as a Blackhawk helicopter flew over us, just 100 feet off the surface, battering the beaches with sound.
Before noon, we paddled past Salt Creek and the Ritz Carlton. K. was working on his 50th time in the water and we joked that he had added a workout of burpees to his long distance paddle – – water burpees – – because every time K. fell in, he had to do a pushup to get back on the board and then jump to his feet again. But he seemed to be enjoying himself despite the pain. I liked that about K., and about all my buddies really; they know how to enjoy the journey.
We finally hung the left which forecasted the approach of Dana Point harbor. F. and I, buddies since we were 10 years old, and fueled by the competitive memories of a 1,000 different games over 35 years, fell into an unspoken race along the extended rock jetty which protects DP harbor. We wordlessly started picking up speed and were eventually pacing each other at an absolutely breakneck pace, without either of us acknowledging we were engaged in a competition. It was comical as we fairly sprinted down the jetty without a word between us.
“When he did get this fast?” I thought to myself. “Shit, I need to pick it up.”
F. was also an Ironman, and I could tell he was relishing this impromptu race as the nose of his board started to edge ahead of mine. But then a funky wave caught him unprepared as it ricocheted off the jetty, and he suddenly dashed whole body into the water. I snickered as I went by, and then waited at the end of the jetty. The rest of the guys were now spread out far behind us.
Once we got to the mouth of Dana Point Harbor, we were 9 miles into our paddle. Just off Doheney Beach, we floated and pulled out lunches from our bags. We ate ziplocked sandwiches, soggy from the trapped condensation, crunched on apples, and wolfed down beef jerky.
“How much further?” J. asked.
I said, “We’ve gone 9 miles, and I’d say we have another 6 or so miles to go. But I’m not 100 percent sure where the trail to our campsite starts. We’ll have to guess the best spot to land, and look for the trail up to the campsite.”
K. said, “It feels like the wind is picking up.”
J. said, “It definitely is. Typical afternoon. Let’s hit it.”
But it was too late. By the time we stood back up and started motoring south again, two forces conspired against us. The first was a southwest swell which relentlessly shoved us into the southwest facing beach. The swell was of no help to us traveling directly south. The second was the increasing wind, forcing us to paddle on the left to keep to our direction. If we ever stopped paddling on our left, we would immediately start to shade into shore. It was going to be a long six or so miles.
As soon as we started, the guys slowed down in the choppier conditions, and we ended up spread out over a quarter mile. I put my head down and took the lead, trying to encourage the guys to paddle harder. In my view, the sooner we knocked this out, the better. Faster was more painful, but it was still faster.
We passed one ocean front home after another on the old Coast Highway before San Clemente peaked into view. From time to time, I heard J. complaining loudly, although in a joking manner, but not really, about how shitty this was.
“Whose fucking idea was this again?” he yelled out.
K. was working on his 75th water burpee as we approached San Clemente Pier, but he kept plugging away. We paddled through the pier’s pylons, trying to avoid fishing lines as we did so.
It was now around 2pm, and I was not entirely sure where the San Clemente State Beach campsite was, and it was difficult to tell from the water where we should land our boards. F. and I conferred and decided to head in to shore, to ask a lifeguard sitting in her tower about a mile past the San Clemente Pier, where we should go. K., S., and J. were still fighting the elements, about 250 yards behind us. F. and I tried to surf our giant boards in, failed at doing so, and dragged our boards on shore.
The lifeguard said we had another ½ mile or so to go, and gave us a landmark to shoot for.
As F. and I turned around to head back to the water, about 50 yards north from us, we saw J. barreling through the surf, get blown up, and start hoofing his heavy board out of the surf up the sand. Soaking wet, he threw his board down and bent over with his hands on his knees. He was gassed, but happy, evidently under the impression we had reached the end of the paddle.
I yelled out to J., “Hey J, this isn’t it! It’s about another half mile to go!”
F. said “Don’t get too comfortable. Regulators, round up!”
J. just stood there with his hands on his hips, dashed, dripping saltwater from his hat and down his goatee. As F. and I ran back into the surf with our boards, I looked back to see J. in the sand, with both hands high in the air, saluting us with two middle fingers, jutting out like flagpoles. I thought to myself, J., an accomplished brawler, might kick our asses for this. But F. and I giggled at his gesture, and turned south for the last stretch of the paddle.
And then we finally saw our trail, and headed in.
J. yelled out again, “This better be it.”
It was. We were all exhausted as we surveyed the cliffs above us. To get to the campground, we had to carry our boards up a long uphill dirt road. Once there, we found a campsite, pulled out our gear, stripped off our soaked clothes, and set about making an epic barbeque. The sausages and beers never tasted so good.
After dinner, K. broke out what he called his “sleeping whiskey” and passed it around. We slept like dead things.
In the morning, I unzipped the tent and took a walk to the cliff’s edge. The sun revealed a shimmering tabletop ocean, inert under disconnected clouds. A perfect morning for a paddle. I closed my eyes and inhaled, smelling the sea. It was good to be alive.
Back at camp, the boys were stirring. J. was firing up the campstove. S. was grinding coffee in some sort of NASA made camping coffee maker, and stroking his beard while he waited. F., always an epic sleeper, stayed zipped up in his tent. K. too was still under the spell of his sleeping whiskey. But the smell of bacon could rouse a corpse, and they appeared as soon as it was ready.
Once again, back on the water, we found we were alone, totally alone, and we soaked it in. The dense feeling of quiet out there on the water is a salve to the mind, which seemingly sticks with you long after the noise returns.
We eventually came upon a solo surfer just shy of San Mateo Creek, and chatted him up for a bit. He wanted to know where we were coming from and where we were going. We told him and paddled by without a pause. He looked to be enjoying the peace as much as we were, not surfing, but just floating and gazing out to sea.
We paddled past Old Man’s and kept ourselves well outside the break. K. told me how he was surfing there one time and saw a great white. I told him it’s a good thing he was no longer doing all those water burpees.
We paddled past the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which I have driven by on the 5 freeway innumerable times. But somehow, from the water, it looked eerie and forbidding, like an abandoned Cold War relic. Well, I suppose that is exactly what it is, now that the power plant has been decommissioned.
When we got to the San Onofre campground, and saw the trails that lead up to it from the water, we paddled in toward shore to find our landing spot. However, we did not anticipate the tide would be so high, and that there would be no beach and no sand. The surf was buffeting a steep pile of rocks at the base of our trail. Not good.
J., F. and I considered this for a while, wondering how we can time our landing to avoid smashing our boards on the rocks and potentially cracking them in half. K. and S. were trailing a bit but were on the way.
While we were talking about the best time and best spot to land, F. suddenly took off, seizing what he considered his best opportunity. And I figured that if he decided it was a good time to go, it would work for me too, so I paddled after him. J. did the same, and thus, the three of us went careening through the surf on to the rocks without much forethought.
Once the shorebreak shot you up the beach, and then began to recede, it was imperative to do several things at once. Get your leash off. Get off the board (if you haven’t already fallen off). Get your feet under you and stable. Get the handle of the board in your hand. Turn the board sideways. Lift the board out of the water. If you did not get the board all the way out of the water, the receding volume of water would drag the board back out, possibly into your body, and then you are hosed. The idea was to get you and your unwieldy 14-foot board up and out of the shorebreak as quickly as possible to avoid damage to you or your board. This was the danger zone, right at the shorebreak, and it was violent and chaotic.
Thankfully, I had water shoes with me, and when I stepped out onto the rocks, I was able to move without too much trouble. I got my board up and out of the way quickly. Because J.’s board was inflatable, he was able to grab the leash, and simply drag it over the rocks up to the top of the berm. F., with bare feet, struggled over the rocks but managed to get his 404 Zeedonk 14’ board up to the edge of the cliff.
When I turned around to see how K. and S. were doing, I saw K. just about to catch a wave.
I said to F., “Oh man, this is going to be an epic wipeout. And on the rocks! He might actually split his board in two.” I braced for K.’s impending wreck with a sort of gleeful anticipation as the wave started to raise the back of K.’s board and he tried to point the nose to the side to catch it.
F. turned to me and said with a gleam in his eye, “You know that’s your board, right?”
In a millisecond, I was running toward the shore to try to prevent my precious Hobie from exploding on the rocks. K. fell sideways and the board shot out, spinning in the white froth of the wave. I managed to catch it and get it safely to shore.
Four boards now happily on shore, we stood next to each other to watch S. make his way in. He sat outside the surf for a few minutes, waiting for a break in the sets. When the break seemed to appear, we all screamed for S. to go for it and he started paddling in. But it was bad advice because as he came in, a wave formed behind him, stalking him in slow motion.
The four of us clinched. I put my hands on my head, and ran down to water to hopefully catch another board.
J. yelled out to S., “Don’t get sideways.”
But that is exactly what happened. As the wave swallowed him up, S. jumped off and threw an arm over it, the board was perfectly sideways to the breaking wave, and S.’s right arm was flung over the footpad holding on to the board’s handle as it started to tumble over.
J. said flatly so only we could hear, “Welp, you’re fucked.”
The board washed up on shore without S., and after a little stumbling on the rocks, I was able to grab it before the water fell back and exposed it on the rocks. S. came tumbling after, completely intact, but perhaps with a bit of a damaged ego given the Gopro recorder that was rolling in J.’s hand, and caught the whole thing.
For the second day in a row, we ended our paddle with a long walk up a dirt hill with heavy boards. We got to the top and set up camp again. We replayed the night before, and toasted the adventure with K.’s sleeping whiskey.
A few months later, at Christmas time, a gift arrived in the mail. It was from F. I opened up the box and found a circular Christmas tree ornament. On each side of the ornament was an engraved photograph. On one side, the five of us stood in front of our paddleboards, arms around each other and chests out; five brave men of adventure. On the back side was a snapshot of S., holding on to his board for dear life, pre-wipeout.