I had not been on the water for a few weeks and it felt good to put my body into the old familiar stretches. I leaned out with the paddle so far that it felt like I would fall forward, but then the blade hit the water and stabilized me. The stroke, which had been performed so many thousands of times, felt good. It was like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes and going for a long walk through the woods.
Within a few minutes, I loosened up and focused on the technique of the stroke. I made my way out of Newport Harbor and turned left (south) toward Crystal Cove. The sun was well hidden behind a thick blanket of gray marine layer, the low-hanging kind. The water was oily, dark and calm, and there was no wind.
I was about a half mile off shore and heading steadily south into Crystal Cove when I noticed to my right, that a bank of fog was rapidly filling in the space of open ocean on my right. Oh shit.
I stopped paddling and looked at it while my board slowly glided to a stop. The gray mass was rolling like a slow motion avalanche of smoke, racing right toward me.
This is not good.
I had never seen fog like this, not moving in this way, this fast. Almost before I could figure out what this all meant for me, the fog was all around me. I turned my board completely around and started paddling back the opposite direction.
Almost instantly, I was in a white out. Although it was hard to tell, it looked like I could only see about ten feet in front of me. I paddled slowly back the direction that I thought I had come from, but it did not take long for me to figure out that I could easily paddle the wrong direction in these conditions. I might paddle myself directly out to sea and get hopelessly lost. I needed to be strategic about my next move.
I looked at my watch. I had paddled 2.5 miles at that point. Thankfully I was not in new waters. I had done this paddle in this direction many, many times. I knew, with certainty, that from my current location, it was 1.5 miles in a straight line back to the harbor mouth, where the giant rock jetty jutted out into the sea. That is where I made my left turn about twenty minutes before. But I had to paddle straight to get back to it.
I had to figure out how to go back the way I came, and to paddle steadily back in that direction through the white out. I listened carefully. I could hear the surf on my right. Thankfully I was not too far out to sea and I was tracking the coast. The surf was not loud because the waves were small, and because I was a half mile away. But if I could paddle while ensuring the surf was on my right, I could be certain I was traveling northwest and eventually, about 1.5 miles from now, I would encounter the south side of the jetty and I could make my way back into the harbor and back to my launching point.
I figured I should see if I can get close to the surf first and then head up the coast. I paddled toward the sound of the surf and eventually it did get louder. When I saw the first kelp stalks under my board, I knew it was shallow water, and I turned to my left and paddled north. I still could not see any surf, but it was louder. Being close to shore would also keep me clear of any boats that might be motoring around out there, I hoped.
When I got to the mile mark on my watch (now at 3.5 miles total distance), I noticed the surf got quieter and I figured I was paddling in front of Corona del Mar beach, and that the jetty must be ahead in seven or eight minutes of paddling. Then I heard the dinging bell of the “red right return” buoy, which is 1/3rd of a mile off the end of the jetty. I heard a sea lion bark. The sea lions were always barking on the buoy. So I knew where I was, and yet, still I paddled like a blind man, using only my ears to navigate. It was eerie.
As I planned, as my watch ticked off to 4 miles (2.5M out, and 1.5 back), a dark mass loomed ahead of me. The stacked boulders of the jetty came out of nowhere, ten feet in front of my board. I back-paddled to slow myself down and turned left to paddle along the jetty. I got to the end, turned a hard right, made another hard right, and a gentle swell nudged me into the harbor.
I exhaled. I was safe in the harbor. Although it was still white out conditions in the harbor, all I had to do was hug the edges of the harbor until I made it back to my launching point.
A few months later, I was about to exit the harbor when I saw a similar looking fog bank about a mile out. Heeding a lesson learned, I turned around and stayed in the harbor that day. There will be other, better days to venture out. To my fellow paddlers, play it safe out there.