The five of us, masked per Covid-19 protocol, and laden like mules with gear, lumbered down the gangway to the boat in San Pedro, that was to take us to Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island. We hunted for seats with good air flow and found some in the bow. Our talk during the ride over ranged from Shackleton’s ill-fated voyage to the South Pole, how our kids were doing, and most importantly, the weekend’s wind forecast. Within an hour of skipping over the swells in the channel, the boat slowed down near Ship Rock outside of Two Harbors.
I disembarked, checked into our campsite at the ranger station, and we got all our gear down to the beach. We unrolled our inflatable standup paddleboards, started pumping them up, and worked up a sweat doing so.
A curious older guy, holding a leash attached to a mongrel dog, peppered us with what he must have considered helpful suggestions.
He said to my buddy whom we call the Captain, “You know, you really should use something to strap down that gear on the front or you might lose it.”
The Captain, without looking at him, muttered with a shrug, “I live dangerously.”
The man asked me, “What’s a board like that run?”
“About fifteen hundred.”
“Ouch! You can get cheaper inflatable boards than that.”
“Get what you pay for.”
He shook his head up and down, reluctantly agreeing with the proposition.
But he was not deterred. “You know they have electric pumps you could use to inflate the boards?”
I said, “Hey, good idea. Where should I plug in?”
I looked around the rocks and water swirling around my feet at the shore.
“Well, OK, there’s a point there,” he admitted.
I nodded, and went back to manually pumping up my board.
We ignored more of his helpful pointers, and he moved on down the shore, with his dog lifting his leg here and there as it puttered along.
Within thirty minutes, when all the gear was stowed, strapped, and carabinered to the boards, we shoved off into the cool and clear water of the harbor. As we passed the yachts moored in the harbor, many of them predictably flying MAGA flags, I watched the flags with trepidation as they lay flattened by the wind. And the flags were pointing right at us. Not good.
I had seen the wind forecasts for the day and it worried me because we were getting a late start with the boat arriving at about 11am, and because the wind was only going to get worse as the day wore on. We were going to have to paddle to Parsons Landing campground in a pretty steady headwind the whole way.
As we paddled slowly out of the harbor, we passed two couples enjoying cocktails on the back of a motoryacht. It was 11am but I wasn’t judging. I was only a board length away as I passed by so I nodded my head at them. Am, one of my oldest pals and new to paddle adventures, was paddling in a kayak just a few feet away from me.
One of the yacht men said, “Where you headed?
I said, “Parsons Landing.”
“It’s going to be a bitch getting out there right now, man.”
“Yeah, I know it.”
When we got a few boat lengths away from them, Am said to me, “Well, that’s not encouraging.”
I said, “We’ll get there, but he’s right. It will be a bitch.”
And it was.
By the time we pulled into Emerald Bay, the ocean was blanketed in whitecaps, steadily marching down the island and into our heavy boards, which were piled high with gear. We decided to rest for a spell at the beach at the western end of Emerald Bay. We dragged our boards on shore and ate energy bars and caught our breath.
I said, “OK, here’s the deal. We need to push hard for about a half hour and we’ll get there.”
“How far is it?” asked Am.
“It’s about a mile to a mile and a half from here to Parsons. But this wind is going to stop us in our tracks when we hit Arrow Point. It will suck for a while. Just paddle hard for 30 minutes and you’ll get there.”
Having done this paddle in similar conditions in the past, I knew the difficult part would be weathering Arrow Point, where the wind and swell would aggressively converge on us.
We took off feeling refreshed from Emerald Bay but it was slow going. The wind roared in our ears. The waves pounded off the cliffs to our left. The swells were approximately four feet high and our inflatable boards, weighed down with large bags strapped to the front (and back), were having a difficult time making headway. Both the front loaded bags, and our bodies, were attacked by the wind and acted as counteractive sails, as the gusts tried to push our boards backward.
I took the lead, made myself small by crouching down, and paddled hard with short, snappy strokes. The others on SUP dropped down to their knees. Am appeared to be paddling happily along in his kayak, unbothered by the wind, as he rode up and over the swells.
Our little train of five paddlers eventually stretched out in a 100 yard long line. I yelled back “Leash up.” I wanted to make sure everyone had a leash on, because if anyone fell in, the board would likely be swept away quickly.
Momentarily, I considered turning back, concerned that not everyone would be able to weather the point, but then, as I looked back, that they all seemed like they were making forward progress. Onward.
I yelled into the wind, “Is that all you got!” and kept slashing away at the waves.
I finally weathered the point at the pace of a snail, and made a slow turn, a very slow turn, to the left around the point, to get out of the worst of the wind. Behind me, after looking back from time to time, I saw Schling come around, then Am, then the Captain, and then Kenny. Once around the point, we could see the significant boulder protruding from a beach ahead of us, which announces Parsons Landing.
Although we were around the point, it was still a slog against the wind. We continued to hack away for fifteen to twenty minutes to get to our beach, and then, with a not-so-graceful ride into shore on a shorebreak, we dragged our gear on shore.
Unbeknownst to me, Kenny had snagged a kelp bed just as he rounded the point, and as he tried to dislodge the seaweed from his fin, a wave toppled him and his board. He found himself in the water with his board upside down, being pulled down by his gear. He told me he felt himself begin to freak out, but quickly mastering himself, he wisely threw is body on the bottom of the board and used his body weight to flip it back over by throwing himself backward in the water. The board righted itself with all the gear still there. Kenny jumped back on and started paddling with all he had to get away from the nearing cliffs behind him. No one in our crew saw the incident, and he paddled in, as far as we knew, without a hitch.
We congratulated each other for conquering the wind, and our first day’s paddle. Before any of the gear was at our campsite, a cooler opened up and cold beers were passed around. We had earned them.
We set up camp and enjoyed the evening, cooking sausages over a blazing fire.