Following Sea

Despite assurances from the California Fish and Game, Surf Beach was in fact closed for snowy plover nesting season, or so the sign read when Keith and Dan Malloy and I crawled out of their dad Mike’s big brushed-metal horse-trailer parked across ten spaces at the Surf Beach parking lot. Because of the closure, we only half-glanced at the whitewater through the wet fingers of pea-soup fog and instead, shivering with cold and excitement, hopped the fence and ran down the dunes lest we be stopped and slapped with a $250 citation before our three-day, 50-plus-mile paddle-surf adventure around Point Arguello and Point Conception even got off dry ground.

Only when we hustled our rigs to the water’s edge could we see what was in store. It was low tide and, through a curtain of mist, what looked like overhead windswell was pounding on Surf’s outer sandbar with whitecaps beyond and three-foot shorebreak dumping on the inside. My stomach, which had been slowly churning since throwing back a steaming cup of Mike’s 5 a.m. Vandenberg Air Force Base rocket-fuel, was completely forgotten when I reached down to pick my unwieldy board off the wet sand, all 12 feet 6 inches of it. Weighing 27.8 pounds dry and naked, that morning, “Mongo”, my beautiful orange Joe Bark paddle-surfboard, was loaded with a GPS unit, a full two-liter Camelbak bladder and a dry bag stuffed with food, a fullsuit, swim fins, first aid and emergency equipment.

I instantly came to hate it as I attempted to paddle gingerly over the whitewash out of fear the dry bag would rip out of the mounting system I’d installed the night before. Over the next 30 minutes of hard paddling, gallons of cold saltwater poured down my long-john; Keith and Dan were faring no better. After 30 or 40 consecutive soakings, and with teeth chattering, it didn’t seem like we would ever make it outside. We alternated between trying to find a hole through the whitewater and laughing at the hilarity of our predicament. If anyone could have seen us through the fog it would have looked pretty silly. The fact that no one was there to witness it somehow made it all the more absurd.

By some miracle, Keith eventually found a path through the sets and Dan and I quickly followed. Once out the back, I could barely see shore through the fog. We laughed at how much difficulty we had in paddling through head-high beachbreak, something we hadn’t even thought about in our planning. Looking south, I knew that somewhere down the coast, beneath the fog, the beach would turn to cliff, leaving us totally committed. Vandenberg Air Force Base’s ramparts of coastal bluff and man-made parapets of surveillance technology made going ashore virtually out of the question, while the substantial following sea assured us this was going to be a one way trip around Point Honda and Point Arguello.

The idea for the trip was concocted one spring evening in Keith’s kitchen in Ventura after a day of riding and paddling his family’s Tom Blake replica “kook boxes.” There aren’t many people in the world who will entertain the idea of a multi-day paddling and surfing expedition, but the Malloy brothers are a special breed. What’s more, eldest brother Chris said he’d often thought of paddling the entire length of California, stopping off at friends’ houses along the way. Call it sibling inspiration.

I stayed up late that night measuring various distances on a NOAA chart of the Santa Barbara Channel, dreaming up different routes. Back at home, I researched boards and gear, cold-calling preeminent paddleboard shaper Joe Bark with questions. He thought he could build boards that would satisfy my two conditions: they needed to paddle as well as being maneuverable enough to get in the pocket on a head-high wave. Joe figured 12′ 6″ would be appropriate and ordered the huge blanks from Clark.

As the boards were being made and I was dreaming of triumphant crossings and surf sessions, an eye-opening event occurred. Santa Barbara surfers and experienced Channel Island fishermen Randy Stone and his son Ben capsized mid-channel and were never found. People speculated wildly about what had happened, but most agreed that anyone jettisoned into the water without wetsuits would die shortly due to the extreme exposure. The sad event served to remind me of the realistic danger of our plan, and the relative indifference with which the oceanic environment views human life.