The fifth time, we walked

by Anders Landin. From Buzz, May 2010

The first thing I did when I woke up in the morning, was to check the Half Moon Bay buoy for the latest conditions. The swell had come up from 4.4 ft the evening before to 7.4ft @ 10s even though the surf forecasts had promised steady small swell. That was a little worrying since we had planned a paddle along a very exposed stretch of the coast and I wanted to get as close as possible to the interesting rock formations with their numerous caves along the way. The NOAA had a small-craft advisory, and the forecast was for 15-25 knots wind from NW, 3-5 ft wind waves over 4-6ft NW swell at 10 seconds.

Eminent coastside kayaker and fellow BASKer Cris Lewis and I drove south along Highway 1. Our destination was San Gregorio state beach where San Gregorio creek reaches the ocean, about 15 minute’s drive south of Half Moon Bay. Approximately 2.9 miles before our destination, we crossed over Tunitas creek bridge. It is a fine bridge which I have driven over many many times, but I have never given it much thought before. This, the first time this day we traveled between the two creeks, we traveled by car. After parking our planned return vehicle at the state beach parking lot, we went to scout the landing at the beach. It was low tide, and there were several lines of breakers that looked relatively intimidating, but in the middle, where the creek joins the ocean, there was a deeper channel without many breaking waves. There was also a pronounced rip flowing out from shore in the deeper channel, but it was clear that landing here was highly doable as long as we stayed in our kayaks (though a swimmer easily could get in trouble in the out flowing current). Satisfied with our preparation, we drove the remaining car back to Half Moon Bay harbor to launch our kayaks. This was the second time we traveled between Tunitas creek and San Gregorio. Again, we traveled in a car, and we were full of anticipation of the day’s adventures.

At the launch site in HMB harbor, we met Kenny Howell, director for CCK’s kayak instruction program. We told him about our planned paddle down to San Gregorio. Kenny replied: “Hmm. San Gregorio—that’s a pretty rough landing. You know about Tunitas Creek a little to the north, right? Have you landed at San Gregorio before?” Well, neither Cris nor I had landed at San Gregorio, “but we have scouted it, and it looked good”, we confidently proclaimed.” It also so happened that I, just a week earlier, had visited Tunitas creek beach for an evening landscape photography session, and I took the opportunity to scout for good landing spots, as I always do when I visit new locations on the coast. We also ran into another hard-core coastside paddler who said: “Hmm. San Gregorio? I just came back from Moss Beach. I had planned to land there, but the landing today looked pretty scary, so I chose to come back here instead.” We clearly had been warned, but we had scouted our landing, and felt good about our plan.

Well on the water, our spirits were at maximum. We were looking forward to a great 13.3 mile paddle down to San Gregorio. The weather was gorgeous, the wind at our backs, and the waves lively enough to make the paddling interesting. Once we had left the protection of Pillar Point and its reef behind us and were out on the open ocean, we occasionally caught great surf rides propelled by the wind-driven swell. We agreed that the swell was about 7 ft, as reported by the buoy in the morning. After about an hour’s paddling we were outside the Ritz-Carlton hotel, which was towering over the coastal bluff. We stopped briefly to check the conditions. We had paddled about 1/3 of the way, with the wind at our backs. That meant that if we turned around here, to paddle back against the wind we would probably be on the water for as long as if we continued to San Gregorio, so it was a natural checkup point. We had noticed that the swell had built a little, but looking in toward the beach, it still seemed quite doable to land, so we decided to continue on and stick to our plan. We wanted to experience this stretch of coast, the thought of having to slog back against the wind wasn’t appealing, and we knew we had scouted the landing carefully—we would be fine.

The next two hours offered world class open coast kayaking—we had a fantastic ride. The conditions continued to build slowly, and our surf rides grew more and more frequent. The bigger waves appeared in sets of three or four, and as our journey continued, the interval between the bigger sets decreased. Our only regret was that the conditions prevented us from getting close to the magnificent coast line—we resolved to come back on a smaller day. As we got a few miles north of Martin’s beach, the sheer rock face coastline here reflected the waves, creating very irregular wave patterns even though we were about 1/2 a mile out to sea. We thoroughly enjoyed the great kayaking. South of Martin’s beach, there was another section with sheer rock cliffs until beach took over the coast again at Tunitas creek. We could see San Gregorio a few miles further ahead. This was the third, and by far the most enjoyable, time we traveled between Tunitas and San Gregorio creeks.

As we approached San Gregorio it was evident that the conditions indeed had grown substantially from when we scouted just a few hours earlier. We regularly had sets of 10-12 foot waves breaking far out from shore. The breaks weren’t dumping violently, but they were plenty intimidating just from their sheer size. Perhaps more troubling was that it was remarkably hard to see the sets approaching out at sea until they were quite close by—I think it had to do with the generally lumpy sea conditions. That would make it very hard to time an approach through the outer impact zone. We moved into position directly outside the San Gregorio creek mouth where we had seen the rip zone with markedly smaller waves when we scouted. We paddled as close to shore as we could without being at risk for the bigger sets, but were still a few hundred yards away from the beach. The area where we earlier had seen a deep water channel was gone, and replaced by what looked like a normal soup zone inside of an extended impact zone where the bigger waves would break. The breaks were still smaller here than to the sides, but they were far from friendly, and with the rip going strong, it would not be pretty should one of us come out of the kayak, or lose the paddle during an encounter with a violent wave. To land on either side of the rip didn’t look appealing at all as the waves there were very large and violent. It was evident to both of us that landing here would involve substantial risks. We needed to retreat to plan B.

Our backup plan was to paddle back to Tunitas creek to check out the conditions there. I had scouted the conditions there a week earlier during a photo session. The sea state was smaller then, but then it had clearly appeared that the surf was substantially smaller immediately inside the headland to the north of the creek. If we couldn’t land there, plan C was to continue north to Martin’s beach to try for a landing there. We hadn’t scouted this site as it is closed to the public, but figured that the large offshore rock formations would allow for a relatively protected landing site. Plan D, was to paddle back to Pillar Point harbor. That was far from an appealing option as it would mean an extended 26+ mile paddle, half of it now against the roughly 20 knot wind. After returning home, it is clear to me now that a better choice would have been to continue the 11 miles down the coast to Pigeon Point which has a very protected landing site but we didn’t know the distance to Pigeon Point, and feared it would be outside our reachable range.

The fourth time we traveled the two point nine miles between Tunitas creek and San Gregorio was the toughest, paddling in relatively big conditions into a substantial headwind, not sure where we could land. The conditions continued to build, and as we now were closer to the coast, we had a few falsetto ‘outside’ situations (for some reason, real ‘outside’ calls are always made with a certain level of anxiety in the voice…). We tried to assess the conditions ahead, just inside the headland north of Tunitas creek. We could see large clean-out sets coming relatively frequently, but it wasn’t clear if they were at the headlands, or closer to us south of the headlands. Not knowing where to land safely results in an uncomfortable feeling, and the mind quickly starts wandering, playing up numerous unpleasant scenarios for the mind’s eye… Remaining calm and sticking to a clear and sober plan is key.

As we approached Tunitas creek and its headland, we got a better vantage point of the landing conditions. It was soon clear that we should be able to land here. There was an outside break zone, but even the biggest sets were substantially smaller here than they had been at San Gregorio. Inside there was a more violent secondary break, but it didn’t seem to be very big. The last hundred yards consisted of an extended soup zone with small friendly foam piles. It is always hard to be certain of the wave size when viewing landing conditions from outside on the ocean, but this looked highly doable to both of us, and we decided it was the best option we had available. We agreed that Cris would go in first. We were a few hundred yards from shore, and maybe 50 yards south of the headlands – enough to be able to stay away from the rocks even in a calamitous landing, but close enough to get maximal wave protection. I followed Cris in as far as I could without entering the outside impact zone, watching her landing and hoping for the best. She timed things perfectly, passed through the outer zone in a window, and seemed to do fine as she got closer in. Soon she disappeared behind a wave before she reached the inside secondary break. After a while I could see her in the soup zone far inside – she seemed to have had a perfect landing. I would later learn that she actually capsized in the secondary break but was able to roll up immediately without problems.

Seeing Cris land safely was a big relief as it validated that we had assessed the conditions correctly. Just as I came to this conclusion I looked behind me, only to see a huge wave starting to wall up—I obviously had failed to stay clear of the outside impact zone… I immediately started to paddle backwards, and managed to get over the wave before it broke. Behind the first wave came a second wave, which I also got over, continuing to paddle backwards. The third wave was significantly bigger, and although I had back paddled quite a distance it was clear I wouldn’t escape this one. Still I continued to back paddle at full power, hoping for the best. The wave broke immediately behind me and I was instantly engulfed in a huge foam pile. I lost orientation and capsized, but the wave actually treated me relatively gently. After things calmed down I could see that despite I was in the setup position, the bright light from the surface wasn’t where it was supposed to be—I must be floating on the left side so I was facing down. After a few additional seconds I could see the light from the surface move into the right position, and rolled up on my right side without any problems. Immediately as I came up I saw a big foam pile approach me from the left side. I tried a high brace, but eventually the wave overwhelmed me and I was back in the foam… I turned the high brace into a sculling roll/brace and came back up again. The wave had transported me all the way in to the secondary break zone. The next wave was smaller, and I surfed it through the secondary zone and well into the inside soup zone. As my kayak came to a stop against the sand, I drew a sigh of relief; we had both landed safely.

Now, Tunitas creek beach is a a great beach in many respects, including its good protection from the northwest swell at its northern end. However, it has one notable drawback—it is hard to access. Most visitors come to the beach by descending the steep 200-300 foot hill up to the pull out off highway 1 a bit south of the Tunitas creek bridge. That trail is so steep that someone has tied a rope for support much of the way. It wouldn’t be very practical nor safe to haul two kayaks up that hill, especially as the great summer weather had brought numerous other people to this normally relatively deserted beach. We changed into street clothes and stowed away our kayaks as discretely as possible on the beach well above the high tide line, and started to look for another way out. We found a narrow path along the bank of Tunitas creek.We followed the path which took us in a zig-zag pattern along the north side of the creek into a wonderful landscape with thick vegetation with tall vine-tangled walls on each side of the very narrow path. Eventually we found ourselves directly under the highway bridge I never paid much attention to before. Finally, the path took us up to the east side of the highway at the northern foot of the bridge.

To get back to our car, we embarked on the day’s fifth trip between Tunitas and San Gregorio creeks. The fifth time, we walked. The 2.9 mile hike over the 400ft hill separating the two rivers would have been a lot more comfortable if we had brought proper hiking shoes, and dry socks… Having already paddled over 16 miles on the ocean, the last stretch against a stiff headwind, we were pretty exhausted when the reached San Gregorio this time. We walked up to the bluff overlooking the beach, to see what the conditions were like, and found that true to our experience from outside, the conditions looked quite different from when we first scouted this area. Most importantly, there now was a section of large outer breakers that hadn’t been there at all in the morning, even though the tide had been lower then. Given that the much more protected landing at Tunitas still had capsized both of us and forced us to roll, it was clear that we made the right choice when we went to plan B.

The rest of this story is better told to a bushwhacking audience than to kayakers. The short version is that we eventually extracted both our kayaks from the beach via the trail along Tunitas creek (don’t do it unless you really have to…). Our little adventure took us all day. We first met at 8am to load kayaks for the shuttle. We launched from HMB harbor at 10.25am. At 3.30pm we had stowed away our kayaks on the beach to start the hike to the car. As the sun set around 8.30pm we had one kayak on the trailer. We left the other kayak hidden deep in the vegetation under Tunitas creek bridge over night, and recovered it the next day. All in all we had a wonderful adventure even though it was a little more exhausting and time consuming than we had originally planned.

Conclusions:
We have paddled together in much rougher conditions than anything we encountered during this trip, and we both have reliable combat rolls, so we never worried about the conditions per se, even if it was a little unnerving being uncertain where to land after we decided not to land at San Gregorio. The ‘point-of-no-return’ was when we decided to continue on at Ritz-Carlton. Clearly the more conservative choice would have been to decide to return there. We had several tell-tales: The conditions were building, and therefore likely to continue to build, we had been warned by two independent sources that landing at San Gregorio would be challenging, and our friend who is a very strong kayaker had chosen not to land at Moss Beach. Still, we both felt comfortable continuing beyond Ritz-Carlton, and we wanted a little more of an adventure.

We should have been more aware of Pigeon Point as a backup landing site. Paddling the extra 11 miles with the wind would have been a small effort compared to what we ended up doing, and it would have been a much safer landing had the conditions deteriorated further. We should have brought more drink and snacks. We were pretty much out of provisions when we landed and it would have been very tough to paddle all the way back to Pillar Point without more fuel even if I think we could have done it.

We correctly decided not to land at San Gregorio and had the flexibility to change our minds when it didn’t look right. We had prepared and scouted a backup landing site. We carried plenty of emergency communication devices (cell phone operatable in waterproof pack, VHF radio, Spot satellite emergency device, and flares) had our situation deteriorated to the point where we needed outside help.

I look forward to my next trip down to San Gregorio. I will definitely pay more attention to the fine bridge that spans over Tunitas creek.


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