The wave saw me before I saw it. I was paddling in on my kayak, to the outer beach at Cabrillo. The Pacific had been flat for days. In fact, the last several times I had been out swimming I had tried to catch a ride in and got nothing. I swear this was the first serious curl I had seen since we returned from summer vacation a week before. It definitely snuck up on me, and unfortunately on this day, I was in Skimmer, my kayak that’s named after one of my favorite local shore birds, and not looking to surf. I was a sitting duck, so to speak.
Maybe I hadn’t gotten my ocean groove back yet. I had been paddling all summer in Michigan, but this was my first time on the salt water in a few months. Bud and I took a quiet, two-hour paddle out to the red groaner buoy a couple miles off shore. Sea lions crowded its metal, bell-shaped platform as it rocked in the swells, emitting its periodic low moan. Several young pinnipeds, their ribs pushing through their fur, scrambled for position on top of the soft pillow created by one elder’s giant gray body, as it sprawled patiently. There were more marine mammals sunning on the rocks at the foot of Point Fermin. A week’s worth of wind — that’s why they call this stretch of ocean Hurricane Gulch — had turned the sea an unseasonable 60 degrees, and the seals seemed as anxious to be out of its cold grip as we were. The kelp flourished this summer, and we paddled over its forest top, looking down at the plants swaying in the waves, like birds skimming over a jungle canopy. One other group of kayakers paddled past, couples in tandem vessels wearing bright vests and following a leader — “tourists,” I scoffed, half joking. Otherwise, it was quiet here off the shore of the fourteenth biggest city in the world, as it usually is.
I’ve been kayaking in San Pedro, the port community at the bottom of Los Angeles, for three years now, chasing whales and freighters, dolphins and, once, a two-story yellow inflatable duck. I love the water. It’s my element. I grew up canoeing, on Midwestern lakes and rivers, and ocean kayaking isn’t much different. Well, except for the waves.
I am very careful about kayaking on the outside, the ocean side. There’s an inner beach at Cabrillo too, inside the harbor, and that’s where we go if there’s any kind of swell; the breakwater impedes the ocean’s force. As an avid bodysurfer, I’ve been swirled in enough washing-machine action to understand Neptune’s power. A couple of minor wipeouts are enough to teach you that you do not want the hard plastic of a kayak banging against your shins or elbows. I always look back as I come in, out at the Point, where the water breaks first and, on swell days, the surfers gather like so many ants on matchsticks. The sets of larger waves hit Fermin first, and by monitoring their white foam, I make sure I slide in between danger. As I said, there hadn’t been much going on for a while — San Pedro’s surfers were nowhere in sight last Sunday.
Maybe, too, I was feeling a little over confident. I had been out in Lake Superior after a couple storms this summer. Believe me, the biggest body of fresh water in the world can kick up some action — just ask the Edmund Fitzgerald and all the other seagoing vessels lying broken on its bottom. In fact, I had gotten taken by surprise by a sleeper wave just åa few weeks ago, and I rode it 20 feet into shore, like a pro. The feeling of being snuck up on, grabbed, then hurled forward was exhilarating and scary, like flying on water. I love to bodysurf, but I don’t really like to be in the rough with a big piece of plastic. I trust myself, and H2O, but objects not so much — especially man-made ones. I don’t scuba, I free dive.
Today, I was coming in slow, checking for sets of larger waves. It looked easy, calm, no stress. Bud was ahead of me and cool as a cucumber, taking long strokes atop Scooter (his kayak, named after another avian Cabrillo resident). I was close to shore now, and probably could stand if I jumped out. Maybe I held back for too long, sussing the tide out, instead of just plowing forward. I turned around for one last look and there it was, a four-foot curl that had formed right on my stern and was ready to break. It was too late to pull back or go forward. “Watch out!” I screamed at Bud.
Like a bad dream I had imagined a hundred times before — this was exactly what I have always been scared could happen — the wave lifted Skimmer’s ass high in the air. For a few seconds, I was riding high — I was surfing. I thought maybe I was going to be okay. In fact, this could be the ride of my life.
But the boat was at the wrong angle, pitched way too steep, and the water was too shallow. The ocean slammed my bow into the sand with such force, I was sure it broke my boat. Skimmer somersaulted, I fell into the surf, the water was thick with kelp, and turning in the dark, in my element, I couldn’t tell for sure what was happening. I knew I needed to get out of the way of the boat — I didn’t need to hit my skull or shin on its hard body. So I went as deep as I could, letting the wave pass, before coming up for air.
Really, I was lucky. I could have landed on my head and broken my neck, or been bonked by Skimmer and knocked out. Instead, I was standing, and Skimmer was there beside me, in one piece, just full of kelp. My paddle was right there, and my water bottle. Just my cap and shades were gone. Oh, and my right foot was killing me.
Bud stood smugly in the backwash, having caught the wave perfectly and enjoyed a nice ride. He seemed to think my plight was funny. “Help me, grab the kayak!” I shouted. I knew I didn’t need to lose control of Skimmer to another wave, and I was having trouble walking.
“What happened? I missed it, I couldn’t look back, I was coming in,” Bud said.
“I got somersaulted. It sucked.”
“Oh man, that’s called a pole plant. I wish I had seen it!”
I’m sure the look on my face as the wave hoisted my butt in the air and tossed me, like an athlete vaulting over a pole, was something special, but frankly I was glad my husband had not witnessed my epic fail. I half expected a lifeguard or one of the scuba divers getting ready to go out for a swim would come and say something to me, like, “you okay?” But apparently my tussle with the wave was a private affair, just between me and it, a little bully shove in the bathroom to remind me who was boss, here in the falsely named Pacific Ocean.
My foot wasn’t broken, just badly bruised — “like her ego,” as Bud joked on Facebook. (Is there anything as sweet as being able to publicly relish a spouse’s mishap?) It was a bad start, a literal stumble, to a sabbatical year that I envision as full of ocean activity. I will heal. I’ll get back in the kayak, and, if it’s calm — like, really calm — I’ll go on the outside — though I will be even more cautious. At least for a while. When I’m in water, I’m in my element. That doesn’t mean it can’t kill me, but at least, I will die where I want to be, where I understand the balance between sinking and swimming, and usually, I make the right choice.
Dear readers, I’m trying something new here: a recurring feature on my affinity for water, a blog within a blog, which I am calling “Flotsam and Jetsam: The Life Aquatic.” Could become a podcast. Looking for comments and possibly a home/outlet.