Category Archives: Flotsam and Jetsam: The Life Aquatic

Flippers Up

Meanwhile down the Street…. from tim maxeiner on Vimeo.

A few days ago my Peedrow buddy Tim and I went paddling off Point Fermin.  It was the first time I had gone out on the ocean since my failed landing in August. The Pacific lived up to its name: peaceful, flat, calm. Our journey started with pelicans by the tide pools. Then the sea lions greeted us at the buoy. Looking toward Point Fermin, I saw fins breaking the surface. A family of white-sided Pacific dolphins — my favorite porpoises — came to greet us. An adult led the way, followed by a smaller dolphin  shadowed by a baby. This breed of dolphins are smaller and more active than the common dolphins that we typically see off San Pedro; usually they travel in groups, not nuclear units. This trio headed straight for us, parting around us then coming back for more. I felt welcomed back to the water I cherish, home again.

We were heading north when we spotted something floating between us and Catalina.”Let’s check it out,” I urged Tim. We paddled toward Twin Harbor, and the dark spot on the ocean turned out to be a giant sea lion, taking a siesta in the quiet ocean. It lay on its side, side flippers and tail in the air, as we quietly circled around it. I have been working as a volunteer with the animals at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, so I wanted to make sure it was okay. It seemed more than okay: beatific in fact, Zen and in bliss in its moment of still harmony in the Pacific. We circled this floating, breathing sculpture quietly, then said goodbye. On we paddled, past garibaldi and kelp, where nature meets city — San Pedro.


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Sunset, Cabrillo Beach, Dec. 22

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I haven’t posted any sunrises or sunsets for a while, but tonight’s was so spectacular I feel compelled to share. It had a been a stormy day, inside and out — torrential rain followed by piercing sun. Alexander Hamilton (the dog) and I took a walk out on Cabrillo pier; the foot of a rainbow waited for us at the end.

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Metallic Sunrise


Sunrise, Dec. 11, 2016

Sunrise, Dec. 11, 2016. Photo by Evelyn McDonnell

The sun finally broke through days of gray skies yesterday morning.

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Sunrise Dec. 9

Sunrise, Cabrillo Beach, Dec. 9, 2016

Sunrise, Cabrillo Beach, Dec. 9, 2016

The sun splashed above the clouds early yesterday morning but never broke at the horizon. It barely peeked through all day and there was no sunset; we even had moisture in the air last night. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it rain.) Today the sea and the sky have merged into one gray slate, the line between water and air indistinguishable. Twice, I’ve see the sun shine a spotlight on ocean patches, but it was quickly overtaken by clouds. Time blurs like the elements. When does the day begin and end if we don’t have the sun to mark it?

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Sunrise, Sunset

Sunset, Point Fermin, Dec. 8, 2016

Sunset, Point Fermin, Dec. 8, 2016

Every day I count my blessings to live in a beautiful place. San Pedro may house the port of one of the biggest cities in the world, but past the cranes, barges, and refineries lie the cliffs of Point Fermin and the dark blue Pacific Ocean. Unusually for California, our house is located on a bluff facing east, so we can watch the sun rise over the water from our bed. At night, we can take a short walk down the beach and look back at the point to see the sun setting, casting our house into darkness while lighting up Catalina.

I’m going to try to start documenting the daily entrance and egress of this celestial body, as it bids hello and goodbye to the west coast of North America. These photos are taken from Cabrillo Beach this evening. In the far right of the photo of Point Fermin, you can see the lights of our house, among others. It’s a good time to reflect on the things that are eternal, ineffable, and even divine.

Catalina Island, Dec. 8, 2016

Catalina Island, Dec. 8, 2016

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We could feel the waves pounding the shore in our beds. That’s new. For the last six years, we’ve lived in an apartment perched on a cliff above Cabrillo Beach featuring a jaw-dropping view of the Pacific. Often at night, we can hear the waves – especially when the surf comes in, like it did early yesterday morning. We called it our tree-house beach villa. We thought we would never move.waves

Last weekend though, we did. The stone and glass mid-century bungalow just two doors away went on sale for only the third time in history and miraculously, blessedly, we could afford it. And because being 400 feet from the ocean wasn’t close enough, we slid down the hill 200 feet. Now, we don’t just hear the crashing; we feel it. First, there is the crackling crescendo, as the water starts to fold on top of itself, molecules smacking into molecules. Then BOOM! A big wave pounding into sand sounds like thunder. It shakes the earth.

At daybreak, we were able to visualize what we had been hearing and feeling for hours. We still have a killer view, only now we look out across the ocean more, rather than down on the port of LA. I haven’t seen a swell like this in months. The waves were coming in like a rippling mountain range, forming perfect arcs across the horseshoe of the bay, breaking left to right, east to west in symmetrical rolls that are rare for usually choppy Cabrillo. Amazingly, there were no surfers at dawn. Word got out quickly though, and soon they were pulling up in their pickup trucks and jeeps, wetsuits already on or hastily pulled over shorts as they stood by their vehicles. This was one of my favorite activities at the old place: the peep show of the hot surfer boys barely hiding behind towels as they dress or undress. Apparently, the tinted glass of the new house curtains me as well as the high location of my old office window did; I can still get my voyeurism thrill on.

img_8064The intensity of the surf doused my own swimming plans. Conditions mandated a board and serious skills. In case I had any doubts, the presence of a lifeguard boat anchored at the buoy off-shore affirmed that this was a serious swell. Even if I had wanted to risk a swim, they probably wouldn’t have let me.

So instead, I watched, from the wall of glass that sweeps across three sides of our new great room (and great it is). Waves smashing into the fishing pier and each other formed 20-foot-high white plumes, rippling all the way across the stone breakwater to the black-and-white Angels Gate lighthouse. The dolphins surfed too, a pod of big and little ones, splashing so high in their frolics I wondered what was going on.

I was born in Los Angeles but moved to Wisconsin when I was four. California remained the golden dream for me as I struggled to fit into small-town Midwestern life. On our frequent visits back to my native land, I would walk through the beach communities visiting families and friends and fantasize that I would come back some day, to a place where I could swim year round. Now I’m living the dream.

It would be easy to spend all day watching the waves, the dolphins, the surfers, the birds. But this is the setting from which I work, not my retirement. It’s the place of beauty to reward that long commute home. I know how fortunate we are to be here (though honestly, as beautiful as it is, our home is also a fixer-upper).  I am the beneficiary of all sorts of privileges, to have landed on this perch, in this room with a view. I don’t take that for granted. I know that the water that is a balm for me is an escape route, or a death trap, for millions of people in danger and in trauma.

I respect the ocean and I cherish it. And I am grateful that when I wake in the night, sleepless and disturbed, worried about the world and my little corner of it, the sound of the waves lulls – and even rocks – me back to rest.


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Sitting Duck: The Life Aquatic

Cabrillo waveThe 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 jduckungle 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.IMG_8094

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.P1020089

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.


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