A 50th birthday adventure
By Micah Posner
I was out on my stand-up paddle board near the one-mile buoy in Santa Cruz, thinking about how to ‘celebrate’ turning 50. Suddenly, the light changed and the mountains behind Monterey appeared. “I should paddle to Monterey,” I thought. Not across the Bay but around, where I could see the familiar landscapes, and my life at 50, from a different perspective. I had a large, stable paddle board with a place to tie a dry bag. I could take it slow; sleep on the beach. I’d go in the summer when the swells were small. But I needed a friend or two to go with me, for company and for safety.
Erik and Brian both liked the idea of paddling 38.6 miles (Google Maps) around the Bay for three days and sleeping on beaches. And both of them, separately, decided to go with safer, more efficient, less comfortable vessels- kayaks. But I wanted to see the Bay, and my life at 50, standing up.
Two days before our trip the forecast is not great: two to four-foot swells at Moss Landing. “That’s a six-foot face of water,” Erik points out, “looming over you as you try to paddle out. Seeking reassurance, we call kayak master Dave Johnson of Venture Quest: He chuckles, “I think you’ll make it one way or another. And I think you are going to get wet.” After we hang up, no one talks for a few minutes. “So. If we can’t make it in we get picked up, right? That’s why we have cell phones.”
We pull out of the Santa Cruz Harbor early, escorted by a pair of pigeon guillemots. By 8am, the sea calms entirely and we glide around on dark green glass, ocean below and ocean fog all around us, moving over three miles an hour and headed south. Rio Del Mar glides by, our last chance to easily get back into a car, Hidden Beach, the vertical grey condos at La Selva. By the time we are ready to land, we have traveled 12 to 14 miles and the wind and chop are making it cold on the water, despite the filtered afternoon sunlight. As we move closer to land, we can see the sides of waves unfurling themselves and pushing into the shore; a few surfers.
A mile later, Erik thinks he has found a slightly smaller break. I see a fairly empty beach; a large cypress tree. We wait for a pretty large set, then paddle in behind it. A smallish wave, two or three feet, catches up to us. Erik surfs his kayak all the way in. I am on my knees surfing the paddle board and having a great time, but I don’t move back quickly enough, and pearl forward over my board when the wave breaks in three feet of water. Brian is thrown at about the same spot. Dave was right. We got in. And we got wet.
I strip off my shorty 2mm wetsuit, neoprene hood and life jacket and make use of everything in the dry bag other than the credit card. I put on one pair of dry nylon pants, two polypropylene shirts and a beanie and eat some food and water; place my sleeping bag on Erik’s spare blow up pad; take a tiny tarp out of a tiny bag, drape it over a log and tie it to large pieces of driftwood. My new home.
The morning dawns calm and grey and still, as we had hoped. After cold breakfasts, Erik and Brian make it out through the waves, paddling like fiends. But it takes me a few strokes on each side to get going straight, long enough that I get pushed back by the next line of whitewater. I revise my tactics; hold onto the bow of the board and wade past the smaller sets, then quickly lie down and paddle with my hands. Maybe Pancho Villa would have stood up and gone straight over the crests wearing his famous bandoleers and blowing up capitalism. I’m just happy to be out in one piece and headed south in the grey mist.
At the mouth of the Pajaro river, a diffuse sunshine comes out. The wind and sea are still becalmed. I eat chocolate wrapped in a tortilla; an apple from New Zealand. We see a pod of dolphins which we ‘identify’ as porpoises because they are kind of small. One swims right under Erik’s boat. Then the mist entirely clears away, a fresh breeze comes up and the ocean starts to rise and fall underneath us. We paddle south, thinking of a warm lunch. By the time we pull into the harbor at Moss Landing, the sea is fully awake, the wind is at our backs, and we ride it in feeling like kings of the Bay; eat a huge feast at Phil’s and bring leftovers on board for dinner.
As we exit the Harbor the wind steadies into our faces and the sea is rough enough to have whitecaps. I kneel on the board to make better time. Then I sit down. And I still can’t keep up with the kayaks. Without the leverage provided by standing up, my board is pretty much just a lame kayak with half of a paddle. We finally make it past the vacation homes at Monterey Dunes, and start imagining landing, then surf in on the biggest swells so far. We congratulate each other but I am not particularly proud or happy. I am cold. The breeze seems calmer on land, but it is still evaporative, and the sun is weak and low on the horizon. We went three miles in four hours. We build a lean-to with the tarp and get in it, too cold to eat. Everything will be easier once the wind stops.
But when I wake after midnight the wind is still blowing, though the half moon has sunken below the line of the sea. Not until just before sunrise does the damp air get still. We pray that it will last a few hours.
I wade, then paddle on my belly. Past the surf line, I pull one of my precious shirts out of the dry bag and put it on over my life jacket to slow the evaporative cooling. Standing up on top of the smooth flat water, it looks like we might make it to Monterey after all. I am relieved and grateful and appreciative; not triumphant. I’m only standing due to the temporary consent of the ocean. I bend forward, flex my knees and put my whole body behind each stroke; faster and warmer. And the water is so smooth that I can still look around. Far from shore we hang out with sunfish and porpoises; see whale spouts.
The wind and sea are restless but not difficult for our last mile, presumably because we are slowly pulling into the harbor. I sit down on the board and relax, calmed by the calm sea and the end of our journey. Still seated, I paddle slowly to the beach to meet my friends and our ride home. Sorry Pancho. Standing up is good for my back and my state of mind and I’m glad that I chose the board over the kayak. But in the presence of the infinite, of the ocean, sometimes you have to sit down.