After failing to find Sid's lost boat on Monday from the shore, I considered going paddling to look for it from the water. There was a surf advisory for the weekend with waves as big as 25 feet predicted. I figured if the boat was ashore anyplace nearby it would get pounded to pieces by waves that big. This would be the last chance to look for it before it was too late.
The swell dropped down to a very calm 6 feet on Thursday morning when I was able to do this trip. The forecasts were for the storm to arrive that evening, so there should have been a few hours of calm water for me to paddle close to shore and look for lost equipment. I drove to Stillwater Cove and launched there. I paddled north through Ocean Cove and went almost as far as Wreck Point where we last saw the lost boat drifting. Looking at the direction of the current and waves on Monday, the rocky south shore of Ocean Cove seemed like the most likely place for the boat to land. But as we discovered the current can turn away from shore and the boat could be anywhere, even out near the Farallon Islands 44 kilometers from shore!
I had talked to Jerry Rudy, a friend and local paramedic who grew up in the area, about the currents here. He said that the offshore and deep water current is always going north. But the prevailing northwest wind pushes the surface current south down the shore. So the current can swing back and forth depending on the weather. Jerry told us a story about a pair of brothers who were drowned when their fishing boat turned over. One of the bodies was found miles south, the other miles north. This is not an apocryphal story, Jerry tells stories like this from personal experience. He has rescued people from these waters his whole life.
After exploring Ocean Cove with no luck, I turned south and continued looking. Sid and I had talked to locals on Monday about Timber Cove and were assured that the current always took things around that cove. But I followed the shoreline in and back out checking just to be sure. Every time I saw a beach with driftwood on it I paid special attention, figuring these were places where things collected. But still no luck.
As I paddled out of Timber Cove I saw some large waves breaking far from shore. I thanked the waves for warning me that there was a shallow spot there and paddled around the area. I wondered if that was just a large set of waves, and if they had broken in other areas that I had just paddled over. These large waves prevented me from getting as close to shore as I wanted. I used the large waves, waiting for one to lift me up, to see farther and get better views of the shore. I was a bit nervous after all the trouble we had a few days ago and I didn't feel as confident as I normally do on the water. I figured with a big storm arriving soon the chances of a rouge wave were probably larger than normal.
The large waves continued breaking as I approached Fort Ross. There are some flat topped rocks offshore here that are often covered with seals. I have paddled all around these rocks and usually paddle between them and the beach. I intended to travel inshore from these rocks this time as well but as I approached I watched the largest waves break around the rocks and continue breaking all the way to shore. What is going on? Where are the mild 6 foot swells that I started out with? I turned and went the long way around the rocks and stayed far from shore, peaking over the waves at the beaches but still not seeing a wrecked boat.
When I turned into Fort Ross Cove the water calmed down and I was able to go close to the beaches again. This cove is well protected from the prevailing northwest swell. I paddled around the calm cove and looked at the sandy beach. A landing here would be easy. Then I paddled onto the south end of the cove where I often launch a kayak to go abalone diving. The waves rose up again and were completely closing out the beach! It didn't look like it would be possible to launch a kayak from there at all today!
South of Fort Ross there is a rocky reef, called Fort Ross Reef, sticking 500 meters out to sea. I have often paddled through the middle of this reef. Even on a calm day, however, it can be exciting as the waves wrap around the reef and cross over themselves in the shallow water. On this day paddling through the middle would have been very foolish. Waves were breaking over the shallow areas and slamming to shore. Over the breakers I could not see the next beach on the other side of the reef. I had just enough time to go around and take one last look. As I went the long way out and around I watched the larger waves breaking on the reef and completely engulfing the largest rocks. I had never been in the water with waves this rough around the reef before!
As soon as I could see the beach, with no kayak wreck on it, I turned around and re-traced the long route around the reef again. I paddled straight into Fort Ross Cove and made a safe landing in mild protected water on the sandy beach. I rinsed the salt off my wetsuit and other gear in the stream running down to the cove. This required standing in the ice cold water in my bare feet! I put on dry clothes I had brought with me inside my boat inside a dry-bag. I attached my kayak wheels to the boat and started up the road. Even with all my equipment inside it was relatively easy to roll it up the road out of the cove to the top of the cliff. It is good that I brought these wheels, because they were re-surfacing the road with new gravel and it was closed to cars. I had arranged to meet my brother Paul at Fort Ross and he arrived by the time I got my boat up to The Fort and started around the paved section of road. We went to get my truck before loading the kayak and gear on it.
Driving back to Jenner for lunch, we stopped to look at the water off Jenner Beach. I had stopped to look at this area on my way out in the morning. It had been calm and inviting. Now waves were breaking clear across the rock garden I would have gladly paddled in only 4 hours before. These breakers were coming from large, regular, straight swell that were visible for kilometers out to sea. The storm swell had arrived earlier than predicted and this is why things had gotten so rough around Fort Ross Cove.
When I got home I looked at the data from the Bodega Buoy. At the time I launched, the swell had been hovering around 6 feet for hours. But immediately after I stepped into the sea, the swell started rising several feet an hour and was 11 feet when I landed. The graph from the NOAA WEB page extended back several days and showed Sunday when we had all our troubles. On that day a similar thing had happened: As soon as I stepped into the sea, the swell started rising rapidly, from 9 feet to 14 feet by the time I landed. I started to wonder if the ocean was out to get me. I only have two data points so far, but I have warned my friends that it might not be wise to paddle with me on the ocean for now!