Maryly Snow is interested in getting more comfortable on the open ocean, so I took her to the Duxbury Reef across Bolinas Bay. We planned to go out to the reef for lunch around high tide, then spend the afternoon back in the lagoon before the tide got too low. We launched into the mouth of the lagoon from the end of Wharf Road and headed out to sea. We had mild breakers to plow over and as soon as we got out into the bay we passed a bunch of fishing boats very close to shore. Then we paddled across Bolinas Bay towards the reef. I watched the water ahead and was worried by some large swell humping up and moving left to right between us and the reef. These were apparently coming from the south and were not what I expected. I had difficulty imagining that the normal swell could refract around the reef and come from the south and still be that large. The NOAA report had shown nothing coming from the south, and only a mild five foot swell coming from the northwest. I knew that the northwest swell would break and loose all its energy on the reef.
Maryly, however, fixated on that safe white water breaking over the reef. She asked me several times if that was really where we were going. “Are we really paddling towards white water on purpose”?! When we got close she made me stop and talk about what we were seeing and where we were going. I was heading towards a row of rocks that had birds sitting on them. “If the birds don’t get knocked off by the waves, they must be breaking before they get to those rocks. We’ll be perfectly safe”. It turned into a lecture on “reading the water”. Maryly immediately took a liking to that phrase, and I couldn’t remember where I first heard it. I think I started learning to read the water just out of a reasonable paranoia about what the water could do if I wasn’t paying attention. The first person I ever remember hearing use the phrase is Penny Wells. Perhaps I heard her, or someone else in BASK, use the phrase and immediately attached it to what I was already doing on the water.
Reading the water means watching the water around you and making intelligent guesses about what it is going to do next. I told Maryly the seat-of-the-pants version of the breaking wave formula: A wave breaks when it is in relatively shallow water. The bigger the wave, the deeper the water it will break in. How do you read the water? Watch for dark spots in the water, indicating shallow areas. Watch for turbulence rising from submerged rocks and giving away their positions. Watch for large waves rising over rocks farther out, because those waves will break over the shallow spots close to you a few seconds later. Watch where the waves break ahead of you and memorize a map of hidden shallow spots. I study the geography of the land and the rocks and try to deduce how it continues under the water. Duxbury Reef seems to be made from rows of rocks pointing southwest, so I assume that this pattern continues under the water. If I see a row of shallow rocks pointing at me, I guess that there are more shallow rocks under me and I get out of the way before the next wave arrives. I’d point to a dark spot that Maryly was paddling towards and say “Don’t you see that shallow spot” She would look around and say “No, what shallow spot”? Then a wave would slip under me (in slightly deeper water) and break into the side of her boat (in slightly shallower water) and surf her sideways a few feet. A valuable lesson.
We hid behind the reef, with the exception of a few gaps where waves came through, and paddled along the rows of rocks towards shore. As I predicted the reef broke the waves and we had a safe trip, if a little nerve wracking to Maryly. Eventually we worked our way to a little sandy beach against the cliffs just around the corner from the next ocean facing beach, called Agate Beach. We had a quick lunch as the water approached high tide then headed back for the second half of the day. We paddled away from the reef closer to shore in Bolinas Bay and went across a very shallow area. For a long time I could tap the bottom while paddling. After a while I could still touch bottom by sounding for it with the length of my paddle. This was the really scary area to me. A large rogue wave from the south would break on us and surf us for hundreds of meters. Either banging the kayaks into each other or separating us. A few medium waves did come by from time to time. These waves rose up and “thought about breaking” but none of them did this day. Another aspect of reading the water is looking at a wave and deciding, from experience, whether it is going to break or not.
We paddled safely across the deep part of the bay and soon made it to the mouth of the lagoon. All we had to do now was make it through the gauntlet of the breaking waves into the channel. A motor boat was coming out from the lagoon, and I suggested watching this boat and seeing where it came out. I figured the boat would use the deepest part of the channel where the waves were least likely to break. A LARGE set of waves came in. Just past us the first wave broke large and noisy so we turned back out to sea. I backed out so I could watch what the waves did in the channel, and we both saw the motor boat turn tail and run away from the waves! After this large set, however, the motor boat plowed out and away safely.
I told Maryly that the amount of time that it takes to recover your nerve after a large set like that is just about equal to the time it takes another large set to arrive. So how do we get in? The smart thing to do would be to try to guess which wave was the last one in the big set and paddle like mad in behind that one. Maryly objected to the phrase “paddling like mad” and said she couldn’t do that. Talking about it had already taken longer than the last large wave, but we started in anyway during the calm between sets. After a while, another large set came in behind us, but we were so far inside that it broke 50 or more meters behind us. Over the noise I wasn’t sure Maryly heard me say that this was good news. Breaking that far behind us meant that we were now safe from the large waves, and only had to contend with them when they had lost all their energy. We paddled into the mouth of the lagoon without even getting a surfing ride. A very successful landing from Maryly's point of view.
We stopped at the cars to re-arrange a little clothing. I took off my helmet and replaced it with a wide brimmed hat. Then we changed roles as guide and student so Maryly could lead us into the Bolinas Lagoon. It turns out that Maryly’s family used to summer in one of the houses on the shore of the lagoon and she new this water very well. We let the still rising tide pull us into a winding channel with muddy sides. After a short while the water was over the edge of the channel and the lagoon widened out. We ran aground on this shallow water and looked around for the channel again. Along the edges of the channels there was a dark algae growing in the mud. It didn’t grow in the deepest water, and it didn’t grow on the flat mud exposed at low tide. So we could navigate the channels by pointing our kayaks between two rows of dark that was dimly seen through the water. We followed this seemingly endless fractal curved path back and forth and thought we were going nowhere for a while, but finally made it out to deeper water. That or perhaps the tide rose high enough that the channels no longer mattered to us.
Maryly knew a place where herons and egrets liked to hang out in large numbers so we headed straight there first. A little farther along was a place Maryly called “The Shark Pool”. She had been there once when the water was full of thousands of leopard sharks. The large number of these sharks making the water boil had given her the creeps the last time she was here. I had to see this! Unfortunately, the leopard sharks were not swarming, or feeding, or mating, or whatever it was that Maryly saw on that trip. All we saw this time was calm opaque muddy water.
On the trip back out towards the middle of the lagoon, however, I started seeing puffs of mud rising off the bottom in clear water. Just as I pointed this out, we both saw what was stirring the bottom up: A large (over a meter long) dark leopard shark! It was trying to get away from us and was herding itself between and in front of our two kayaks. Eventually it got really spooked, started moving really fast, and managed to turn back and zoom off between and behind the two kayaks. Maryly says that her reaction was very visceral: "Oh no! A shark!" While my reaction was more joyous: "Oh cool! A shark!"
We paddled across the middle of the lagoon and around the far side of the sandy island in the middle. On the corner of this island was a large group of gray pelicans. There were pelicans everywhere in the water and on the land. We saw one in the water playing with a small piece of trash, a red slip of plastic. The bird would toss it up in the air with its beak and catch it. Then drop it in the water and pick it up again. We saw another pelican doing the same thing with a small stick. As we rounded the island, the pelicans on and near the shore allowed us to pass very close to them.
We headed away from the island and straight towards the entrance to the lagoon again. As we cut across this water, a large group of terns rose up screaming from the middle of the island. They flew up over us in a cloud of noisy wings and kept up their cries as they circled around us for a while and then flew back to their beach on the island. Each individual cry sounded vaguely familiar, like I should remember where I had heard a similar noise. The cry of a baby? The cry of some mammal? No, it eludes me. The whole flock of them crying together made a wonderful other-worldly sound.
By the time we made it back to the mouth of the lagoon, the tide was slack and just starting to think about going back out again. Perfect timing for the landing on the end of a perfectly planned day.