As a new member of the BASK (Bay Area Sea Kayakers) club I was eager to start participating. At the BASK meetings, they beg people to initiate more trips, and I heard someone bemoan the fact that "We don't do as many moonlight paddles as we used to". I had done a moonlight paddle through the arch at Goat Rock State Beach once, and had a magical experience. So I published my account of that solo paddle in their newsletter, and scheduled a group paddle on June 1st through the Arch, which would be another full moon. At the next BASK meeting, I did a poor job of advertising my trip: "It's in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night", about an 80 mile drive north of the average BASK trip. Perhaps I should have advertised more of the positives, like hot tubbing and camping out under the redwoods afterwards. Without those inducements, nobody showed up. I did talk to one BASK member who was planning on coming, but I talked her out of it by discussing the current weather conditions and her confidence in her surf launch skills. The waves did calm down quite a bit by Saturday night, and she probably could have launched with no problems. The water around the arch was a different matter.
I showed up at the parking lot at 9:30 PM for the 10:00 PM "meeting". As I drove down the road to the beach I saw a dozen driftwood fires scattered up the beach. Some of them were situated to cast flickering illumination on big rocks or the cliffs. The natives are restless tonight! It was a warm evening with little wind, and it had been a hot summer day on a weekend. The parking lot was half full in the middle of the night! Many of the people hanging around the parking lot were fishermen, getting ready to dip nets in the water for surf fish. I heard these fishermen talking about how the driftwood fires were going to scare off the sea lions. The thing I couldn't figure out from the snatches of conversation that I heard was whether or not scaring off the sea lions was a good thing to them. Knowing how fishermen are always griping about seals and sea lions stealing THEIR fish, or eating undersized fish, I assume they thought this was a good thing.
The moon was not as high as the last time I did this and the sky was a lot brighter. There was a thin haze in the air which was illuminated by the moon, washing out a lot of the stars. So if there were any shooting stars this evening, I didn't see them. Instead, there was someone shooting off bottle rockets way around the beach south of the parking lot. Against the law, and if caught subject to enormous official hassles and fines these days. But whoever was doing it was showing good sense: Launching off a wet sand beach with cliffs and no vegetation around, firing them up at an angle over the water. Most important of all, doing it in a remote location where the officials would never be able to approach in time to catch them in the act. I was saddened to think that this sort of behavior was once considered youthful "blowing off steam" and treated lightly. But today, if caught, they would be treated as harshly as terrorists. This sort of official crackdown usually results in the wrong change in behavior: Concern about avoiding getting caught increases at the expense of concern about real safety. In this case, the "perpetrators" managed to be safe from officials and "fire-safe" at the same time.
I waited around until 10:30 PM, in case any kayakers showed up to join me, then went ahead and got in the water. Of course this is now officially NOT a BASK trip, because BASK trips are always safe, and solo kayaking is not a safe thing to do. The last time I did this I worried a little bit about sharks, and remembered a story a surfer had told me about a kayaker getting hit right here. I dismissed it as an urban myth, but when I published my account in the BASK newsletter, someone forwarded me a copy of an article about the event. It actually did happen to a BASK member in a sit-on-top kayak like mine. I also managed to track down an account on the WEB of another BASK member getting some serious shark damage to his kayak down at Ano Nuevo. I have a friend who is interested in kayaking, but will never consider ocean kayaking because he can't stand the thought of not knowing what is going on underneath him. I thought about all these things as I paddled out to the end of Goat Rock and across the open area towards the arch. If I had company on this trip, would I feel safer? Would we tell scary stories to each other and only make each other feel worse? Or would we all worry about it quietly but be too macho to be the first one to mention the subject?
I do know the answers to these questions: With company I actually would be safer. I have heard that great whites have a feeding strategy for this sort of thing: They sneak up and hit you once, then go away for a half hour or so to give you time to bleed to death. This way, you don't have time to put up much of a fight the first time, and there's no-one home to put up a fight when they come back. Humans usually survive this trick because we get out of the water during that half hour. I wouldn't quietly wonder if my companions were also thinking about sharks, I would show them where the ace bandage and tape was in my emergency kit (strapped to my back so I still have it if I loose the kayak). Shark attacks are actually a very rare occurrence. Hundreds of times as many people die from sleeper waves every year than the number of people who are attacked by a shark (and survive). Just betting on the numbers, I was safer out there on the water than driving back to my house in the van (especially tonight with all these people driving around on a warm moonlit summer evening). So my chances of getting hit are very small. But if it happened, then my chances of getting safely out of the water would be much greater with someone else along in another kayak to help.
When I got to the arch I paddled around to the far side to come back through facing the direction home. The water was very rough. The waves were coming at just the right angle to pass in front of the opening and reflect back. This produced very choppy water, random standing waves, and breakers in any direction. If I had company with me, I would have told them this was pretty bad and perhaps we shouldn't go through there tonight. But in this rough water I was no longer afraid of sharks. My sit-on-top kayak is easy to get back into, and I felt indestructible in my full wetsuit. So I paddled through, and did not really have any problems. On the other side, the water was much calmer. I was a little more nervous than usual, and didn't get the all-clear-and-safe feeling when I was halfway under the arch. I was way out the other side before I felt comfortable letting go of the paddle long enough to pull out my flashlight and try to illuminate the arch behind me. The flashlight illuminated the haze in the air and produced a blinding rod of light that made seeing what I was pointing at difficult. I hoped that some of the natives with their driftwood fires were looking in this direction as I waved my beam across the arch.
I paddled back to Goat Rock and towards shore. When I got to within 100 meters of shore, I realized that I had been tense for the whole trip when I relaxed and really started to enjoy the moonlight on the water. I used to be afraid of the surf more than anything else, and here I was relaxing in it after all that worrying about sharks! I lingered just outside the mild breakers for a while, but had to head in and get home. I soon caught a medium sized wave, braced into it, and got a ride sideways up onto the sand. A fisherman came down and asked me if I had fun (and to ask about sea lions). At first I started to stammer that I had not had as much fun as I expected, but he interrupted to say he saw me zooming up the beach. Oh yea, that part was fun.