I kept hearing things like “Shark Café” and “I wouldn’t try that,” when I inquired about kayaking around the Point Reyes Lighthouse, 90 minutes north of San Francisco, California.
Part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, the lighthouse rests high on a wave-battered cliff in what is known as one of the windiest places on the planet, with winds clocked at the lighthouse at 133 mph. Equally daunting is the fog. It’s the second foggiest place in the world, closely following Newfoundland up in Canada.
Combine that with unpredictable currents, potential for great white sharks and unruly surf, and needless to say I had my doubts about successfully paddling beneath and around the lighthouse that’s been clinging to the massive headland since 1870.
Myself and three others launched out of the backend of Tomales Bay and camped at Jack’s Beach. The surf roared throughout the night and into the next morning. There was a lot of anxiety hanging over our concealed campsite as we contemplated our 40-mile paddling trip.
At dawn we launched, hoping to exit Bodega Bay and then paddle 23 miles down to the lighthouse. We were denied the next beach up and had to camp at North Blue Gum Beach. Before landing and pitching our tents, we sat in the channel in our kayaks and gauged the size of the swell. It was 6-to-8-foot inside the mouth of Tomales Bay, where we watched from our kayaks and 10-to15-foot outside and beyond Tomales Bluff, where it closed out across to Bodega Bay.
I could sense some anxious paddlers in our camp that day, so we opted for hiking the narrow peninsula for a better perspective of what the paddle would be like. We were already mentally prepared for any non-landings once we rounded Tomales Bluff. It would be a long, straight shot to the lighthouse where we would paddle at least a half mile off the coast due to the large surf.
Our immediate concern though was escaping out of Tomales and Bodega Bay. Once we hiked atop the peninsula the surf had gratefully subsided with the outgoing tide. Things were looking up for a successful exit of the two bays. Our moods instantly lightened as we geared up for a predawn launch for the lighthouse.
Excitement filled our chilly campsite before the sun rose over Tomales Bay. Once out of our tents we quickly loaded our kayaks and got on the water. Thirty minutes later we experienced a dry launch and exit as we paddled over 8-foot swells while rounding Tomales Bluff.
Dense mist rose from the crashing surf, wafting skyward as we paddled passed guano-cloaked Bird Rock. The surf boomed on deserted beaches as we stayed close to each other, paddling in a diamond formation just in case there were an encounter with a great white or visibility became an issue. Fortunately we never saw any dorsal fins, but we did see other wildlife as we kept an eye on the lighthouse fading in and out of billowing fog.
Two humpback whales fed 50 yards off our starboard bows, as a posse of common murres picked up the scraps. As the sun faded in and out of the fog, we noticed that we were paddling against an up-coast current. We were also anticipating a northwest tailwind, but instead we paddled against a strong southeast headwind. By the time we passed Abbott’s Lagoon, the wind really kicked in, and continuing to gust to 40 knots as we approached the lighthouse.
For a while it felt like we were on a paddling treadmill, but we knew we were there not only by the lighthouse but the visitors gazing at us in disbelief at our paddling endeavor. Swell was crashing into the cliffs and reverberating back to us creating very uneven, choppy conditions. It was another five miles to Drakes Bay, and once there we finally had that tailwind we did without for most of the day.
As we kayaked toward Drakes Estero the southeast winds increased. Rain had filled in too, and as we paddled we noticed a steady stream of vehicles leaving the lighthouse. The rangers had closed off visitor access to Point Reyes and the 300 steps leading down to the weather-beaten lighthouse. We later learned the winds were gusting to over 50 mph, a clear reminder Point Reyes is one of the more volatile regions along the California Coast.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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