Carrying my whitewater kayak down the stairs at Swami’s on a shoulder, wetsuit draped over the other, I survey the ocean on one of the most beautiful days yet this year. March 16 and 75 degrees; this is why I live in Encinitas.
The lineup gives me the stink eye as I paddle north past them all, close enough to snake the next swell if it presents itself. Little do the surfies know that for surf kayakers, the wave at Swami’s is treacherous. Too many rocks, too many surfers, and then there’s that reef. Imagine getting dragged along upside down, either thrown up on the rocks or with your neck broken in the shallows on the reef. Sure you can roll, but when you pop up, you’re still in trouble. It’s fun to taunt the surfies, though, especially on a day like today.
I catch a few great rides at the bone yard on a super-clear glassy set, with my 12-foot red plastic high-volume roto-molded torpedo. I do some paddle spins then get back out for the next one about three times faster than any surfer — you can see why they hate us. Winded after sprinting repeatedly with my arms, I paddle out into the ocean. Bottom half sealed inside my spray skirt, it already feels like I could have done without the full wetsuit today, it’s so darn warm.
The surfers looked relieved as I moved far beyond any potential outside swell. I pass a couple of sweepers standing up, cruising along. The first milestone on the North County coast is the kelp beds. Lobster boats are starting to pick up their traps; the end of March is the end of their season. I look down into the garden and glide across giant brown leaves, careful to lean back a little to keep the nose of the kayak from getting tangled. There’s all kinds of bait jumping. A Cormorant pops up about 20 feet off. It gives a wary look, as if to say, Normally, you might scare me away, but I’m too busy catching fish to let you bother me today.
Fifty yards on, a gaggle of seagulls floats in formation, opportunistically waiting for the next bait-ball to surface. My practice is to keep paddling without stopping and without looking back, until I get way out there. It’s no different today. The gentle rolling surface cooperates with my hull speed, with almost no splashing. Twelve feet of pointy kayak tracks well. My boat is the perfect all-around Southern California self-propelled watercraft. At about 22 pounds, it’s a lot lighter than those behemoth ride-on-top tugboats most suckers buy. They’re afraid to really learn how to paddle a kayak. If they did, they’d realize that a whitewater boat is like a Ferrari compared with a 1950s station wagon. It can open up the whole ocean to them.
One of the bigger commercial lobster boats is motoring fast up the coast to his next set. Probably working too many traps, as my old friend John Bowen would say. John passed away several years ago. He lobstered this coast for 25 years and was always bitching about the increasing pressure on the North County catch. Once, when I passed a floating sea lion, I remembered that John would talk about how theyd shoot the sea lions that broke into their traps. I paddled up next to it and gave it a smack on the back with the paddle to make sure it was dead. The feeling of rigor transferred up the paddle shaft. Yup. But I didn’t look for the telltale bullet hole.
As the big commercial lobster boat heads toward me, wide open and getting louder, a low rhythmic chop-thud indicates that a military helicopter is also coming on fast. It’s a gunship out of Pendleton going like a bat out of hell, 50 feet off the water and heading right at me. As a paraglider pilot myself, I know something about controlled air space. These guys are not supposed to be lower than 500 feet, unless theyre doing business. This was obviously a joyride. You couldn’t fault them for hugging the ocean on such a spectacular day.
Since they were lined up on me, I couldn’t resist having the kind of fun with them I usually reserve for new pilots out of Carlsbad, the ones who fly one-seaters all over the coast, always too noisy and too low. When they figure they’ve just about scared the shit out of this hapless kayaker out at sea all alone, I launch the kayak paddle vertically into the air right in front of them.
A whitewater paddle is made of super-light graphite, an aerodynamic piece of highly crafted engineering. We whitewater paddlers like to spin them, twirl them, throw them, kite them into the wind, and basically show off whenever possible, doing tricks while surfing down a wave. I can throw a paddle really high. The goal is to have it bounce off the nose of the gunship and scare the living shit out of them, mostly because its the last thing these joyride jockeys expect. This time, I didn’t throw it 50 feet high. But I still got my point across, as the pilot made what you might call an evasive maneuver and noticeably gained altitude in what might be termed a flinch. Hope you remember that next time you’re strafing goat farmers in Afghanistan, bub. One of them might have a rocket launcher.
I paddled out another mile or so. The sky was clear, interrupted only by jet contrails out of Lindberg heading north to who knows where. I came to a stop and let the boat drift around, pointing back toward the shore. A cacophony emanated from the coast, car noise, trains, the stress of a million ants on top of each other. What luck to be the only one out here. I started my relaxation breathing and yoga techniques, sitting up straight in the kayak in perfect yoga position.
Paramahansa Yogananda, for whom Swami’s is named, recommends that when using the Om technique — you can do it as loud as you want to out here — that you repeat it 12 times, or multiples of 12, or something like that. I’m forgetting my Kriya yoga training a bit, but it always feels as if by the time you get to 12 you are definitely in a beautiful place. If you can’t feel peace floating off of the Self Realization Fellowship Meditation gardens and compound in Encinitas, then you’re probably too far gone.
You’d think you’d lose your equilibrium with your eyes closed, floating in a kayak, concentrating on your third eye, but by the fifth Om or so, you forget about all that. In fact, you forget about everything. Stress melts away. Usually, on this type of paddle, I am out here talking to God and the saints and all the great ones, looking for guidance or rescue or purpose or just Help, Lord. You know what I mean. So demanding we are, we excited little human souls.
Being alone on the ocean is a good place for this type of thing. Today, I was looking for help in redefining my purpose with my consulting and training business and with some big decisions that were coming up. The trick is to do the meditation part first, before you get into the asking-for-help part — so Yogananda says.
After the 12th Om, my eyes opened slowly. I inhaled again, feeling my lungs fill up all the way with a deep satisfying inhale. Just then — right friggin’ in front of me — pshwaa! A whale spout, and then the back of a juvenile whale, popped up.
"Well, how are you brother?" I said.
Whoosshh! Another whale — must have been his mom — pops up next to him and puts a healthy geyser 15 feet into the air. Yeah, baby! What a show. It’s late March and still whale season, but these two seem to be heading north. I try not to splash too much as they roll on their sides. I stare right through the water at their huge bodies. The little one pops up again, closer this time, and rolls over to give me a look with his eye. How cool is that?
I can see the barnacles and scars and crusty stuff all over their bodies. The little guy seems to be standing on his nose now. His triangular tail, about five feet wide, reminds me of a snorkeler’s fins popping out of the water. Every once in a while, the mom surfaces again, and it seems like I can count to five from when I first see her head to when her whole body finally curves over and there is her tail. Big Mama! What an incredible privilege it is to be this close to our giant cetaceous friends.
And now they are scaring up huge schools of anchovies, which run across the surface in every direction, trying to get away.
A white-headed pelican with a wingspan about three feet across hovers overhead. He looks excitedly confused because there are so many potential targets below. A fast-moving fin charges across the surface. I look down into the water and see a Jacques Cousteau–like rolling-and-turning mega-school of anchovies. What a scene.
Another big splash catches my eye, and suddenly a pod of 25 or so porpoise descend, feeding excitedly in a line, herding their own lunch, diving and jumping into them, with anchovies frantically jumping out of the water, trying to get away. Sometimes you wish you had a waterproof camera.
After all the excitement dies down, the whales disappear to who knows where. The porpoise boogie up the coast at top speed. I am smiling. How quiet it is out here again, how natural. Three young sea lions, about three feet long each, pop their curious noses out of the water, keeping their distance but clearly interested in all the action.
I head back with a wonderful peaceful feeling in my heart, a sense of thankfulness and appreciation for the beauty of our spectacular coastline. I can see from Carlsbad to La Jolla. Most people only see the small slice of the coast where they are — looking out. Too many people, too much development, and all fighting for a slice of view of this magnificent ocean. They should learn how to kayak. They might discover how awesome their backyard really is.
I sort out my business decisions with a particularly refreshing inspiration. And now there’s another Gunship 500 overhead — could it be the same guys? — slowing down to give me a good look. I do a paddle spin around my neck, and the universal coast-guard signal of one paddle wave. Yes, I see you. The helicopter hangs another second or two, then continues on.
The surfies in the Swami’s lineup watch uneasily as I go from a red speck on the horizon to floating right next to them. A bunch of old local hardcores are lined up, ready to cut one another out of the next one. I pull up next to the outside-most guy. He doesn’t expect this, doesn’t quite know how to handle being beside this big red potential shish kebab. I give him a big smile and say, “Could it be any nicer out here today?” He nods and smiles back, and I turn and catch a perfect swell and ride it all the way in.
— Bart Berry