Surf Travel Reports

A Most Unlikely Place

By Thomas S. Garlinghouse

Preparing to go surfing in the cold waters off Bodega Bay, California, is a little like organizing for an expedition. While certainly not on the scale of, say, an assault on Mount Everest, it nonetheless requires a considerable amount of planning and preparation. Wave and weather forecasts need to be consulted, buoy readings checked, and tidal charts scrutinized. And that’s just for starters. Equipment has to be assembled, organized, repaired if needed, and most importantly, endlessly checked and rechecked.

The night before I left, I carefully laid everything out on the floor of my bedroom and did a quick mental inventory. Running down my list, I checked off each item one by one: surfboard, wetsuit, wetsuit cap, booties, wax, towels, thermos, food, water, and warm clothes. Everything was accounted for and I felt ready for any contingency.

But now, as I guided my Jeep Cherokee west on Highway 12 through the stunningly beautiful Sonoma countryside that to me resembled the green, rolling hills of Ireland, I couldn’t help but think I’d forgotten something. A little voice in the back of my mind kept nagging me — telling me something was missing. Still, for the life of me, I couldn’t think of what I might have left behind.

Oh well, I thought, if I couldn’t remember what it was then it obviously must not have been that important. Seeking to redirect my thoughts, I rolled down the window, draped my arm over the sill, and concentrated on my driving. The pungent odor of manure drifted into the cab as I passed a dairy farm. Standing behind a fence along the side of the road was a small herd of Holsteins. Their tails swishing back and forth, they stood chewing grass and staring vacantly at the few passing cars. On the hill above, like something out of a postcard, was a dignified old Victorian farmhouse, its brilliantly white walls in stark contrast to the surrounding green.

The road began to twist and turn through a series of switchbacks, and I was forced to slow down. When it straightened back out again, I stepped on the gas, eager to reach my destination.

Bodega Bay is, to say the least, an unlikely spot to look for rideable waves. A small and picturesque seaside village of 1,000 inhabitants, it is located in Sonoma County about 60 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 1. Renowned for dense fog, heavy rain, and strong wind, and far removed from anything resembling the languid, Mediterranean-like beaches of southern California, it hardly seems a place most surfers would deliberately seek out. Water temperatures rarely top 60 degrees, and wetsuits — especially thick 4- and 5-mm fullsuits — are mandatory. Winds are relentless, blowing out of the northwest on a nearly regular basis so that the surrounding waters are frequently solid whitecaps. The surf is unpredictable and often dangerous. All in all, the place is a cold, unforgiving environment — a place that, for surfers, requires commitment, tenacity, and, most importantly, respect.

Fortunately, the place isn’t always a mess. Although one would never confuse it with the Gold Coast of Australia or the north shore of Oahu, the place has its own unique charm. Every once in a while, when the winds die down, the sandbars organize themselves, and the water turns smooth and glassy, Bodega Bay can be a special place. With the right swell, the waves can be stellar.

During my college years, I used to come to Bodega Bay fairly routinely to surf. And I had good memories of the place. Though I wouldn’t presume to classify myself as a Bodega “local,” I could at least say I was pretty darn familiar with the area and generally comfortable with its unpredictable waves. I hadn’t been back in several years, but I was hoping things hadn’t changed too much. I’d heard that the town had grown a bit over the intervening years, but that it was still pretty much the same — a relatively quiet coastal enclave untouched by most of the major developments that have characterized the rest of the state.

As movie buffs know, the town of Bodega Bay was made famous as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s spine-tingling 1963 thriller “The Birds,” starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. The original story, written by acclaimed British novelist Daphne Du Maurier, was set in England’s scenic Cornish countryside and chronicled the struggles of a farmer and his family against murderous birds that suddenly descend on their village. The famed director had read Du Maurier’s story and was determined to make it into a movie, but wanted to adapt it to a contemporary setting and place the action in a California coastal town. He had filmed his 1943 movie “Shadow of a Doubt” in Santa Rosa and was thoroughly enamored with Sonoma County. When he discovered Bodega Bay, less than 20 miles to the west, he knew he had found his movie town. He instantly fell in love with the area’s famously inclement weather and foreboding, gloomy skyline. Filming began in 1961, with the towns of Bodega Bay, Bodega, and Marshall providing the exteriors, and a sound stage in Hollywood the interiors.

In addition to its fame as the setting for Hitchcock’s movie, Bodega Bay is also, perhaps ironically, one of North America’s best birding spots. It ranks internationally as one of the American Bird Conservancy’s 500 “globally important bird areas.” On any day, large concentrations of egrets, herons, hawks, pelicans, terns, and gulls can be seen. Endangered species such as the snowy plover, black oystercatcher, and long-billed curlew also call the area home.

As I rolled through the tiny town of Valley Ford — the hometown of surf legend Dale Webster, aka “Daily Wavester,” the only man to surf everyday since 1975 — that annoying little voice in my head started up again. It was growing increasingly insistent, and, finally, I had had enough. There was no point in dwelling on it anymore. Shaking my head, I silenced it once and for all and directed my thoughts to the upcoming day.

I was headed just north of town, to a powerful beach break that resembles San Francisco’s famous Ocean Beach. At nearly two miles long, it is the longest unbroken stretch of sandy beach in Sonoma County. A west-facing break, it receives swell from nearly any direction but is notoriously temperamental. It can easily shift from mild, lake-like conditions to wall-upon-wall of closed out whitewater within the space of a few heartbeats. A heavy undertow and strong rip currents pose additional hazards, and surfing it on a big day requires experience, wave knowledge, and skill. Bank Wright, who wrote the classic, if prosaically titled, Surfing California, described it as “A wide, sandy beach break. Takes any swell and will hold shape from 2-12 feet. Winter surf is usually big and powerful — getting outside difficult.”

The locals who regularly surf there are a hardy bunch. They are men and women accustomed to cold water, unpredictable surf, and treacherous close-out sets. They are also — though “accustomed” isn’t quite the right word — fully aware of other dangers. Bodega Bay sits at the northern end of the infamous “Red Triangle” — that stretch of water extending south from Bodega Bay, encompassing the Farallon Islands, and reaching down to Monterey. The Red Triangle is a breeding and cruising ground for one of nature’s most terrifying predators — the great white shark. It has the highest number of reported white shark attacks in the world. Numerous white sharks have been encountered in the area over the years. On Thanksgiving Day, 2002, for example, a 48-year old attorney from Santa Rosa, Michael Casey, was attacked by a 16-foot great white while body-boarding. He suffered lacerations to his legs that required 80 stitches to close. His wasn’t the first such encounter, however. Six years earlier, in 1996, a surfer named Kennon Cahill was also attacked by a great white. Luckily, Cahill wasn’t bitten by the shark, only bumped a few times.

The most recent attack, however, took place in 2005 and involved, like the case of Michael Casey, a full-fledged attack. Twenty-year old Sonoma County surfer Megan Halavais was bitten in the leg by a shark estimated to be between 16 and 18 feet long. The shark’s bite just missed Halavais’s main artery. The trauma doctor who treated the female surfer claimed that had the bite severed Halavais’s main artery, she could have bled to death or lost her leg.

Despite such tales, the local crew is comprised of a dedicated group of individuals who epitomize the attitude, “hey, if it happens, it happens. What you gonna do?” In addition to braving sharks, they go out during conditions that would make most surfers soil the insides of their wetsuits. Huge conditions are common, especially during the winter, and the break can easily transform into something out of the “roaring forties.” By the same token, the local surfers aren’t foolish. When conditions are out of control, they know when to call it quits.

It was a little after nine in the morning when I drove down Bodega Bay’s main drag, a twisting road that skirted along the east side of the bay. To the west, reflecting the early morning light was Bodega Head, the first prominent point of land north of Point Reyes. It juts out into the Pacific and curves southward, partially enclosing the bay. Within its confines, numerous sailboats and fishing trawlers lay at anchor, their masts arrayed like the battle pikes of some medieval army. I passed “The Tides” restaurant, which Hitchcock had famously used in several scenes, and proceeded on an even windier stretch of Highway 1 that led me north of town.

My first stop was the Bodega Bay Surf Shack, the only surf shop in town. It is housed in a small, weather-beaten building perched on the edge of the bay. I pulled into the small parking lot adjoining the building, hastily exited my car, and stepped inside.

A bored-looking kid was lounging behind the counter. He looked up briefly as I entered and gave me a cursory nod with his chin. I proceeded to wander idly through the store, glancing at the merchandise, smelling the heavy scent of neoprene and wax in the air, and generally getting a “feel” for the place. Though small, the Surf Shack was crowded with all manner of gear — from boards, wetsuits, wax, and beachwear to surf magazines, videos, and DVDs. I came across a rack of hooded sweatshirts, each one emblazoned with the Surf Shack logo. Another rack was given over to hats — baseball caps, wide-brimmed sunhats, and, for this area especially, warm knit beanies.

I don’t know whether it’s the case with other surfers, but for me surf shops are like toy stores. I love being in them. I love wandering up and down each aisle, running my hands over the new boards, touching the wetsuits, and smelling the wax. I recalled reading in Surfer Magazine that surf shops are “supply depots, halfway houses, classrooms, libraries, churches, banks and museums.” A bit melodramatic perhaps, but for me at least, not far off the mark.

On one wall were a series of grainy photographs of, apparently, local surfers ripping local waves. I leaned in close to get a better look and recognized many of the spots, though a few looked wholly unfamiliar. Several of the shots showed perfect, glass-like conditions – more testament to the fact that, contrary to popular belief, Bodega Bay isn’t always a blown out mess.

After some ten minutes, the kid finally responded. “Hey, man,” he asked, “you need any help?”

“Nope, just looking,” I replied.

After buying an obligatory bar of wax, I set out again, heading north on Highway 1. The weather was remarkably clear and the air was crisp but the wind was starting to blow. I wondered if this meant that it would be blown out. I drove past the turnoff for Sonoma Coast State Beach, eventually pulling off the road onto a small sandstone bluff that overlooked the break. It was low tide and the beach spread out for a long distance both north and south.  A rivermouth emptied out just south of me, a winding, driftwood-edged river that flowed out from the surrounding hills. Farther south, down the beach, an endless parade of sand dunes and beach grass stretched into the distance. To the north, by contrast, the sand ended, replaced by a jagged coastline of mussel-encrusted rock.

I exited my car and walked up to the edge of the bluff. A disorganized wind swell was rolling in and there was some chop from the onshores but, overall, conditions didn’t look too bad. I’d certainly seen worse in my life.

A few surfers were already out but didn’t seem to be catching many waves. They bobbed up and down like tiny black dots.

As I stood watching, I felt a slight dampening of my early enthusiasm. I knew from experience that surfing the rugged coast north of San Francisco can be a sketchy proposition. There are numerous hazards — such as extreme cold water, jagged rocks, pounding surf, gnarly rip currents, and aggressive sea creatures — that require surfers to tread lightly. And, truth be told, the whole white shark thing was beginning to rattle my nerves. I kept envisioning one of these leering predators lurking in the depths, just waiting for me to enter the water.

By the same token, I had never had a serious problem surfing up north. In fact, the only white shark I had ever seen up close was behind the thick walls of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And the worst wipeout I ever had had occurred down in Baja, in warm water and close to a deluxe gringo housing development.

I decided to suit up. What the hell, I thought. Might as well paddle out. I mean, this was the reason I’d come, wasn’t it?

As I squeezed into my wetsuit, a battered pickup truck pulled up next to me, its tires grinding against the dirt and rocks. There was a longboard strapped securely to the roof. The door opened and an older man got out. He walked up to the edge of the cliff and, lifting a hand up to shade his eyes, gazed out.

He looked to be in his 50s with salt and pepper hair and a lean, weather-beaten face. He was wearing a worn pair of jeans, a windbreaker, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap.

Perhaps sensing I was scrutinizing him he turned directly toward me and said aloud, “Looks pretty shitty, huh?”

I shrugged. “Thought I’d give it a shot.”

I zipped up my wetsuit, pulled on my cap, and extracted my 6’6” Gary Hanel thruster from the back of my vehicle. It was a good board, even if somewhat dated and scarred by countless dings and half-assed patch jobs. Numerous friends had told me over the years to toss it and get a new one, but I’d always liked the feel of it and simply couldn’t bring myself to sell it or throw it away. I had bought it over ten years ago at a now defunct surf shop in San Diego.

With my board clamped securely under my arm, I started down the sandstone bluff.

“Have fun,” the older surfer called out after me. There was a distinct tone of sarcasm in his voice.

I carefully picked my way down the well-trod trail and trotted out onto the sand. I sauntered down to the water’s edge and stood for a moment, waiting for the inevitable lull before paddling out. Problem was, there wasn’t much of a lull that I could see. What I did see was a seemingly endless parade of whitewater rolling in without any letup, and what I didn’t see was anything resembling a paddling channel.

With a sigh, I laid my board on the sand and sat down beside it. I recalled hearing somewhere that getting outside here was tougher than “escaping from Alcatraz.” If this was a moderately-sized day, I hated to see what a big day looked like. Finally, after staring at the water for several minutes, I got to my feet. No time like the present, I told myself. I brushed the sand off my butt and secured the leash to my ankle. Then I picked up my board and thrust it under my arm.

I hit the water paddling and spent the next several minutes duck-diving wave after wave, thinking I’d never get outside. When I finally reached the lineup my arms felt like noodles and I was breathing heavily through an open mouth.

I sat up on my board to catch my breath, and gazed around. A handful of surfers were scattered about, each one stony-faced and staring out at the horizon, waiting for the next set. My sudden arrival in the lineup failed to elicit even a sideways glance from the others. Usually I’ll get at least a cursory nod or a lackluster “hey!” But not today. The mood out in the water seemed, if not outright surly, at least a bit on the grumpy side. Perhaps it was the weather, I thought. The wind was beginning to increase, causing the waves to turn even more disorganized and junky. Whatever the case, the overall vibe could best be described as sullen and grumbling, cantankerous even.

I hunched down over my board, thrust cold fingers under my armpits, and watched the surfer immediately to my right scratch for a peaky right. He popped up, lost his balance, and was pitched forward, hitting the water with a splash. Moments later a guy to my left took off on one of the better looking waves of the day, a head high peak. He made the drop, then disappeared in the spray and mist.

I sat patiently, waiting for my turn, but the ocean seemingly didn’t want to send anything my way. Several minutes elapsed as I stared out at the horizon, wondering if I’d head home without catching a single wave.

My patience finally paid off. A wave rolled toward me, and feeling the drag of the bottom began to form. I stroked hard, felt my board move underneath me, and hopped to my feet. The wave was a bit more wobbly and disorganized than I would have liked, but it was definitely rideable. I took my time settling into a gentle bottom turn, then came back up to the top for a sweeping off the top. As the wave reformed, I made one more quick little turn, and then pulled out the back of the wave.

Not bad, I told myself. Not great, but not bad. I paddled back out, eager to catch another one.

As the session went on, the waves got steadily bumpier and more disorganized as the onshore wind increased. I caught a few more waves, each one sub-par — definitely nothing to write home about. Eventually, the surf was almost wholly blown out. Looking around, I noticed several other surfers heading toward shore, a few paddling rather hard. I grabbed a final wave and slid down its face, beating the wave to the bottom. Whitewater exploded behind me. I belly-rode the rest of the way to shore, and walked back up the beach toward my car.

On my way up the bluff, I ran into a teenager coming down. He was holding a pair of binoculars and had an excited look on his face.

“Hey, man,” he called out, “did you see it?”

I looked at him. “See what?”

“The shark.”

“A shark? What shark?”

“Some guy just saw a shark out there.”

I felt an involuntary shiver run up my spine. “What do you mean? Just now?”

“Like five minutes ago,” he replied, nodding his head vigorously. “He said it looked like a great white.”

I swallowed. “You sure?”

“That’s what he said.”

When I got back to my car and proceeded to unlock the door, I saw my hand shaking — and it wasn’t from the cold. I turned to look back at the water. Christ, I had just been out there — surfing in that water while that thing was cruising around. Had it been stalking me? What would’ve happened if I had stayed out longer? What if I hadn’t caught that last wave? What if it had decided to attack me? Would I have stood a chance? Would I have ended up like Michael Casey or Megan Halavais? Or worse?

With these questions swirling about in my head, I stripped out of my wetsuit, put on dry clothes, and drove off. I left Bodega Bay behind, still shaken from the experience, still trying to come to grips with all the “what if” questions. As I passed through the town of Valley Ford, I suddenly remembered what it was I had forgotten: My first aid kit. When I road trip — whether it’s a surf trip or something else — I usually toss in a small medical kit, full of bandages, gauzes, ointments, and various other medications. I even have some plastic tubing that serves as a tourniquet. This time, however, I had completely forgotten it.

The irony was stark. At a time when the medical kit might have actually been needed, I had forgotten the damn thing.

I sped along, heading south toward home, my mind racing a mile a minute, running over all the different worst case scenarios. Gradually, however, as I took in the green, rolling hills and beautiful landscape I felt my blood pressure drop to more normal levels. I let out a sigh of relief – the first real expression of closure I’d had since first hearing about the shark. Philosophically, I figured the threat of shark attack was the proverbial “price of admission” to surfing this rugged and beautiful coastline. And, truth be told, shark attack was ultimately a very rare occurrence. I knew that, statistically speaking, bees, wasps, and snakes were more dangerous than sharks and responsible for far more fatalities in any given year in the United States.

Still, if it happens, it happens, I told myself. What you gonna do?

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Thomas S. Garlinghouse

Tom Garlinghouse is a free-lance writer who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his girlfriend, Lauren, two dogs, three cats, and a rabbit. He is an avid surfer who can frequently be found haunting the numerous reef breaks north of Santa Cruz.

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