The Commute

By Chuck Graham   |   May 10, 2022
Some seabirds waiting for the local transit

I can look at all the local weather reports, scour all the weather apps, but when I’m standing on the shoreline and gazing across the channel with my binoculars, I trust my judgement more than anything to complete a successful channel crossing across the unpredictable Santa Barbara Channel.

On March 8, 2022, sea conditions looked manageable. From 5 am to 11 am there was a six-hour window, favorable with very light north and then south winds, five knots or less. That was according to the Windy app. After 11 am, it was supposed to turn northwest at 10 to 15 knots. No problem I thought, by then those menacing shipping lanes would be well off in my rearview mirror.

From my tent I could see lights in Santa Barbara. The fog hadn’t moved in. That was good. Hearing happy, yelping, bellowing sea lions was also uplifting. At dawn the ocean was oily glass, not a ripple to be seen as I made an easy launch. Harbor seals bobbed in the shallows, and that raucous band of rafting sea lions postured, splashed, and strained to see what was paddling the sleek, blue kayak, stroking past them into open water, the shimmering channel beckoning.

I kept Diablo Peak off my right shoulder, the highest summit across the entire Northern Chain at 2,450 feet. From my kayak I kept White Ledge, that triangular knife ridge in the Los Padres National Forest, at my 2 pm. It descends angularly to the west toward my home base in Carpinteria.

Other than that, I paddled a good, steady pace six miles to the southbound shipping lane, then the neutral lane, and finally the northbound lane, nary a ship in sight throughout the entire half day. No gauntlet of ships to navigate through, no big fish, no mega marine mammals to hope for. It was as boring as it gets for a crossing, my ninth, as “Where the Streets With no Names” by U2 occupied my thoughts in what I consider to be the most challenging location in the channel.

A long wall of wispy fog loomed on the southeast horizon, blotting out Sandstone Peak and the rest of the Santa Monica Mountains. The unknown only enhanced my already steady pace, fog potentially being the biggest adversary while crossing the channel. No fun at all paddling across the shipping lanes with low-lying clouds creating a shroud over the channel.

The only thing that slowed my pace were the seabirds reveling in the glassy paddling conditions. Several encounters with pairs of Scripp’s murrelets diverted my attention in the shipping lanes. These tiny, secretive seabirds utilize the Channel Islands for breeding and nesting habitat, but most of their lives are spent on the water.

Also spotted resting low on the water were several northern fulmars, some appearing bedraggled, possibly due to the high northwest winds that steamed through the Channel in recent days. Nevertheless, these are hardy seabirds that weather the worst of what the channel can throw at them.

Well beyond the shipping lanes, I kayaked northeast with the first of several oil platforms on the horizon. Peering through my binoculars I saw oil platform Habitat towering lonely on my immediate horizon with more platforms three miles further.

A flotilla of lazy sea lions rafted near the still-operating Habitat, seemingly great white shark fodder dawdling on the mirror-like surface. From Habitat to the next row of three oil platforms was three miles. Connecting the dots, I timed my pace. Forty minutes further and I was in line with those last three oil platforms. The spindly, craggy ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains running east to west dominated my attention, that coastal sage scrub pulling me home.

It always feels good to come home to Carpinteria. It’s been that way since 1975. My girlfriend Holly, cat Avalon the Feral, dog Owen, and baby hummingbirds fending off any mental fatigue as the sandy coast drew closer with each extended stroke of my blades. Touching down on a beach I’ve lived and lifeguarded on for more than 30 years, there’s a grand appreciation for a life led in a pelagic and chaparral existence. I momentarily stand on the crest of each biome knowing I live just a stone’s throw from each, the next venture overlapping the other.  


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