By Megan Ritchie
About a month after I moved to Los Angeles, a friend and her girlfriend, Adrianna, invited me to go sea kayaking with them in Malibu. I’d been kayaking a handful of times, most recently on a family vacation to Lake Superior last summer, and was really excited to try it in the ocean.
On a Sunday afternoon, we drove the twenty or so miles from my house on the east side of Los Angeles, across the city and up the coast along the Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH, to us “locals”). Parking on the PCH, which runs right alongside the ocean, is impossible, but we eventually found a parking lot right next to the beach and dropped the ten bucks to park there. After locking all of our possessions in the trunk, I tucked my car key in a little pouch in my running shorts (pay attention to that detail – it comes in later), and set off. We scampered across the highway to the Malibu Surf Shack, which rents surf boards, paddleboards and, you got it, sea kayaks. After we ducked in to the little shop and our eyes adjusted to the dim light, the guy behind the counter asked if we’d been sea kayaking before. Sarah and Adrianna both nodded, yep, they’d been once before at the Surf Shack a handful of months earlier. I hesitated, and then said, “Sure, I’ve kayaked before.” Technically not on the ocean, but so be it.
“Well, good,” said the guy, who was every bit a surfer dude. “Wouldn’t want an inexperienced kayaker out on those waves today….they’re reaaaal rough, even for someone who knows what they’re doing.”
My heart began to pound as we signed off the waivers and put down the deposit. Sarah, clearly the brains behind the operation—or at least the bravest of us all—led us out of the little shop. Adrianna and I both began talking about how we weren’t exactly “experienced kayakers.”
“Oh, we’ll be fine.” Sarah said, brushing us off.
Feeling that familiar rush of adrenaline and fear I always get from any rule-breaking or risk-taking because I am a coward and a square, I followed her around the side of the shop. We grabbed paddles and damp lifejackets and then waited for a lull in the traffic before running across the highway and back to the beach. The sea kayaks in bright citrus colors were stacked high in a trailer parked alongside the road. Another surfer dude from the Surf Shack helped us carry three down to the sand.
The waves were pounding along the beach. Adrianna and I gulped. Sarah, all confidence, tried to reassure us. I turned to the Surf Shack dude.
“Tell us, honestly,” I said. “Are we going to die?”
“What? No. You guys will be fine.”
“But we are not experienced sea kayakers, man.” I added the “man” there to let him know that even if we weren’t regular wave-paddlers, we were far from dorks. He seemed to pick up on how cool we were, because he said next in particularly soothing tones:
“Look, you’ll be fine. I promise.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, but Adrianna and I were willing to be reassured by anyone, dude or otherwise.
The guy continued, “All you have to do is wait for a lull in the waves and then run out as fast and as hard as you can and hop in the boat when you can’t run any farther. The waves here in Malibu come in bursts—they’ll be a couple minutes of hard waves and then they’ll die down.”
We all paused to look out on the waves. They did seem to be dying down. Sarah took the moment to leap into the water and run out with her boat. When she reached waist-height, she leapt into her boat and paddled out. She looked cool.
I’d missed my window at that point, and had to wait for another round of boat-crushing waves before I too took the plunge. Once the water calmed again, I pushed my boat into the water and high-stepped as far as I could. I leapt into my boat not as gracefully as Sarah but I got in all the same, and paddled quickly past the waves’ breaking point. Alright, maybe I wasn’t going to die. Maybe I was all drama, it was all in my head. There is no spoon. Adrianna and I exchanged a nervous laugh – we were just being silly, everything was fine.
I should note that this was only the second or third time I’d even seen the ocean, let alone been on the water. I’m from Minnesota originally and so “the beach” to me means a day near a lake where the biggest waves we get are from a passing speedboat pulling a couple kids on an inner tube behind it. So my cowardice, while a little pathetic, wasn’t entirely ungrounded.
We paddled our boats out past the wooden pier. There were fishermen with long poles standing at the end of it, and a few of them waved at us as we passed. It was a gorgeous afternoon, with barely a breeze and a cloudless sky. I looked around at the gentle waves and the rocky coastline, and kept having to tell myself “I live here now. This is my home now.” Sometimes, I find it amazing how huge the United States really are. I marveled how the beautiful coastline I was kayaking along was part of the same country as the rolling hills of prairie grass and wildflowers I’d ridden past only a few months earlier on bike rides in Minnesota.
As we made our way up the shore, we saw surfers up ahead; there was some kind of surfing competition going on up the beach. We paddled out farther to avoid them, and because (understandably) the waves looked even bigger there. We paddled for an hour or so before deciding to come back in and have lunch along the shore.
For the approach back to the beach, we were to do the same strategy as our way out: wait for the waves to calm before paddling. Sarah turned to us. “All you have to remember,” she said, “is to keep your boat at a 90 degree angle to the beach. Just head straight in. See, watch me.”
Sarah paddled forward hard for thirty or forty feet before sliding her boat gracefully onto the sand. Easy. Adrianna and I hesitated. She looked at me nervously. “I’m sure we’ll be fine,” I said, thrusting my chin forward bravely. I looked behind me to try to gauge if the waves had died down. Things looked fairly calm so I paddled toward the shore, making sure to stay perpendicular to the shoreline, as Sarah had instructed.
Adrianna followed suit, looking anxious. After my hour on the water, I was all calm now, a real ocean woman. Sure, I come from the middle of an enormous continent, and have lived in landlocked cities my whole life, but here I was, at my true roots. Humans emerged from the ocean thousands of years ago, shook off their gills and claimed their spot on land. And now, here I was, returning to my ocean homeland, victorious. The forces bigger than me were to be conquered, to bow before me. Yeah, I was an ocean conqueror! A Californian!!
I paddled harder for shore. Suddenly the waves lurched in front of me, taking my boat with them. I glanced over at Adrianna, who was struggling to keep her boat’s bow heading straight for shore. Her kayak pushed toward mine, and I paddled even harder away from her, trying to avoid a collision.
The waves were now coming in even harder, rolling us closer and closer to shore. Suddenly, an enormous wave overtook us, and took my boat and spun it parallel to the shore, like a crazed giant with a toy top, before flipping me over into the waves. There was a flash of panic as I tumbled out, and the waves ripped away my sunglasses, ponytail binder, and the sassy bandana I’d tied into my hair that morning, and carried them to somewhere far away. I kicked hard away from my boat, all the while thinking “Don’t let it hit my head. Please don’t let it hit my head…”