punta banda wave
Dallas Boggs and Don Hubbard
8 May, 1991

For those of you who don’t know, Punta Banda is a projecting point of land that juts out into the Pacific about  20 miles past Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico. It is about 70 miles south of San Diego.

This kayaking trip began innocently enough. We were going to paddle from Punta Banda’s small north coast town of La Joya to La Bufadora (The Blow-hole) on the south coast.

We arrived at La Joya the night before, ate dinner and bedded-down just after dark in anticipation of an early start next morning. In addition to our boats we had bicycles to assist in the operation.

 In the morning we offloaded our boats and putt-putted up and over the hill in my VW bus to a parking area at The Blow-hole, our destination. Since we needed the VW to carry the boats back after the paddle we left the car there and road the bicycles back to camp. It wasn’t easy. Punta Banda is a high promontory and I am not a good cyclist. Luckily the end of the run was a nice coast down-hill and wouldn’t have much use for my legs on the boat ride.

Back at base camp we launched our boats and began our journey. Dallas was paddling his 18 foot sit-upon surf ski and I was sitting in my 17 foot beamy Viking with the spray skirt on. The trip began with an easy paddle along the north coast to the end of the peninsula.. We were in the lee of the point and we knew the terrain from years of diving in the area. Aside from the road going up and over the top, most of the land is unoccupied and covered with cactus and other desert vegetation.

Almost an hour later, as we neared the end of the point, we began threading our way through the numerous small islands and rock outcroppings left by centuries of wave induced erosion. These make perfect landing places for sea birds but they are too small for other uses. I had carried a box of apple juice with me, and since I was a bit tired I decided that I should drink it in the lee of one of the islands to give myself more energy. That turned out to be a smart move. I stopped, laid my paddle across the boat, pulled the tab to open the box and began drinking.

Dallas, who had gotten well ahead of me in his faster, more slender boat, came back and found me, then said, “This would be fun if it wasn’t so scary!” He laughed, so I thought he was joking. I was behind a big rock islet and it didn’t look worrisome from that vantage point. I finished my drink, tucked the empty carton into my boat and began paddling.

Pretty quickly I launched out into the open water. Dallas was following. I liked that. He was looking after the old man.

Oh boy! Suddenly the swells began to build, and I mean BUILD. They were huge with 20 foot crests and troughs and spilling over the top. My first reaction was to turn around and go back. Not a cowardly movement in conditions like that. Turn around? No possible way. Each incoming wave  picked me up and it was all I could do to stay upright as the boat slid down the steep face sideways. I would jam the paddle in the wave and hang on using my rudder to keep the vessel going reasonably straight. Then the spilling crest would hit and slide under me putting me in a reverse peril as I picked up speed, sliding sideways,  downhill on the other side. At one point I glanced back for a second to see Dallas climbing back on to his surf ski which had capsized.

You can’t imagine what it looks like at the bottom of a twenty foot wave looking up or at the top looking down. You can’t imagine what goes through your mind when you know you can’t roll your boat back up if it capsizes and that the only solid items around you are the rocks you have just left. And these are covered with one inch high jagged barnacles. No way to crawl out and a hell of a long swim without benefit of a wet suit in icy water. Jesus! Don’t roll!

Thankfully I had some knowledge of the dynamics of wave creation . The waves were high because they had touched bottom along the point and as the bottom of the wave slowed because of the contact, the tops moved more rapidly and built. Solution? Get the hell out of there by paddling out to sea. There the water was deeper and the waves couldn’t touch bottom. I looked ahead to verify what I knew and then dug the paddle in with as mighty a stroke as I could. I wanted to get this mess behind me. Leaving the peril was not accomplished rapidly because of the sideways sliding and the need to stay upright, but it finally happened and I was out in open water with Dallas close behind. Now what to do?

Logically we would have liked to go back to La Joya and forget the whole effort, but neither one of us dared to make the return transit, so we opted to paddle down the south coast to see if we couldn’t get into our destination at the Blowhole. It was disquieting. There was NO boat traffic and no one knew were we were or what we were doing. Stupidly we hadn’t told our hosts at the campgrounds at either end of the journey, so no one would be looking for us.

It was a relatively rapid trip down to our destination. We had the now reduced wave action going our way as well as the wind. But how would we get into land  once we arrived? We didn’t want to go in the same way as we had come out with the waves hitting us from the side. I knew I would be facing the old roll over problem again and I don’t have any idea what Dallas was thinking, but probably something along the same lines. My mind was racing and I know his was. What to do? Desperate situations require desperate decisions.

So the final decision was to go past the destination a little way and then paddle diagonally shoreward into the waves so we would pop over the top and then coast in on the backside, then paddle up the next wave and so on. Luckily this was the correct solution, and also luckily the very large waves had begun to modify in height and refract towards the shore. The change in the direction of the swell was helpful and reduced our transit time. There were a few worrisome moments but after our earlier experiences these were minor. All we had to do now was find a way to slip through the near-shore rocks and islets to get to the landing spot. But even here we knew we would be safe whether we hit the rocks or not. We were close enough in so that we could body-surf the rest of the way to shore if necessary. The boats would probably be thrashed but aside from some possible scrapes and bruises we wouldn’t be in big danger.

We both took separate routes, not for any good reason but for expediency. Dallas saw a good opening, I saw a good opening. Let’s go! Paddle! Go, go! Crunch, scratch, rumble, we ran the boats up on the rocky “beach”. The adventure was ended. We had lived and learned! The ocean can be dangerous. No one will look for you if they don’t know you’re going. Wet suits are a good idea in very cold water. Flotation devices should be aboard in case, and Don should learn to roll. The latter decision was never implemented.

Dallas said, “This would be fun if it wasn’t so scary.” Don said, “MayDay!”

Off La Jolla-Feb. 2013 001 (2)