DIRTBAG DIARIES: California’s Wild Coast

SoCal's unlikely stretch of rugged and remote coastline

The Point Conception Lighthouse points the way to more sheltered waters.

The Point Conception Lighthouse points the way to more sheltered waters.

Photos and story by Chuck Graham

It's hard to imagine inaccessible coastline in Central California, but everything from Gaviota to the Santa Maria Rivermouth is just that. This 60-mile stretch of Santa Barbara County is rugged, craggy and remote—a wild coast waiting to be explored, and best accessed by kayak.

The empty lineups above Point Conception are also a surfer's dream, so Ryland Grivetti and I strapped surfboards to our kayaks and started south. Right out of the gate we plowed through thundering beach break at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. For over 15 years I've photographed the wind-sculpted dunes there, always keeping an eye out for a clear route through the perpetual surf. I can honestly say I've never seen one.

Ry validated that assessment on our first launch attempt, as a 5-foot wave sent him somersaulting backwards. After regrouping and finally punching through the breakers we stayed out, paddling south all the way to Point Purisima. The surf was now a solid 6-foot with no defined pattern, but we managed to land unscathed and dried our soggy gear on a huge rocky slab. We fell asleep to the sound of thundering surf that built through the night.

By morning it had doubled in size, forming a mile-wide gauntlet of frothing whitewater. We found a channel of sorts where the ocean was marginally less chaotic, waited for our chance, and went for it. The waves stripped the surfboards from both our kayaks. Ryland managed to make it outside. I got washed to the bluffs, tried launching again, and was denied.

I radioed Ryland, who was waiting just outside the heaving surf, mist wafting skyward. "I'm kinda feeling like a shark biscuit out here," he said. It was no joke; a week earlier a great white had attacked two kayak fishermen here. Both men had been ejected from their kayaks and rescued by a nearby fishing boat. There were no boats out today. Ry was all alone.

I wasn't going to make it out and Ry couldn't land safely, so we reluctantly agreed to part ways. Ryland began a daunting 20-mile paddle to the first viable landing point at Jalama. I found our surfboards in a cave, then portaged my kayak and gear two miles in soft sand and hitched a ride to the town of Lompoc, where I called my wife and asked her to shuttle me to meet Ry.

The view North at Point Sal

The view North at Point Sal

Late that afternoon we found him in the dunes. A pod of bottlenose dolphins had joined him for a while, and he'd spotted sea otters lounging atop thick kelp canopies. The relaxed mammals had been a welcome sight, helping Ry shake the persistent feeling that hungry great whites had been sizing him up.

The next morning we launched without much incident, paddling past bobbing harbor seals and southern sea otters to the lonely lighthouse at Point Conception, where winds swirled in three different directions and that sharky feeling swarmed over us again.

When we reached the empty lineup at Government Point, though, we couldn't resist the clean chest-high waves running the length of the point. We surfed for hours, then paddled south to Perkos and surfed some more, riding waves past a battered shipwreck wedged against a crumbling bluff.

Just before it was too dark to see, we landed on a quiet stretch of Gaviota Coast and bedded down for the night. After two days dodging massive surf we'd finally been able to enjoy the waves. Those difficult launches were already a distant memory.

–Read more Dirtbag Diaries.

–Do you want to paddle the California Coast? Start planning!

–This story first appeared in the August 2015 issue of C&K.