STORY AND PHOTOS BY CHUCK GRAHAM

I was having a tough time judging the angle that the freighter was taking in the northbound shipping lane in the Santa Barbara Channel. Paddling my kayak, I was sitting low on the water in no-man's land. I blamed my predicament on the four, tail-flucking humpback whales spouting 50 yards off my bow, a fine distraction indeed. However, I had to ask myself, "Do I sprint ahead hoping to see the freighter's massive bow way over my left shoulder, or do I play it safe and back-paddle northeast out of harm's way?"

There's always much to consider before attempting a channel crossing, whether it's the Santa Barbara Channel — destination set to the Channel Islands National Park — or any of the other thousands of potentially treacherous channels and passages found around the globe.

Float plan, check. Flares, radio, glow sticks, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and Global Positioning System (GPS), check. Personal Flotation Device (PFD), compass, paddling leash and spare paddle, wetsuit, check, check and check.

A thorough, pre-paddle sit-down with weather reports to gauge accuracy and maps to chart a course along with a Plan B is required. In my experience crossing the Santa Barbara Channel or the passages between isles in the Channel Islands National Park, I can never decide what's more of a challenge or even a deterrent: dense fog or howling northwest winds? I've paddled across in both and it challenges any glimmer of positive energy working from my shoulders, down through my forearms and eventually into my forward stroke. Knowing when to turn around and save it for another day can be the smartest decision made.

I'm always on the lookout for marine mammals and big fish too. It's always inspiring and uplifting to be swarmed by a huge pod of several hundred common dolphins just off my bow. When I see them, I want them to stay with me until I'm within a couple miles of my destination. When I see fragile little seabirds like Cassin's and rhinoceros auklets, hardy avian species that brave one of the most dangerous channels in the world, I force myself to quickly stop feeling any sort of self-doubt, especially once I'm beyond the oil platforms.

Of course, it doesn't help things any when, on one particular solo crossing, a 3-foot-tall dorsal fin rose out of choppy seas on the swell in front of me just beyond the oil platforms. Cruising west to east 50 yards off my bow it dove below never to be seen again. Needless to say though, my head was on a swivel all the way to Scorpion Anchorage near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. I couldn't help but have visions of terror, that faraway look a great white possesses as it eyeballs its prey. I remember not stopping the rest of the way that day, not much eating or drinking the final 10 miles. My paddling pace maintained at a high clip, but so did a sore neck from looking over each shoulder.

Once past the oil derricks the Pacific Ocean seems to get a bit bigger, and there's even some slight curvature of the earth. Busy channels around the world will have active shipping lanes, and it can get difficult discerning their path. The north and southbound shipping lanes in the Santa Barbara Channel can transform into some sort of paddling gauntlet with some six or eight ships trailing in a row. Beyond that its 8 miles of nonstop paddling to the largest and most diversified isle off the California coast. Once inside the one-mile National Park boundary that extends around each isle in the park, I typically relax, soak in the moment and realize it's not that bad of a commute.

— Chuck Graham guides kayaking tours in the Channel Islands, which has provided a launching platform for countless paddling adventures. Read his feature ‘Home Waters,’ from C&K’s Dec 2011 edition.


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