Drake Would Go: Sea Kayaking California’s North Coast

A sea kayaking adventure from Tomales Bay to Point Reyes, Calif.

The classic old boat permanently beached inside Tomales Bay.

Photos and story by Chuck Graham

The incessant roar from Jack's Beach never waned throughout the night. It sounded like the wind was howling, but without a lull the surf crackled from Tomales Bluff across to Bodega Bay leaving an uneasy feeling among four hopeful kayakers aiming to paddle south around Point Reyes Lighthouse and into colossal Drake's Bay, 90 minutes north of San Francisco.

Encompassing the triangular-shaped Point Reyes National Seashore, its ragged coastline is swept in unpredictable currents, huge, unruly surf, towering cliffs and something about "the Shark's Café" kept reoccurring in our conversations as we paddled on. Wind and fog were also on our radar. Point Reyes is considered to be the second foggiest place on the planet and winds have been clocked at 133 mph at the lighthouse. It's these kinds of potential obstacles that make for a great, challenging kayaking trip, one where we didn't see anyone until we finished our 40-mile excursion.

Gearing up our kayaks near the back end of Tomales Bay.

"Tomaltuous Bay"

Surprisingly there was a lot of traffic on Tomales Bay. Myself, and three other kayak guides from the Channel Islands National Park, Brad Greenbaum, Matt May and Ryland Grivetti put in next to the decaying single hull boat behind the Inverness Market, and instantly we paddled into a northwest headwind.

I thought mid-week there would be no kayakers on the water, but there were quite a few along the west side of the bay with many of its beaches occupied for the night. We paddled 9 miles passing Hog Island, pushing toward sunset when we settled on Jack's Beach. However, there was only a sliver of sand as the approaching high tide surged onshore. We neatly stacked our kayaks and tied them together before hauling our gear behind a dense thicket of coastal sage scrub.

Brad Greenbaum peeking out of his tent at Jack’s Beach.

A narrow path led inside a seemingly impenetrable thicket of coyote bush and poison oak before opening up beneath a giant grove of Cyprus trees, a welcoming soft bed of spongy needles awaited us. It was anything but silent though as our continuous friendly banter was challenged by the rush of surf washing through from Tomales Bluff to Toms Point.

That night around a crackling fire, we agreed that if the surf was too big at dawn to exit Tomales Bay, then we would regroup and camp as close as we could to the open ocean. Just after sunrise we effortlessly paddled with an outgoing tide and rode it until the surf dictated otherwise. It was 6 –to-8-foot hammering the wave-battered peninsula, but outside it was 10-to15-foot. We landed our kayaks at Alvalis Beach and then scrambled along the wave-battered coast out to Duck Beach for a good look at the surf. It was cranking and I sensed some anxiety amongst the boys.

"We're going to have to consider going back to where we launched," said May.

"There's no way out of this bay," stated Grivetti.

As we studied the sea conditions we did receive some comic relief watching in amazement as two fishermen in a 22-foot Radon gunned into Tomales Bay, then Bodega Bay, riding on top of a wave and just ahead of the next oncoming comber. The captain looked supremely confident at the helm. One hand on the steering wheel while gazing back over the stern, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and an 8 am Budweiser in his other hand, clearly a man on a mission.

Our lay day allowed us to scout around for an exit plan toward the open ocean. We agreed to camp at North Blue Gum Beach, pitch our tents and spend the day hiking the spine of Tomales Point Trail and the Tule Elk Preserve. We followed a path from the beach to the trail and suddenly everyone breathed a sigh of relief. We had an excellent vantage point watching the outgoing tide and the surf had dropped significantly. We could see several channels offering access beyond the surf zone and with it our mood lightened. The surf was still booming on the west side of the narrow peninsula at least 10-15-foot just south of Bird Rock, but the energy inside Tomales Bay was on the wane.

By late afternoon we descended back down to our poison oak-choked campsite looking to get an early start for the lighthouse at dawn. The surf continued to subside through the moonlit night, and it was still dark when we loaded our kayaks and paddled for the open ocean.

What a difference a day made. We were able to hug Tomales Bluff and paddle out of Tomales Bay, an 8-foot swell merely rolled through the bay, allowing the four of us to paddle out with dry hair!

Coastal views north of Drake’s Bay.

Following Formations

From where we camped at North Blue Gum Beach to the Point Reyes Lighthouse was a 23-mile paddle, but we didn't anticipate a 5-to-10-knot southeast headwind or a stingy up-coast current.

There were distractions though. We'd heard a lot of chatter about great whites in the mouth of Tomales Bay, Bodega Bay and the long stretch to the lighthouse, the Red Triangle, the "Shark's Café" and so on. We didn't take it lightly though, so we stayed in formation for most of the day. When we needed a break for food or gear adjustments we came together, rafting up in the "Duck Formation", as in sitting ducks. While we paddled we remained just a paddle's reach from each other in a "Diamond Formation". This was also relevant when visibility deteriorated to within 50 feet as we lost sight of the lighthouse from time to time in dense fog.

There were other critters worth a gander as the surf thundered along lonely stretches of beach. A pair of humpback whales fed nearby amongst flotillas of common murres and red phalaropes. During one "Duck Formation" we had seven mola molas or sunfish swim around our kayaks. A couple of the bony fish even bumped the hulls of our formation.

Point Reyes appeared ominous against an uncertain horizon. We had a steady 10 knot southeast headwind and colossal, billowing fog scaling the sheer cliffs leading to the lighthouse. For a time it felt like we were on a paddling treadmill as visibility fluctuated between okay and poor.

The pesky up-coast current and southeast winds didn't ease up while rounding the lighthouse. Swell washing up the cliffs rolled back out to us and the next oncoming waves, creating some uneven paddling conditions down to Chimney Rock and finally oval-shaped Drakes Bay.

Rounding what as known as Chimney Rock just before entering Drakes Bay.

Drake's Haven

To the Spanish Sir Francis Drake was a ruthless pirate defeating and raiding its mighty fleet throughout New Spain in the 1570s. To the English, Drake was a maverick and a hero while circumnavigating the globe, but with the Spanish breathing down his neck Drake and his crew took refuge inside what was then Coast Miwok land and what is now known as Drakes Bay.

We finally experienced a tailwind and although we had to wait until the last 5 miles of our trip, it felt good paddling into the expanse of Drakes Bay and not having to worry about wind, swell and current. It was just a matter of locating the correct marine terrace and the gritty mouth of Drakes Estero.

Sir Francis Drake’s Memorial and Northern California locals near Drake’s Estero.

It looked easy enough on the map, but the mouth of Drakes Estero was hidden from view, the surf capping all around it and with no defined lineup or channel it was tricky getting inside the mouth of Drakes Estero. Grivetti paddled in first and skillfully surfed several waves past a flock of American white pelicans roosting at the end of the sand spit. The rest of us got in without a hitch as the estuary's shallow waters rippled in the southeast winds.

We continued past a crude monument devoted to the seafaring exploits of Drake, and paddled with ease to the backend of the Estero. It started raining, heavy at times as it pelted our backs. Mule deer gazed at us bewildered from the shoreline and a northern harrier swooped overhead. We paddled past the now defunct Drakes Oyster Farm and finished our trip at the road that leads to the lighthouse.

Matt May, Ryland Grivetti and Brad Greenbaum just beneath the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse.

The winds were gusting to 40 knots and even more so at the lighthouse where it was consistently 50 knots. The rangers shut visitation down and we could see a procession of cars heading our way. Brad was out in front as we paddled the narrow channels of pickleweed. Nearly at the road, Brad began hitchhiking from his kayak and flagged down the first vehicle that approached us. It was a Mercedes and the couple was more than accommodating willing to take Brad to our trucks on the other side of Tomales Bay. The rest of us dodged the chilly wind and rain by paddling into the circular culvert underneath the road. A few moments later a ranger peeked under the road and into the culvert.

"I'm the ranger and I saw a kayak off the road here," he said. "Just wanted to know where you're coming from?"

"We started in Tomales Bay," I said. "We're just finishing up, waiting for a ride."

"What," he replied? "Well that was pretty f!#%*n' ballsy. Okay, we're good, never heard of anyone doing that before."

Neither had we. It's why we were there.


Chuck Graham is a long-time C&K contributor. Check out his previous stories: Slide Film is Bliss // Where Have all the Sea Otters Gone // Paddling Through the Pleistocene. Watch Graham talk about two decades spent guiding tours and sea kayak adventures in the rugged and remote wilderness of California’s Channel Islands.