The Accidental Tsunami Rider
Travel Stories: After Chile's earthquake, Jill K. Robinson paddled her kayak into California's Half Moon Bay and felt the energy from a hemisphere away
03.10.10 | 11:50 AM ET
My needle-nosed kayak sliced through the green waters of Pillar Point Harbor. Nothing else was on the water except a handful of black-and-white buffleheads. The tide trickled through the jetty wall as I passed. It was a quiet winter Sunday morning.
Quiet, except for the 15-foot storm swell outside of the harbor. I hadn’t yet decided if I would paddle out into the ocean; first, I had to see how bad things were. At least it wasn’t a tsunami. That was yesterday.
That was when my husband, Doug, and I had met some friends at Sam’s Chowder House overlooking the harbor. It would have been a ringside seat if the expected tsunami swell from the 8.8-magnitude Chilean earthquake had any noticeable effect in Northern California waters. The tide gradually went out. I pointed at the beach—it was more expansive than it had been 15 minutes before.
“Is the water sucking out?” I asked.
“I can’t tell,” Doug said. “I’m not sure if that’s just low tide or tsunami tide.”
We left after two hours, unsure if we’d witnessed anything notable. At least nobody was hurt, but it was disappointing to expect something that never arrived. Later, I learned that a 4-foot tsunami surge had shown up on schedule near the jaws of the harbor, but it had happened so slowly that we didn’t notice it.
The next day, when I neared the harbor mouth in my kayak, I came across chunks of fishing net, pieces of wood and filmy kelp. Heavy waves crashed into the breakwater, sending spray over the top of the rocks.
A few feet farther out, the water changed from inviting to forbidding. It tugged at my boat and boiled as if some long, sinewy animal stirred it from below. I considered how badly I wanted to paddle out beyond the protected harbor. Could I do it even if I wanted to?
Here at Half Moon Bay, water sports lovers tend to focus on the swells from Alaska and their effects on the big-wave surf spot, Mavericks. It’s possible to forget that the water in the Pacific Ocean touches land from Australia to Alaska, Peru to the Philippines. The liquid energy surrounding my kayak on any given day could come from Japan just as easily as Chile.
As I paddled between the harbor jaws, the water was brown. The liquid roiled in eddies around my kayak, sucking at my paddle. Even on stormy days here, I hadn’t seen anything like it. I kept pushing through the strong current, but it acted like a solid barricade, keeping me from moving farther into the ocean.
A surfer friend once told me that he enjoys the sport because it’s the most direct way he can imagine immersing himself in the Earth’s energy. But there was no surfing these waves. They were lumpy and mushy like potatoes. I’d seen waves like this here, during storms, but the difference was the volume of water rushing into the harbor. It spit and swirled in the current, creating a heavy froth that surged over my legs and pushed the kayak sideways. My hat blew off into the foam. Before I could grab it, the fingers of a wave pulled it away.
I’d thought I was just dealing with storm surge, but later, the harbormaster told me that the aftershocks in central Chile had caused a smaller tsunami swell to push across the Pacific after the initial quake’s tsunami. While the tide was going out, the surge caused the ocean to snarl at the harbor mouth and pushed water in, making it difficult for me to make headway in my tiny boat. I may have intentionally avoided the main event the day before, but I wound up inadvertently paddling into a smaller tsunami.
I eventually grew tired of working against the current and whipping my neck around to see where the next wave was coming from. After one last search for my hat, I turned and paddled back into the calm of the harbor. I could get another cap. I wondered how many miles my old hat might travel, carried by the waves, until a new owner plucked it from the water and tried it on.