Just north of Bodega Bay is a series of cliffside cabins along a vertiginous stretch of Highway 1. These cabins are more cliffside as the years go along, and maintenance on this stretch of road includes occasional replacement or movement as the ocean claims its own.
About a quarter-mile from one of those cabins is a little spur of land called Duncan’s Head. My friend Neva, whose extended family owned that cabin, told me that it’s also called Death Rock, because just off the end of it is a very deep undercut, and anyone who gets swept off the point gets pulled under.
They have dynamited a trench across that point and put up barbed wire, and people still occasionally climb out there, get swept off, and drowned, because that’s humanity for you.
Duncan’s Head is angled south-southwest, and protects a little cove and beach that has a public access trail with steps and a handrail leading down to it. Beaches in Northern California aren’t the sand expanses you think of as “beaches”; they are, if they’re even sand instead of rocks, often very cold, windy, and with dangerous water. In my senior year of high school, I was out there one day with my friend Neva, taking a break from doing maintenance on the cabin. It was a sunny and fairly warm day, but we quickly got bored with playing at the water’s edge.
We started taunting the ocean.
I mean that quite literally; Neva and I were standing just out of reach of the waves, occasionally running backwards as one got higher, but pretty much staying dry and only letting the occasional rush of icy water wash over our feet. And all the time we were shouting at the ocean, saying variants of “Is that the best you can do?”
Apparently it wasn’t.
Duncan’s Head was off to our right, clearly in our field of view. I saw the water go down. In that small eternity as I saw the water rise up again, I could tell just how big the coming wave was. I managed to get one word out: “Run.”
We turned and ran, knowing that the backwards dodging that we had been doing was not nearly enough. Now, the cove was not quite semicircular. If you think of the point and cove as a capital J, there was another little jog of cove off the short end. In that little mini cove was a picnicking family, complete with blanket and all. We ran near them, shouting that they were about to be soaked, and they likewise got out of the way.
The wave didn’t completely inundate the beach but covered a good third to a half of what had been dry before. The picnickers didn’t lose anything other than a few empty food containers, because they had been finishing up, and their pet rabbit had been exploring up the cliff hill several feet above the wave line. (Pet… rabbit. Who brings their pet rabbit to the beach?) Neva and I were fine, though on a bit of an adrenaline high.
But that image has stayed with me for over twenty years. Water goes down; water comes up. Time enough to turn and run; time enough to go through dozens of scenarios in your mind.
Barely time enough to escape if the catastrophe is minor.
Not all memories are life lessons, and not all life lessons are learned at the time. I didn’t learn from that experience so much as have previous lessons proven true. I leave you with three comments:
1. Never turn your back on the ocean.
2. Know the correct action to take ahead of time if you can; it improves reaction time.
3. If you taunt the vast uncaring deep, don’t be surprised at the consequences.