An aberration of nature, the Potato Patch off the west end of Santa Cruz Island can be the volatile location for colliding eddies, swirling currents converging from as far away as Alaska and Mexico. As those eddies butt heads in the Santa Cruz Channel — potentially one of the most dangerous channel crossings in the world — they can oppose northwest swells, forcing towering open ocean waves with great velocity.
It was consistently on my mind in January, yet hard to imagine given the unseasonably warm weather conditions. It was a pleasant 70 degrees. The channel was sheet glass, with minimal swell, perfect for paddling my sit-on-top kayak solo from Water Canyon on Santa Rosa Island to West Point on Santa Cruz, and eventually back to Carpinteria.
A raucous pod of Risso’s dolphins took my mind off any apprehensions kayaking across the Santa Cruz Channel. Similar to a pilot whale, they’re usually dark gray, but all the sparring among Risso’s leaves many with white scarring. They were easily noticeable as they breached off my bow and dove beneath my kayak, the white scarring brightly reflected in the clear open ocean.
Because it was so glassy, it was easy to spot any activity in the channel, especially migrating gray whales. I heard spewing blowholes before spotting them. Then suddenly they were 20 feet off my bow, rolling back and forth while spouting on the surface. Two adults kept a calf between them, gently playing with the youngster.
As West Point drew closer, the current pushed me down the frontside of the island. More Risso’s dolphins stayed just ahead of me as we rode the generous current together along the daunting, honeycombed cliffs of the west end.
White Face loomed on the distant horizon like a triangular beacon, my mountainous landmark on the Santa Ynez range drawing me homeward.
Between Hazards and Cueva Valdez, I climbed a volcanic cliff and scanned the channel with my binoculars, not trusting the most recent weather report. Channel 2 was calling for northwest winds at 10 to 15 mph, with gusts up to 20 to 25 mph on the largest and most diverse of the Channel Islands. There was nary a whisper, however. The channel was a dead calm.
The first eight miles I kept a steady pace, wanting to clear the shipping lanes, but as it turned out I didn’t see a ship or any cetaceans the entire way — just one lonely seal. If it hadn’t been for dense fog shrouding the west end pushing me harder, and U2, Eddie Vedder and Cold Play filling my head with a much needed rhythm across the channel, monotony may have won out and the paddle tortuous. Instead I was tuned in and grateful for the stellar paddling conditions, not a whitecap from start to finish.
Before I knew it, oil Platform Habitat stood tall enough on the immediate horizon, only about 14 more miles to go. White Face grew broader. As I drew closer I could make out the many fissures on that massive, sheer cliff. A six- to eight-foot northwest swell drove me out of the channel and steered me east of the Carpinteria Reef, seven hours and 10 minutes flying by without a hitch before stiff legs stood again on the familiar shoreline.