Island of endless empty waves
I’m pretty sure we’re going in circles. Visibility is 40ft and a thick gray haze hangs over the Pacific Ocean as our paddleboards separate the eerie fog. We are somewhere between the rugged, mountainous foothills of mainland Mexico and Islas de Todos Santos, a desolate pair of islands eight miles off the north coast of Baja. “It’s the same point we just rowed through,” says Jack Bark.
We thought it would be easy: the day before Bark, Dave Boehne and I hiked 170 miles from Dana Point, Calif. To La Bufadora, Mexico, loaded our paddleboards with everything we could carry: shortboards for surfing , sleeping bags, tents, food – and crossed the bay to Todos Santos for a long weekend of summer swells. The bark is on a traditional paddle board, paddled by hand from the knees or lying flat; Boehne and I are on SUPs. Why go all this way? Because while longtime surfers like Bark, 21, and Boehne, 39, still paddled in crowded queues near their homes in the Los Angeles area, the sport’s population problem instills in them a common philosophy: the search for emptiness.
Todos Santos (the islands, not the resort town further south) is virtually deserted, although it has a long history of surfing. The southern mainland is surrounded by unnamed waves, but the northern island made Todos Santos famous. This is where you’ll find Killers, a big wave spot that remains a proving ground as brave surfers load up 40ft behemoths each winter.
While Killers inspires awe, the islands’ true geological gift to surfers is exposure. The land spikes face the swells of the Pacific without a hitch all year round. In winter, massive waves break from the west and northwest; in summer, little-known breaks, much less dangerous but just as good quality, are triggered during swells in the southern hemisphere.
But first we have to reach them. Five hours later, we’re still on our boards in open water with no idea where we are.
“Someone has to take matters into their own hands,” Boehne yells, his usually calm demeanor slightly broken with the frustration of paddling blindly in the fog. Bark, who has blonde hair and the toned physique of a long-distance runner, looks at me in disappointment: “Does anyone even have a card?
We don’t have a card. Or a compass. Or even a GPS. The navigation system was left in the van during the commotion to rig our boards that morning, amid the haze of a hangover – we had wrapped ourselves a little too much the night before at the local tequileria, celebrating our arrival. We’ve been planning the trip since last winter, when Boehne introduced him to me over a beer at a crowded bar on the Pacific Coast Highway near Dana Point. He grew up visiting Todos Santos with his family, who used to go there to camp and ride the waves. His parents, Steve and Barrie, are former world champions of tandem surfing, a largely forgotten art of lifts and poses, like figure skating on the surf. They started Infinity surfboards in 1970 and used to load up their catamaran and sail everyone to Todos Santos for days of surfing and exploring the rocky coast.
Bark, meanwhile, grew up in Torrance, a suburb of Los Angeles, sweeping the floors of the shaping room of the Bark paddle boards Headquarter. His father, Joe, has produced thousands of surfboards – big wave cannons, SUPs and prone boards – since the company was founded in 1982. Steve Boehne and Joe Bark were among the first started making SUPs, around 2005, and Joe is one of them. some boards still subject to shaping.
Jack and Dave are both gifted ocean athletes, so instead of a sailboat, panga, or whatever remote handy, we decided to haul our gear over the ocean on paddle boards, which we could then use to explore and surf once we reached the islands.
About 12 feet long, the hand operated prone board is older than American surf. Tom Blake, credited with developing California surf culture, reinvigorated the obscure Hawaiian olo board in the late 1920s, building its hollow version from redwood and promoting it as a rescue tool. While boards remained quite popular in Australia and along the East Coast in California, they were limited to a few races, like the International Paddleboard Competition (now called the Catalina Classic), from Catalina Island to the mainland.
Then came the popularity of stand-up paddleboarding, attributed to its adoption by Laird Hamilton in the early 2000s. Around 2010, recumbent paddling saw a resurgence as athletes like Jamie Mitchell, who won ten straight victories. Molokai-2-Oahu titles, and young paddlers like Bark and Jordan Mercer of Queensland, who have each won multiple Molokai races, have brought new life to the sport. “The stand-up paddle boom has given back a lot of visibility to the lying boards,” says Bark. Many SUPs today borrow traits from traditional recumbent designs: rails, displacement noses, domed bridges.
Bark and Boehne took over the family business. When not in environmental science class at California State University at Dominguez Hills, Bark works alongside his father to fill custom board orders and manages social media accounts for the brand. Boehne grew up doing just about everything at Infinity, from answering phones to designing cards to marketing. “I make boards. Jack shapes the boards, ”says Boehne. “Riding our bikes up the hill for lunch to check out the surf was a big part of our two families’ business plans.”
After circling for hours, discussing which way the swell is moving, we finally hear the ocean water hitting the coast through the dense fog and paddling until we reach land. We put our equipment on the protected side of the north island and bivouacked above a small cove. I make a small fire to make tacos while Bark and Boehne drink hot Tecates and devour tortilla chips.
With our blood sugar levels back up, we spend the next three days exploring the islands. We make our way through the rocks on our boards, visiting hidden caves tucked away in pristine coves where surprised elephant seals bark loudly as we paddle, falling towards the water in panic. “Wait,” Bark said. “I want to jump out of this cave.” He points to a small nook 20 feet from the water, quickly climbs the scree-strewn slope and launches into the deep salt water.
We comb the rocky point where Killers ends in winter, and thousands of seagulls try to dismember us to walk among their nests. In the brush, we find a broken bark board, a vestige of past harsh winters. “He was one of my buddies,” Bark said, recognizing the orange and red design. Bark’s friend surfed it here two years ago, destroyed it on an unusually big wave, and relayed the death-defying story on his return.
The surf we ride isn’t that huge – the waves rarely reach seven feet – but it is all over. Of our three options, the break in the channel off the northern tip of the South Island has the best form. The wind is zero and the water is glassy. The peak seems to be on the left, only the left is growing; the right turns towards the tip and culminates with thunder within. Bark paddles in the first wave on his shortboard and does a nice top turn. “It’s so sick,” he said, returning to our lonely line-up.
Boehne is all style. Her tanned skin and hair work together to highlight her white smile. “That’s what we’re looking for,” he says as the waves roll in. He takes off, goes over his board, lowers his center of gravity into a compact position, and curls up to hit the lip. But the wave dissipates, and he sculpts his forehand right up to the white stack, breaking the top on the rebound. He returns to our line-up of three as Bark takes off for the next wave. “A little overhead on the sets and no one around,” says Boehne. “I don’t think anyone in the world would complain about that.”
Joe Carberry is the founding editor of SUP review and columnist for Illustrated sports. This is his first Outside functionality.