Great Whites and Great Waves: A Surf Road Trip from Seattle to San Francisco

Sunsets along a six day solo sojourn from Seattle to San Francisco.
Sunsets along a six day solo sojourn from Seattle to San Francisco. Drew Zieff
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Less than a week before tornadoes struck Manzanita, I stood atop a band of cliffs along the Oregon coast and watched heavy sets sweep in from the horizon. Sunlight flickered off deep blue waves; the wind was gentle, fog minimal. Though the vista was undeniably idyllic, the sea was far from calm. Exposed, rugged, and breathtaking, Oregon gets battered constantly by swell from the Pacific, and its headlands seem as though they’re on the verge of crumbling into the sea at any minute.

Dog-tired from a surf session and 150 miles of driving down highway 101 earlier that morning, I was paralyzed between exhaustion and excitement, debating whether or not it was worth cringing into my cold wetsuit. From my vantage point, I watched three surfers trade waves through a window-like gap in a towering rock. The waves were impossible to gauge from the cliffs—they could have been five or fifteen feet high—only when a surfer dropped down the face could I get a sense of their power.

I’d find out how rough the waves were soon enough.

I was in the midst of a surf road trip of a lifetime, a six-day solo sojourn from Seattle to San Francisco. My itinerary was loose, but my goals were twofold: to catch a wave in each state (Washington, Oregon, and California), and, less quantifiably speaking, to bid adieu to the ocean as I meandered my way back to the Rockies for the winter.

I ended up driving over a thousand miles, surfing as far north as Westport in Washington and as far south as Cronkite in California. I surfed at eight different spots, and stopped at an additional twenty, pulling over on a whim to check the surf, meandering through state parks, exploring bumpy side roads, chasing rumors, all while trying not to bottom out my fully-loaded car. If you looked at a GPX file tracking my movement down the Pacific, my route would resemble a comb: a long curve south with little teeth pointed west, detours both aimless and ambitious, searching for something, magnetically drawn to the ocean.

Getting Humbled on the Oregon Coast

Gearing up to be humbled by the Oregon swell.
Gearing up to be humbled by the Oregon swell. Drew Zieff

One such impulsive detour took me to that nondescript Oregonian beach, where I stood on the cliffs and had my internal debate. Despite the best intentions of the angel on my shoulder, I succumbed to his counterpart’s devilish persuasiveness and pulled on my wetsuit.

I shouldered my board and scurried down a wooden staircase to the ocean, and then proceeded to paddle straight into one of the most resounding beatings I’ve ever received. I paddled hard and duck-dove under breaker after breaker, every inch of forward progress as well-earned as it was short-lived. Whitewash bulldozed me backwards. My muscles screamed at me, “You idiot! We just did this for three hours! And the day before that. And the day before that!” After a twenty-minute spanking, I was forced to listen to those lactic acid laments. I coughed up an involuntary helping of seawater and hitchhiked on a whitewater freight train back to the shore.

Back at the car, I tugged the wetsuit from my cramping arms and grinned sheepishly, humbled. I didn’t catch a wave, but I learned a couple lessons: 1) don’t be an idiot and surf out of your ability when exhausted and 2) leave something in the tank when road tripping—a potential break always beckons just around the bend.

I hopped back in the driver’s seat and threw on a podcast, stopping for a coffee at one of the countless espresso shacks that shoulder Pacific Northwest highways like caffeine-dispensing shrines along the trail of religious pilgrims, and continued south.

Camping at Meyers Creek

Drew Zieff

After an hour and half, I pulled over at Meyers Creek to catch the sunset. A few RVs and a van were parked on the roadside overlook, which offered a spectacular if not archetypal Oregonian panorama: “sea stacks,” great rock towers that rise out of the ocean like skyscrapers, stood like barnacled turrets of a coastal castle, Meyers Creek trickled down the sandy bank of the beach and into the sea, and Highway 101 curled along the bluffs.

I asked one of the RV folks if it was cool to camp there, hoping to avoid an unwanted visit from highway patrol come midnight. If nothing else, I needed my sleep.

“Seems fine to us. Those people have been here a couple days,” he said.

“Sounds good to me.”

I cracked open both a beer and my journal, if only to lick my wounds from the afternoon’s licking. That evening, the RV folks were kind enough to hook me up with a plate of homemade pasta and meatballs. I traded stories with the van dwellers, a Swiss couple touring from Alaska to Argentina in a sweet overland rig, then crawled into my roof tent and quickly passed out to the sound of waves crashing, telling myself that tomorrow I’d find the waves I was looking for.

Great Whites in the Water

Drew Zieff

The next morning, I backtracked and followed the Swiss couple to Gold Beach, a break fifteen minutes north. The spot looked ideal, some of the best waves I’d seen the entire trip. Head-high and hefty, curling peaks with a glassy sheen. And best of all, no one was in the water. Two surfers stood by their cars, both still wet from a session. One of them spoke on the phone. I gave a friendly nod to the other surfer, but he shook his head and walked toward us, as if to say, “Nope, not today.” I took him for a local who didn’t want us road trippers in the water (my Colorado plates and the Swiss couple’s Euro tags gave it away).

“Not sure if you want to go in there,” he said.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“My buddy just got chased out of the water by a great white.”

Instantaneous adrenaline and expletives. I scanned the water, seeing nothing but beautiful waves. No sign of sharks. My heart sped up nonetheless. This section of Pacific coastline sees fewer surfers than, say, southern California or Hawaii, thanks in part to frigid water and a large population of great whites. And while shark attacks are statistically less likely than getting into a car crash, at least on the freeway we hold the wheel, gripping some semblance of control, a perception of safety. A great white, on the other hand, often attacks from below, invisible until its jaws are clamping around your femur, mangling your leg like a toothpick in an industrial vice grip.

The other surfer, the one who got away, so to speak, hung up the phone, his expression a mixture of disbelief and relief.

“It was a great white,” he said, having called a buddy to confirm the species of the shark.

“How big was it?” I asked.

“I only saw the fin,” he said, “It was zig-zagging toward me. It felt predatory.” He shook his head.

“Holy shit,” I said, goose bumps forming on my arms. There wasn’t much more to say.

We stood on the beach and watched the sets roll in, keeping an eye out for zig-zagging fins. I half-expected an 18-footer to thrash its tail and gnash its teeth and a half-eaten seal carcass to wash ashore.

“You guys can go for it,” he said, clapping his hands together. “But I’m done. I’m listening to Mother Nature.”

No way. Despite how inviting the waves looked, I’d sooner drive the curves of highway 101 blindfolded, handcuffed, and drunk. I said my goodbyes, got in my car, and took my chances with the statistically more dangerous freeway, all the while imagining snapping jaws and blood red water, wondering if I should surf elsewhere or take the stranger’s near miss as an omen to stay dry.

Later, I read that a surfer near Cannon Beach, approximately 285 miles north, had been attacked by a shark that very same day.

Great Waves in Crescent City

Drew Zieff

Oblivious to such news, I pressed south, arriving soon at the aptly named bay of Crescent City, California. Turquoise waters and peeling head-high waves called like sirens. But in the front of my mind lurked gray shadows and zig-zagging fins.

I slowed down, as if I was going to pull over, but I sped up and drove past the beach. Five minutes later, tensely drumming the steering wheel, I spoke aloud to myself, days alone taking their toll, “If you don’t go in today, you won’t surf the rest of the trip.”

I whipped a U-Turn on highway 101. Back in the parking lot, I shimmied into my wetsuit, still wet from the shameful spanking I endured 20 hours prior in Oregon. My fledgling addiction to surfing, I realized, ran astronomically deeper than previously anticipated. While far from a talented surfer, at that moment, shivering in the parking lot due both to the sensation of cold neoprene and the morning’s predatory premonitions, I felt, at the very least, somewhat committed to the craft.

I paddled out to an empty peak, promising myself it would be a quick session, just a wave or two, enough to shake off the fear. Poseidon, however, had other ideas in mind, prodding glassy set after set toward me with his trident. I caught a left that peeled for fifty yards, and then another, and another. A familiar and welcome soreness shot through my arms. Fog rolled in, adding to the ethereal theater taking place in my mind. In between sets, I did my best to banish thoughts of finned phantasms swimming below me. But when the green peaks shot me down the line and I arced along their spiraling crystal walls, I thought of nothing.

Nothing at all.

Two hours and more than a couple waves later, I paddled in, counting my lucky stars. Back at the car, I grinned to myself for the second time in 24 hours, this time not embarrassed, but redeemed.

Road trip goal number one—to catch a wave in Washington, Oregon, and California—was complete. And road trip goal number two—to say goodbye to the sea—well, I realized then and there the overwhelmingly bittersweet nature of such a task. My relationship with the Pacific Ocean may be at times a complicated long-distance one, but a clean break between us is impossible.

Back in that Crescent City parking lot, satisfied and exhausted, I was already craving the next fix. I peeled off my wetsuit, tossed my gear in the car, and drove south.

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