Rough Water

CopyRight @ 1997

There is another aspect of California diving that seems quite unfamiliar to many Californians and most all divers elsewhere. Do you know what your response to drowning is? Many California divers do. It's easy to learn here. While the diving is fantastic and basically safe most of the time, if you are a local who shore dives, you are going to go when the conditions are less than ideal and are likely to get into some really exciting situations occasionally. This is true in Southern California, but much more so along the popular North Coast. You had better be smart and strong about then. If you are, you will get to shore with a changed attitude.

There are a couple of unavoidable situations that can lead to this. Do you remember the Thursday we got off when President Johnson died? Of course not. It wasn't memorable for most people (and you are too young anyway), but it is etched in my memory. That was the day we were diving at Zuma on a calm 2 to 3 foot day. As we were coming in, a set of three rogue waves came in that were easily 10 feet. I lost a mask, got my leg twisted and got a broken strap on my tank. There was no predicting it or avoiding it. I did the right thing. I had my regulator in, hit the bottom and was swimming as fast as I could at the wave. I still got brained.

In northern California it's completely something different. Almost all entries are rock entries or maybe rocky beach entries. If you are really serious, you may have your secret spot where you enter the water by climbing down a rope.
Before entering, you watch the waves to see how big the top of the set is likely to get. You also have to look for currents. In your mind you map the calm areas you want to dive. You also map exit routes as well. Watching kelp and turbulence can give you an idea of depth and bottom terrain. Experience counts here.
The only problem is that once in the water, all your careful planning may mean little. A set of waves bigger than you expected may appear. Then it is a matter of staying in the area you have mapped so that you don't get banged on rocks or end up in a current that may take you into a rougher area or offshore.
Aside from waves at the top of a set being bigger, you never know when someone in Japan or Kamchatka is going to send a rogue wave your way. These unpredictable waves do not come with the set and may be three or more times bigger than the biggest normal wave of the day.
Currents can be deadly and deceptive. That nice channel you swam out in may contain a nasty rip when you head back to shore, especially if you enter it right after a big set. That current going in one side of a cove will take you almost to the shore before it takes you back out on the other side of the cove.
In general, the problem is that when some big waves do come in, they go roaring across the top of the water and rocks to the shore. Then all that water has to come back through the channels and between the rocks. If you are in a channel, you have to be alert.
Really, the hazards are many and sometimes unpredictable, but these are serious skilled strong divers that can consistently dive these conditions and have a great time.
Why, you ask. Well, abalone are another story.

This can make for an odd attitude towards certifications. No one can teach what it takes to survive in currents, waves and rocks. Once a diver has had their survival seriously challenged a few times and have survived it by skill and strength, they don't feel like they are going to learn much from a person that would not dare take them out in the seriously life threatening conditions that they are accustomed to. Diving in rough conditions is a very personal decision and experience. A major part of classes is to teach a diver to manage their gear. No class will teach you to manage your gear while major waves are ripping at it. The most important thing that a scuba class can teach you is presence of mind and not to panic. No class teaches how to do this when you are cart wheeling through the white water and near drowning. No class can teach swimming control quite like desperation can. While shore diving on calm days is not usually that difficult, shore diving when it's getting a bit rough, is not something that a class can teach. Rough diving is just how the locals do it. You better make your own Survivor Diver patch, because PADI will.

This is how I really like it.

On the Rocky Diver Northern California Diving and Freediving web site are some very interesting definitions of some terms. Spring Silliness is described as after waiting all winter to dive and getting to the ocean on a beautiful sunny day, you go in the water, even though it is obviously a bit rough. Maybe it's very rough, but you've waited so long to dive... Sacramento Silliness is the same thing except that it's a matter of "yes it's a bit rough, but I've driven 200 miles and I want to dive". Both are good ways to test your dive and survive skills... I guess they also might describe me a bit...

Obviously, these situations can present drawbacks to diving. The locals don't much mind, though calm days are more fun and much better for exploring, but sometimes you just have to dive what you're given. Sometimes, you just go in when conditions suck. Sometimes, you just do it for the challenge and exhilaration. It's very exciting. Spring is the worst time for surprises like these. Late summer is the best time to go for calm water. At that time, it is often as calm as a lake and offers excellent, beautiful diving for experienced and novice diver alike. Come to California and 'learn' what you can about diving.

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