Ranch Recollections

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  When I was a young kid, my parents would visit with a family who owned a large, coastal, working cattle ranch which was north of Santa Barbara. It was called the Hollister Ranch. I recall riding the dirt roads, shooting our 12 gauge shotguns, and exploring the pristine beaches, but I never really noticed what was peeling away just offshore. Boy did that change by the time I became a surfing obsessed teenager! The Hollister Ranch holds some of the prettiest, most well-defined wave breaks on the Southern California coast, and I was more than eager to experience them, no matter what it took.
     Access to this private property and surfing utopia had tightened heavily due to some nasty episodes with some out-of-the-area surfers who had killed a cow, and pissed off the major security dude, a crusty old cowboy named Arnie. He had a grumpy attitude, which became even more exasperated if he saw trespassing surfers on the beach.  If you had snuck into the Ranch on an eight-mile hike to sample Little Drakes, Rights-and-Lefts, San Augustine, or other such beautiful surfing setups, and you saw Arnie’s truck coming down the beach, well, it was time to run, ditch the board into the bushes, and hide. Unless you drove in through the south guarded gate with a pass, or all the way around from the north, and through the Jalama gate, you were a glaring persona non-gratis in this rural paradise of perfect points and peaks. To avoid Arnie and company, we responded to this challenge by boating in and launching our outboards off the nearby Gaviota Pier.
     This area south of Point Conception is fickle. Sudden rising swells here can surprise you and offshore winds out of the canyons can gust up to 60 miles per hour in the late afternoons and evenings.  If you are not savvy on local conditions, you will probably pay for it, and many have, especially the naïve boater. My friends and I had heard tales about respected local surfer Rick Vogel, whose boat conked out on him on the way back to the pier, and how he tied the boat to his leg as it was getting dark and attempted to paddle it out of the way of stacking 10-foot sets at Razor Blades. He lived, his boat didn’t. We heard about guys getting their boards ripped out of their hands by sudden, roaring gusts of wind while trying to sneak in at night and walk over the canyon railroad bridges. To avoid getting blown to their deaths, they would have to crawl across the high trestle and hope to God that a train wasn’t coming.
    One early morning, our 15-foot lake boat sank at the pier when a surprise set caught the back of the just lowered craft under the pier stairs and basically pushed it underwater as the wave rolled by. Still attached to the winch, the engine fell off and it was pretty humiliating pulling the draining boat out of the deep with all the local pier fishermen giving us the ridiculing eye. Yeah, pretty embarrassing. Then there was the time we came back late from surfing, the offshores were kicking up hard as we passed Big Drakes and it got pretty rough. The four of us had our boards strapped onto the front of the boat, including local Rincon domo Chris Kunze’s brand new Yater pocket rocket. The noses of the boards were hanging over the bow just enough for a big wind chop to bash the bow and… POW! A large explosion of water had snapped off the first third of his just-christened stick. He freaked out, grabbed the throttle and tried to gun the boat into the next swells, assuring our boards would suffer the same fate. We all fought to get control of him as the boat was careening through tons of wind-whipped spray totally soaking our only dry clothes.  He finally relented, but was obviously none too pleased as his board’s nose blew out to sea.
     One time on a delightful five-foot day at Rights-and-Lefts I pulled our more seaworthy boat into the deeper water channel between the adjacent spot called Utah. I was taking a few photos of my buddies slotting into some nice rights, when, shockingly, a set like nothing we had seen all day popped up and swung into the break. I was stunned, and caught inside as this wave looked to close-out the entire channel. I had seconds to decide. Drive the boat inside and deal with a heavy wall of white water, or go for it, and attempt to gun the boat over the wave before it broke. I chose the latter. I could hear screams from the scrambling surfers nearby as I literally launched straight up the face of this wall with the lip pitching out over me. There was an explosion as the windshield took the brunt of the wave and the next thing I knew, the 18-foot boat was flying 15 feet through the air out the back of the wave and landing with a loud smack. The windshield was completely gone, but the motor was still running, thank God, as a larger wave was following it. I gunned the engine and got another aerial launching over the hump with another heavy landing, but this time I made it up the face before it heaved out over me. It was insane, but the alternative would have been a boat assuredly swamped and washed ashore. I was damned lucky and, incredibly, the drenched and ruined camera around my neck still produced the day’s photos, including one of the waves that almost punched my ticket to the great beyond.
     Finally, the topper of all the Ranch disasters took place as we were returning to Santa Barbara from another trip. I was sitting in the back of our pick-up truck resting after a blissful, surf-stoked session. I felt a substantial bump in the road and opened my eyes just in time to see that the boat had popped off the hitch and momentum was carrying the trailer into a parallel path next to us. One of our idiot, surfed-out crew had hitched the trailer weakly and forgot to put on the safety chain. As I pounded on the rear window, the boat passed us by in the slow lane, while my friends Bob and Larry looked on with horror. The trailer hitch impaled itself into the back of an empty station wagon parked by a seaside picnic area. Mercifully, nobody was injured and, incredibly, the boat was not damaged.
    These days, I prefer to visit those beautiful surfing ranchlands the way I did back with my parents: Legally…by car. But man, what memories.
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