Seal Landings in Ocean Rock Gardens

by Eric Soares on January 2, 2012

When you kayak in ocean rock gardens, you may want to land on a rock to exit the water to eat lunch, camp, evacuate the area, or check out an interesting feature.  Derek Hutchinson, in his SEA CANOEING book called this maneuver a seal landing.  Decades ago experienced sea kayakers told me to eschew seal landings, as they couldn’t safely be done.  They claimed it would be better, safer, easier to avoid rocky landings, paddle on and land on a protected beach or in a harbor.  I decided to see for myself just how tricky it was to seal land.  It turned out it was not that hard, even in fairly rough conditions.

Seal landing on a rock in crashing waves can be tricky and hazardous, as Misha Dynnikov shows.

There are two main ways to accomplish a seal landing—in your boat, and out of your boat.  Let’s look at boat landings first.

Seal Landing in your Kayak

If you are landing on rocks in a protected environment, say on a jetty inside a harbor where waves are small (under 2 feet), you can paddle up next to a rock and just get out of your boat as if you were exiting at a dock.  If the waves are 2-3 feet or so, take a few minutes and study the timing of the waves on the rocks.  Choose a promising rock (one that is either tabletop flat or sloped gently) and envision yourself landing perfectly on the rock in the right-sized wave (one big enough to land you but will not sweep you right off).  If it’s a tabletop, paddle up to and onto the flat surface in the middle of a wave that submerges it, and let the water recede around you as you perch yourself.  Quickly remove your spray skirt, leap out of the cockpit, grab the cockpit coaming, and hustle your boat up above the waves.  You must do this before a bigger wave comes and knocks you off—that’s why you scout first.

After scouting, Bill Vonnegut makes his move on a wave surging in and aims for the flat platform rock.

Bill has timed it right and has landed atop the rock.

Bill should now scramble out of his boat and hustle up the rocks before another wave arrives.

When it's time to leave, Bill just scoots his boat backwards off the rock as the incoming wave lifts him.

If the rock slopes gently (shaped like a ramp, but not steep), scout the waves again, and zoom up the ramp as far as possible on the right-sized wave until you are grounded. Quickly get out of your boat, secure it, and scoot it up to higher ground before a bigger set arrives.   The good news about landing on a ramp rock is that it takes less skill than landing on a flat rock, which means you can safely land in bigger waves (perhaps up to 5 feet, if the waves are surging rather than crashing onto the rock).

To land on a sloping ramp rock, just zoom in with the last wave of a set.

Then quickly exit the boat and get up the ramp and to safety. This is much easier to do in a sit-on-top boat than in a skirted kayak.

Seal Landing without your Kayak

If the waves are bigger (4 feet or more), or crashing onto the rocks, and you are worried that you will damage your boat if it hits the rocks with you in it, then you will have to seal land without your kayak.  Yes, that means you will seal land with your body just like a real seal.

To do it, exit your boat, wait for a good-sized wave (the last one in a set), and zoom up the ramp on the middle of the wave head first, on your belly, hands by your shoulders with palms out, with your body straight as if you were standing up.  As soon as you feel the wave losing its power and starting to recede, grip the rock like a mountain climber would, then scramble up high to safety.

If the wave is crashing, land on the rock in the same position as just described, turn your head to the side so you don’t smash your face, then hit the rock like a judoka does a face fall on the mat.  Be sure some of the water is on the rock before you hit, so your landing is cushioned.  As above, scramble up to safety as the wave begins to slide back.

If you want your boat to also go up the ramp, hold the toggle and let the boat sweep up with you, should the wave be surging. Then grab it firmly and drag it up to safety as soon as the wave loses its forward momentum.

However, if waves are crashing, and you must land your boat, land as before but hold a line secured to the bow toggle and leave your boat in the water.  After you seal land with your body, get to high ground, wait for a good-sized wave (the last in a set), and as it swooshes or crashes in, guide your boat up the ramp or platform by reeling in the line.  Your boat will plop on the rock face next to you (don’t let it hit you), and then haul it up to safety, being careful that you do not get entangled in the line—a real hazard.  Hauling up your boat in this manner is akin to landing a fighting marlin on the deck of a fishing boat.  You want to be careful and avoid getting whacked by the fish or snarled in your tackle.

Seal Landing Caveats

Drysuits will eventually rip and fill with water during sea landings, so take note, especially if you are doing real seal landings with your body alone.  Instead wear a surfing wetsuit for padding and warmth. Also, wear good gloves and booties to protect you from sharp rocks.  And a helmet of course.  Armor, if it fits snugly, is also useful.

If you are not experienced with seal landings and face sizable waves, forego the seal landing and opt for a safer landing on a beach or in a harbor, even if it’s miles away.  Getting bashed up and damaging your boat is a sure way to ruin your day.  It’s imperative that you develop multiple ways to deal with crashing into rocks, so you can instantly go to Plan B or C if needed.

Use your noggin' when seal landing. You don't want to end up stranded, shredded, or sightless. This gentleman (Banzai Bozo #1) lost his glasses once on a bad seal landing and had to paddle four miles back to the put-in through surf and rocks while seeing the world as a blur.

And don’t be a dummkopf out there.  I once attempted a 60-foot seal landing on a rock ramp in Big Sur—and didn’t quite make it to the top and safety.  The 10-foot surging wave receded rapidly, and my boat and I tumbled end over end backward into the froth.  I was relatively unscathed, but my Kevlar-lined slalom kayak got a big fat hole in it.  Scratch another boat.  If I had only chosen a smaller wave or had friends waiting to assist me at the top of the ramp….

To master seal landings, go out and practice with experienced friends and teachers, and learn in mild conditions first, then increase the challenge in small increments over time.  There is no hurry.  Kayaking in rock gardens is like golf.  You learn a little more each time, and it takes a lifetime to master.

Please share your thoughts on seal landings.  What’s your take on the methods presented here?  What do you recommend for a competent and safe seal landing? Also, I’d like to read your stories—good or bad, so please tell your tale.  Ask questions or add your thoughts by pressing the “comments” button below.

Editor’s note:  This essay is the first of a three-part ocean rock garden series.  In February, I’ll write about seal launching, and in early March we’ll finish the series with a post on “rock bashing versus rock gardening.”  So stay tuned.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Johnson January 2, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Here is the rest of the video that featured Gregg in that awesome footage.
The Video was edited by Bill Vonnegut, Neptune Ranger.
http://youtu.be/WD6au3vEHvU

Also, sometimes the only way to safety is the rocks, where your able to regroup and make decisions as seen in this video. We had 5 cameras rolling! Again the video was edited by Bill
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2M5aztpOQk

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Eric Soares January 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Thanks, Tony, you spoiled the big surprise! I planned to show the “Neptune’s Rangers’ Seal Launchings and Landings” in my February post on launches, and then hopefully show the “Inside at Devil’s Slide” in the March essay on “Rock Bashing vs Rock Gardening.” But not a problem–you guys can go out and shoot some new footage for the “Bashing vs Gardening” post and I can scrounge around and use some of our stuff for the “Seal Launching” post. Not to worry! 🙂

What’s important is that Neptune’s Rangers have gone out and filmed yourselves in rock gardens, and did a damned good job of editing your footage. Kudos! And thanks to Bill V. for letting me use NR’s footage of Gregg’s swim-&-run-like-hell seal landing. And thanks to Peter Donohue and Bill for being willing to pose for the seal landing stills at the mouth of Princeton Harbor.

Now that I’m all awake after watching those videos, I’m ready to take on all comments and questions on seal landings–good, bad, and ugly. Come on folks, out with it!

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Tony Johnson January 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm

I seen a chance to slip in our videos and went for it.
I apologize Eric and Bill, i screwed up.

Sincerely
Tony

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Tony Johnson January 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm

“But not a problem–you guys can go out and shoot some new footage for the “Bashing vs Gardening” post and I can scrounge around and use some of our stuff for the “Seal Launching” post.”

Please don’t make me go out there again 🙂

Tony

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Bill Vonnegut January 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Hi Eric,

It’s kind of ironic that shortly after we finished the first video that Tony just posted on landing and launching. We had a live opportunity to use these skills on the mother of all seal landings, about 800ft.
We were paddling down from Pacifica on a 5@12 day messing around on our way down the coast. There was a large swell due late that night and we had planned to be back well before then. We were checking out a neat cove that I am sure you are familiar with just north of Grey Whale where the waves reflect off the cliffs creating a zipper effect when they collide with the oncoming waves.
However as we were sitting outside what at the time was the largest break of the day. A huge set seemed to just appear out of the glassy calm bay behind us. We noticed later that the buoy history for that day jumped from 12sec to 21sec shortly after this happened. I have attached a video of what happened next. It’s the 2nd one Tony just posted. 

Tony was able to launch but conditions were getting worse very fast. After watching very random large waves appear out of what looked like a  window to launch. Mark and I decided it would be safer to climb Devils Slide rather than to launch and get into more trouble.  Also the last person to launch would have to paddle out alone with no way to get to them if they ran into trouble. 

This is the video from above that I am referring to:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2M5aztpOQk

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Eric Soares January 2, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Ah ha! Bill, you bring up a good reason to master the seal landing–evacuation. Sometimes, it’s best to get off the water and climb up to the highway–even the long steep hike at Devil’s Slide to Highway 1. BTW, I thought you guys could have made it back out through the surf with proper timing, but you pondered your options, and decided to bag it. You were there and only you can make the call. It IS better to err on the side of safety, as you can always kayak again another day.

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Doug Lloyd January 3, 2012 at 12:31 am

The good, the bad, and the ugly, eh? Well Eric, I’ll give you my take on seal landings, which may or may not have relevance to what other folks do out there but represents 30 years of particular experience from Northern Oregon up to and including BC’s Central Coast and will present the tripartite reply you seek perhaps. Most paddlers I know think wash-rock landings are a stunt. Others think of the technique as part of a different field of kayaking done mainly by wash-deck kayakers just for fun (like you guys). I trained under Hutchy, read his book, knew of the credibility guys like Nigel D. gave the maneuver (his thick-hulled NDK kayaks were some of the few ones remaining viable after these landings) and I decided I’d approach seal landings from a utilitarian perspective myself.

After fortifying my kayak’s hull, seal landing became a useful and doable option. Because my cockpit boat didn’t provide quick egress I’d choose my spots carefully. Though I wore rubber, the kind of clamoring about to alight meant my drytops took a beating, unlike perhaps a full wetsuit jacket with arms. More often than not I’d choose a shallow pool to wash up into/onto where possible or a flat section of reef copiously covered with thick kelp (lots of that up here) to soften the blow. Timing is so crutial; and where the height between the bottom trough and intended higher landing spot more than ¾’s the length of my sea kayak, I’d take extra time to observe or veto the decision and seek alternative options.

Seal landings give me the option to take refuge or rest on exposed coastline when and where I want to, allow me to explore sections of coast by foot otherwise not as easily accessible, and allow me to gain higher ground choices for better radio reception, scouting, etc. I once got into a minor skirmish with a well-known N. West kayak designer/builder as a statement was made that he’d been up and down the entire length of Vancouver Island and never did see a suitable place to seal land. Sorry, my coast, do it all the time.

Some seal landings are done for convenience and may even see me tying off my kayak to a kelp bed and swimming to a hot springs or other destination, and seal landing my body, to return later to my trusty steed. The thing is, sea kayaking is about an essential freedom and why and the heck would I let anyone say what I can and can’t or shouldn’t do? I was once caught off a headland in some terribly gusty winds (winds were already high but the higher gusts were severe, not expected, and life threatening). Progress became impossible and seas were reaching a severity even a jaded paddler found too irksome. So I goofily got my body out of my yak and up the boulders, then slowly hauled my yak up with the tow line and waited out the worst.

Most of my seal landings are done with the kayak fully loaded; this can be hard not only on the hull, but on the native inter-tidal species of many given localities too, so perhaps some deference should be given for those latter considerations. An abundance of mid-intertidal zone gooseneck barnacles often cover an intended landing spot at lower tides, intermixed with mussel growth along the outer coast and these can do a lot of damage let alone the acorn barnacles awaiting you as you wash over them after a bad seal landing fail.

I have stories too numerous to enumerate here but two favorites include a “bad” one and an “ugly” one which I post if you want me too.

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Eric Soares January 3, 2012 at 9:35 am

Well said, Doug. A few comments on your comments: Washing into a shallow pool is a really good way to seal land, especially in a laden boat. We Tsunami Rangers sometimes do seal landings in laden boats as we mosey along the coast, just as you do; and we also have learned that it can be done but it’s no fun to haul a laden boat 15 feet up a wet cliff face! 🙂 In our case, we have buddies to help us up, in your case, who paddle solo–well, how strong do you feel today?

You point out that a kayaker may be paddling along a rocky coast and the wind is too severe. What do you do? Soldier on and pray the wind dies down? Turn around and paddle 9 miles back to the beach and eat another day’s worth of food while you wait out the wind? Or do as you did and seal land on the headland and rest up, or even camp on the rocks? If the seal landing was within our capabilities, I would definitely land on the rocks and ponder my options. Jim Kakuk and I have camped up on a perch of jagged rocks before with waves smashing all around us. I remember feeling feral and very happy. Now this is the life!

Re running over intertidal species–we try not to hurt the environment or let it hurt us, but it happens sometimes. Barnacles, urchins, mussels and sharp rocks (also known as Suit Shredders) are bad; sea palms (aka “handles’) and kelp (pillows) are good. We’re careful not to harm anemones and other delicate species.

Do we want to read your “bad” and “ugly” seal landing stories? YES WE DO!

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Moulton Avery January 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm

In the great outdoors, options are your friend, and the more options the better. I find it particularly interesting when experts find salvation in a technique that those with less experience and skill consider to be a mere “trick” not worth practicing.

Doug, I’m holding my breath for your recounting of “bad & ugly” seal landings, so please post your stories before I turn blue.

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Doug Lloyd January 4, 2012 at 12:17 am

My “bad” seal landing involved a semi-shallow pool decades ago in Barclay Sound amongst the outer islands. There was a pretty brunette paddling nearby in a hot boat and some male acquaintances enthusiastically paddling alongside her. I paddled up, introduced myself and proceeded to regale them with stories about the benefits of British heavy hulls amongst the jagged rocks there; noticing a large pool 4 feet higher filling with water every few minutes, I decided to do some sudden impression-making. With perfect timing and adroit handling I rode the crest of surging swell up over the lip and between exposed spire tops landing perfectly centered in the moat-like pool only to see an expression of sudden shock on the face of the young lady. Indeed, slowly surfacing behind me was the overbearing head of a large, dangerous Stellar Sea Lion surrounded by the rest of the harem scare-um slowly surfacing. It was to be a minute or more to the next wash-over, and crap was I browning my polypro briefs. Upon egress, I was severely scolded by a one Roberta Olenick, environmental wildlife sensitivity writer for Sea Kayaker Magazine. My bad alright!

My “ugly” seal landing was solo off the northern end of an extremely exposed island group; I was fully loaded with gear and water. I’d waited for some big swell while checking out landing options as I’d been rescued off the point earlier the year before trying to make good to the island with some friends when conditions and equipment conspired against us. I was determined to secure a classic sweat-spot seal-landing at a 3 to 4 meter-averaged distance above the bottom lowest-low trough where a nine foot circumferenced shallow pool bordered by kelp with a higher shelf above that would make for a perfect, safe haul-out. I nosed in riding perpendicular, inches from the vertical wall. There was no broken water, no clapotis, just a clean pour-over of green water. I needed the biggest swell to get the bulk of the hull past the sea-saw point and fully horizontal for an exit. I pulled the skirt free to cut cockpit leaving time. Barnacles and muscles abounded. There was a raw savagery to the place though tormented trees teased me to dare completion. Picking what I thought was the last wave of a big set I rode the elevator shaft up, churning my paddle blades aided by the surge over the edge. I got only half the hull atop the outcropping and prevent from further movement forward when suddenly the world behind me fell away. My full length, protective 5/8” X3/4” X 17 foot partially embedded, softish marine-grade polymer keelson was holding the kayak fast. I mistakenly leaned backwards in disbelief observe and then teeter-tottered back over the edge falling vertically into the next rising surge. I shot back up throwing my paddle against the ragged wall’s face saving myself form certain multiple lacerations. U-g-l-y it was — and unsuccessful. I ended up performing a seal landing more toward the southern end with less drama.

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Eric Soares January 4, 2012 at 10:08 am

Great stories, Doug! Thanks for sharing. Yes, not every seal landing effort will end in “stellar” success.

I know what it’s like to experience a bull Stellar up close and personal. We were kayaking on the Sonoma coast many moons ago and saw a big bull perched up on a sea stack. We didn’t get close, not because we were worried about “environmental wildlife sensitivity,” but because we were afeared of the giant lion on the rock. Jim Kakuk got a good picture using his zoom lens, then suddenly the God Emperor of Dune slithered off the rock and splashed into the cold blue sea. We sat there dumbfounded as he came at us underwater like a Mark V torpedo. We started frantically backpaddling but were too late–he surfaced right in front of us–and like you said, his head was overbearing (I’d say “huge”). He gave us a stern look as if to say, “This is my harem; don’t even try to impress my pretty young blondes up on the rock.” We agreed with him and paddled away like Barney Fife on meth.

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Doug Lloyd January 5, 2012 at 7:56 pm

As long as you guys have never landed on a seal I guess that’s good, Eric! My last post was a bit rough – lots going down here at home; anyway, most of my seal landings are pretty tame compared to Ranger landings, which makes sense given I’m usually in a loaded touring kayak. However, the landings are cumulative and hull wear and tear takes its toll so that was part of the reason for a plastic keel strip though now I’d say extra composite strips/gelcoat or what-have-you would be simpler and effective (and less likely to “catch” stuff on jagged surfaces). One can even order simple keel strips from the factory now, color matched to the trim. Or buy a plastic boat! I liked the Neptune’s Rangers Basic Landing & Launching video #1. It was good to see these paddlers using good technique to get out of the cockpit just in time before getting mauled over; timing, comprehension and awareness of wave dynamics and surge (and some of the pillowing effects of water) are all good to know and use but don’t do much if one can’t find a way to quickly alight (easier of course with some of your kayaks). Some of the landings in the surge looked a little more than just “basic” for a beginner but the visuals were credible as a demonstration tool. Worse would be a new paddler seeing a kayak airborne, like Gregg’s dramatic video and thinking that was routine!

My “ugly” attempted landing was actually tried a few times (I don’t give up easily) and got harder once the cockpit filled with water after the plunge backwards and I flustered further at my inability to get over the lip (and as I recall, driving the nose into the wall face a few times). However, a little carnage now and then a dull boy does not make! I think my seal launching stories might be more entertaining. And I am King of rock bashing, so go easy on us bashers and abusers of boats with out straight-tracking 17 footers…

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Eric Soares January 6, 2012 at 10:02 am

Doug, I’ll go easy on you rock bashers, heh heh. As a guy who has destroyed at least 7 Kevlar-armored boats in surf and rocks, I feel I’m a contender for the Rock Basher King title, but we will deal with that in my “rock bashing vs rock gardening” post coming up at the Ides of March. And wait til you read the “seal launching” post in 3 weeks or so. We’ll have some good video to accompany it, so stay tuned.

Keel strips and extra gelcoat and Kevlar are good ideas for seal landers and launchers. Thanks for bringing that up.

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John Lull January 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Great article, Eric. I think it’s well to point out, as you do, that a seal landing can range from a very easy, very safe maneuver to a wild and treacherous, less-than-safe maneuver. One good way to learn the timing and techinque is to practice surfing the TOP of a wave in the surf zone. With your boat perched horizontally right on the crest of the wave. Once you can control and time that well, it will be relatively easy to ride the surge up onto a rock. Also learn to recognize the difference between a wave that surges over a rock and one that crashes down on a rock. You want a surging wave to do a seal landing.

Hey Bill, I really enjoyed that Devil’s Slide video. I know that exact spot. I’ve been in there on a smaller day. It didn’t look like a good place to be that day! And you did a good job capturing the increasing wave size in the video. One could argue which was the safer course; climbing out or paddling out. You probably made the right decision from the look of it. On a lot of that stretch you wouldn’t have had the option of climbing out, though.

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Bill Vonnegut January 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm

John your so right that other spots wouldent have offered a way to climb out. We were on the fence weather to go for it or not. I beleve if there wasent a climbing option we would have went for the launch.

I think what made me lean to the climb. Was the ride I had from the wave that sent me flying in to that spot. I did have my boat between me and the rocks, but I was just waiting for the impact that was sure to come. I was thankful to Neptune that I ended up in that small cove instead. With that fresh in my memory. I was in no hurry to be there again : )

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Eric Soares January 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Good points, Moulton and John. Moulton is right in that “options are your friend,” and that’s why it’s important to to learn a myriad of skills. And learning to seal land means you might get to climb up and get an overview of what’s on the other side of the headland–or better, to enjoy a hot spring on Vancouver Island.

John, you are right, timing the wave is everthing. Just as in the Paddling Pourovers piece a couple of months ago, you don’t want to be either on the leading edge of the wave (and get bashed up) or at the tail end (and get swept back). It’s much better to be a couple of feet from the leading edge (so you have a cushion and get swept all the way up). This is what John means by the wave “top” on a surging wave, right?

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Moulton Avery January 3, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Bill’s film is a wonderful example of how quickly conditions can change on the open coast.  One second everything is fine, the next it’s ultra-gnarly and getting worse by the minute.  I wouldn’t have appreciated the magnitude of the change without the tiny kayaks there to put the scale in perspective.  Great job!

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Fred Scheberies January 5, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Hi Eric,
Great to see you are still out there enjoying your passion. I had quite a few seal landings abalone diving in some pretty rough areas. Everyone would always leave me to bring in all the abs. Timing and feeling the wave was always the key to not getting thrashed. Sounds like you are doing great, I will always remember you as the best teacher I had in college. Thanks,
Fred Scheberies

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Eric Soares January 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Hi Fred,

I think ab divers are the cat’s meow, that’s for sure. Check out my post on ab diving: https://tsunamirangers.com/2010/10/13/abalone-diving-from-your-kayak/.

Thanks for the compliment regarding teaching. I really appreciate it.

Best wishes to you.

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Fat Paddler January 5, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I’ve done a few seal landings, but never on purpose. They’ve all been mis-timed pour-overs. 😉

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Eric Soares January 6, 2012 at 10:14 am

Well, what starts as mis-timings becomes the “ah ha” moment when you discover you can recreate this on purpose. Then you can seal land, dig into your drybag and enjoy a stick of peppered salami, a bit of sharp cheddar cheese, and a few crackers as you take a couple of slugs off your beverage of choice. 🙂 Then, back on the water.

Seal landings have pragmatic value, see?

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jeff January 8, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Eric, Awesome pics esp. the clown…lol Is this located in the westernmost corner of Orange County.

Thanks
Jeff

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Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 9:13 am

Glad you liked the photos. All pictures were taken in northern California: specifically in Shelter Cove, Half Moon Bay, and the Sonoma coast.

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