"The Cove" and Flat Rock

by Bill Vonnegut
How many times have I headed out of Pillar Point Harbor with the intention of heading up the coast to Flat Rock, but have never made it and instead have chosen to spend hours playing less than a mile from the put in? The answer: Lots!!
Bill Vonnegut on a big day at Mushroom Rock
photo by Peter Donohue

There is a small cove just outside of the Harbor in Half Moon Bay that is formed on the ocean side by a natural reef just inside the Mavericks surf break, referred to as the Bone Yard by surfers. The shore side is by a nice sandy beach and the other side is by the jetty wall of the Pillar Point Harbor. It can be accessed by either portaging over the sand where the cliff and jetty meet or by paddling out the harbor mouth and around.
Lucy O'Brien setting up for a run

The cove is open to the south, which protects the area from the dominant north swell. There are waves wrapping around to the inside making the cove a wonderful kayak playground with multiple surf waves and gaps between allowing a rescue to be easily performed. This is one of the reasons I have spent so many years hanging out in the cove.  On bigger days, or when conditions are messy on the outside, you can usually find something to surf on the inner break (referred to as the Microwave) or you can head over and play in the whitewater being thrown over the reef. During high tide this area can be fun when a zipper wave forms from the inner and outer waves colliding.
Lily Kelsey checking out Microwave in the cove

I love rock gardening and surfing and am always trying build my skills, but heading right into areas where rescues may be difficult or even hazardous is not the appropriate spot to push yourself to the limit and beyond. A great deal of caution should be used when paddling in areas that have penalties like rocks. Finding a place with an offshore surf break where the worst thing that could happen is being flushed into deep calm water is bonus for building your skills to a point where you are ready to handle what the ocean may throw at you in a hazardous situation.
Allen Shah catching the end of a zipper wave that washed over the reef

Besides just going out and surfing, I will, to this day, head out to the cove and put myself into situations where I know I am going to get hammered to see what happens. For example, I will paddle into a very large breaking wave that I didn’t think I would be able to break through, but sometimes may find that I did make it through. Then, I will look at what I have done to get over the crest like planting my paddle deeper into the wave while dragging myself over. Many times I don't make it and end up with an excellent opportunity for combat roll practice. Sometimes, I find that I enjoy being drug upside down in the wave.
Mark Berger doing some roll practice at Mushroom Rock, he likes to cover all bases by rolling end over end before side to side. 

Another great way to practice is sitting in the impact zone facing different directions while letting you and your boat be hit by the wave or paddling backwards over the wave and surfing backwards. (check to make sure there is no one behind you!) Other exercises to practice are rolling under the wave and then back up after it has passed. To do this, head toward the breaking wave with some speed and at the last second possible throw yourself upside down while keeping momentum. Then, wait for the sound of the wave hitting the bottom of your hull to stop, roll back up, and paddle away.
                                                                                              Map of area

Speaking of zipper waves mentioned earlier! You can find a great one about a mile north up the coast of the cove at Flat Rock.
Winny Van veeren trying to get zipped at Flat Rock
  This off shore rock has a nice wave to surf around the south side that can actually be ridden all the way behind the rock. Sometimes, you can bank off the wave coming around from the north and catch a short ride in the opposite direction. If you end up in the right spot at the right time, you can be launched 10ft up into the air by the zipper effect caused by the waves colliding. Often, we will hang out behind Flat Rock and move around trying to catch a launch on the evasive sweet spot of the zipper.
Bill Vonnegut at Flat Rock

When looking at Flat Rock while paddling toward it, the rock may look like the whole area around is closing out on a bigger 6-7ft day, but paddling just to the outside of the surf wave shown above is a deep water channel that rarely breaks. Access can be gained to the protected deep water behind the rock, which can be used as a staging area for play. Then, from the protected deep water behind the rock, you can reach shore and the beach by timing your way across a plunging wave at the reef about 50 yards from shore, once inside this area landing is not difficult.

For some more action, paddling north beyond Flat Rock through the boomers is fun. There’s a way, if you know it, to paddle north with waves exploding on both sides and then back out to deep water near Fitzgerald Marine Reserve about a mile north. This area is also another put in that can be used to gain access to Flat Rock and itself is a fun area, as long as you don't mind a long carry.

Here are a couple videos showing the area, the first was a day we were playing around doing some rescue practice:

And the second was one of the first videos I ever shot. We headed past the cove and up the coast to Flat Rock with some friends, it has some good shots of NR Lucy O'Brien playing in the zipper. And even a scene of me getting taken out while negotiating the boomer field and focusing on filming rather than boomers. The north passage starts at 4 min in the video.