Route Notes: Davenport Run (California)

Sunday, 09 January 2011 13:08 | Written by  Kenny Howell
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Mike McNulty tackles the Davenport! Mike McNulty tackles the Davenport! Credits: Jasmine Shabandi

A unique 15 mile stretch of exposed open coast in northern California offers world class ocean downwind conditions for expert surfski paddlers.

During the spring and summer months, it is arguably the best downwind run in California, and possibly in all of mainland USA. If you crave a thrilling, adrenaline-pounding, surfski paddle, but want an easy, protected launch site and a harbour takeout, look no further!

Local weather patterns and geographic features combine to create the perfect situation in terms of wind-wave direction along the coastline, and consistently high winds. Nearby Waddell Creek has attracted mobs of ocean sailboarders and kiters for decades. Strong cross-shore breezes (prevailing north to south) with a southeast curving shore are part of what make this route seem like it was made just for surfskis.

The Route

Davenport track

The Davenport Run

Launch from the protected sandy beach at Davenport Landing, north of Davenport on Highway 1, in Santa Cruz County. Paddle south along the coast for 15 miles to the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbour, indicated by the lighthouse at the end of the jetty, just past the historic Santa Cruz boardwalk amusement park.

No Alternate

Launching from Davenport Landing, one must commit to completing the route to Santa Cruz.

No convenient landings exist before Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz (the point that creates the famous Steamers Lane break). Long stretches of sea cliffs and rocky reefs rim the shore, with only a few a few remote beaches affording an emergency bailout. Access to the highway – if you can reach it all - is through private farm land, and you might not be able to hike your boat out!

How to find Davenport Landing

From the strange and wonderful surf town of Santa Cruz, head north on Hwy 1 for about 12 miles. Just outside the village of Davenport, a picturesque former whaling town, you will pass a giant cement plant. 1.8 miles from Davenport, turn left on Davenport Landing Road; follow this road to the parking area at the beach. In the peak wind season, dozens of sailboarders will rip across the small bay near shore, and surfers ride the point break.

The Run

Spring time is the best time for Davenport. March, April and May on the northern California coast experience nearly constant strong north-westerly winds created by the massive high pressure system knows as the Pacific High, which dominates the weather of the north eastern Pacific and much of the western United States.

The spring winds are integral to the ocean ecology, driving away warmer water on the surface, thus fuelling an upwelling of nutrient rich cold water – a bonanza for the entire marine food chain. Davenport becomes less intense and less reliable by June, but locals claim it’s still good fairly often through the summer. Winter is considered the offseason, but if you pick your days, it could easily go off any month of the year.

Swell size in the windy spring months may reach gut-wrenching heights of 10’-15’, with long-period wave trains blocking the horizon from the view of a surfskier sliding on his bum down an ocean roller. As the season progresses, smaller swells and short wavelengths generated by the near-shore winds make for endless corduroy runners – easy to catch, and fun to ride! Within minutes of launching from the peaceful cove at Davenport Landing, you turn your boat south, downwind, and you’re surfing for your life.


Navigation is nearly idiot proof. Because the wind and swell push the paddler straight down the coast, it’s not necessary to angle away from shore. The coast falls away to the southeast, so everything lines up perfectly. It’s a good idea to stay about a kilometre offshore to avoid thick kelp beds, and gain some sea room; while there are no major reefs or boomers in the area, the best line takes you slightly outside, away from a series of points along the route.

Wind reports for this section of the coast are available (through for two locations - one north of Davenport at Wadell Creek, and one near the end of the run at Long Marine Lab, a UC Santa Cruz facility built on a high terrace overlooking the sea. Winds tend to spike at this point. You will have been surfing for over an hour by the time you get there, but the rides keep coming! (I’ve come past here in a spring gale, spindrift blasting off the waves and the wind nearly tearing the paddle from my hands.)

The buildings of the Marine Lab provide a good visual landmark from the water, as this coast is otherwise undeveloped, and very rural. Soon, Lighthouse Point comes into view - the northern tip of Monterey Bay - and you can usually count on things settling down there, for better or worse...

Mediterranean Climate

Santa Cruz is blessed with a freakish Mediterranean climate, often sunny and hot in contrast to the fog-shrouded, windy seascapes north and south of Monterey Bay. Although this run will give you 100% stoke from the start, it can sometimes end with a bitter thud (especially in summer) right at Steamers Lane. When the wind dies, the silence is deafening. Adding to the trauma, you might hit a slight headwind for the last couple miles into the harbour mouth!

If two hours of extreme downwind paddling isn’t enough, and the wind holds up, the option exists to continue a few more miles to the town of Capitola. Endurance specialists can potentially link up another downwind leg of 15 miles to Moss Landing. Perhaps the wisest course is to get out of the water in Santa Cruz, and then do a back-to-back Davenport run – it has been done! Most of us Davenport devotees usually head for the Seabright Brewery after one run, then get a latte grande for the ride home.

Dave Jensen 

Dave Jensen offshore: He likes back-to-back Davenport runs on good days. Photo: Jasmine Shabandi

 A Big First Impression

Garmin GPS data from epic Davenport run, March 2008; surfski model, V10 Sport Ultra; paddler, Kenny Howell

Tilt your fun meter

Davenport on a big day will tilt your fun meter to the max. I’ll never forget my first run in March of 2008. A burly 12’ swell jacked up, enhanced by wind gusts over 30 knots. Accompanied by downwind fanatics Dave Jensen, Chris Stout, and Carter Johnson, we arrived at the beach just in time to observe a rogue set close out the entire cove at Davenport Landing! We screamed like kids watching a horror movie as we all imagined being pitch-poled backwards through the massive whitewater.

I suddenly had second thoughts about launching, but Dave Jensen insisted it was makeable. “They paddle through stuff like that all the time in South Africa,” Dave chided in his clipped, Wisconsin accent. He was the only one in our party that had experienced what constitutes for surfski racing in South Africa, so we naively had to take his word for it.

Not only did we make it out past the impact zone safely, but we had the time of our lives on the run. Some of the bigger swells that day were so steep that on a few drops it seemed as if I was standing straight up on the foot board, peering over a watery cliff into an ocean void. The surfing was very technical, and it took all my skill to stay on the ski. On the beach, we had talked of the need to paddle aggressively, and maintain good speed to stay in control in the turbulent conditions. Speed is your friend. And speed is a drug. I had fallen madly in love with the Davenport downwind run.

Wind graph


Blue graph = sustained wind speed

Red graph = wind gusts

Just like Molokai!

At the end of that session, sprits were high. “Dude, that’s just like Molokai!” “Best run ever!” and “Surfskis are made for that!” The high-fiving all around was tempered by cruel laughter at the comic sight of Carter sitting on the dock in his bare feet – he couldn’t walk! He did the paddle without neoprene booties, and his feet had gone numb. The price we pay for living by a cold ocean...

Downwind video

This video shot from Mike McNulty’s helmet cam shows the launch, and the runs on a decent Davenport day.



Before you even think about taking on Davenport, a lot of ducks have to line up.

  • Your skills should be 100% appropriate for an ocean downwind.
  • You must be able to easily remount the ski in rough seas in the event of falling off.
  • Ideally, go with someone that has successfully completed the run –someone you trust. It’s important to make a plan and stick with it.
  • Check the forecasts. Make sure it’s not too extreme. Winds above 30 knots will take even the best paddlers to their limits.
  • Study the surf at the launch carefully before launching. Davenport Landing has an excellent point break, with a clear channel for paddling out. Make sure you know where the channel is, and get outside the break zone before turning downwind. A rocky reef just south of the launch could destroy your ski if you lost it on the launch, and the swim could be ugly.
  • Don’t hesitate to abort at the launch if conditions change for worse, or you don’t feel totally confident you can handle it. Listen to your friends if they tell you to stay on shore.
  • Afternoons tend to provide the best conditions, but make sure you’ve got plenty of daylight remaining; the run takes a solid 2 hours to complete.
  • Get far enough offshore to avoid the abundant rudder-snagging kelp beds.
  • Dress appropriately for these waters so that you stay warm while paddling! The ocean temperature is generally 55 degrees Fahrenheit, year round.
  • Take all the safety gear you have access to, and then some; leashes, life vest, marine radio. Signalling devices in the event of a mishap, such as skyflares, or a mirror, are also a good idea. This is an extreme run.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Sanctuary map 

The route lies within the territory of the nation’s largest marine sanctuary, encompassing a shoreline length of 276 miles, and 6,094 square miles of ocean, extending an average distance of 30 miles from shore.

Sea life in the Sanctuary is extraordinary. Commonly sighted while paddling along the coast: countless sea birds, sea otters, seals, sea lions, and the migrating California gray whales. Also lurking in these waters is the Man In the Gray Suit. Personally, I have never seen him while paddling, but I am pretty sure he has seen me.

Gray whale

Take a virtual tour of the Marine Sanctuary: 



True confessions from the “Church of Davenport”

Chris Stout 

Christ Stout, Monterey, California: Chris may have logged more Davenport runs than any man alive. He calls it his “Church of Davenport”, and the “Poor Man’s Molokai”.  Photo: Jasmine Shabandi

“The run is special because it is a complete vacation day.

"The shuttle (to Davenport) has a hippie café with, muffins, tattoos and costa rica coffee if needed. The water is usually clear and blue. The run itself has open ocean swell underneath strong wind chop so that the runs have steep and deep drops with long rides.

"The waves are usually multidirectional, so you “get lost” concentrating on surfing the angles. At the take out, it’s the Seabright Brewery with salmon fish & chips with a pint of “The Blur”. Santa Cruz is a fun and weird place to hang out. I haven’t been on a better coastal run yet.

“Maybe the worst Davenport run for me was being stupid enough to do it by myself with winds averaging 40mph, with higher gusts. I lost my hat and glasses and was really glad to round Steamers Lane. “

Robin Graham

Robin Graham, Atherton, California

Robin a former Saffa waterman, completed his virgin Davenport run in spring 2009, and has never been the same since a memorable wildlife encounter: 

“I was at speed and about to drop down the face of a big wave when the back of a whale broke through the trough right below me. We were traveling in opposite directions so while I took off down the face and instinctively braced for impact, the impact never came as the whale disappeared into the swell underneath me!”

Video shot by Robin Graham on his first run:

US Surfski Champs 2010

Dawid Mocke taking on the might of the US Coast Guard during the 2010 US Surfski Champs

Dawid, the reigning ISPA World Champ, was treated to a scenic paddle on a mild Davenport day last August after winning the US Surfski Championships on San Francisco Bay. He had this to say about our favorite coastal downwind. Locals take note!

“When Robin Graham told me about the Davenport to Santa Cruz run I was instantly excited. This coastline is renowned for its excellent surfing breaks and I just knew that any bit of wind along that coast must kick up fantastic downwind paddling.

"Ok, the wind didn't blow at all really when we did it, but it was still a spectacular paddle especially along the cliff faces as you start getting into Santa Cruz. I'm totally going to dominate this run next time I'm in North Cal.”*

*Author’s note: according to Robin Graham, the wind picked up to 16 knots off Long Marine Lab, giving Dawid just a tease of downwind towards the end of their run into Santa Cruz!

Davenport Invitational Race in 2011?

Rumours are spreading that an “invitational” downwind race on this special stretch of ocean will take place in spring 2011. Entrants must meet qualification standards. With a waiting period over a few days for the optimum conditions, this could become a very attractive event for elite surfskiers far and wide. Stay tuned for more details!

[Editor: Thanks for Route Notes, Kenny!  We'd love to see more of them...  Send us the notes for your favourite route - it doesn't have to be downwind necessarily - just tell us where your best paddle is, how and when to do it!]

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