Life in Salt: Mike Dilloughery on His Record Solo-Paddle Across Monterey Bay (and Back)
by Owen James Burke
(Photo: Zach Wormhoudt/GhostRyders Santa Cruz)
“…I found myself yelling at the wind to pass the time. I’ll be honest it can get boring out there.”
At 6:15am on July 20th, Mike Dilloughery entered the water at Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz, California with his 17’9″ Joe Bark paddle board and began a 25-mile journey south to Monterey, something he’d done four times before. This time though, he’d be paddling back upwind and — for two-and-a-half hours — against the current. After only a short stop in Monterey to mix a sports drink, he turned back around and just before dusk made his way up the same beach he’d left about twelve-and-a-half hours earlier. He was swollen with jellyfish stings and too weak in the stomach for a celebratory beer, but with an appropriate gleam of satisfaction. He’s the first person known to have made this historic, round-trip, roughly 50 mile paddle.
Mike Dilloughery is a lifelong Santa Cruz waterman and a surfer at heart. A full-time job, a wife and children have narrowed his windows of opportunity for water time, but he’s still wanted to stay in shape, and pumping iron at the gym simply won’t do. No matter though. Over the past ten years of fatherhood, he’s been sure to find ways to keep himself in the salt. Principal among them, long-distance paddle boarding.
You’d done the Santa Cruz to Monterey paddle one-way four times before. That’s an epic trek by itself. But how’d you and your family feel about doubling the distance?
I’ve paddled one-way from Santa Cruz to Monterey four times. The first time was with my buddy Zach Wormhoudt back in 2007 I believe. That was such an experience. We just decided to do it with little to no planning, no escort, no GPS, no radio. The previous days were clear and glassy conditions. The day of our departure we met on West Cliff Dr. near Steamers Lane. We were welcomed with pea soup fog — not what we were hoping for. Luckily I had purchased a $3.00 compass from Longs/CVS the night before. That was the best three dollars I ever spent. After that paddle we discussed with our club, The GhostRyders Waterman Club (GRWC), about organizing a paddle race across the bay, The Bay Crossing. The GRWC ran that race for three years, until we turned our focus to the Santa Cruz Downwind Ryder’s Cup, aka (the 17 mile) The Davenport Downwinder.
I feel pretty comfortable out in the Bay. The thought of getting into trouble never enters my mind. Each time I’ve paddled across the conditions have been different, from glassy and hot sunny skies to cold, windy and foggy. My family doesn’t really worry about me in the water. I’m very familiar with my limits and the conditions. I’m in my element out there.
Why did it take two years to get the right weather for a round trip? What are the usual things that scrub a mission like this?
I’ve been wanting to try to paddle back from Monterey since the first time I crossed. The last couple years I really started watching forecasts and conditions with the return paddle in mind. I wanted to start and finish at Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz which really puts the focus on the return paddle from Monterey. In the summer a typical day is fog in the morning and North West winds in the afternoon. On the return trip that means you’re battling a wind hitting you in the shoulder. I didn’t want to paddle in the dark or the fog so I was waiting for light winds and clear visibility. Santa Cruz had about a week of tropical muggy weather around the time of the paddle so I thought conditions were as good as they were going to get.
What was the farthest distance you were offshore, and how long were you completely out of sight of land?
Because of the horseshoe formation of the bay I was in sight of land the entire round trip. I really don’t have an accurate reading of the furthest distance I was from shore. In the middle of the crossing I would say I was about 10 to 12 miles out.
Dilloughery’s wife Corrina chart-plotted his route on a Google map using the GPS tracker App Find My iPhone. Passing over the Monterey Canyon, Dilloughery was in water a mile deep. (Image: Corrina Dilloughery/Santa Cruz Sentinel)
What are the primary currents and other conditions that you might not see? Did you have to time the tides?
The tides were fairly mild, not a big change, and no real swell activity so I didn’t believe currents would be a factor. However, on my return trip outside Moss Landing, something was pulling me back. I barely moved for two and half hours. I stopped looking at my GPS at that moment, I was so frustrated. I didn’t understand what happened there, I initially blamed it on the wind picking up. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that the canyon generates a current from the upwelling water pushing up from the canyon floor over the top and spilling over. The idea is you struggle entering over the canyon and then get a little help as you pass it.
How did you provision yourself for a 50-mile roundtrip journey?
I’m not much of a nutritionist. We eat pretty good at home thanks to my wife, Corrina. I feel like I’m always prepared for a race or long paddle. Anyway, I had a big bag of mashed up bananas, I love this as it’s really easy to get down and doesn’t mess with your stomach. I make a little hole in the corner of the bag and squeeze it out like tooth paste. For hydration I used some powdered sports drink that didn’t go over too well. That messed up my stomach on the return trip. Took me a nights sleep to get my appetite back. I tried something new this time and it was a bad time to switch. Duh! My favorite is coconut water but I didn’t have a support boat so I relied on the powder for the trip home.
Your board is a 17’9” Joe Bark, who is known for making performance SUPs and paddle boards. Is there anything special about the board you’d like to note — the rudder, or is it a custom shape?
I did the paddle on my unlimited because I new I needed a rudder if/when the wind came up. Man, to do it on the stock 12-footer in that wind would have been a nightmare. Happy I left that at home. The rudder came in very handy battling the wind.
You wore a 2mm wetsuit with booties. Why both and what kind of booties did you wear?
I’m not a fan of paddling in rubber but I knew without an escort I had to play it safe. The Buell 2mm short sleeve (GhostRyder model) was a good call. Had my Buell 1mm booties also. I was pretty comfortable when the wind kicked in.
What did you have with you for a camera? And your phone case?
I had an iPhone wrapped up, but never took it out. No camera. Bummed I left the GoPro at home. So bummed I didn’t bring it. The whale show was incredible.
What do you do to stay in shape — especially with the demands of fatherhood?
I got into paddling shortly after my kids were born. Surfing has always been my go-to sport for fun and exercise. But when you have young kids and a full-time career your windows are short. When the waves were down I had to get in the ocean and paddling was a good fit. I fell in love with paddling. I assume it’s similar to the high that runners get with the “runner’s high.” You get in this rhythm and you can just go and go… It’s my Zen.
(Photo: Mike Dilloughery’s Facebook Page)
How bad did the jellyfish stings hurt by the end? Did they contribute to you wanting to turn back? How raw were your armpits – and did you wear a rash guard?
I was able to avoid the jellies with long tentacles. It was the little ones that got me. The sting is so minor you barely feel it. However, it does take a toll on the hands and they did swell up. It looks like you have soccer goalie gloves on.
I actually didn’t rash up as bad as I expected with the wetsuit on. The armpits had some rashes but nothing too bad.
What about sharks? Did the whales make you feel more or less likely to be approached by a man in grey? Have you had any hairy encounters with sharks or orcas during long paddles?
I don’t worry about sharks much. I’ve never seen a Great White, and I feel a little cheated. I’ve spent my entire life in the ocean in and around Santa Cruz here I still haven’t seen one. I guess it’s the ones you don’t see that are the real threat.
I have yet to see an orca out there [but] the humpback whales were so abundant. It was one heck of a show. I did get a little worried that one was going to land on me and had to stop paddling several times to allow them space to pass through my path.
Otherwise, what was your biggest fear or worry?
My biggest worry was the wind would get to strong to continue. It was definitely a battle.
How close did you come to turning around on your second leg, paddling upwind? What kept you from heading back downwind for Monterey?
The idea of giving up kept me going. It could have been so easy to turn down wind and ride the bumps into Moss Landing. I pondered that thought several times especially when I was stuck in the canyon current.
This paddle was pretty personal for me. I lost both my sister and brother a few years back, their ashes are scattered at Cowell’s Point, hence the start and finish at this location. I thought about them a lot when things got tough. They really kept me going.
I set this goal years ago and wasn’t going to quit. Battling the wind and the lack of progress was tough mentally. If I was younger I don’t think I would have had the mental strength to continue. I paddle and surf a lot so physically I was prepared, it’s the mental strength that can be in question.
(Photo: Ghostryders Santa Cruz)
You’re a waterman with 10 years of paddling under your belt. Is this your most momentous experience on the water so far?
This was the top item on my bucket list and definitely a momentous experience. It was great to do it solo, no escort, no one else to negotiate with. It sounds selfish but it was a personal goal and sure is easy to plan when you don’t have a lot of logistics to deal with.
It was definitely the toughest thing I ever did. The return trip battling the wind with no music and no one to talk to, you can go a little crazy.
Your daughter made you a playlist which you said helped, until your battery died. What music/artists/songs were on there?
My daughter Mckenzie set me up with a great playlist. It included everything from Metallica and AC/DC to Bob Marley and Stick-Figure. This was my first experience paddling with music, and I’m sold. The music had me going strong. When that battery died it felt like the wind got sucked out of me. Oh what a bummer that was. I found myself yelling at the wind to pass the time. I’ll be honest it can get boring out there.
The GhostRyders Waterman Club were really supportive and provided land support in case I needed it. Zach and Matt Hamil came out to greet me on Zach’s boat at the Mile Buoy outside Santa Cruz. That was such a great sight and comedic moment — horns honking, trying to throw me beers. I was cracking up. Needless to say, I couldn’t get a beer down.
Would you do it again? Or go farther next time — maybe something like Molokai to Oahu? How do you feel about the journey in hindsight?
Currently I have no desire to try it again. But that could change. If I did do it again I would like to do it on a Stock (prone 12-footer). That would up the challenge for sure, no rudder in the wind.
I really want to go back and do the Molokai to Oahu race. I did it back in 2009 on a stock board. I wasn’t too happy with my time so I feel the need to improve. I think I’m in better shape now than I was back then.
The Molokai is such a tough race. Just to complete the crossing is a great accomplishment. Major respect to everyone who completes that crossing. Immediately after completing that race I had no desire to do it again; that beat me up physically. But after a few weeks you start thinking about things you could have done differently and how to improve your time. I’m going to give this another shot in the next couple years. I have yet to paddle in the Catalina Classic. This is also on my to do list.
What was the first thing you did after crossing the finish line upon your return to Cowell’s?
My family, niece and nephew were on the beach to greet me. The kids made a really cool finish line for me, complete with a kelp runway and ribbon to cross. It was beautiful. I got some great hugs and kisses. That’s what it’s all about for me, personal goals and the support of the family. Love it.
After 50 miles of open water paddling, Dilloughery crosses the line of seaweed and tissue paper his children made for his finish at Cowell’s Beach (Photo: GhostRyders Santa Cruz)
Visit the GhostRyders Santa Cruz Facebook page to follow Mike Dilloughery and learn more about long-distance paddle boarding.