Editor’s note: Thanks to Charlie Teall for the photos of Neil and John at the slot.
Eric loved autumn because it’s the start of football season. In fact, his video “The Tsunami Rangers’ Greatest Hits” was modeled after the NFL’s Greatest Hits films. One of his favorite things about watching football was a segment called “Jacked Up!” in which you get to see the hardest hits of the day. After each slamming collision you hear a chorus of announcers: “He got jacked up!!!” So in the spirit of getting jacked up, I’d like to share the story of my worst kayaking crash to date.
Eric and I were out at Pillar Point. We paddled from the harbor to Ross’s Cove and I kept an eye on the slot at the point as we passed. If conditions seemed right, I wanted to paddle through the slot between the reef and the cliff and into the lagoon by the beach. In the past when I tried this maneuver, I had either run aground on the reef or flipped but I was determined to make it eventually.
For folks who don’t know, Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay (actually Princeton) California is where Maverick’s and the Big Wave Surf Contest are located. There is a reef protecting the beach but there is a slot right at the tip of the point between the cliff and the reef where a kayaker can paddle through when the tide is high enough. The waves break at the point and on the reef, but there is an opening at the slot because of the slightly deeper water.
On this particular day the sea was soft. The slot looked promising on the way to Ross’s but I chickened out. However, I surfed well at the cove and my confidence was up so on the way back I decided to go through. Eric coached me on the approach. “Surf right at the cliff,” he said. “Point your boat at the rocks, wait until the absolute last minute and then turn away. You’ll shoot right through!”
Small waves were spilling over the reef but nothing major was coming. I sprinted toward the point. Things were going great. A two-foot wave picked me up and I began to surf. I aimed the tip of my bow right at the rocks. But Eric’s idea of “right at the rocks” and mine were not the same. I was too far to the right, going over the reef where the waves break at odd angles. Just when I thought I had made it another wave rolled in from starboard. It broadsided me and I flipped. I don’t have a roll and I figured I’d just let the wave roll me up as it’d done before or else wash me into the lagoon. I relaxed and let the sea take me.
Unfortunately, wave number two pushed me at right angles to my original trajectory. Small but powerful, it took about two seconds to sweep me 20 feet and slam me face first into the cliff. I was caught between a rock and a hard wave. Dang. And I had failed to execute the Sinclair corkscrew maneuver. For a few seconds I was plastered against the rock. Then the wave released me. I rolled over onto my face, unbuckled my seat belt, and surfaced. I was jacked up…
I realized I was going into shock because I found I couldn’t swim. I dog paddled to keep my head above water. Waves tossed me about and I bumped along the rocks until I came to a cleft where I clung to a knob of rock. After a brief rest I hauled myself onto a shelf and lay there curled up assessing the damage. One good thing: my face wasn’t smashed because I was leaning so far back on the deck of my kayak that my torso hit first.
Meanwhile, Eric surfed easily through the slot and retrieved my paddle and kayak which had washed over the reef and into the lagoon. He left everything on the beach and then clambered around on the rocks to me. Moving hurt but the tide was rising so Eric coaxed me off the rock and into the water. Clutching my gut I half swam, half staggered to safety.
About a week later when I had sufficiently recovered, I went back to try it again. This time I was dead serious and super alert. I aimed my boat point blank and surfed right at those rocks. Just like Eric said I waited until what seemed like the absolute last second. I remember thinking it looked like my bow was about an inch away from crashing when I hit the rudder. I shot right through no problem.
Here’s what I learned from this incident: I listened to Eric but I didn’t actually do what he said. When Eric said surf at the cliff he meant it. He often reminded me that to miss an obstacle aim your boat at it and then pull away at the last minute. If you try not to hit something by aiming away from it, he said, inevitably you’ll crash right into it. It’s a weird thing about kayaking around obstacles.
Furthermore, I tuned out and failed to realize what was happening until it was too late. Partly this was complacency and partly an error in perception. In the back of my mind was the thought that it was a small day and this was going to be easy. Moreover as I approached the cliff the first time part of me was saying, “Yeah, surf right at the cliff. But surely he can’t mean that close!” But it wasn’t really that close at all. The first time I went through I was way off. The second time my perception was that I was inches away from crashing but in reality I had a decent cushion. Not doing exactly what Eric said the first time was my big mistake.
What was your worst crash ever? Did you learn a lesson? Share with us please!