by Will Nordby
Editor’s note: Will Nordby recently completed his career as a broadcast and print photo-journalist based in the Bay Area. He started kayaking in 1973 and has traveled along the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia in addition to the Caribbean, Central America, and South Pacific. His articles have appeared in various magazines including Sea Kayaker and Canoe. He met both Steve Sinclair and Eric Soares during his time in the Bay Area and served as Safety Chairman for BASK (Bay Area Sea Kayakers). He is the originater of the Paddle Float, a safety device for sea kayaking first marketed in 1984. Will edited the first commercial videos Eric produced and created separate stories on Steve and Eric for television. Another of Will’s projects was the sea kayaking anthology “Seekers of the Horizon” published in 1989.
Mention the name of Steve Sinclair in the company of experienced ocean paddlers from the ‘80s and you’ll likely get a pensive nod of respect. Mention the name among the “now” generation of ocean paddlers and you’ll probably get a blank look. Despite the passage of time, the oceanics of Steve still burn brightly in the minds of those who knew him.
Dial back to the fall of 1982 at Sausalito, California. On the waterfront, a colorful array of kayaks line the beach dramatically contrasting with the staid yachts and sailboats nestled in the marina floats. Beneath the gaiety of swaying balloons and flapping pennants, laughter and good natured banter fills the sunny air as paddlers mingle awaiting the action. The action consists of races as part of the first annual Sea Trek regatta hosted by owner Bob Licht.
I’m here as a freelance reporter for Canoe magazine. As I weave my way through the paddlers and kayaks, my attention is caught by a small group of men clad in wetsuits with the tops rolled down. They stand at the edge of the crowd and by their feet are strange paddling craft. Curious, I draw closer to eavesdrop on the conversation. All the men are in great physical condition but there is one among them who seems to be the leader. He stands 6’ 3” and weighs about 220. His broad chest and well muscled body underscore the fact he is an athlete. He speaks with his whole body using broad gestures punctuated by raucous laughter and verbal sound effects to emphasize his points. While he is talking, he happens to notice me. In the fraction of a second he glances my way, I’m struck by his piercing blue eyes and sea captain’s squint. In that instant, unknowingly, I have met Steve Sinclair.
Dial back to the late ‘50s at Claremont, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. A young single mother is raising her five children, three boys and two girls. The youngest is 6-year-old Steve. He has such an excess of energy that his mother finds it necessary to put a harness on him and tether him to a post in the backyard. He soon wears a circle into the lawn as he happily runs round and round. The growing years are a blur for Steve and by the seventh grade, at 5’ 6” and 160 pounds, he has grown strong from wrestling and lifting weights with his brothers. His athleticism catches the attention of physical education coach Eugene McCarthy, the man who will give direction to his life. Not only does McCarthy get Steve involved with the swim and water polo teams, he also serves as a father figure.
Dial forward through the ‘60s and early ‘70s of high school and college water polo where Steve adds lifeguarding to his many sporting endeavors of football, track, wrestling, body surfing, and constant conditioning. He has become a lean and mean athlete with a fierce competitive spirit.
To this mix, McCarthy introduces Steve to a wave ski designed by legendary surfer Merv Larson. What to do? Well, jump in the ocean and attack, attack, attack. After a few beatings, Steve finally gets the hang of it.
Dial forward to the mid-‘70s at the Navarro River along the Mendocino Coast in Northern California. Steve and a few surfer friends paddle down the river in stormy conditions. The plan is to take-out before the river rushes into the ocean. However, one friend is swept out. Steve immediately plunges through the gnarly shorebreak with his wave ski to save his friend. After much effort, Steve finally battles his way to his friend’s side. When they exchange greetings, the same thought strikes them: “Hey, this can be fun.” At this moment, the concept of “storm sea skiing” is born.
The missing piece of the storm sea skiing genesis is completed when, shortly after the Navarro episode, Merv Larson introduces Steve to Chuck Sherburne, the designer of a surf ski based on an Australian model. With Steve as test pilot, Sherburne’s prototype surf ski evolves into the Odyssea version. A cross between a kayak and a wave ski, the washdeck Odyssea has a blunt bow tapering to a narrow stern with a rudder. Double hatches allow for gear storage on long journeys along or off surf bound coastlines. It is the strange paddle craft I saw at the Sea Trek regatta.
Dial forward to the early ‘80s and the stage is set for storm sea skiing at Elk, California—man, paddle craft, and ocean. With his lifetime of experience in, on, and around the water, Steve is at home with the ocean. With his Odyssea surf ski he has a versatile craft he can rely on.
As a Southern California surfer, Steve is familiar with the “pretty boy” waves along that coast. At times, it is rather boring to do the same routines over and over again. Catch a wave, ride it to shore then turn out and repeat the cycle. But when he moves to Elk, in Northern California, he experiences, for the first time, waves that have a bite to them. Instead of rolling cleanly onshore, the waves are distorted by islets and rocky bottoms. They are like snarling junkyard dogs, unpredictable and wild. Moreover, the north coast catches the brunt of storms rolling in from Asia and Alaska creating big waves from strong winds.
Like all ocean paddlers with skill, Steve handles shorebreak, wash rocks, and sea caves as a matter of required performance. But, unlike other ocean paddlers, he thrives in adverse conditions such as rain, 50 knot winds, and breaking cross waves. Steve takes it to another level when he paddles offshore in those conditions anywhere from 3 to 5 miles. Psychologically, he is untethering from the comparative safety of a nearby shore and venturing into the unknown without safety backup. He is alone…utterly alone…amid the chaos of a raging ocean. It is what he seeks: testing his skills to the maximum and discovering who he is. For him it is a workout and performance art without an audience.
Dial forward to the present in remembrance of Steve who died in 1996 from a sudden heart attack. A renegade, an iconoclast, and an expert ocean kayaker—Steve was all three and more. With his extensive background in water sports, he regarded himself as a “waterman” and not a kayaker. Even without his boat, he felt confident he could swim to shore in heavy surf. He didn’t have the mentality of sitting inside a kayak and hoping he didn’t capsize.
Steve was generally dismissed in the kayaking community as being on the fringe and somewhat irrelevant. People focused on his storm sea skiing and not the fact that he, and his Force Ten guides, conducted ocean white water tours in modified Eddyline double kayaks. In one of the many conversations I had with him, he told me he would like to be remembered for his safety record in the tours—only nine capsizes in over 2,000 outings. In each case, the double kayak was righted before the passenger had to exit.
When I received that early morning call from a fellow paddler telling me Steve had died, I was devastated. I had lost a dear friend. He taught me lessons in kayaking safety I have never forgotten and was a role model for living life to the fullest through constant challenge and exploration.
It was my good fortune to know Steve Sinclair and Eric Soares in their prime. While both were highly skilled paddlers, Eric recognized that Steve had unique ocean experiences which could improve his own techniques. Ever the gentleman, and conscientious professor, Eric never failed to attribute the source of his knowledge gained from Steve.