By Tsunami Ranger John Lull
Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a multi-part series, Greatest Hits “And Misses” of the Tsunami Rangers. In this post, TR John Lull gives us his “Greatest Hit”.
Greatest Hit: On a late Summer afternoon way back in the early ‘90s, I pulled into a coastal coffee shop for a double espresso on my way to a Tsunami Ranger multi-day kayak camping trip on the southern Oregon coast. Our general plan was to launch the next morning and paddle several miles south to a secluded cove near “Dreamer Island” and set up camp. Several people in the shop were discussing the strong wind blowing out of the northwest. I overheard the following comment: “I sure wouldn’t want to be out on a boat today”. My thought was these people don’t know anything about the seaworthiness of a kayak, so what do they know? At least that’s what I tried to believe. Once back in the car I started to worry that my boat might blow off the car rack as I headed to our rendezvous. I was hoping the wind would die by the next morning. Wishful thinking.
The next day eight of us began packing kayaks on a windswept beach. That’s right, the wind didn’t die; if anything it increased in strength. The damp sand was blowing waist-high, sandblasting our kayaks and gear while the waves roared out on the ocean and the sky was full of mist. Not a good sign. Dave Whalen produced a weather radio and we listened to a description of the conditions (which we could very well see for ourselves): NW wind to 35 knots with stronger gusts; seas 10 to 12 feet. A passing tourist eyed us warily and finally shook her head telling us we were out of our minds. Inwardly I couldn’t help but agree, but then again we’d be getting a free ride going downwind. What could possibly go wrong? So of course no one voiced the idea of aborting the mission.
It was true that we could run with the wind once out at sea but first we had some obstacles to overcome. After crossing the lagoon, we would have to transport heavily loaded kayaks fifty yards through the sandstorm across the beach, launch into a substantial surf zone, and get past the rocky gauntlet to the south where we could see huge waves crashing in a welter of whitewater over and through the jagged rocks. Worst of all, we would have to perform these tasks in howling wind with little or no chance of communication once on the water.
After floating our kayaks across the lagoon, we stumbled our way across the beach with the kayaks, took a breather, and stared out at the raging maelstrom in front of us. The surf zone stretched out a long distance with several rows of large breakers. Foam was flying everywhere off the tops of the waves. We discussed two strategies. The first was to fight our way straight out through the surf until we reached the open sea, then turn south and paddle around the rocky point. The second was to stay inside the surf zone, in the “soup,” working our way south, then look for a sneak route through the rocks and out to sea. We decided on the latter because it would be easier to deal with any problems close to shore where we could land quickly. We launched one by one in a predetermined order. Eric Soares and Michael Powers were paddling Tsunami X-2’s (double washdeck kayaks) single-handedly; Jim Kakuk and Bill Collins were on an X-2 together; Bonnie Brill, Dave Whalen, and James Brooks were paddling X-1’s (single washdeck kayaks), and I was paddling my nimble Mariner Coaster. The order swiftly turned to chaos once we were on the water. There is something about strong wind and breaking waves that foil the best laid plans. In 35-knot winds you have to be able to take care of yourself.
After launching into the surf I realized that, as usual, the waves were even larger and more powerful than they looked from on shore. I followed Eric and Bonnie along shore, fielding the breakers as best I could. Bonnie capsized and swam a couple of times but valiantly remounted her kayak and continued on. Eric and I stayed with her and provided moral support as the rest of the group passed us by. Luckily I only had to roll once; not my favorite activity in a heavily-laden sea kayak in the wind and surf. Jim, Bill, and James continued on south toward the rocks and breakers. Dave paddled a bit farther out into the surf, blew south, entered the rocks, and we lost sight of him. Michael disappeared altogether. We didn’t see him again until evening when we found out he had simply decided to get the hell out of the surf zone by paddling straight out to sea (the option we had decided against doing), so he was on his own.
Even though we’d lost sight of the others, Eric, Bonnie, and I stayed together until we saw that Jim, Bill, and James had landed on the beach just inside of the rocks. We soon joined them, thinking this might be our campsite for the night, and had a pow-wow regarding what to do next. There were two narrow passageways out through the rocks. The only problem was the interaction of strong surge-induced currents, vicious wind, and most of all, the large unpredictable waves crashing through. Then we saw Dave standing high on a bluff to the south, waving to us and giving us the thumbs up sign. If he could make it, so could we!
Eric and Bonnie went first. I launched right after them. Eric paused and was trying to decide between the two passages when a huge wave closed out and crashed through the left passage. That made my decision easy. I headed for the right passage. I heard Eric yell at Bonnie to follow me. As I fought my way out, climbing up and over progressively larger walls of water, I realized this would be a very bad scene if one of these foaming monsters decided to break. Just then I looked up about fifteen feet to the crest of a huge curling breaker. It was starting to break just to my left so I angled right and paddled like hell up the face, barely making it over, only to be confronted by another wave, and another, until I finally broke free.
Now out on the open sea, I breathed a sigh of relief. All that was left was to clear the point in over-steepened, chaotic twelve foot seas, then ride the wind south to our destination. A sudden thought occurred to me: What about Bonnie, Eric, and the rest? They were right behind me and had to break the same wave barriers I did. I looked back and to my relief saw they had made it out, but soon lost sight of them as I returned my attention to the task at hand. I finally turned downwind and rode the waves past the end of the point. I still remember the exhilarating sensation of surfing those huge seas downwind with the spray flying against the backdrop of high rocky cliffs to the east, sea stacks ahead, and the wild open ocean to the west. It’s something you have to experience to appreciate.
After rounding the point, I spotted Dave in the relatively protected waters on the lee side. We all regrouped there, except Michael who had continued on his own to our destination (or so we hoped at the time), then flew south with the wind. Thus began a week of kayaking, camping, and revelry.
Feel free to add your own greatest “hit” or “miss” in the comments below!