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As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, August 1995

Gale-Force Kayaking

Into the "vast acreage" with a storm-sea skier

by Andrew Todhunter

THE northwest wind, steady at sixty miles an hour, lashes the seaward windowpanes of Elk, California, with freezing rain. It is three hours before dusk on a day in the middle of January. Steve Sinclair appears at the end of a dirt lane, looks carefully for traffic, and wheels his surf-ski -- a high-performance cousin to the kayak -- across the two lanes of Route One. He wears a black wet suit and an orange kayaking helmet with a yellow visor duct-taped to its brim.

White-hulled, blue-decked, as sleek as a torpedo. the nineteen-foot vessel is strapped to a plywood rickshaw. Originally designed in Australia for surf rescues, the surf-ski handles nimbly in a gale. In his model, called the Odyssea Ski, Sinclair once pursued and overtook a seventy-three-foot schooner five miles from shore. The schooner was under full sail in a forty-mile-an-hour wind.

Sinclair directs the craft from the stern like a cannon, trundling down the rutted path to the sand beach of Greenwood Cove. He leaves the rickshaw high amid the driftwood. With the fifty-eight-pound boat under his arm, he studies the surf line through the rain. Fifteen-foot waves break upon the shore.

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Timing his entry precisely, Sinclair raises the Odyssea Ski above his head and charges into the surf. The next wave breaks at his feet and explodes into foam. Sinclair throws his craft upon the broken back of the wave and vaults aboard. He is six foot three and weighs 230 pounds. With long, powerful strokes of his paddle he drives into the next wave. He sweeps up the face and punches through the wave's roof just before it closes above him.

Sinclair breaks seven lines of fifteen-to twenty-foot surf before passing Gunderson Rock, a 120-foot pyramid of battered graywacke, or "dirty sandstone," a quarter mile offshore. The swells beyond Gunderson are mountainous. Manes of spray trail from their crests.

The wind makes the sound of sheet metal being torn into strips. It lifts so much water into the air that the division between sea and atmosphere is often lost. To breathe, Sinclair must purse his lips and filter the air from the froth. Near and in the distance loom massive logs, some disgorged from Greenwood Creek, behind him others drifting with the storm from estuaries to the north. This flotsam rolls through the waves, waterlogged and bobbing vertically, or set like pikes in the breaking faces.

THE sanity of Steve Sinclair, the founder of a sport known as storm-sea skiing, has been called into question by some. That is perhaps an understandable reaction to someone who willingly ventures into the Pacific in a sliver of fiberglass during a winter storm, when gale-force winds hurl mountainsides of ocean at the rocky cliffs of Elk with enough velocity and mass to break up a destroyer.

Sinclair, naturally, sees things somewhat differently. Paddling in a hurricane is fun -- and also an excellent workout. Storm-sea skiing has also resulted in an adaptation in techniques and equipment which, if they are properly applied, could greatly increase the safety of ordinary sea kayaking.

Sinclair argues that the vast majority of sea-kayaking schools fail to prepare students for the conditions they may face if they enter the ocean. This is no small point. Although the number of sea kayakers in North America is hard to determine, the sport is growing fast. Every month Neil Wiesner-Hanks, the executive director of the Trade Association of Sea Kayaking (TASK) hears from five to ten new companies in the United States and Canada that are offering sea-kayaking instruction, equipment, or tours. One recent estimate puts the number of North American participants in all paddle water sports -- including canoeing and white-water rafting along with river and sea kayaking -- at 14 million. The new sea kayakers among them, Sinclair says, are often trained on flat or nearly flat water, and are sold kayaks not suited to an open coast.

This might be justifiable if inexpert paddlers never left the confines of a sheltered sound or bay. But neophytes are often left with the belief that they are sea kayakers in the literal sense of the term. This is bad for the industry and worse for the kayakers who go out off a windless beach only to find themselves caught in a sudden storm -- with the wrong craft, inadequate experience, and poor skills.

A surfer, lifeguard, and water-polo player in his southern-California youth, Sinclair, who is forty-three, moved to northern California in 1976. He lives in the redwood forest east of Elk with his wife, Connie, a former competitive swimmer, and their three children. Sinclair runs a paddling school and guide service in Elk called Force Ten, which offers intensive two-day seminars in ocean kayaking at all levels, equipment included, for $195.

On calmer days, generally in spring, summer, and fall, even raw beginners can hire the guides of Force Ten to pilot two-man kayaks along the remote coastline for $35 an hour. While exploring sea caves like Dragon House and Saint Anthony's Elbow, parties beach their kayaks for lunch in cliff-protected lagoons accessible only from the sea.

I recently spent some time with Sinclair acquiring the fundamentals of ocean kayaking in three-foot swells and winds of no more than twenty miles an hour. During his opening lecture Sinclair emphasized that ocean kayaking is an in-water sport, and that the kayaker must be prepared for complete immersion in surf or building seas. He considers even the warmest outdoor clothing -- a common choice of sea kayakers -- to be inappropriate, even unsafe: it becomes waterlogged, loses its insulating qualities, and hinders swimming. In his view, only a wet suit is appropriate. Sinclair prefers a "wash-deck" kayak: one is strapped to the top of it rather than inside. Such a vessel -- unlike one with a cockpit -- is in no danger of flooding, and is as easy to right and remount as a surfboard. Sinclair insists on a helmet regardless of conditions, citing the high ratio of deaths to injuries in all water sports, in which drownings frequently result from unconsciousness following a blow to the head.

While navigating an open coast, as Sinclair explained and demonstrated in the water, one should always work to maximize "down time." This is the time it would take, from any given point along one's course, to drift from the site of an accident, such as a capsizing or the loss of a paddle, into a potential hazard. With this in mind, one should try to pass rocks and other obstacles from the leeward (or downwind) side. To increase the kayak's stability, Sinclair said, avoid paddling a course that runs parallel to the waves. If necessary, zigzag, like a tacking sailboat, to keep the bow or stern perpendicular to the swells. And never take your eyes off the sea.

Fundamentally, Sinclair's approach to handling open coastlines demands a much greater degree of in-water skill than most sea kayakers are led to believe they need. Those who have any doubt at all about their water skills, he cautions, should start swimming laps. Unless they are undertaking a long open-water crossing -- which is a specialized endeavor -- sea kayakers should never paddle farther from the shore than they can swim. Body surfing or Boogie boarding in the shore break can help novices learn the action of the waves. Sinclair argues convincingly that the advantages of being well prepared apply no less to the beginner in tame seas than to the storm-sea skier in a gale.

TO get a better sense of the sea-kayaking business, I spoke with Mark Rauscher, the manager of Western Mountaineering, a prominent outdoor retail store in San Jose, California. A river- and sea-kayaking instructor who is certified by the American Canoe Association, he has been paddling since 1985. Rauscher agreed that the popularity of kayaking is "exploding" nationwide -- especially sea kayaking, which, he maintained, requires much less expertise than river kayaking. "The learning curve in sea kayaking is gentler," Rauscher explained, "and this allows the market to grow faster."

One popular sea kayak -- a craft "selling so fast I can't keep it in stock," Rauscher said -- is the Sealution, a classic design available with a Kevlar, plastic, or fiberglass hull and cockpit. In its catalogue the boat is characterized as being equally "at home on quiet lakes or open seas." I asked Rauscher the reason for its runaway success. "First of all," he said, "it's an incredibly sexy boat." He went on to describe its solid handling and sound workmanship, and I'm sure that it is in many ways an admirable craft. But I was struck by the citation of the Sealution's primary attribute. The last thing I'd want from my vessel in an angry sea, I thought, is sex appeal.

I turned to George Gronseth, the owner of The Kayak Academy, in Seattle, and the safety columnist for Sea Kayaker magazine. Gronseth agreed with Sinclair on the importance of wet suits and water skills. In the fatalities over the past decade of which Gronseth is aware, none of the victims was wearing a wet suit. He knows of seven reported sea-kayaking deaths in North America last year -- a number that is sure to rise as participation in the sport grows. Six of last year's victims were paddling alone. One paddler was found still seated in his overturned kayak.

Gronseth agreed, too, that at present sea-kayaking instruction in the United States is woefully inadequate. He described one standard four-hour introductory class -- available nationwide and following guidelines provided by TASK -- in which rescues and the handling of a capsized vessel are discussed but not practiced. Such superficial instruction, Gronseth says, may be more dangerous than no instruction at all, because it provides new paddlers with false confidence in skills they simply do not have. The American Canoe Association offers slightly more advanced sixteen-hour courses. But not enough time, Gronseth believes, is spent practicing physical skills. Many new paddlers cannot even swim. If sea kayaking instruction is nationally standardized, a step the ACA and others are actively pursuing, Sinclair and Gronseth, in order to remain in business, may be required to affiliate themselves with an agency whose dangerously low standards they deplore. Affiliation, of course, means more than a sticker in the window. For reasons of liability, instructors operating under the auspices of a given organization will in all likelihood be obliged to teach according to the organization's written standards.

Sinclair cited an exchange he had had recently at a San Francisco Bay Area kayak regatta with a prominent sea-kayaking instructor. Sinclair had been talking with a gathering of newcomers, and was pointing out the importance of wet suits and sound water skills. The instructor drew him aside. "What are you trying to do?" he demanded. "Raise the entry level?"

SINCLAIR sets a bearing west from Gunderson to Mile Rock. He has been paddling since he left the beach, and has not yet buckled his seat belt. From his position in the trough he cannot estimate the heights of the waves he faces. These are the long, rolling giants of the ground swell. Such waves, in his view, can be measured only by the acre. "Vast acreage," he will say later, when pressed for an estimate.

Sinclair paddles skyward. A log sweeps past. From the top of the swell, smaller waves break off and roar down the face in all directions. As he climbs the main face, Sinclair carves left and right to attack these crossing breakers with his bow. He toils to the top of the swell, paddles through its apex, and disappears beyond it, submerged completely in a sea of foam.

Paddle held high above his head for balance, Sinclair emerges from the foam and surfs down the back of the broken swell into the following trough. The next wave is forming. He streaks up the swell, gathering speed. With his last, long stroke, his torso slamming backward flat against the hull, the craft breaks through the ragged horn of the wave and launches into the air.

Held upon the wind, Sinclair rises from his seat until he stands in his footwells like a Nordic skier. He sweeps his paddle in line with the craft's hull to prevent the twin blades from catching the wind and flipping him over. He leans forward, driving himself down. The wave passes beneath him, as he falls. The Odyssea Ski finally lands, stern first, in the bottom of the following trough. Sinclair has lost time in the air and knows that the top of the next wave will break upon him before he can attain its peak. He buckles his seat belt.

The top of the wave snaps off like a cornice and roars down the face, erasing the breakers in its path. Man and boat are buried and blown backward. End over end in the explosion, Sinclair spirals through the mass of broken sea. He surfaces for an instant, takes a tight-lipped breath, and vanishes once again into the foam.

The violence gradually ebbs. The broken wave passes on. Sinclair, belted to his kayak. bobs to the surface, back into the freezing rain.

He regains lost ground, passes Mile Rock to starboard, and continues northwest into the storm.

It takes him three hours to reach his farthest mark -- a point some three miles from shore. After resting briefly, with his head on his knees, Sinclair turns around and begins the run home to Greenwood Cove.

He catches three waves. It takes him twelve minutes to get back.


Copyright © 1995 by Andrew Todhunter. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; Gale-Force Kayaking; Volume 276, No. 2.

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