Lumpy Waters 2011- Pt. 2: A Near Disaster at Netarts

Friday, Oct. 13

Friday morning I was up early to get in a bit of pre-event paddling.  Steve Hufstadter and I had found each other and we went for a quick morning paddle off of the cape; we made our way out to the bell buoy and then a did quick circuit of Haystack Rock.  The swell, looked smaller than its forecasted six feet.

I had chosen Long Boat Surfing for that day’s event. I believe the put in was originally scheduled to be Oceanside, but that had been scratched out on the morning schedule and a new destination was written – Netarts.  I associated Netarts with a paddling trip in the bay I took a few years ago when I was just learning to sea kayak.  I remembered plenty of clapotis from previous trips, but no breaking surf.  I wondered at the change and thought perhaps conditions might be too mild; little did I know.

Instead of driving to the event in the van, I opted to ride with John.  We checked with one of the instructors for the event and he gave us the go ahead to drive on our own.  John had acquired an enormous silver FedEx type delivery truck that he lives out of during kayaking expeditions; We chucked our gear in it and took off.  We arrive at the put in at Happy Camp well ahead of the rest of the group and set about suiting up and preparing our gear for the day.  Later, in accounts of the Friday troubles, I saw mention of our arrival at the put-in ahead of the others as a reason why the instructors chose to stay at Netarts location.   This seems strange to me, as it would have taken us only a few minutes to put our boats back on the rack and drive to another location.  At no time did anyone say anything to us about moving to a different location, though if they had, we would have done so without a moment’s hesitation.

Before putting in, the leaders held a short meeting.  We spent a while looking at conditions.  The instructors cautioned us that the waves we saw would look bigger when we got close.   One of the instructors mentioned that the tide was ebbing and that this would give us better rides.  I wondered at this.  I organize trips at times for OOPS, a local kayak club in Portland, and I would never locate an outing at the mouth of a bay during the ebb, especially a large class such as this where no one really knew each other’s ability. Despite my reservations, I did not say anything.  I remember thinking, “Well, these guys really know what they are doing so, it must be OK.”

The instructors spent some time going over surfing safety.  They discussed setting up a circuit so that we would lessen the chance of collision.  They spent time talking about the danger of being hit by a kayak and even discussed rolling upside down before you are about to be hit.

At one point, one of the instructors asked us to raise our hand if we were “too scared” to go on the water.  Of course, no one said anything.

After this orientation, they divided the group up into two sections. I do not know on what basis the instructors decided to divide up the class.  As this was the first trip of the day and the first day of the event, they would have had no way of really knowing our ability, so it was probably more or less a random division.  One group was going to stay inside near shore on the smaller waves and the other (my group) was to head out further and surf the larger waves.  They pointed out a rip, which we were to use to get outside, and a buoy, which was to be our turn-around point.

On the way out, Steve asked me to help with his kayak as his foot peg was set wrong. I tried for a while to fix it, but could not reach far enough inside his cockpit. Sean Morley, the lead instructor, happened by and stopped to help him.  I resumed my trip out in the rip.  When I got to the buoy, I started working my way across the bay to find a clear place for my first run in.

The waves were much bigger than I had surfed before.  They looked to me to be five feet and steep.  I would not have attempted this in normal circumstances.  The rides, however, were great. Long and fast.  There were many lines of waves and very confused seas.  I am no surfing expert and I wiped out many times.  I had no trouble rolling up, though I did spend some very long moments under water being worked by the waves.  At one point, the underwater agitation actually ripped the water bladder out of my hydration backpack, but bad experience in the past had taught me to wait and never give up the roll.  I use a very buoyant Novorca Greenland paddle and just used the standard Greenland roll.  It worked beautifully every time, despite what I have often been told about the  shortcoming of Greenland rolls in chaotic conditions and heavy seas.  I am not disputing that it might have weaknesses in such conditions, but it certainly worked for me.

After a while I started to feel invulnerable; I just knew I would roll up.  Once I stopped worrying about being knocked over, I worked on my surfing and was gradually able to take longer and longer rides and even avoid side surfing (sometimes). Don’t worry if it sounds like bragging, I got my comeuppance on Sunday, but that is another story. Stay tuned.

We were all quite spread out, and with the high seas it was hard to see my fellow kayakers.  After a while though, I realized that many folks were out of their boats.  I even saw Shay, who was later in serious trouble, come out of her boat in and then do a cowboy scramble back in on a wave.  “Wow,” I thought, “that was cool.” At first this did not concern me.  The previous year’s Lumpy Waters surf classes were carnage as well; Boats and swimmers everywhere. Not having a combat roll last year, I was one of them and I had quite a few very long swims back to the beach.

Despite these indications that not all was well, with all the adrenaline and exhilaration of the great surfing, I did not do much more than move further out so that I would not inadvertently plow into a swimmer.  I had forgotten my own trepidations over the ebb and moreover was in an inwardly focused mode – this was an organized event, our instructors were the best in the world-don’t worry, have fun.

At one point I saw that John had a flooded boat.  I paddled over to him to help him pump.  We both went in to take a rest.  I did notice then that quite a few fellow students were on the beach, apparently having called it a day.  I did not think this through –e.g. if half the class was already too beat to continue, then others might be in even more trouble.

I set out for another series of wild rides.  The sea looked  pretty empty by then, most folks either safely on the beach or (unknown to me) in serious trouble in other parts of the bay.

I finally realized there was trouble brewing when I saw one of the trip leaders raise his paddle in a come to me gesture. I paddled towards him and saw that he was helping, Donna, a woman some years than myself, paddle in.  She was clearly exhausted and her boat was half full of water.  The instructor looked harried.  When I volunteered to take Donna in, he left in a flash and paddled back out into the heavy break where I could see a number of folks banded together, though I could not see what they were doing.

I paddled next to Donna back into shore. She was too tired to respond or even look at me but she had intense determination.  She kept paddling, literally panting with exertion and exhaustion, until finally she got back to shore.

I turned around and went back out to the knot of paddlers sensing that something was wrong. Halfway out, a good paddler who had come along as photographer, came paddling hell bent for leather towards me.  He said that Sean Morley had told him to go in to call the Coast Guard.

I asked if they needed my help and he said yes. When I got closer, I could see that there were a number of instructors trying to help someone in the water.  It was Shay.  She was clinging to the stern of a kayak paddled by an extremely tired instructor.  They were not making it back through the big waves and the ebb. Shay slipped off the back of his kayak. I believe I asked if they wanted me to help.  I think they said yes (memory is funny in these situation).  In any event, I started maneuvering to pick up Shay.  We were still in the middle of the worst of the surf and I was knocked over a number of times, but still had my “invulnerable” roll, so I came up each time.

When I go close to her I could see that she was all out.  She was floating in the water and seemed to be having trouble swimming.  I extended my paddle to her to pull her over to my boat.  At first she had trouble grasping the paddle.  When she did grasp it I worried that this was the wrong thing to have done and that she might suddenly panic and pull me over.  When she got close enough to me, I told her to let go of the paddle and to climb up on my stern.  Unfortunately, when she got on my stern I was very unstable.  I could not stay upright in the breaking waves and poor Shay was afloat again.  I felt bad that my attempt to help had only made her colder and more tired.  At this point the instructors came up and reclaimed Shay.  Someone politely but firmly asked me to return to shore.

When I got back to the beach, I could see that there were now a number of rescue vehicles present, at least one or two fire truck type vehicles as well as an ambulance, with other cars parked in the lot and more arriving.

Folks on the beach were doing there best to be helpful, but there was obviously very little order.  No one seemed to know how many paddlers were in the water and even how many paddlers and instructors had set out.  Moreover, there was no communication between those on the beach and the folks in the water.  I was surprised and a bit dismayed to witness no radio traffic at all. It appeared to me that none of the instructors had brought radios [I later learned that this was not true].  I also had no radio, having left mine in John’s van.

I told one of the rescue personnel what I had seen, Shay in the waters surrounded by paddlers having a hard time getting her in, and what I had heard, that there was at least one other kayaker somewhere in the water without a boat.

By this time, there was more rescue craft assembled: at least two largish coast guard boats offshore, though the water was too shallow at Netarts for them to come in.  Also, just visible coming up to the bay form the South were two jet skis moving at a rapid clip.  As they came closer, we could see that they were bouncing in the heavy seas and that there were two men on each jet ski as well as a litter on the back. It was truly thrilling to see them come in.  All they lacked was a bit of music perhaps the William Tell Overture or the Ride of the Valkyries to complete the cinematic moment.

They at least had been in radio contact with the rescuers on the beach and they zoomed right out to the trouble spots.  Soon they came zooming back with Shay on a rescue litter and one of the riders crouched protectively over her.  We got Shay off the litter and bundled her into the ambulance.  The jet ski team barley paused before roaring back out to take care of the other folks in the water.  By this time a helicopter was also on scene.

Pretty soon it was over.  Shay we heard was all right, cold and tired but basically fine.  The other paddler in the water was OK and had been able to make it over to the southwestern spit by dint of her and the Lumpy Waters instructors’ efforts.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief.  Things could have gone quite otherwise.  We were e lucky.


Much has already been written about this incident so I will not rehash all material. See the Red Alder Ranch Blog for that discussion.  The following are some points from my own perspective.

I am familiar with this general area of the coast, though I had never paddled in this specific location.  I do know that I would never bring a group of unknown paddlers to the mouth of a Bay on the Oregon coast in heavy seas on the ebb.

So why did I not say anything event though I was thinking it?  I believe that the negative side of respecting leadership and reputation is the tendency to become vaguely child-like.  These are experts, they are famous (in our own little paddling world), they must be right.  Not sure I can explain this in any other fashion.  I was certainly not the only one standing on the beach that knew better yet failed to speak. Not good.

During the pre-trip talk, when I heard the instructor ask if anyone was too scared, I knew that was a terrible mistake. No one is going to put himself or herself in such a category. In my opinion, if you give folks a chance to decline with dignity, many will do so.  Better would have been to offer everyone the chance to warm up in the surf near shore rather than just packing everyone off to zip out into the rip.  My guess is that many of the class would have decide to sit it out or just stay near shore rather than bomb out a couple of hundred yards in high seas.  Here again I could have said something and did not.

Sean called out not having an assembly point offshore as contributing to the mayhem.  Presumably this would have allowed some folks to self-select or for the instructors to decide that we should not continue. Perhaps, but I doubt it.  There were no students on this trip who had been out in such conditions.  None of us could have evaluated it based on experience.  It turned out that I was able to have fun, but I did not really know it before setting out.  Many were not capable.  I also doubt if any of the instructors would have pulled the plug.  They could have done it numerous times before that point if they had wished and they had not.

I also do not think that the instructors could have done much about the subsequent carnage at that point.  Once you are in the water in such conditions, you are basically on your own.

John mentioned in his reply to the Red Alder Ranch blog that he wished he had brought this radio.  So do I.  We could have been in touch with the rescuers on shore and each other in the water.  It would have saved much confusion and in another situation, could have saved lives. Interestingly, I talked to one of the instructors about this later and he said that he did not think a radio would be useful in such conditions.  I frankly do not buy this.  Even in high seas you do what you need to.  I will bring my radio from now on.  Period.

I still feel bad that I could not offer real assistance to Shay.  Indeed, I could have made things worse.  The last thing she needed was to spend more of her strength getting up on my kayak only to have me tip over in the waves.  The lesson here is one I have written about before, but it seems I have not learned.  Be able to handle the conditions you paddle in.  That means if you paddle in heavy seas, you should have mastered rescue skills in the same conditions. This is not something to learn by doing.

All this said, I remain a huge fan of Lumpy Waters.  The sea kayaking many of us love, has inherent risks.  That is part of the sport.  The folks at Alder Creek and Lumpy Waters do us a tremendous service by putting themselves on the line to help us acquire the skills we need to paddle in an extremely challenging environment.  I intend to keep going to Lumpy as long as I can.

I also came away with respect for Sean.  He owned up to his decisions with dignity and honesty.  Part of the burden of leadership is not being able to make excuses. Sean did not. I took a very challenging class with Sean on the Sunday following this event and hope to do so in the future.  The challenge for us all is to respect leadership and others’ years of experience while still preserving our own voice.

Read Lumpy Waters Pt. III – here

3 Responses

  1. David Johnston posted a thoughtful piece on kayaking symposium management in challenging conditions on his blog

  1. November 1, 2011

    […] Torso Rotation: A Personal Sea Kayaking Blog Paul Steinberg's Oregon coast kayaking journal and blog Skip to content HomeAbout ← Lumpy Waters 2011- Pt. 2 […]

  2. August 7, 2015

    […] Tide -You cannot paddle safely with a led group on Netarts on the ebb. […]

Please add your comments here.