Break on Through: Kayaking high Surf off Netarts Bay Oregon

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

When does confidence become hubris? How soon does ambitious endeavor become a comedy of errors? These questions bear pondering when you set off on your weekend paddles. On the Saturday which this blog post describes, I had planned an excursion with Patrick McCarty, a frequent paddling companion and OOPS member and Dennis Hollingshead, a Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe paddler whom I had met through my daughter; Dennis is the father of her best friend. Dennis and I had never paddled together, though we had tried to arrange the odd trip.

Saturday was looking great; I was free, Patrick was as well and Dennis was home alone as his wife and daughters had decamped to New York for a long week-end. Everything was good except for one small issue; the swell on Saturday was slated to be right around 10 feet. As the week progressed, I watched the NOAA forecast anxiously as swell forecasts often change. Unfortunately, on this Saturday, it did not. Came a day when the forcast read – swell 9.5′ at 10 sec., breaking wave heght 11′, probability 100%. Well, that’s that then. What to do? We decided to got to Netarts Bay, the tide would be flooding most of the day and the bars would mitigate the high swell allowing us to play in sheltered conditions. This seemed a good plan to us all.

The ride out to the coast through the Willamette Valley showcased our small corner of the world in it most stunning Fall glory.   The leaves had turned and the heavy morning fog in the morning light lent a mysterious misty glow to the countryside.  As we climbed the Coast Range, we left the ground fog below us and the leaf show really came into its own, the  yellows  against the grey-green pines and spruce were as brilliant as stars.


Arriving at Happy Camp, I thought immediately of the last time I had been there, on the ill-fated long-boat surfing class at Lumpy Waters which turned into a rescue situation. Ironically, as I was suiting up, a young man walked by wearing a Netarts Fire and Rescue T-shirt.  It turned out theat he was the very guy on the jet-ski who had rescued the Lumpy Waters paddler!  He was quite laconic about it.

“Yep, there are a a lot of rescues here,” he said, dragging on his cigarette.

“Nah, it’s not such a big deal. We get rescues here all the time. Really, what keeps us going is trying to beat those Coast Guard guys.”

So there it is. Next time you’re clinging desperately to a flooded kayak, never fear, intra-service rivalry will ensure you a speedy rescue.

Dennis had already arrived and had set up his outrigger on the beach.  His craft was beautiful indeed- over twenty feet long, as slim as a surf-ski and made more elegant by the graceful ama or outrigger attached to hull by two lightweight spars.  It weighed in at under twenty pounds and seemed very fragile despite the fact that it was made for ocean racing.  I was paddling my Illusion and poor Patrick had lugged his 65 pound polyethylene Valley something or other so that I could try it out and maybe purchase it.  I also had my beautiful new blue and black carbon Novorca Aleut paddle from Ron Steinwall.

View from Netarts Bay (bottom) to Three Arch Rocks (top)

As expected, Netarts sheltered us from the the huge outside swell.  We started surfing and fooling around in the bay, then gradually worked our way out and up the coast towards Oceanside.  As we cleared the Bay, the surf became a bit larger, 4 to 5+ feet, I’d guess.  Far outside, you could see the big swell rolling in to create some truly huge waves.  Even through the crash of the inner waves we were playing on, you could hear the boom of the big outside breakers and see the mist of vapor rise up after they broke.

We continued playing in the surf for an hour or so.  It was fascinating to watch Dennis on his outrigger.  In this type of boat, the rider sits atop the hull inside a shallow pan. The paddle is a short shovel blade, which is held with one hand atop a short cross bar on the top and the other hand on the shaft.  You paddle by leaning aggressively forward and digging at the water.  The boat can capsize easily, especially in the short choppy waves such as we were in now.  Dennis would counterbalance by leaning aggressively  toward the ama even grabbing the spar.  When he did capsize, though, he’d just flip the boat and jump back on.

Patrick seemed his usual poised self, I’m not sure he capsized at all.  I of course, spent quite a bit of time “refining my roll. ” In other words, getting knocked down and rolling back up.  My roll was solid though, and coming up was no problem at all.

I didn’t worry about a thing, till we were sitting on the beach, taking a break and munching on energy bars.  Patrick was looking intently out past the shore break to those huge waves slamming into the shelf about 300 yards out. This was not good.  I tried to offer a bit of distraction,

“Hey, should we start heading back to to Netarts?” I said.

“What do you think?” Patrick asked. “Should we go to the outside break and just take a look?”

Well, who was I to squelch such a well-thought out plan?  So off we went.  The first couple of hundred yards were fine, the waves of course became progressively bigger, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle fairly easily.  That said, I went over a few times when the foam pile was just too large.  But at last, there we were, poised in the crash zone before the really big breakers.  It is amazing what you can become accustomed to.  We were sitting there in a sea, so wave-pounded that it looked like the head of an IPA at the Pelican pub, watching extremely large waves crashing in front of us, yet we felt relatively comfortable.

The problem at hand, of course, wasn’t where we were, it was where we intended to go.  “You know Patrick,” I shouted.  “I think we can probably get out OK, but getting in might be a bitch.” I’m not sure if he even heard me.  He was sitting in his boat, rather quietly looking out at the waves and the horizon beyond.

I looked over for Dennis and saw that he’d already taken off to get through the off-shore break to open sea.  You could tell that the outrigger had really come into its own here, as might be expected from its lineage as a descendant of the boats that the Polynesians used to settle a vast area of the pacific. It was fast, probably twice as fast as our kayaks, which had descended from the  stalking platforms of Inuit seal hunters.  The 10-11 second period gave Dennis all the time he needed; he climbed up the steep waves faces and disappeared over the tops before they broke.

Patrick and I would not have it so easy.  I looked over at Patrick again, but he was still staring out to sea.  “What the hell,” I thought, or maybe I thought something else, whatever it was, it was not much more profound.  A 10 second period gave Dennis plenty of time to get over the waves, not so with me.  I’d attack the waves, decide I had to pause, which would mean getting hit by a huge foam wall and then attack again.  Drawing deep from my well of expertise and finally honed technique,  I decided the best thing to do would be to scream and plead with the waves. “DON’T BREAK MR. WAVE!!!” was my favorite,  though, “PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, MR WAVE!!!” seemed to work equally well.

As it was, I made it over all the incoming monsters, but just barely.  Almost every crest was already curling as I shot off the tops taking plenty of air, landing with a huge crash on the outside face.  Each time I’d thought I’d cleared the breaking zone, yet another Mr. Wave would rise up. Finally, I made it out to Dennis.  He was enthused at my wave jumping and seemed to think that I had done it on purpose.

Turning around, I’d been much too gripped till now to do so, I saw Patrick come paddling up.  Well we did it.  I’m not sure about Dennis or Patrick, but this was the largest break by far I’d been through.  We made a bit of show of paddling around a bit, as if we were here for any other reason other than just the sheer stupidity of seeing if we could manage the big break, but finally decided we needed to get back in.

Three Arch Rocks by Roy LoweAs I’d said before,  I knew that getting in would be tougher than going out.  Or perhaps tough is not the right word.  Crazy comes to mind.  We  sat in the huge swell, taking roller coaster rides up and down, and debated what to do.  I suggested paddling out to the Three Arches as they tend to mitigate the ocean swell some, but none of us wanted to paddle the mile or two over to the Rocks, so, in the end, we decided to turn around and basically come in as we came out.

The trick with coming in on large swell is not to surf.  This means controlling your boat, back paddling when you have to, and generally doing all you can to stay master of your steed.  That, at least, is the theory.  We took off, spread out so as not to be a danger to each other.  Dennis, in his fast boat, disappeared pretty quickly. I lost sight of him in the swell and was soon too gripped to look for him anyway.  Patrick wasn’t too far away, and I saw him surfing down some pretty steep faces but pulling back before he lost control.  I was doing my best to not surf – period.

Soon, all to soon, we were in  the big break zone. I heard and felt, rather than saw, the monster that had targeted me. I am almost certain that it barreled down on me like a freight train.  As I said, I did not see it, but I’m pretty sure that is what it did.   Perhaps it was mad because I was too concentrated to try my wave pleading that had worked so well on the way out.  I glanced over to where Patrick was, just in time to see him tumbling, arms and paddle every which way, and disappear under a collapsing wave. Then, suddenly, the wave closed over me and I was riding the sub-aquatic bubble express.

Some people are eye-closers under water and some are eye-openers.  I am an eye-opener, so I can tell you what I saw.  I saw bubbles. Billions and billions of tiny bubbles, a swirling, twirling universe of bubbles and I was a shooting star.  Like every shooting star, I was affected by velocity and drag.  All parts of me were being pulled  and tumbled, but different parts of me were reacting in different fashions.  The kayak me was big, bulky, and buoyant.  It wanted to slow down.  The human, meaty me, was much more compact and wanted to accelerate away from the grip of the sad and slow kayak.  I felt myself being pulled out of the kayak like a cork in a champagne bottle.  I am not sure if I had the where-withal to react against it, so it is probably just luck that I was not sucked out of the boat.  Looking forward, actually, like in space, there really was no forward, so looking in the direction I happened to be travelling in at the moment,   I realized that my paddle felt the same way about the body me as the body me felt about the kayak.    The paddle me was thin and sleek and fast.  It wanted to leave.  In fact, I realized with a start, I only had one hand on the paddle and that one was fast losing its grip.  I actually saw the paddle fluttering madly, trying to swim away.  This was not good.  I somehow pulled the paddle back to me and gripped it with both hands.

I’d been riding the sub-aquatic bubble express quite a while, and  really needed to breathe. I took a vague stab at a roll but all I did was tumble. Sometimes though, I ‘d tumble up and could get a few gulps of air and water, which was better than water and no air, so who was I to complain? After what seemed like an hour or so, but was obviously a fairly short time, I slowed down and managed a  roll, was knocked over immediately, took another short ride, just for the heck of it, and finally rolled up.  To my amazement, I was almost back to the beach.  I had come in a long way.

Albert Einstein, who probably never kayaked in his life, pointed out that everything is relative.  He had a point.  I was now sitting amid 5 foot waves but for all I cared,  I might as well have been sitting in a bath tub.  “Hah,” I thought, “You call yourselves waves, I can introduce you to real waves!”  Unfortunately, these piddly waves did knock me over, which only goes to show that there is no justice in the world and also makes you wonder if Einstein is truly everything he is cracked up to be.

So what can I say after that?  The return trip was uneventful.  We paddled back to Happy Camp.   Dennis did say that he thought we two were the only people stupid enough to paddle through that break.  He meant it fondly.   At least I think he did.  Dennis also pointed out that the curly leash, which attached him to his boat, was no longer curly, and was, in fact, now straight, even though it was made of very tough wire and thick plastic and what did we think of that?  He’d obviously had an interesting ride in himself.

I made an effort to try out Patrick’s boat, but all I really wanted to do was embrace sweet, sweet Mother Earth and never, ever,  leave her again for the terror of the cruel sea!  I mean, I was a bit tired, so we packed up our cars and left.  On the way home, we were already discussing new trip ideas.  It was a good day.

7 Responses

  1. Paul – excellent story and lessons learned. I will revisit this blog often.

    Scott L

  2. Thanks, Scott. And you’re the winner of the first blog comment prize!

  3. jay says:

    Should have been a safety paddler…

  4. Steve Hufstader says:

    Sounds like a great day! I want to go back to Netarts Bay too..

  5. Hi Steve
    I wish you had been there! It was a great day -feel like another road trip?

  6. Jenteal says:

    I’m definitely gonna stick to nice calm rivers for another decade; and although you had me laughing out loud, I hope you had the sense not to share this one with your wife. Nicely done!

  7. Shhhhh. It’s a secret blog.

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