andrew todhunter   Gale-Force Kayaking  
photo of andrew todhunter


  The north-west wind, steady at sixty miles per hour, lashes the seaward window panes of Elk, California, with freezing rain as if with gravel. It is the middle of January, three hours before dusk. Steve Sinclair appears at the end of a dirt lane, looks carefully for traffic, and wheels his sea-kayak, called an Odyssea Ski, across the two lanes of Route One. He wears a torn black wet suit and an orange kayaking helmet with a yellow visor duct-taped to its brim.

White-hulled, blue-decked, sleek as a torpedo, the 19-foot vessel is strapped to a plywood rickshaw. The cart's frame is splitting, the two bicycle tires lie flat on rusted rims. Sinclair directs the craft like a cannon from the stern, trundling down the rutted path to the sand beach of Greenwood Cove.

Sinclair leaves the rickshaw high amidst the driftwood. With his 58-pound boat under his arm he paces the beach and studies the surf line through the horizontal rain. Fifteen foot waves break directly on the shore.

Timing his entry precisely, Sinclair raises the Odyssea Ski above his head and charges the surf. The next wave breaks at his feet and explodes into foam. Sinclair throws his craft upon the wave's broken back and vaults aboard. With long strokes, driving from his legs, he paddles into the belly of the following wave. He sweeps up the face and breaks through the wave's roof as it closes above him.

Sinclair breaks seven lines of 15 to 20-foot surf in the space of a quarter mile. As he passes Gunderson Rock, a 120 foot pyramid of battered sandstone off shore, 25-foot breakers trip on the relative shallows of the cove and crash as if upon the beach.

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 lost. To breathe, Sinclair must purse his lips and filter the air from the vaporous froth. Near and in the distance loom massive logs, some disgorged from the Greenwood Creek behind him, others drifting with the storm from estuaries to the north. Some of the logs are sixty feet long, some complete with roots and branches and trunks the girth of an armspan. This flotsam rolls through the waves, some water-logged and bobbing vertically like telephone poles, others like set pikes from breaking faces. In the range of elements Sinclair faces in a winter storm, it is this driftwood he fears most.

The sanity of Steve Sinclair, founder of a sport he calls storm sea skiing, was once held in suspicion by rancher Richard Mitchell of Elk, population 250. Mitchell wasn't alone. Even the majority of sea-kayakers might share the opinion that anyone who willingly ventures into the Pacific in a 19 foot, 58 pound thumbnail of fiberglass during a winter storm--when gale force winds hurl blueblack mountainsides of ocean at the rocky cliffs of Elk with enough velocity and mass to flatten a Coast Guard cutter--is at least partially unbalanced.

Sinclair, naturally enough, sees things differently. His is not a watery recipe for suicide but an adaptation of techniques and equipment which greatly increases the safety of sea-kayaking, where sudden storms can spell death--by drowning or exposure or, along this notorious coastline, cliff-bashing--for the unprepared. Storm sea skiing--not an arcane science--involves principles of boat handling and ocean awareness largely identical to those required by novices paddling in light seas.

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. The unwitting are trained on flat or nearly flat water and sold kayaks not suited to an open coast. This might be unobjectionable if inexpert paddlers never left the confines of a sheltered sound or bay. But neophytes are often released with the belief that they are sea-kayakers in the literal sense of the term. This is bad for the industry, worse for the souls who go out off a windless beach and find themselves caught in a howling aquatic inferno--with the wrong craft, the wrong experience and the wrong skills.

The number of sea kayakers in North America is hard to determine. Every month, however, Neil Wiesner-Hanks, Executive Director of the Trade Association of Sea Kayaking, hears from five to ten new companies in the U.S. and Canada, all offering instruction, equipment, or tours to satisfy the booming trade. Wiesner-Hanks cited one recent estimate of North American participants in all paddle sports--including canoeing and white-water rafting as well as river and sea-kayaking--as 14 million.

A surfer, life guard and water polo player in his Southern California youth, Sinclair, 43, moved to the north coast in 1976. He lives in the redwoods east of Elk with his wife Connie, a former competitive swimmer, and their three children. He runs a paddling school and guide service in town called Force Ten, offering intensive two-day seminars in ocean-kayaking at all levels, equipment included, for $195. In the calmer months of spring and summer, the guides of Force Ten lead tours in two-man kayaks along the remote coastline for $35 an hour. Exploring sea-caves like Dragon House and Saint Anthony's Elbow, parties beach for lunch in cliff-protected lagoons accessible only from the sea.

With limited experience as a river-kayaker--a fall and spring in the rapids of Colorado's Roaring Fork River over ten years ago--I recently spent two weekends with Sinclair and fellow student Bill Schneider, a local paddler, acquiring the fundamentals of ocean-kayaking in calm to light seas: choppy, three-foot swells and a twenty mile per hour wind on the heaviest day. During his opening lecture the six-foot-three, 230-pound Sinclair hammers and slashes at a black-board with a nub of chalk. He stresses ocean-kayaking as an in-water sport where complete immersion--in surf or building seas--must be prepared for. He considers even the warmest outdoor clothing--a common choice of many seakayakers--inappropriate, even unsafe, relying instead on a wet suit. Sinclair prefers a wash-deck kayak, a boat you sit strapped to the top of rather than inside. In no danger of flooding, such a vessel--unlike a kayak with a cockpit--is as easy to right and remount as a surf board. He insists on a helmet regardless of conditions, citing the high ratio of deaths to injuries in water sports, where many drownings result from unconsciousness following a blow to the head.

While navigating an open coast, as Sinclair demonstrates, always work to maximize your "down time." This is the time it would require, from any point along your course, to drift from the site of an accident, like a capsize or dropped paddle, into a potential hazard, like a wash rock or wave-battered cliff. With this in mind, attempt to pass rocks and other obstacles from the leeward (or downwind) side. To increase stability, avoid paddling a course parallel to the waves. If necessary, follow a zig-zagging course, like a tacking sailboat, to keep the bow or stern near to the direction of the swells. Never take your eye from 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 require. If you have any doubt at all about your water skills, he cautions, start swimming laps. Unless undertaking a long open-water crossing, an endeavor which requires specialized training and equipment, never paddle farther from the shore than you can swim. Spend some hours in the shore break without your kayak, body surfing or Boogie boarding to apprehend the action of the waves. Sinclair argues convincingly that the advantages of being so prepared apply no less to the beginner in tame seas than to the storm sea skier in a gale.

For a better sense of the sea-kayaking business I spoke with Mark Rauscher, the store and paddle sports manager of a prominent outdoor outfitter in San Jose, California. An American Canoe Association certified river and sea-kayaking instructor, he has been paddling since 1985. Rauscher agreed that sea and river kayaking were "exploding" nation-wide, especially sea-kayaking which, he believes, requires much less expertise than river-kayaking. "The learning curve in sea-kayaking is more gentle, " Rauscher explained, "and this allows the market to grow faster." The most popular sea-kayak at the moment, a craft "selling so fast [he] can't keep it in stock," is the Sealution, a classic design with a kevlar hull and cockpit. In the catalog the boat is characterized as "at home on quiet lakes or open seas." I asked Rauscher the reason for its runaway success. "First of all," he confided, "it's an incredibly sexy boat." He went on to describe its solid handling and sound workmanship, and I am sure it is in many ways an admirable and carefully considered craft. But I was struck, even chilled, by the Sealution's primary attribute. The last thing I'd want from my vessel in an angry sea, I thought, is sex-appeal.

Sinclair cites a conversation with a prominent sea-kayaking instructor at a San Francisco Bay Area kayak regatta. Sinclair had been stressing the importance of wet suits and sound water-skills to a gathering of newcomers. The instructor drew him aside. "What are you trying to do," he demanded, "raise the entry level?"

I turned to George Gronseth, owner of The Kayak Academy in Seattle, Washington and safety columnist for Sea Kayaker magazine. Gronseth echoed Sinclair's emphasis on wet suits and water-skills. He is aware of seven reported sea-kayaking deaths in North America last year, an unimpressive but largely gratuitous number, sure to rise with sky-rocketing participation. None of the victims was wearing a wet suit. Six of them were paddling alone. One paddler was found drowned, still seated in his overturned kayak.

Gronseth agreed that the present standards of sea-kayaking instruction in the U.S. are perilously inadequate. He described one standard four-hour introductory class--available nation-wide and structured upon guidelines provided by the Trade Association of Sea Kayaking--in which rescues and handling a capsize are discussed but not practiced. Such superficial instruction, warns Gronseth, may be more dangerous than no instruction at all, providing new paddlers with little more than false confidence in skills they simply do not have. T.A.S.K. and the American Canoe Association both offer slightly more advanced basic courses at four times the length--16 hours. But an inadequate percentage of this time, believes Gronseth, is spent practicing in-water skills. Many new paddlers cannot even swim, he laments. If such dangerously meager instruction is nationally standardized, a step the A.C.A. and others are actively pursuing, Sinclair and Gronseth may be required to affiliate themselves with an agency whose standards they deplore in order to remain in business. Affiliation, of course, demands 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. Among other things, this would probably mean offering the four hour introductory course described. Until this happens, independent instructors like Sinclair and Gronseth will continue to face stonewalling and denial in their efforts to raise industry standards. If they fail, they'll have little choice but to retire.

Sinclair sets a bearing west for Mile Rock, the first mark of his near daily course. He has been paddling since he left the beach and has not buckled his seat belt. From his position in the trough he cannot estimate the foot size of the wave he faces and would consider such a measurement unindicative. Such waves, in his view, can only be measured by the acre. "Vast acreage," he will repeat later when pressed for an estimate. These are the long, rolling giants of the ground swell. Sinclair has been paddling for twenty-one years and the aspect of such a wave rising interminably in front of him makes him nauseous with fear. He paddles skyward. A log careens past. From the top of the swell smaller, attendant waves of 6 to 8 feet break off and roar down the face in all directions. Some run over others and lend force. Others curl and break face to face, jetting a haystack of spray into the wind. As he climbs the main face Sinclair carves left and right to attack these breakers with his bow. He toils to the top of the swell, paddles through its apex and disappears beyond it in a depthless sea of foam. The foam trails like a veil from the shoulders of the crumbling swell. Sinclair is completely submerged, out of the shrieking wind. Beneath the surface of the foam is the sound, as he describes it, of a hundred freight trains.

Paddle held high above his head for balance, Sinclair emerges from the veil of foam and surfs down the back of the broken swell into the following trough. The next wave is gathering, pulling him in. The sky vanishes. The attendant waves break off and swoop from the heights to intercept him. He streaks up the swell, gathering speed. With a last, long stroke, his torso slamming backward flat against the hull, the craft breaks through the ragged hem of the wave and launches high into the air.

Held upon the wind, Sinclair drifts from his seat until he stands in his footwells like a Nordic skier. He sweeps his paddle in line with the ski's hull to prevent the blades from catching the wind and flipping him over. He leans forward, drives with his weight against the lift. The wave frequency passes beneath him as he falls. The 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.

Sinclair paddles futilely for the summit. He has scarcely left the trough when the top third of the wave breaks off like a cornice and drops with the sound and speed of an avalanche down the rising face, erasing the breakers in its path. Upon impact man and boat together are buried and blown backward. End over end in the explosion, spiraling through the mass of broken sea, Sinclair holds his breath, lies flat against his back and clings to his vessel. He surfaces for an instant, takes a tight-lipped breath and vanishes again into the thundering foam. The grip of the avalanche gradually diminishes, the violence ebbs and finally the broken wave releases the boat and passes on. Sinclair, still belted to his ski, bobs to the surface, back into the freezing rain.

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

It takes him three hours to reach his farthest mark--an area some three miles from shore. After resting briefly, his head upon his knees, Sinclair turns around and begins the run to Greenwood Cove. Catching three rides, it takes him twelve minutes to get back.

Gale Force Kayaking appeared in the August 1995 Atlantic Monthly.

author's page
Bold Type
Copyright © 1995 Andrew Todhunter.

Photo of Andrew Todhunter copyright © Erin Todhunter.