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STORY FROM HONDURAS

The New Rush: Night Kayak-Surfing in Reverse

4/06/2000 by Jean-Philippe Soule

Launching through waves is something we often do. After a year and half one might say that it has become a routine. Occasionally we worry about not being able to see the waves at night, but launching is usually easy. Yesterday after paddling seven and half hours, we found a nice gradual sand beach, the best to land on and launch from. Shore breaks can be powerful and dangerous on steep beaches, but on long flat beaches the surf zone is much wider, and the waves are usually easier to handle for they don't generate as much curling power. So we landed on that beautiful beach with the intent to repeat the following day what we had done every day. Get up at 1:30 AM, pack our gear, pull the kayaks to the water, load them after eating a quick breakfast, and enjoy the night-paddling before the wind and sun became too strong. The hardest time is usually the three to five minutes it takes us between the time we remove our pants, fold them in our last dry bag, put on our shorts and kayak shoes, close the bag and lash it on deck, then get in our kayaks. These few minutes we fear the most because of the dozens of painful bites we get on our legs from the terrible sand flies. We never thought we had a reason to fear anything else on this beach.

We set up our tent above what looked like the high tide line, pulled up the kayaks and tied them to the tent just in case, and ate dinner. A strong onshore wind picked up and we decided to move the tent up the beach. By 7 PM we were ready to go to sleep in our wind-blasted tent. We had been warned that when the wind starts blowing from the North, it brings dangerous sea conditions, the worst being on the third and final day. We had been paddling good distances the last two days with the wind at our backs. We had actually enjoyed the small "Norte" storm. We weren’t prepared for what was coming on the third day.

At 11 PM we woke up instantly. The kayak ropes pulled on the tent pole next to my head and we felt water rush beneath us. We jumped out of the tent and grabbed the kayaks to prevent them from drifting back with the wave. We pulled them up a few feet, and quickly tossed all the dry bags higher up onto dry sand. We weren't quick enough though and another wave submerged our tarp and doused our tent. We lifted the whole tent up with its entire contents still in it and carried it away. The sky was dark, the waves sounded big and the wind didn't show any signs of letting up. We decided to reset our alarms for 3:30 AM, two hours later.

At 5 AM we were ready to launch. The waves still sounded big, but in the dark under a moonless, starless sky, they didn't really seem too large. After all we were on a gradual beach, how bad could they be? I walked into the water to try and get a feel for the waves. There was a strong side current. The main waves were hitting the beach straight on in a succession of white foamy trails. They were anything but regular, some small and others quite large. Each one followed the other with very little gap in between, but they didn't seem overwhelmingly powerful. I still thought they looked manageable. Two other wave patterns were also hitting the beach at sharp angle. One was coming from the left and the other one from the right. They were the refraction of the main waves from the sides of the large bay. When the two met they exploded with giant vertical splashes. For five minutes I stood in the water and observed the sea, but none of these collisions ever happened in the same spot. Everything was irregular today. I anticipated that the first step of the launch would be tricky, but that once paddling, we would be all right.

Because of the frequency of the waves, I could not pull my kayak too far out. I waited for a big wave to float it, pulled it forward, then ran to the back and kept it facing straight into the waves with one hand on the stern and the other one in on the side of the cockpit. I have learned from experience that holding the boat from the bow when there are horizontal currents or waves is a guaranteed disaster. The kayak instantly goes sideways and gets hit by the principal waves that come in straight and fill it up or flip it. So I held the kayak for a minute, and then jumped in it. As soon as my butt touched the seat, I rushed to throw my legs over the deck, folded them inside the cockpit and extended them inside the sea sock. The next wave hit me and I found my kayak sitting on the sand parallel to shore. It was not a good position to be in. As the next wave lifted me I put pressure on the ground with my hands and was able to partially re-orient my kayak before settling back down on the sand. When the next wave came I paddled hard at a quarter angle into it, passed the wave without taking on too much water and quickly let go of my paddle to put my sprayskirt on. It is not easy to quickly position the skirt behind you and then stretch it to the front of the cockpit rim, and put each side into the groove while being buffeted by surf. Until you do so, your kayak fills up with water from each wave. During that time I got hit by another wave., It again put me in a position parallel to the shore, but this time I was still floating and with my sprayskirt on, I was almost ready to go. All I had to do was to re-position my boat into the waves and get some speed. I easily passed the first big roller, then number two and number three. That was it, I had done it, I was through the technical part, so to speak, and would soon be waiting for Luke outside the surf zone.

This beautiful flat beach had not yet revealed all its tricks, however. The 5th breaker was a monster. I was going full speed and barely made it through. I almost stalled on top of the wave. Its power cut all my momentum. I put all the energy I could into my strokes and quickly regained speed. I passed the sixth breaker with nothing more than a big splash in the face. With powerful strokes, I was racing out of the surf zone and nothing would stop me anymore. There were only three more breaks to go. The seventh wave exploded six feet in front of me. It was huge but I had a heavily loaded kayak moving at least 4 knots into it. I never doubted I would make it. At the last second, I tucked my paddle on the side and bent my upper body forward to break through. To my great surprise, I found myself entirely submerged and catapulted backward with great power. After five seconds when the foam finally went down to my chest level, I realized that I was surfing backward at great speed. As I raised my head my kayak almost back flipped. My stern pitched down underwater and the bow pointed up toward the sky. I quickly leaned forward. I continued surfing backward in this mess of white foam, it reformed into a swell and re-broke, instantly enveloping me in its curl. All I could think about was not capsizing. My kayak suddenly jerked to a stop. The stern slammed into the sandy beach bent my rudder and sent me sprawling, but I was safe on shore, or so I thought.

I was far from shore when that first wave hit me and it was still very dark. Capsizing would have been disastrous. At best I would have lost everything I had on deck, maybe even the full kayak. I did everything possible to keep my weight forward and my kayak straight. If I went sideways, my stern would probably pitch down and even with a strong brace I might have ended up upside down. My first reflex was to put my paddle on the wrong side of my bow. I was not going forward but backward and this move almost threw me sideways. I instantly switched sides and was able to keep the boat surfing straight. I could hear the hull slashing into the wave. Even a few seconds after this second backward surf set, I was going too fast and the wave was still too powerful to hope to paddle out of it.

Before I even realized what was happening, one of the side waves set me parallel to the main wave. I realized it was going to crush me down onto the sand and in a final effort I threw myself into the wave in a heavy brace stroke. I ended up leaning too much and capsized into it. I found myself face down with my hands against the sandy bottom in an effort to protect my head and neck. I was still holding my paddle with one of the blades sticking out of the water on the seaside. Before I had any time to think, the next wave caught my paddle blade and put me back right side up It wasn't really an Eskimo roll, it was an "I have no idea where I am anymore" type of roll but it worked. I opened my sprayskirt, jumped out and pulled the bow of the kayak. I was entirely exhausted, but safe and back on shore. As I pulled my kayak out of the waves, I screamed to Luke, "Don't go. We can't make it in the dark. It's crazy out there!"

Luke was still on the beach and very surprised to see me on shore. Minutes ago he lost sight of me and thought I was already out of the surf zone waiting for him. He never made it past the first waves. As soon as he put in, wave after wave dumped on him before he could even put his sprayskirt on and it filled up his kayak entirely.

The night launch was not going to happen today. We waited for the day to break and checked my kayak for missing equipment. Miraculously, the deck bag, bilge pump, GPS and spare paddle were still on my bow deck, and my dry bag, fins, rope, and paddle float still on my stern deck. All I had lost was a watermelon I had lashed under a spider net near my dry bag. Luke called my attention to my bent rudder, which I was able to straighten a little with my knee. I was all right and considering what happened, even the equipment came out of it without much wear and tear. I was lucky.

There isn't much to do when you are wet and stuck on the beach at 5:30 in the morning, so we went body surfing. Often the waves shook us around like if we were in a washing machine. The more we could see the waves, the more we realized that we had tempted fate by trying to launch. Attempting it at night was just suicidal. There are days that the sea doesn't want us. The best thing to do is to respect her and wait until she's in a better mood.


Read the second part of the same day:
Sleeping at Sea or Landing in the Dark, a Tough Call !

If you liked this story try the following Selected Stories:
Surviving Nicaragua, A Kayaker's Battlefield


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