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Do rollers Swim? (long)

Here is a trip report from my last swim. Its a bit long. I thought about
posting it to the "trip report" list, but I think the issues rasied by this
trip are more in tune with the discussions happening on this list.



April 24, 2001, Cascade Head, Oregon.

I had a close call today – much closer than I’ve had in a long time.

Each year in late April, high performance computing hackers like me gather at the Salishan resort on the Oregon coast. I’d been looking forward to this trip for a long time since Salishan is near Cascade head: one of the most beautiful paddling destinations in the state. Its also a bit rough. The swells come off the Pacific Ocean, wrap around the head and collide with big sea stacks off the coast. It makes for dramatic scenery, but also highly confused seas.

I got a late start and didn’t get on the water until 5 PM (paddling my nice, Looksha Sport). I headed into the surf to warm up for a while. After getting hammered by the waves, surfing a bit and hitting a number of combat rolls, I charged out into the open ocean.

I immediately noticed that I was more tense than usual and had a hard time getting through the surf zone. You see, with the heavy time-demands from work and my family, it had been a few months since I’d last paddled in the open ocean. So while the conditions weren’t that intense compared to what I’ve paddled before, I didn’t have my “sea-butt” (aside: sailors get sea-legs, paddlers with our seated postures get “sea butts”).

I paddled around cascade head. This is the start of sea bird nesting season so I stayed well away from the big sea stacks to make sure I wouldn’t spook the birds. The scenery is dramatic and completely beyond my meager ability to describe in words. Imagine a stunning postcard with dark volcanic rocks reaching to the sky, pounding white surf, and wispy tendrils of fog.

As you first come around the head, there is a cool pocket beach off to the side. I’d seen it many times before, but I had never tried to land on this beach. From out beyond the breakers, it didn’t look that bad. So I decided to stretch my legs and practice my surf landings/launchings on that beach. I
approached the beach and caught a wave. The wave was a bit “dumpy” and plopped
me down hard into a side surf. That’s when I realized that this beach was very
rocky. To get to the beach, I would have to snake my way through a bunch of big rocks that were not visible from off-shore.

I should have turned around at this point, but I didn’t. I figured that I had
gone this far; I should finish the job and land on the “beach”. A wave caught me off-guard, dumped me into a side surf, and smashed me side ways into some rocks. Before I could get around, a second wave came in and flipped me. The force of the water pinned my boat against the rocks – but that was OK. I waited till the surf passed, popped up with an off-side roll and with a
pounding adrenaline surge, made it to the beach.

Everything was intact except for some big chips out of the tip of my paddle (a
very expensive carbon fiber paddle --- only an idiot like me would use such a nice paddle in the surf). I pulled the boat up on the beach and explored the area for a while.

It was great. Oregon has to have some of the most amazing beaches on the
pacific coast. The beach was isolated. It might be possible to reach it over-land, but only with great difficulty as most of the beach was surrounded by
cliff. There was a difficult route to the trails at the top of the ridge, but it would require a mile or more of scrambling over steep, rocky mountainside.

But the day was drawing to a close and I had to get back to my car. I studied
the waves to pick a good line out from the beach. The waves were dumping a
bit. There were around 5 feet high with occasional 8 footers to get your
attention. I have surfed bigger waves so I wasn’t worried. I tried to pick a calm time between sets, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this note – the seas in this area are confused so there really wasn’t a clear pattern to the wave sets. On the north side of the beach, the waves were bigger but there were fewer rocks. On the south side up against the cliffs, the waves were
smaller, but there were all sorts of rocks. I opted for the big waves and charged out into the water from the north side. By the time I got in my boat, it was around 7 PM.

I got through the smaller waves no problem, but as I was passing the first line
of breakers, one of those 8 footers came by. I tried to time things right, but I messed up and the wave dumped right on me. I was upside down in strong swirling currents. To make matters worse, I was bouncing into rocks and couldn’t properly setup for a roll. After several tries the waves smashed me hard pinning me onto some rocks. Between the powerful currents and the rocks, I couldn’t setup for a roll and with my air about to run-out, I did the
unthinkable --- I popped my spray skirt and wet-exited.

My first emmotion was embarrassment. I am a committed roller. I know its
silly, but I’ve often said, “I don’t swim anymore – my roll will never fail
me”. Well that’s an idiotic and rather arrogant statement. Everyone swims sometimes; especially when you mix waves and physical obstructions (i.e. rocks). My second emotion was worry that I might not be able to paddle off this beach. I was in real trouble (but not “deep trouble” as I didn’t feel my
life was threatened).

The next wave came through and I attempted to surf-in on my hull. The waves had other plans, though, and ripped the boat from my hands. I had my paddle and kept a hold on it since I knew I would need it to get off the beach. The
currents were strange and I was only slowly making progress. I could see my boat lodged in some rocks near the beach. It was jammed in there pretty good
and was clearly not going anywhere. Now I just needed to get my carcass onto the shore.

The swimming was hard. I’d forgotten how hard it is to swim in the surf zone. I figured I could body surf onto the beach, but the waves dumped hard and just wouldn’t carry me in. I stayed relaxed and tried different techniques until I found one that worked. By using my paddle to swim I could make slight progress
against the rip current. Then when a wave came by, I’d hold the paddle out like a sail to catch the wave.

Finally - bruised, humbled and shaken-up a bit - I made it to shore. I was
able to find all my gear and repack the boat. At this point, I was worried. I might be able to scramble up the mountainside and get back to my car. It would be hard and would take a few hours, but I would be able to get out before
hypothermia set in. Of course, then I wouldn’t have my boat and I’d need to
wait for a calm day and hike in to recover it. Since I lived five hours away in
Olympia that was not an attractive prospect. Looking at the time, I figured I
had one more chance to get off the beach with my boat. If that failed, I’d
have to start walking out – otherwise the sun would go down and it would be too
dark to scramble up the cliff.

This time, I decided to put up with the rocks and cut close to the cliffs where
the waves weren’t quite so big. I lodged the boat between a couple low rocks and waited for a wave to crash in and float me. It was hard picking my way through the rocks. The waves kept pushing me back into the rocks, but I hung out and waited for a break in the waves. Finally, I saw the break I was waiting
for. I pumped hard and just made it out before the 8 footers came back. After all the drama of my first try, the second try seemed too easy. I paddled out past the surf zone, back around Cascade head, and then surfed into the Salmon River where my car was parked.

I had made it without injury (other than scrapes and bruises) and with only
minor damage to my paddle. My Kevlar boat took the beating with a bunch of new scratches and cracked Gel-coat near the bow. I love Kevlar. I’m not sure a fiberglass boat would have made it.

Lessons learned?

(1) I should have listened to my body and respected the fact that I didn’t have my sea-butt. This was my first coastal outing in a few months. My surf reflexes
were weak. I should have stayed in close and spent the afternoon playing in the safe-surf. I could have practiced surf launches and landing on the sand beach south of Cascade head. I didn’t need to do this in a rocky, isolated pocket beach.

(2) I shouldn’t do things like this alone. I was helmeted and dressed for
immersion (a farmer John shorty with fleece and a drytop on top), but still, when you mix waves and rocks, injuries happen and having other people around can make the difference between life and death.

(3) I was glad that I was alone. I’ve spent a lot of time in the surf and though I had a hard time, I was able to stay relaxed and get out of there. Most
people I paddle with would not have made it off that beach.

(4) I have often wondered about dry tops over wet suits. This is a common
combination for me since I don’t swim (there I go again). But if you were in the water swimming hard in the surf, would the dry top fill with water and become a hazard? It turns out that it worked just fine. I was plenty warm and quite relaxed in the water.

(5) You can’t brute-force the ocean. The second time I made it out since I waited for a break in the action. I probably would have made it the first time
if I’d done the same. Even modest sized waves are dangerous if they are dumping rather than spilling.