Being run over by a wave train

What could be better than to 'finish' my already outstanding sea kayaking season with another splash at Anglesey. Not only a year to already remember very well, but also one specific situation: on how to fail a 'self assessment'...

Monday, 22 September 2003 (Porth Dafarch - Penrhyn Mawr)
Weather: W/NW-5/6
My gear has not yet dried from the Dutch Canoe Organisation (NKB) sea instruction week that ended on Saturday and I am on the water again in Anglesey. For the first time without having any clues about the weather and the tides. Porth Dafarch today has big surf. Keirron is 'asking for it' when he plays in the 'danger zone'. He gets trashed and over-ended by a massive breaking wave, but manages to stay in his kayak. When I leave the beach I do my careful timing of the wave sets. Maybe it worked or I am just lucky as I do not get any breaking wave on the way out. But my arm muscles are somewhat 'sick' from the adrenaline and from trying to paddle as fast as I can. The water is very lumpy outside but I feel totally comfortable. Surf still intimidates me, but once on the open water I seem not to care anymore about wave height or the odd spilling breaker. We make some loops at Penrhyn Mawr tidal race. But before that I notice an non discussed routine among Nigel, Simon and Justine. They prepare their tow-lines; ready for instant use... Penrhyn Mawr is not running that strong yet. It is not that easy to surf the waves. We make two runs around the area and then surf to Trearddur Bay for lunch. After this we battle our way back to Porth Dafarch. Surf is still raging there. At the narrowest part for about fifty meters waves build up very high and 'explode' on breaking; the 'killing zone'. Nigel paddles in. After I have seen a few big waves brake in front of me I follow Justine in. But at least two more big waves roll in and I manage to safely back paddle those. Again my arms seem powerless when I try to speed my way to safety. Lucky again. In the end all but George manage to get to shore without problems. Later I would learn that even Nigel has not often seen this kind of big surf run into Porth Dafarch before.

Tuesday, 23 September (Porth Dafarch - South Stack)
HW Holyhead: 09:30
Weather: NW-6/7 soon decreasing 4/5 then gradually decreasing variable 2/3

What a change from yesterday. The wind is more north-westerly and leaving Porth Dafarch is a piece of cake. For the first part we paddle in the shelter of the cliffs. We have a buddy system running. I paddle together with Eivind. This young, enthusiastic and very enterprising guy runs Njord kayaking centre and is rather new to paddling in these kind of conditions. But all he complains about is of some 'sleeping legs'. At South Stack we get the full blunt of the wind force. We turn around and surf with wind and waves to Penrhyn Mawr. We have plenty of play there. The waves are high, but not very often breaking. And when they break they are of that 'familiar' and forgiving spilling kind. It is rather crowded and I resort to trying to make pictures from within the biggest stuff. But that turns out to be quite difficult when everyone always seems to surf the 'wrong' wave in respect to my camera position. Another nice day on the water and I got more and more the impression that by now the sea around here can throw most of it's force five Beaufort conditions at me and I have no problems managing that... A year ago I would not have ventured out in tidal races in anything at force five winds or above. In May this year I experienced my biggest tidal race waves and everything since seemed quite manageable. Today I lost my leather wiping cloth which I used to clean my camera lens. Most pictures taken are a disaster; water droplets ruined my otherwise potential spectacular pictures. Alternatively licking the lens clean created an unexpected blur. I only learned this back at home. Taking pictures should again be two-phase thing: checking and cleaning the lens, only then take a picture. In the rough waters I find myself in more and more this is even more challenging but necessary.

Wednesday, 24 September (Cemlyn - Skerries)
HW Holyhead: 10:00
Weather: SW-4/5

Thomas, Claus, Jeff and I go on a Skerries trip. We leave Cemlyn at 14:00. We don't have the full force of the current, but that might be just right. A zero degree compass course brings us to the right hand side of both cardinal markers; we over compensated. The water is rough, but because of the slackening current we do not encounter any serious tidal races. We arrive at the Skerries at 14:55. The lighthouse is now again occupied. Evidence is a wash drying line and two people repairing a roof. Lots of seals investigate us. We do not want to wait until the flood starts because that will mean a 17:00 departure from the Skerries. Instead we leave at 15:50. Through a small tidal race off the southeast of the Skerries we aim for West Mouse. Both Thomas and Jeff are using wing paddles. In the rough patches I have to work very hard but can still keep up with them. But when the tide slackens more and the waves get more easy to surf on, they are out ahead. Claus and I are struggling at the back. At 17:00 we are back at Cemlyn. Another nice Skerries trip to remember.

Thursday, 25 September (Soldier's Point - Porth Dafarch)
HW Holyhead: 10:40
Weather: S/SE-3/4 occasionally 5 becoming W/SW later

After Penrhyn Mawr and the Skerries there is another 'must-have' trip to do this week; playing at North Stack race. Our group consists of Claus, Dale, Justine, Thomas and myself. We start out of Soldier's Point. On rounding the corner of the small bay we can already see the tidal race in the distance; at least there is something big out there. The tidal race is a little different from what I have seen there before. Just around the headland the waves are not that big, but a little further out to sea the tidal race is higher with some spilling breaking waves. Surfing is outstanding. Here I get my fastest and longest tidal race surfs ever. The glass fibre hull of my sea kayak trembles against my legs when I shoot over multiple waves. After broaching, sometimes I am hit by manageable spilling breakers and small bongo slides that are easy to brace myself out of. I practice my rolls and feel totally confident today. This tidal race again 'confirmed' my impression on tidal race 'dynamics'. Justine calls for 'one more run!'; but in the end we keep taking another run. At one time I have to quit playing because I fear I will get too exhausted and I need those last reserves for any real emergencies. Finally we drift through the tidal race on our way to South Stack. The tidal race there looks as big as I experienced at Penrhyn Mawr in May this year. Justine asks who wants to paddle into it. Thomas and Claus express that they are too tired to experiment with something this big. Dale, as he explained later, used his experience from his Akutan trip to judge that today's tidal race is running too big. Justine paddles in backwards to, as I learned later, paddle the front wave and then out of the tidal race again. I pass by her and ask her a 'stupid' question: "you go in backwards?". When I hit the front wave I turn the sea kayak around and easily break my tidal race surf record. I have no eye for the tidal race itself other than the few meters around the bow of my kayak. Plunging down the wave the kayak starts to broach. I do not know if I first felt or heard the breaking wave. I tuck into a high brace as 'deep' as never before. I am struggling to prevent the kayak capsizing down the wave. The resulting 'bongo-slide' seems to last forever. The sea kayak shakes violently and I instantly know I am in a serious situation. I manage to brace out of this one only to be directly hit by another massive and powerful breaking wave. Forget about the nice 'spilling' tidal race waves. I remember only once a beach surf that felt so powerful. Another long 'bongo-slide'. Now I fall through my high brace. I try to roll-up only to find that I am doing this on the steep back slope of a very big wave. Gravity prevents a successful roll. I am still thinking clearly: "Do not get out of the kayak and I know I can roll !". Only at the third try when I am somewhat upslope the next wave my roll succeeds. Now get the hell out of here! My spray deck popped on the right-hand side, opposite of the bracing side. With a cockpit full of water I manage to paddle out of the tidal race. Justine had seen my three efforts to roll but was not sure I had made it. For the next half hour I have a tremendous amount of energy; adrenaline goes a long way. After refitting my spray deck I pump out my sea kayak. We lunch at Abraham's Bosom. All compartments have a little wet 'film'. Maybe the tiny 'pressure holes' in the bulkheads have let in some water during my paddle with a swamped cockpit. Or the sea kayak has sweated of 'fear'. I have to walk back to the sea kayak to get my second cup of coffee. This triggers a remark of why I do not take the whole thermos flask with me to the lunch spot in the first place. Normally I only take one cup of coffee, but today I feel I deserved another one. I am obviously in very high spirits, but evaluating the event would come later that day. That evening in the 'Paddlers Return' pub I tell my story over and over again. Jean gives me a Sweetwater Kayaks "Paddle or Die" shirt. At one time I joke about it telling that this shirt awards my 6-star sea assessment. But as the evening progresses I slowly come to the conclusion that this imaginary award is a 'self-assessment award'. And in that respect I failed that one because of 'mis judgement'. If I would have come out of my sea kayak there would have been serious consequences. The breaking waves were so powerful that I possibly could not have kept hold of my sea kayak. A re-entry-and- roll obviously only works in combination with the sea kayak... I would be floating like a cork and be taken way out to sea. The others would not have seen me or my sea kayak; the waves where just too high. If the others would have decided to come and find me, than they would have put themselves into a dangerous situation. With my buoyancy-aid I carry a parachute flare, a daylight flare, an exposure bag, a strobe light, a whistle and a VHF radio. I would not have been totally 'helpless', but any outside rescue would have been an embarrassment.

Friday, 26 September (Holyhead Bay)
HW Holyhead: 11:15
Weather: W/SW-4 becoming N/NE decreasing 3 later

Today I join a group doing a 5-star training. The conditions at North Stack race are considered too rough by Nigel and Rowland. Instead they use the wind against tide conditions off the breakwater of Holyhead harbour. The contrast between the flat sheltered water behind the breakwater and the roughness outside of it is enormous. Perfect conditions to practice the rolls, re-entries, x-rescues and towing. Nigel volunteers to get rescued from near the rocks and breaking waves to the west side of the breakwater. Hadas and I get him out of the danger area with a towed rescue. Even in this orchestrated situation I recognize some details of my own actions that should be perfected for a real emergency. One probably cannot have enough 5-star trainings to keep one selves sharp on rescue scenarios. It does not happen always, but every once in a while there is that very special bar night in the "Paddlers Return". US citizens probably have to sign a liability waiver form before even be allowed on the bar's premises on those nights. I am doing constant 'risk assessments'. Not that there is a risk of losing life and limb, but you might have to part with something...

Saturday, 27 September (Borthwen - Rhoscolyn)
HW Holyhead: 12:00
Weather: ?-2/3 increasing NW-3/4, NW-4 overnight

An opportunity to see Trys Morris at work is too good to be missed. I watch her doing a 4-star assessment. The rescue scenario's are particularly interesting today because Trys has to deal with a very inquisitive seal that appears to want to be attending the assessment as well. How would you feel if you would enter the water and a seal keeps approaching to within one meter of sea kayak and swimmer? Pete Bray has arrived at the centre. He just finished paddling around Newfoundland, so watch out for opportunities to see him lecturing about it. And he will have a book out shortly about his 2001 Atlantic crossing. There are so many sea kayaking destinations and challenges; and paddlers return...

© A.M. Schoevers