OK, so by now, much of the PNW kayaking community has probably heard the news that “something” happened this past weekend at the Lumpy Waters Symposium. What follows is my incident report for what happened Friday, October 14th at the mouth of Netarts Bay.
First off, this is by no means a comprehensive incident report. There were four instructors, twelve students, and countless first responders from multiple agencies, and each one of those people will have their own perspective on this incident. This is simply the clearest picture I can put together, based on what I remember about that day. I’m aware that my memories are not going to be perfect. Far from it, in fact. My perceptions of what was going on at any moment were filtered by adrenaline and whatever kinds of psychological phenomena are common to an event like this. Time, for example, got bent all out of shape. If you had asked me when I landed how long I had been out there, I would have said maybe a half an hour or forty minutes, when, in reality, it was nearly two hours from the time things started going bad to the time I landed on the beach again.
Please feel free to comment, especially if you were there. All comments on this blog are moderated by me, so if I get one of those “what a bunch of idiots” type of comments, it will never see the light of day, so don’t bother. But if you have anything useful or illuminating to add, please feel free to do so. If you have any photos of this event that you’re willing to share here, email me and I’ll add them to this entry.
I arrived at Lumpy Waters HQ at noon on Friday, just in time to slap together a sandwich and make it to the coaches’ meeting, where we got the basic layout for the weekend, and were shown a variety of available venues on Google Earth on the overhead projector. As soon as the meeting was over, Sean, the other lead instructor for the class that I was to be teaching that afternoon, introduced himself, and said that we were going to take our Long Boat Surfing class to the mouth of Netarts Bay, a venue I had never been to before.
I had never met Sean before, but Sean and one of the other assistants, Jamie, are well known names in the world of kayak surfing, and I have only been teaching beginners to surf kayaks for a couple of years. Even so, I asked why we would drive so far when there was a nice surf beach right out in front of the resort where the event was based. He told me that he and the other coaches had already checked it out, and that beach was “dumpy” right then, meaning the waves were not particularly well suited to surfing, and especially not conducive to long rides, which Sean was hoping to be able to offer the students in our class. Since it was brought up in the coaches’ meeting that the tide was going to be ebbing that afternoon, I was concerned, since river mouths are known to be unfriendly places to be on an ebb tide, but I assumed that these guys must have known something about this particular situation and venue that I didn’t and so I didn’t challenge the choice of venue any further. This was a huge mistake on my part. I should have realized that I didn’t need to be an expert kayak surfer to know that the mouth of a river or bay is a dangerous place to be on an ebb.
Even though I didn’t speak up out loud, in my head I was already getting concerned, and I went and picked up the laminated charts and satellite photos of the venue that Alder Creek provided for the coaches, and brought them along to look at. What I saw wasn’t making me feel any better.
We met up with our students, and got everyone oriented to the plan, and started getting kayaks and people sorted out and loaded on trailers and roof racks. There were two students in their own van who already had their kayaks loaded up, and were going to wait out by the highway for us. What I didn’t realize until later is that they then asked if they could go on ahead and meet us at Netarts, and they were told that would be OK. After a bit, we had a trailer loaded up with kayaks, but people were scattered about in personal cars, and it was very hard to get an accurate sense of whether or not everyone who needed a ride for themselves or their kayaks had one. Eventually, I had to just assume that people would take care of themselves in that way, and we hit the road, but now I was starting to feel kind of edgy. I guess I’m just more of a control freak than that, and I was not comfortable with the feeling that we were only very loosely organized, and kind of rushing off towards a venue that I had never seen before and wasn’t even sure how to get to.
That said, I was trying to keep an open mind about it. I know that there are many different ways of teaching and organizing and leading groups, and since I had not worked with this particular group of coaches before, I wanted to stay as open to learning new things as I could, and tried to keep my edgy, inner control freak in check. After all, out of the four of us, I was pretty sure I was the least experienced in big surf conditions.
We arrived at the beach at Happy Camp, near the town of Netarts somewhat before 2 PM. I had to deal with some gear that I had not had time to put on before we left, and get the trailer and van parked, and I wanted to spend a few minutes watching the surf on the spit across the water from where we were parked. I would have rather spent a lot longer doing that, but it seemed like people were eager to get going, since it was the afternoon, and the first session of the weekend. I’m used to getting out of the vehicles as a group, observing conditions for a while, and then making a decision about the venue before even unloading the trailer, but the two guys who had left ahead of us were already unloaded and geared up and ready to go when we arrived, and that added to the feeling that I needed to hurry up and get this class started. I did look at the tide book, though, since nobody seemed sure exactly when high tide would be. To my dismay, I realized that we would be starting our class just after the tide had turned and was starting to ebb.
By the time I got down to the beach, the groups had already been split into two, and I met up with my group of five students, and Richard, my assistant, who, as it turned out, was the only one of the four coaches who had been to that venue before. I did the usual introductions, checking on prior experience and medical issues with the students, but didn’t get to do the whole pre-trip protocol that I am used to doing.
I reiterated the risks of the ebb tide, and laid out the plan for our group. We would stay in close to the bay, at the north end of the spit, surfing into the bay right up by the spit, and using the deeper green water to return back to a starting position to surf again, always being aware of position and what the ebb was doing to us. The plan for any wet exits and swimmers was to wash up on the spit, sort one’s self out and start out again, as is usually the plan at more “normal” surf venues where I have taught classes before. I did state that it was likely that we would be ending the class session somewhere near the peak of the ebb current, and it would be very important to be mindful of that. October 14th was shortly after the full moon, so the tides would be especially strong.
With that, we got on the water, and as I got in my kayak, I had a very clear, bad feeling about this place, and reminded myself that I would have to be VERY careful to keep everyone as tight to the end of the spit as possible, and to keep very close tabs on the group. We got on the water right around 2:15 PM.
As soon as we crossed the deep channel and arrived on the “surfy” side, I realized that I had my work cut out for me. Richard and a couple of the students caught a couple of rides, and I positioned myself about in the middle of the area we were going to surf, but just to the north, along the edge of the deep water, where I hoped I could keep an eye on things and catch anyone who was getting drifted out towards the sea, and the much larger surf break on the outside.
It was obvious right away that this was going to be a very hard job to do. I was doing head counts repeatedly, and often having a hard time seeing many of the students as they were hidden on the fronts of waves that I was looking at the backs of. The conditions were a little bigger, even where we were towards the inside, than many of the students were able to manage well. It was around this time, maybe near 2:30 or so, that Sean’s group got on the water, and headed towards the bigger waves outside of us, to the west of our position.
One of my students went upstream, into the bay, around this time, and I saw Richard go after her to see what was up. Another student had a minor capsize nearby, his second already, and I went to rescue him. I had just gotten him sorted out when Richard came by and said that the upstream student, Setsuko, had gone over there to pump some water out of her cockpit that had sloshed in when she launched. She was fine. I turned around to see that two of my students, Dave and Steve, had moved pretty far to the west while I was doing the rescue. One seemed to be headed that way intentionally, so Richard said that he would go out and bring them back inside. He headed out that way, and I was trying to do a head count of my group. I realized that we were all drifting to the west much faster than I had expected, and I turned around to see if I could see Richard, Dave and Steve behind me, when I saw a much larger set of waves come through and capsize multiple students from both classes all at once.
I’m not sure how many people ended up in the water at that time, but I remember thinking that it looked like a lot of loose boats and swimmers, and I could no longer see many of the students from either group, including Steve and Dave, or Richard. I started heading out to see if I could pick up any swimmers and bring them back to the east, and hopefully land them on the spit. I saw Shay and Donna’s boats go surfing past me, empty. Donna’s boat was closer to me, so I headed in that direction, hoping to find her. She still had her paddle and was waving it in the air, and I found her pretty quickly.
Donna was actively swimming with her paddle towards shore, and I picked her up and started towing her, with her hanging onto my end toggle. This was the beginning of a long, hard pile of work for me that wouldn’t end for nearly two hours.
Donna and I were working our way east, trying to get back to the smaller surf, and the north end of the spit, but by now we were well outside of where we had intended to stay, and the waves were bigger out there. I did what I could to back off of the waves and not surf them, but every now and then I would get caught on one and surf down it at high speed, either right side up, or often upside down after getting broached. Donna would let go and I would eventually get to the end of the ride, roll up if I was upside down, and go back to find her and start it over again. These upside down sessions were frequent, and I often had to stay under for much longer than I am used to, and it was hard to stay put and not panic. But I always managed to stay in and roll back up. One particularly big wave surprised me and as I surfed away the end toggle on my stern broke away and stayed in Donna’s hand. Now I had no good way for her to hang on and be towed, so I asked her if she was comfortable climbing on the back deck of my kayak, but she didn’t seem too keen on that, and given how often I was already getting knocked down, I didn’t force the issue, and we kept plodding on, with her now just holding onto my rear perimeter lines.
Somewhere around this time, I thought that a mayday call to the Coast Guard was in order. I had no idea how many, if any, students had made it to dry land, but I knew that those of us who were still out here were probably going to need outside assistance. I pulled out my radio a couple of times, but immediately had to drop it again to paddle or brace, and after a couple of tries I gave it up and put it away again. I knew that if I did make contact with the Coast Guard, they would want to keep talking to me, and I knew that was not going to work in the situation I was in.
By now, I could see Jamie off to the north a little ways, carrying Shay on his back deck, and also getting thrashed and surfed and frequently capsized. He was trying to make it back to the beach on the north side of the river, paddling a steep ferry angle to the ENE, a path that hopefully would get us out of the surf zone and into deeper water. I tried that for a while, too, but we were near a crab buoy that showed us the unhappy fact that for a long time, we were making no headway at all. So I decided to go back to trying to paddle to the end of the spit, a path that took us back into heavy breakers, where Donna and I took more heavy beatings from the sea, and I repeatedly spent untold long seconds upside down wishing desperately for air to breathe. But, I could see that we were slowly pulling away from the crab buoy at last and actually starting to make some forward progress towards dry land, so I kept at it. Sometime in this time frame, I heard sirens over by Netarts and eventually saw flashing lights approaching the beach.
Somewhere around this time, Sean appeared from somewhere to the southwest, towing Shay’s empty kayak. We were pretty far from Shay and Jamie now and he offered Donna the empty kayak. She was only too happy to accept. I warned her that Shay’s kayak was an LV model, meaning lower volume and smaller cockpit opening, but she said something to the effect of “I don’t care, at least it’s a kayak!”. I carefully brought her alongside, and left her in Sean’s care, while he helped her into the kayak, and I went back in the direction of where I had last seen Jamie and Shay, hoping to help them.
I found them pretty close to where I had left them, but a little further west, and in some much, much larger breakers than before. I was trying to figure out how to help, and if it would even be possible to tow them, when a very large wave broke on them, capsizing Jamie and burying Shay in a mountain of water. Jamie came up pretty far down the wave, and so I went to Shay to pick her up and try to keep her moving towards the beach. She was exhausted and sounded scared, so I tried to sound calm myself, although I doubt that I did a very good job of it. Because by now, I was pretty scared too. I had never been in this kind of large, heavy and unfriendly surf for so long before, and had never had to rescue anyone out of conditions like that, and I was not really sure what to do now except for “keep trying”, so that’s what I did.
Shay couldn’t climb on my back deck anymore. She said her legs were cramped, and that her drysuit had leaked somewhere and had water inside of it. She has a lean build, and I knew that if her suit had leaked, she was not likely to be able to weather that kind of cold and wet very well, for very long. So I paddled and towed her, and pretty soon Jamie was back and clipped a tow line onto my kayak and we started to make a little better progress. But we were still getting thrashed pretty regularly, and Shay came loose several times. Then I saw Jamie get surfed away, felt a lurch and then there was no more tow line attached. He had clipped into my front toggle, and not the perimeter lines, and now my front toggle was gone as well.
I kept on paddling, and soon Jamie was back, and was getting into position to clip on again, when large wave picked me up pretty high, and the last thing I saw before I was broached and capsized, was the bow of my boat pointing down the wave, right at Jamie’s back. I didn’t have time to yell before I was upside down, and felt myself sliding down the wave, and then I felt my boat stop for a second, before going on. This was one of the most horrible moments of the day for me. I knew that I had hit Jamie, or his kayak, and I was hoping that I had not badly injured him, or worse. This also was one of my longest rides upside down, and I had to fight the urge to panic and come out really, really hard. Eventually I was able to brace up enough to grab a mouthful of salty, foamy air, which let me hang on until I could roll all the way up. I saw Jamie upright and felt a wave of relief, although I could tell that he was hurting. I knew I must have hit his body somewhere.
This time, he was closer to Shay, and he picked her up and continued paddling, and I stayed close, but not too close, as a backup. I was getting really tired by this point, and my throat was burning from the salt water that I had been swallowing and breathing in. By now, I had been capsized by large surf waves at least a dozen or more times, and had had to force myself to stay in, ride it out and roll, and not become another swimmer without a kayak. I knew that if I could stay in my kayak, I would be able to take care of myself, and still possibly be able to help other people, but if I flinched and came out, I would be useless, and in big trouble myself. So I just kept staying in.
It was around this time that I had the second awful moment of the day. Off to the south a little ways, I saw Sean’s green kayak floating upside down. This meant that Sean was also now a swimmer, and possibly Donna, too, who he was with when I had last seen him. I didn’t see them anywhere. But, awful feelings aside, I saw his kayak as something I could maybe use to help Shay and Jamie, so I flipped it upright, clipped into and towed it back towards them. I was really hoping we could put Shay in this boat, hand her my spare paddle, which was miraculously still on my front deck, and we could all get the hell out of there. I don’t know what I was thinking, honestly. I got back to them and realized right away that Shay was in no condition to even sit upright in a kayak anymore, let alone paddle one in these waves.
As I was sitting there for a moment, trying to decide how to be the most useful I could be, a large wave came up under me and I instinctively backed off of it, but of course the empty, now-capsized kayak that I was clipped into couldn’t do that, and it was instantly caught and surfed by this large wave, which instantly capsized me, since the line was wrapped under my kayak and now I was upside down and being dragged sideways underwater. This, of course, is EXACTLY why you’re not supposed to tow a kayak in the surf. I knew this, intellectually. Now I know it for real. Fortunately, I’ve actually practiced releasing a tow while upside down, and I popped my tow belt loose and rolled back up. Jamie, Shay and the green kayak were all nowhere to be seen for a few long moments.
After clearing my head a little, I saw Jamie and Shay back behind me, and I started back to help, or at least be a backup if she fell off again. The green kayak came into view again, too, with my towline attached, but now I was very reluctant to get anywhere near it if it wasn’t going to be an asset somehow. Sometime around now, Sean suddenly appeared again, from the southwest, paddling Shay’s kayak. He asked me how I was doing, and I told him I was tired. He told me to head for the beach and he would go with me. I told him I was fine to make the beach alone, and that he should try to help Jamie and Shay instead. So he headed back towards them, and I headed for the beach, on the north side of the river, to the west of where we launched. As I got clear of the breakers and into deeper water, I could finally see the scene on the beach, and I was very much relieved to see many kayaks there, and many people at the water’s edge in kayaking gear. And sheriff’s vehicles. And flashing lights.
I landed on the beach a hundred yards or more to the west of where everyone was, as the current was really strong by now, and I miscalculated my ferry angle. I got out, stood up and nearly fell back down again. My boat had about four or five inches of water in it by now, and I had a hard time lifting it up to dump it out. People came running at me, and now I had a different set of leadership problems. There were ten students on the beach, but there were differing opinions as to how many people we had in our class, all told. I insisted it was sixteen, and in the end, it turned out I was right, but not for the reasons I thought. Our original roster had twelve students and four instructors, but what I didn’t know is that one of the students was a no-show, and someone else had come along to take pictures. Much confusion ensued while that discrepancy was sorted out. I knew we had a written roster, but I had handed it to Sean before we launched and didn’t know where it had ended up. It turned out he had tucked it under the wiper blades of his truck, which was not a bad place for it to be, but none of us knew that. And, as far as I know, it still had the no-show student listed on it, and not the photographer.
It turned out that everyone but all four coaches, Donna and Shay had arrived safely at the beach, pretty early on. Sean had told Fred the photographer to make the call for outside help, which he did when he landed, with a borrowed cell phone. Donna and Richard had managed to make it to the spit, but Donna had been unable to fit in Shay’s kayak, so she swam the whole way in with Richard’s help and he stayed with her there until it was all over. Dave was standing on top of the sheriff’s truck with binoculars, spotting for the rescuers. He later told me that even from that vantage point, if he didn’t have the binoculars pointed right at us when we crested the waves occasionally, he never would have known for sure where we were.
Soon after I landed, the jetskis from the Netarts Fire and Rescue went zooming past, and in short order they delivered a very wobbly and cold Shay safely to the beach, where she was taken away in an ambulance to warm up. They retrieved Donna from the spit, and managed to recover her kayak, too. But Shay’s kayak was not recovered. From what I heard, it had been holed somewhere along the way, and was swamped when Sean paddled it up to us near the end. He ended up switching back into his green kayak to return to the beach, and let Shay’s kayak go.
We eventually were all together again on the beach, the rescuers wrapped up their affairs and departed, all the remaining kayaks were carried back up to the parking lot and loaded up, and we had a short debriefing session in the parking lot, minus Shay, who was in an ambulance somewhere. We returned to Lumpy Waters HQ just before 7 PM where everyone was merrily drinking beer and people started asking me how my day had gone. Obviously, very few people had heard about it yet.
I’ve already debriefed this with many of the participants, in a group and individually. The most important thing I have to say is still, “I’m sorry! We NEVER should have taken you there!” And of course, this apology extends as well to the people who trained me as a leader and coach. I was trained better than this. I know better than this. But I ended up second guessing my own knowledge and experience, and automatically deferring to people of a higher skill level than I thought myself to be. I should have challenged this plan, based only on the simple fact that the mouth of a river or bay is a dangerous place to be on a strong ebb tide. I shouldn’t have needed to say anything more than that.
Ironically, when I sat down that evening for a few minutes with Sean, I brought this up to him. He told me that as we were driving north towards Netarts, past McPhillips beach, he was looking down there and thinking, “that looks like a pretty nice spot, maybe we should have gone there instead,” but since we had already let some of the students go on ahead, we had no way to recall them and change plans. I told him that I had looked at that same beach as we drove past, and thought the same thing, but just assumed that there must be some kind of good reason we weren’t going there, and just kept driving.
Donna and Shay are both fine, although Shay took a little while to warm up and return to the event. Donna was back in her kayak the next day with the kayak fishing class, successfully tending crab traps. Shay showed up later Friday night, and was far more forgiving of our serious lapse in judgement than I was, and grateful for our efforts on her behalf. Shay had been a star pupil in our beginning “Fear to Fun” classes the previous year, and I wince inside a little bit when I remember that the very next time I was on the water with her it was not very much Fun and instead a lot more about Fear. Jamie DID get hit in the back, just below the PFD, by the bow of my kayak. By some miracle he was not seriously injured, but he was sore for days. Friday night, I felt pretty good physically, but was very tired. The next morning, though, I felt like I had been run over by a truck. I was sore all over, and stayed sore for a few days afterwards.
Today, I was back on the water with Elderhostel clients, paddling in a quiet slough, when the sound of a siren on the adjacent highway made me jump, and I was instantly back in the surf trying to rescue Donna and Shay, and hearing sirens on shore. I think I’ve got a tiny little inkling now of what PTSD actually means.
Ever since the infamous “Eco-Chicks” trip of 2008, I’ve repeatedly said that the lesson I took away from that fiasco was that I should never lead a trip that I didn’t get to plan. For whatever boneheaded reason, I ignored that rule last Friday. We were very lucky that the outcome was not worse than it was.