Going Coastal

by George Weetman
Summer 2009

There’s no way to avoid a certain sluggish feel to your stroke when you’re paddling a hollow wooden board stuffed with seven days’ worth of wilderness camping gear. Tent, sleeping bag, pumpernickel bread, hard cheese, pepper salami, espresso, VHF radio, GPS, fleece, fishing rod, knife, iPod, solar charger – the full kit neatly tucked away in dry bags above and below deck.

Although the extra payload makes the board impossible to carry under your arm, the change once paddling is more subtle than you might expect – like a locomotive trying to catch speed. With so much extra stick below water the glides are shorter, and the extra drag slowly wears away on the brain.

Never mind. Self-reliance is a beautiful thing when your perspective of the salty sea and all its curious creatures occurs only inches above waterline; and the 5 a.m. weather check suggested we were going to have another calm morning of perfect glass. As I followed my sea-kayak partner Dave under muted skies and gentle seas, I thought about our ocean voyage so far: the daily sightings of golden eagles, pods of seals sixtydeep, drifting under the sun on a one-knot tidal pull in crystal clear waters above white sand, sea grass and Dungeness crab.

Within three hours, it all changed. Opposing wind-tide chop began to build all around us in 25-knot gusts. Waves refracted off the adjacent rocky headlands, causing terribly confused seas and giving us nowhere safe to land. Two crosswaves imploded on my stern, ejecting me from my board. Wet and getting colder, I was glad for the leash securely fastened to my leg, but not for my decision that morning to wear only board shorts and booties. Summer on the wet coast can quickly make you crave the comfort of a fleece toque covering the ears, and the buoyancy offered from a 4/3 steamer suit.

I quickly clawed my way back on to my deck, dreading to think how much water may have penetrated my custom hatches. Sudden gusts of wind, combined with crashing surf, reduced communications to confused shouts as Dave and I each held on in the generally downwind conditions. As the weather steadily worsened, I focused on the task at hand: head down, paddle, and quickly find somewhere safe to land.

Around the next point, Dave spotted a keyhole harbor that looked navigable – if not for the windswell exploding on a grouping of submerged rocks blocking the entrance. As I approached and examined the coastline, his glance back confirmed what I already knew – a mistake here would be costly. Should we press on, or was
this opening our best chance of getting safely back to shore? Blowing spray lashed my face, but I experienced some weird bone-chilling pleasure in feeling so awake. I no longer suffered from arm fatigue – adrenaline was in charge. I paused to take it all in, almost savoring the raw power of our exposed position. Our predicament acutely reminded me of something a mountain guide once said about the distinction between choice and dilemma. The latter was often a consequence of poor decision-making.

A loud shout from Dave quickly brought me back. He’d obviously made his choice, and I watched anxiously as he committed himself to the entry, exposing himself now broadside to the gusting wind and surf. Within less than a minute, he was out of sight.

Let’s do this, I thought. I pulled in to the gap, stroking as hard as possible to keep from getting pushed against the rocks. My skeg bounced hard off the bottom as I shot between two boils. Focus and breathe. I was in.

We were both deposited on a narrow rocky beach as pounding shore break crashed around us. Dave sprang from his boat and ran into the cedar forest clutching our only roll of toilet paper. Still shivering, I quickly pulled on my warmest gear, relishing our newfound safety.

Four days into this trip and already I could feel myself going feral. If I closed my eyes, the ocean continued to roll me like a cork. And it struck me, sitting on a massive red cedar log on this remote beach, miles from my office cubicle, that I was feeling more alive than I’d felt in a very long time.

About the Author

George Weetman lives six hours too far from surf in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife, baby girl and blind weiner dog. Between paddleboard touring trips and surf missions, his daily routine includes morning weather checks on the marine radio.