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Dancing With Death

© 2019 Jean-Philippe Soulé

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A tale of adventure, sacrifice & physical endurance.

 

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Central American
Sea Kayak Expedition 2000

Paddle into the Past with an Eye to the Future!

It’s GO time…

At 5 AM, we’re ready to launch.  The waves still sound big but, in a total darkness under a moonless starless sky, they don’t really seem TOO large.  After all, we’re on a gradual beach, how bad can they be? I walk into the water to try and get a feel for the waves.  There is a strong side current and they are hitting the beach straight on in a succession of white foamy trails, anything but regular, some small and others quite large.  One follows the next with very little gap between, but they don't seem overwhelmingly powerful—I still think they look manageable.  Two other wave patterns are also hitting the beach at sharp angles, refractions of the main waves from the opposite sides of the large bay: where those two meet, they explode with eight-foot vertical splashes.  For five minutes, I stand in the water observing the sea but none of these collisions ever happens in the same spot twice.  Everything is irregular today.  I anticipate that the first step of the launch will be tricky but that, once paddling, we will be all right.


Because of the frequency of the waves, I can’t pull my kayak out too far.  I wait for a big wave to float it, then pull it forward, run to the back and use both hands to keep it facing straight into the waves.  I have already learned from sad experience that holding the boat from the bow when there are horizontal currents or waves is a guaranteed disaster as 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 jump into it and, as soon as my butt touchs the seat, I rush to throw my legs over the deck, fold them into the cockpit and extend them inside the sea sock.  After the next wave hits me, I find my kayak sitting on the sand parallel to shore—not a good position to be in—so as the next wave lifts me, I use my hands on the sand to partially re-orient my kayak before settling back.  When the next one comes in, I paddle hard at a quarter angle into it, pass the wave without taking on too much water and quickly let go of my paddle to put my spray skirt on.  It isn’t easy to quickly position the skirt behind me, stretch it to the front of the cockpit rim and put each side into the groove while being buffeted by the surf and trying to hold on to my paddle but, until I do so, my kayak continues to fill with water from each wave.  Although I am hit by another wave and again put in a position parallel to the shore, this time I’m still floating and almost ready to go.  All I have to do now is to reposition my boat and get some speed which I do with a few power strokes; I easily pass the first big roller, then number two and number three.  That’s it! I’ve done it! I’m through the difficult passage and will soon be waiting for Luke outside the surf zone.


But this beautiful flat beach has not yet revealed all its tricks.  The fifth breaker is a monster; going full speed, I barely make it through.  I almost stall on top of the wave but I put all the energy I have into my strokes and quickly regain speed, passing the sixth breaker with nothing more than a big splash in the face. Now I am racing out of the surf zone with powerful strokes and nothing can stop me! 


There are only three more breaks to go.  The huge seventh wave explodes six feet in front of me, but with a heavily loaded kayak moving into it at four knots, I never doubt that I’ll make it.  At the last second, I tuck my paddle to the side and bend my upper body forward to break through.  To my great surprise, I find myself entirely submerged and catapulting backwards. Fast. When the foam finally recedes down to my chest level, I realize that I am actually surfing backward at great speed and, as I raise my head, my kayak almost back-flips, the stern pitched down underwater and the bow pointed up toward the sky.  Leaning forward, I keep on surfing backwards in this mass of white foam until it reforms into a swell and rebreaks, instantly enveloping me in its curl.  


All I can think about is not capsizing.  I was a long way from shore when that first wave hit and it is still very dark; capsizing would be disastrous.  At best, I would lose everything I have on deck, maybe even the full kayak.  I do everything possible to keep my weight forward and my kayak straight; if I go sideways, I might end up upside down.  My first reflex is to put my paddle on the wrong side of my bow but I’m going backward and this movement almost throws me sideways.  I instantly switch sides and am able to keep the boat surfing straight—I can hear the hull slashing into the wave.  After this second backward surf set, I am going too fast and the wave is still too powerful to hope to paddle out of it.  My kayak suddenly jerks to a stop as the stern slams into the sandy beach, bending my rudder and sending me sprawling. At least I’m safe on shore—or so I think!


Before I even realize what is happening, one of the side waves, determined to crush me down onto the sand, sets me parallel to the main wave.  In a final burst of effort, I throw my body into the wave in a heavy brace stroke but end up leaning too much and capsize into it.  I find myself face down with my hands against the sandy bottom, trying to protect my head and neck, while still holding my paddle with one of the blades sticking out of the water on the sea side.  Before I have time to think, the next wave catches my paddle blade and puts me back right side up.  It isn’t really an Eskimo roll, it’s more an "I have no idea where I am anymore" roll but it works.  I open my sprayskirt, jump out and pull on the bow of the kayak; I am entirely worn out but back on shore, safe.  As I pull my kayak out of the waves, I scream to Luke, "Don't go.  We can't make it in the dark.  It's crazy out there!"

And it only gets crazier as the adventure continues in Dancing With Death!

 

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