Trial Run for the Sea Gypsy Race, April 30th 2005.

The big race of the year, the only kayak race that I participate in (besides being safety at the Cow Paddy Pageant) was the next day. I figured if I launched an hour earlier on the day before the race I would see what the tide would look like on the next day. I invited a bunch of friends from BASK who were likely to want to run the race as well. Doerta Mann missed the race because she was flying home to Germany! As a result, Dave Littlejohn was adrift without an anchor and considering sleeping in his car Saturday night so he could attend the practice and the race the next day. I arranged to have him stay with me at Chris Thollag's house and we car-pooled down together.

The swell forecast and reports for the ocean had been extremely good. However, as I learned several weeks before from the surfers at Goat Rock it is important to pay attention to the long swell from the south. There was, in fact, a three foot swell from the south with a 16 second period. These waves would be rising up and making things exciting. We all showed up in time to launch from Montara Beach at 11:00 AM on Saturday. Everyone had time to notice at least one of these large sets crashing on the beach. Between the large sets there were plenty of windows where launching would be easy. The hard part was going to be predicting the windows.

Maryly Snow and I launched first and had no trouble getting out through mild waves. In several previous years the Tsunami Rangers have required that everyone turn back, land and launch again to prove that they can deal with the conditions of the race. Many kayakers have trouble with this and fail to even get started the second time. This is an excellent way to weed out the people who should not be out on this exposed section of shoreline. To practice this landing and launching, Maryly turned back and headed towards shore again. One of those sneaker waves from the south rose up behind her. I saw her side surfing right along the top of the wave, and then I saw her DROP off the face of the wave and disappear. Sure enough when the wave passed I saw her out of her boat dragging it to shore. Everyone else managed to launch without any more events and Maryly became the last one off the beach before we could start the course.

On a "normal" Sea Gypsy Race it is possible to paddle through "the slot" over the Pillar Point Reef right up against the cliff. In the hopes of checking this out I plotted a course strait across Half Moon Bay towards the last corner of the Pillar Point Breakwater. When we came into sight of the slot around the breakwater I saw that it was sticking way above water, high and dry at low tide with beach-goers walking back and forth over it. I figured that this was not a viable option this year and looked to go around the reef. However there was a huge area to my left, still inside the reef, that had waves breaking over it. I knew that there were shallow spots inside the reef but had never seen them when the tide was this low. There was even one shallow rock sticking out of the waves between breakers. It was already too late to take a wide path around this area. I watched the water and built a model of what the bottom was like. I decided to paddle towards mushroom rock around the right edge of this shallow area and then cut left around another spot. Most of my friends went closer than I to Mushroom Rock, but they managed to sprint across the reef when waves were not breaking over it. We collected back together as we paddled down the outside of the reef towards Ross Beach.

As we paddled by the steep shore of Pillar Point a guy on the rocks started yelling at us. I could not make out anything that he said, but he pantomimed a broken arm and pointed at a woman lying down next to him. We guessed that he was asking for help for someone who fell on the slippery rocks. I gave him the OK sign and pantomimed that we would continue ahead and hike back. I had been telling my friends that landing at the first sandy beach was not a good spot and we should continue down to a calmer place farther north. But if we were to be of assistance we would have to land as soon as possible. So I turned in towards the first piece of sand and worked my way in. I discovered that there was a calm-water path through the waves and then they tended to break over the reef behind me. I could hook farther and farther south again and ended up landing on the very end of the sandy beach.

I did not have a first aid kit with me but I grabbed my "day bag" figuring there would be something I could use from it. I also grabbed my water bottle figuring the "victim" might be dehydrated. The trip from the sandy beach along the cobbles was wet slippery and dangerous. I was thinking about transporting someone back to the beach and it did not look like it was going to be easy. I was glad that five of my friends were landing behind me, they were going to be needed to help. I was so focused on getting to the scene that I didn't verify that everyone was in fact landing. I do recall noticing that Fred Cooper was heading in farther north where I had pointed out the "safer" location where I had landed in on two previous races. What I found out later was that Fred had decided not to follow the rest of us and blindly taken the "safer" area of the beach. It turned out to be a bad place to land at low tide. At those times there are apparently several shallow rocky reefs there. Fred was dumped on, exited from his boat, and swam to shore without it. Fortunately Dave saw Fred's boat and kept an eye on him. Dave landed behind the rest of us and ran down the beach to check on Fred. Fred was winded but OK.

Meanwhile I made it around the rocky end of the beach and talked to the guy who had called for help. He turned out to be a paramedic! But he did not have a first aid kit with him. His girlfriend had broken her ankle and the guy had lots of technical medical jargon for what he though was the problem. I dumped out my day bag and looked through everything for emergency medical supplies. I had a small roll of duct tape, intended for patching my boat, which made excellent bandage tape. I offered my pack towel and PFD as padding but they decided to do without. I walked farther along the cliff and discovered that the path back to Pillar Point Beach where the hikers had come from was a much easier walk than the way I had just come. Helping someone hobble in that direction would be a lot less dangerous even though it was a bit farther. John Somers arrived on the scene second, then went back to collect driftwood to make a split. He brought back a huge pile of sticks to choose from, even one the perfect size to use as a walking stick. With two pieces of driftwood duct taped to her ankle the woman was ready to jump up and hop home or even crawl if necessary. I was prepared to help but while we were getting organized another hiker came down from the point. He offered to help walk the woman back to the beach so that us kayakers could stay with our boats. John called on his VHF marine radio and contacted someone about meeting the woman at Pillar Point. It turns out that emergency vehicles can get all the way down to the tip of the point there.

We took our time eating a snack and dragging Fred's boat back to a safer place to launch. The hiker who helped came by again and told us that everyone made it OK. Then we launched with no problems and headed back. As we passed Pillar Point we could see that the red fire-truck / abulance / paramedic / EMT was still parked on the sand. I forgot about it as we crossed the reef and headed towards the finish line. I paddled wide as I crossed the reef and went looking for that large shallow area we had skirted on the way out. John paddled into it a little ahead of me and disappeared on the other side of a breaking wave. I found out later that he side-surfed, barely in control, all the way to the other side of the shallow area. I managed to catch the next wave and surfed straight down it and stayed completely in control the whole distance, popping out behind John after a 200 meter wild ride! If I can do this on the day of the race, this will be a great way to make up for my normally slow "racing" pace.

From there it was a mild paddle back to Miramar Beach. Everyone except Fred made nice landings. Fred asked John to land first and guide him in through the waves. But I think I heard John grumbling that Fred was not following directions. Eventually Fred came in on one of those sneaker waves from the south and it dumped him over. He ended up swimming to shore a second time.

When we landed Michael Powers and some other people getting ready for the race came down to talk to us. The rumor mill had spread around Half Moon Bay faster than we could paddle and they had heard there was an "accident at Pillar Point involving a kayaker". Of course everyone had feared that one of us BASK paddlers had gotten hurt and been evacuated by the paramedics. Unless there was a second accident that I didn't know about, there was a group of kayakers involved all right! But we were the heroes not the victims!

All text and images Copyright © 2005 by Mike Higgins / contact