I had an epic swim.
It was the kind of event that defines and changes a person. I can literally trace my development as a paddler to this one day: Before the Swim, and After the Swim.
We launched from the Southport waterfront at 0600, under clouds, and paddled eight miles out to the Frying Pan Shoals at Cape Fear, NC, off Bald Head Island. Typical for early August, the water temp was near 80 F, air temp was 85 F, and it was a glorious morning, developing high fluffy clouds, and blue skies. In order to avoid 3 pm thunderstorms we paddled out against an incoming tide. The tidal current is typically 2 to 3 NM during flood. Winds were 10-15 NM per hour from the south west.
Of the three paddlers that day in August, 2015, I was certainly the most junior. Both Brian and Ashley were ACA Level 4 instructors, with Brian holding the addition of a BCU 4*. I had just received my Level 3 instructor cert. Their experience was far above mine.
We wanted play at the shoals for about an hour and then head back. The trip would be about 18 miles, with surfing at the shoals in the middle. We packed lunch, safety kits, and money for a stop at the Sandpiper Coffee Shop on Bald Head Island. I packed my VHF radio in my hatch as I was wearing a life vest that didn’t allow for it in the single flat pocket.
After a stop for coffee and playing around with a phone booth we paddled out the mouth of the river. The island was to our left and we had 5 to 6 foot green swell rolling towards the South Beach of Bald Head. It was the biggest swell I had ever paddled in, coming at us beam the whole 5 miles.
We landed at the Cape, the actual tip of Bald Head Island, at 1100. We had another snack and watched the Frying Pan ratchet up. I was a bit tired from the challenge of the beam swell and fight against the current. But I was also excited to be there with two of my favorite people.
Wind, waves, and current combine at the Frying Pan to create clapotis; crazy, confused water, zippers, or hay stacks as some call them. That day they were literally five feet tall and sheer on every side. Ashley dubbed this “Banging Zipper Sh*t.”
Brian and Ashley put their helmets on. I did not. Mine regularly gave me headaches; I hated wearing it. Besides, I figured, I was already tired. I planned to skirt the edge of the Frying Pan. We launched, Ashley charged to the lead, her tiny Tahe riding high, high in the air on top of each zipper. Brian was hot behind her. My last sight of them was Ashley at least five feet in the air, whooping in delight.
Watching them I strayed too close, plain and simple, and was caught before I knew it. My boat was dragged quickly into the clapotis. After some bongo surfing, and an ineffective brace, I capsized. I was ground against the sand, my head banging the boat as well as sand. I saw stars. I shoved the boat off me and attempted a roll. I got a gulp of air, didn’t get up, and then tried again. I was crushed between the sand and my Romany. A wet exit seemed reasonable. I held onto my boat and paddle.
For a brief time I thought, “no problem, I’ll re-enter and roll, paddle back to shore, and they won’t even know.” I hadn’t yet realized I’d fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire. I was thinking of pride, not survival.
I attempted a re-enter and roll but was again crushed. After my second wet exit, I was dragged by my boat, face down, across the shoal a number of times. Inevitably my shoulder popped and I let go. I let go of my boat. It nearly ran over me, carried by the zipper back down on top of me. At last sight, my beloved Romany was riding high above me, on the crest of a wave. It looked like it would surf down on top of me again. Then it was gone.
I couldn’t see my friends, but blew my whistle. My cell phone in my vest pocket in a waterproof case was my last resort. I washed out of the clapotis into choppy water that was far less dynamic but was being dragged north. I turned towards Bald Head Island and was surprised to see I was only a quarter mile off shore. “Piece of cake,” I thought. I am a powerful swimmer. I started swimming, using my paddle.
I was caught in a ripping along-shore current, and wasn’t making any headway. Waves broke on me and I breathed in some water. I swam as though my life depended on it. For some reason the idea of sharks seemed to play in my head, and I put my whole body into swimming. Sharks do abound here, two kids had just lost arms nearby to bull sharks.
On shore, a man stood up from his beach chair and walked to the water. He stared at me. Someone knew I had lost my boat. After five minutes, he pulled out his cell phone, his eyes on me. I knew he was calling the Coast Guard. I continued to paddle-swim for my life. I didn’t want to lose any ground. The only way the CG would get to me was if I was near where he spotted me. I had to keep going. I focused on the man.
I swam for fifteen minutes, maybe longer, it seemed like an eternity. I breathed in water. I had to keep stopping to cough. I was being ripped north, away from the man on the shore. I watched him recede, him following me up the beach. I was tired.
I heard my name shouted and looked behind me and there was Ashley, paddling straight for me. She had seen the paddle flashes as I paddle-swam. I didn’t stop swimming until she reached me. Actually, I didn’t quite believe she was there until her boat was close enough for me to throw an arm over and rest for a moment. I clung to her Tahe while she surveyed the sea from her higher position. She said “Brian is coming, I SEE your boat!” As soon as Brian reached us she handed me off, and sprinted for my Romany.
Brian and I were still being ripped north. He had me hang off the rescue toggle on the back of his Romany and he tried to paddle me to shore. We were actually being carried along faster now than I had been while alone. I looked up and there was an orange and white helicopter above us, it circled around and came back lower. This was the Coast Guard. They had already found me, but so had my friends. Brian was struggling but we were still moving north, the ‘copter hovering, when Ashley paddled up with my Romany. She said it was sitting in calmer water on the outside of the zipper, “just waiting there.” I have NEVER been so happy to see a boat.
She dumped the water out and I tumbled into the cockpit. For a moment I lay back, on the back deck and looked up at the helicopter. I saw a someone in sunglasses looking down. The CG circled in broad loops for a while, and came back as we made our way back towards Southport. Five miles later we landed at the “coffee beach,” and I ate an apple Ashley handed me. The tide was just turning out, ebbing, but the last 3 miles of the trip was easy compared to the rest of the day.
--If I have to wet exit from my boat, and am alone, first order of business is attaching my tow line to the deck line at the cockpit. That way, if the boat gets away from me, it doesn’t go too far. If I had done that during this incident I would have washed out of the clapotis with my boat and then been able to reel it in and had a second go at self rescue. There are pros and cons to this, I realize, but this is my plan.
--I changed my life vest to a roomier one with more pockets. I now have space for my VHF on my body.
--I carry a Personal Locator Beacon on my vest as well.
--I continually practice rolling and re-enter and rolls. I never assume I have a roll at any particular moment. I practice self-rescues and “share the wealth,” offering rescue practice for free to other paddlers.
--I changed helmets to one that is truly comfortable. I like wearing it.
--I manage my food and water intake, as well as my energy level quite carefully now.
--I recognized that I was suffering, to some extent, from the Dunning-Kruger effect. I simply didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I’m much more aware of the gaps in my knowledge now. I’ve worked to develop a method to identify problems, and create solutions. This has helped me become a safer paddler in general.
--I have never stopped training. I figure I’ll quit learning when I die. I’d rather be a “student” than the alternative.