NEAR MISS ON THE PACIFIC OCEAN
As told by Steve Landick, Ultimate Canoe Challenge
NB: For those of you who don’t know, the Ultimate Canoe Challenge is a three-year, 26,000 mile journey by canoe which criss-crosses the North American continent. The group had successfully completed over 19,000 miles at the time of the incident, which occurred in June 1982.
We left Seattle the afternoon of June 17. Three days of warm, sunny weather brought us to Neah Bay on the Strait of Juan De Fuca, just five miles short of Cape Flattery . That Cape had been a major focal point of mine ever since we conceived of the idea of paddling down the Pacific Coast . From there to Point Conception in southern California , we figured would be very likely be the most hazardous section of our journey. Cape Flattery was the beginning of over 2,500 miles of open ocean paddling. As far as we know, no one has paddled the entire distance. We had determined a basic plan of traveling from harbour to harbour (bay or river mouth) and avoiding the surf as much as possible. If we were to encounter a storm, we would either continue on to a safe landing, return to our last one, or as a last alternative, negotiate the surf. When to paddle and when to sit tight and watch the weather would be the name of the game. We would be committed to staying out the 6-24 hours it could take to get from one safe harbour to the next. If the weather turned bad, we would stick with it, either paddling all night or if the storm continued, possibly sleeping in the boats.
John Dowd had advised us to avoid, at any cost, the large surf that ceaselessly batters the rocky coasts of Washington, Oregon, and northern California . John’s advice was both concise and difficult to accept: “Paddle out to sea and weather the storm there.” I think both Verlen and I agreed in principal with that advice, however, we both had considerable trepidation about actually heading out to sea in a threatening situation.
South of the Columbia we entered Oregon , our 38th state of the trip. Safe landings were few and far between. The weather was stable, north to northwest wind every day, we made exceptionally good time, averaging more than 50 miles between stops.
Heading out across the bar from Coos Bay we had little idea what lay in store for us. Our goal was Port Orford, 48 miles distant, eight miles to the north of Port Orford lay Cape Blanco, western most point of the continental U.S. Thanks to Ken Sieradski, our friend back home coordinating sponsorship, Dow Chemical had become interested in our journey. He had persuaded them to purchase and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) for us to carry. We had received it just four days earlier.
Our good friend, the north wind, came us around noon. At 15-20 knots the whitecaps can be big enough to throw us around a little, but we had learned to live with that. We came up to Blanco Reef just off the cape, the waves steepened and broke intermittently. Our options were to cross the reef or paddle two miles further out to sea to get around it. We crossed. On the far side the swells were considerably smaller, although the wind noticeably stronger. A local condition apparently. Another six miles and we could gain protection. The wind increased dramatically to 40 and then 50 knots. We headed for shore without any discussion.
Suddenly I witnessed Verlen go over as a steep wave caught him off guard. I was downwind and he came up on the far side, out of my sight. If not for the adrenalin surging into my system, it would have been difficult to push my bow up into the wind. Verlen’s ‘loon’ was caught immediately by a wave and pushed out of his reach. With the shock of the cold water and the waves washing over him, he was working hard just to keep his head up. We had only been 20 yards apart and yet it seemed to take me an eternity to reach him. My thoughts turned suddenly for fear for Verlen’s safety to relief and then to fear for us both as he latched on to my canoe. Verlen was naturally anxious to gain support and with him holding on to the side of my canoe, I felt very unstable. With both of us in the water self rescue would be very difficult. I had to have the kayak paddle in my hands. I reached for the double blade secured to my deck giving me virtually no recourse to brace with my canoe paddle. Either Verlen maneuvering for a better hand hold or a big wave could have put us both in the water. Finally, I had it! What a sense of relief to have that kayak paddle in hand, ready to roll or brace on either side!
Verlen crawled up onto my stern deck. We took one long hard look at his ‘loon’, his home for the last two years and I headed for shore. The conditions were just too rough to initiate our contingency plan of hooking up the catamaran system. I knew how much value he placed in that canoe, but clearly he was worth much more. I had to get him out of the water.
As I picked up the stroke, I suddenly remembered—the EPIRB beacon was in the forward stuff sack with my fins and helmet. If only I could take one hand off the paddle shaft long enough to reach beneath my cover and grasp the line, pull the bag back, get the EPIRB out and activate the switch. Several times I had to quickly retract my hand to brace. Actually, I put little faith in the Coast Guard coming. I felt we would have to make the mile and a half on our own and yet I did feel better to finally push the switch to “on”.
I then commenced to paddle one of my most demanding races. With one’s life on the line a little extra incentive is in store. I could hardly believe the drag of Verlen’s 160 pounds on the rear deck and his two legs in the water. The wind was rapidly blowing us to the south. It began to look as if we might be blown past the next point in which case we would be headed out for the big blue. The next landfall due south would be Antarctica . I paddled harder. Meanwhile, Verlen was kicking hard to help us stay on course and to keep warm.
After an hour, I knew he was getting pretty damn cold. An hour fifteen and we were getting close. I knew we would make it to the breakers. Getting thru them to the beach would be harder. Then I heard the chopper. At 1000 feet they couldn't see us in the wind blown waves and it continued south. I thought, “Must be a routing flight”. At that point, I decided we were definitely on our own. Then the helicopter dropped down and headed back toward us.
The voice on the microphone inquired, “Do you want the survivor picked up or will you take him to the beach?” Verlen was clearly hypothermic and I immediately signaled to have him bailed out. They lowered the basket. He had all he could do to release his frigid grip on my canoe to grasp his best chance for survival. As they pulled him through the door, I relaxed enough to realize just how tired I was. I considered trying the surf, but then figured I would be better off heading into Port Orford 4 miles away.
I made the point and turned into calm waters. Setting my paddle down, I took a deep breath and stared out to sea . . . she is not one to take lightly. I began to reflect on the consequences of Verlen’s capsize. It was evident we were not prepared. I was confident that Verlen would be fine physically, but what would his mental outlook be? If his boat couldn't be found, how long would it take to replace it and all the lost equipment? I pulled into Port Orford, found a pay phone and called the hospital in Coos Bay . The word was: Verlen was fine, happy to be alive, and wanting me to know he was as anxious to continue on our quest as ever.
This item is a bit outside my line, but beware. Ocean kayaking is a young sport, but I have heard of dozens of near-misses this year. This shows that even highly experience river paddlers (Like Verlen and Steve) had best look out there on the ‘Biggest water of all”.
“Oh, Lord, Thy ocean is so big and my ship is so small.”