Gale Force Kayaking

May 15, 2007

An extract from an interesting article and exciting read about Steve Sinclair at Force 10 Kayaking in Elk, Northern California


“Timing his entry precisely, Sinclair raises the Odyssea Ski above his head and charges the surf. The next wave breaks at his feet and explodes into foam. Sinclair throws his craft upon the wave’s broken back and vaults aboard. With long strokes, driving from his legs, he paddles into the belly of the following wave. He sweeps up the face and breaks through the wave’s roof as it closes above him.

Sinclair breaks seven lines of 15 to 20-foot surf in the space of a quarter mile. As he passes Gunderson Rock, a 120 foot pyramid of battered sandstone off shore, 25-foot breakers trip on the relative shallows of the cove and crash as if upon the beach.

The swells beyond Gunderson are mountainous. Manes of spray trail from their crests. The wind makes the sound of sheet metal being torn into strips. It lifts so much water into the air that the division between sea and atmosphere is lost. To breathe, Sinclair must purse his lips and filter the air from the vaporous froth. Near and in the distance loom massive logs, some disgorged from the Greenwood Creek behind him, others drifting with the storm from estuaries to the north. Some of the logs are sixty feet long, some complete with roots and branches and trunks the girth of an armspan. This flotsam rolls through the waves, some water-logged and bobbing vertically like telephone poles, others like set pikes from breaking faces. In the range of elements Sinclair faces in a winter storm, it is this driftwood he fears most…”

Some of the things that Sinclair does, according to the author Andrew Todhunter, I found interesting, for example:

“Sinclair prefers a wash-deck kayak, a boat you sit strapped to the top of rather than inside. In no danger of flooding, such a vessel – unlike a kayak with a cockpit – is as easy to right and remount as a surf board.”

This makes a lot of sense to me and is one of the things I find funny about kayak surfing, as a body boarder, somehow being inside a boat makes waves look much bigger and much scarier. There is something much more intimate about surfing compared to kayaking. And you need much less “stuff”, the board is your pfd.

“While navigating an open coast, as Sinclair demonstrates, always work to maximize your “down time.” This is the time it would require, from any point along your course, to drift from the site of an accident, like a capsize or dropped paddle, into a potential hazard, like a wash rock or wave-battered cliff.”

Good advice I guess…

A bit more of the exhillirating part of the story goes like this:

“From the top of the swell smaller, attendant waves of 6 to 8 feet break off and roar down the face in all directions. Some run over others and lend force. Others curl and break face to face, jetting a haystack of spray into the wind. As he climbs the main face Sinclair carves left and right to attack these breakers with his bow. He toils to the top of the swell, paddles through its apex and disappears beyond it in a depthless sea of foam. The foam trails like a veil from the shoulders of the crumbling swell. Sinclair is completely submerged, out of the shrieking wind. Beneath the surface of the foam is the sound, as he describes it, of a hundred freight trains.

Paddle held high above his head for balance, Sinclair emerges from the veil of foam and surfs down the back of the broken swell into the following trough. The next wave is gathering, pulling him in. The sky vanishes. The attendant waves break off and swoop from the heights to intercept him. He streaks up the swell, gathering speed. With a last, long stroke, his torso slamming backward flat against the hull, the craft breaks through the ragged hem of the wave and launches high into the air.

Held upon the wind, Sinclair drifts from his seat until he stands in his footwells like a Nordic skier. He sweeps his paddle in line with the ski’s hull to prevent the blades from catching the wind and flipping him over. He leans forward, drives with his weight against the lift. The wave frequency passes beneath him as he falls. The ski finally lands, stern first, in the bottom of the following trough. Sinclair has lost time in the air and knows that the top of the next wave will break upon him before he can attain its peak. He buckles his seat belt.

Sinclair paddles futilely for the summit. He has scarcely left the trough when the top third of the wave breaks off like a cornice and drops with the sound and speed of an avalanche down the rising face, erasing the breakers in its path. Upon impact man and boat together are buried and blown backward. End over end in the explosion, spiraling through the mass of broken sea, Sinclair holds his breath, lies flat against his back and clings to his vessel. He surfaces for an instant, takes a tight-lipped breath and vanishes again into the thundering foam. The grip of the avalanche gradually diminishes, the violence ebbs and finally the broken wave releases the boat and passes on. Sinclair, still belted to his ski, bobs to the surface, back into the freezing rain.

He regains lost ground, passes Mile Rock to starboard and continues north-west into the storm.

It takes him three hours to reach his farthest mark – an area some three miles from shore. After resting briefly, his head upon his knees, Sinclair turns around and begins the run to Greenwood Cove. Catching three rides, it takes him twelve minutes to get back.”

copyright Andrew Todhunter: full article titled Gale Force Kayaking appeared in the August 1995 Atlantic Monthly (Confusingly because he kayaks the Pacific).

Sand Marks paddled with Gale Force Kayaking.


One Response to “Gale Force Kayaking”

  1. PeterD Says:

    I live in Northern California (San Francisco area – not nearly as far north as he is). Most of us use sit inside kayaks because of the cold water (right now, our water is 10-12C – by summer it may get a bit above 15C). But surf skiers and some surfers do use sit on tops (though most kayak surfers I see out there do use sit insides – often white water boats).

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