Once upon a time I read a terrifying book about a a man who walked alone from Canada to the North Pole and fell through a crack in the ice into the Arctic Ocean.
He didn’t die, but the thought of all that water (plus the entire globe) below him haunted me. I realize that I have read or heard so many terrifying books/Readers Digests/stories about voyages-gone-wrong that I have all the worst case scenarios embedded in my brain, lurking below my smooth mental surface, waiting for an optimum time to emerge.
And what better time to emerge than when I decide to downwind on a SUP? My husband is a downwind maestro on his kiteboard. He loves it, but he warned me, “Once you are out there, you are out there. There is no going back. I don’t think you will like it.”
Hmmph. Naysayer. He of little faith. In case you don’t know, a downwind is when you launch your vessel (kite, SUP, Hobie Cat, surfski etc) upwind on the windiest, windy, onshore, rubbish day summer can throw at you, and travel with the wind and the windswell to a designated landing point downwind. Geddit?
So the downwinds in Cape Town might be from Millers Point across False Bay to Fishhoek Beach. (Or over at Big Bay, if brain freeze is your thing.)
Being the dodgy beginner that I am, I was shepherded on a short 5 km debut run from Boulders to Boiler Beach (near Glencairn.)
First, I hurt my foot on the terrible board wrangling journey from the parking lot to the beach. I inspected it for blood, because you and I both imagine that sharks can smell blood from kilometers away.
I barely had a moment to secure the board from being wind flung across Boulders beach, before the most terrifying worst case scenarios stored in my brain started shuffling around, vying for front and centre. Beyond the non-cut shark problem, the most alarming vision my mind conjured up involved my leash coming off and me bobbing out in False Bay without a board. (Maybe it was that story Riaan & Vasti Manser told at Slide Night, when he got separated from their kayak and she cried telling the story. Or maybe it was the tale of Brett Archibald, who fell overboard and bobbed for 28.5 hours, staving off eyeball-pecking-seagulls.)
I sat, hot and sweaty in my 4’3 and puffy PFD, with something like a sandstorm flowing through my ears, undoing and redoing my leash fifty million times in a wretched OCD frenzy, but not paying attention to the briefing. I had to ask downwind head honcho, Gary, “Err what was that you said about surf stance?”
Eventually we paddled out between the boulders, amidst kelp and dark shapes, into the great heaving ocean. A nice wind swell was running, and I felt a surge of Gung Ho and leapt to my feet.
It is a very different style of wave riding. At the beachy peachy kind, you look behind you, check the wave coming, make sure you are in the money spot and paddle for it like a Capetonian in a water queue. If you are trying to catch these ocean wind swells however, you don’t look behind you, only ahead (at what I am not quite sure, I think it’s the line you want to take in the swell, but, for the meantime, while I’m kooking it, I look ahead for two things only, 1. anything grey and triangular 2. a beach of golden sand.)
Timing your paddling onto the wave is also different. On a downwind, when you feel the wave lifting you, you’re too late, whereas in beachy peachy surfing that’s your moment. On a downwind, when you feel you’ve missed the wave, you don’t relax like you would at the Berg, you strike hard to catch the next one.
Another thing is that you are on a 14 foot board. The length is lovely when you want to catch the swell way up high on the crest, but when you pitch forth into the trough it’s not so awesome. If you are new and lumbering like me, and don’t (my eternal fault in all SUP disciplines) STEP BACK FAR ENOUGH, well, let me just say that the nose dive is something a submarine would aspire to.
Let’s not take anything away from the thrill, though. When you catch one of those swells and go racing down the little face (mine were 90% out of control careening rides) the adrenalin rush is unmatched.
But when you fall, which a beginner like me does with alarming regularity, sheer terror replaces the thrill, quicker than a shark takes a seal.
(Although my terror must actually be VERY short lived. According to the teeth-grittingly patient coach Tyran, never in the history of downwinding, has anyone got back on their board faster than me. )
The pace, followed by the lack of control and balance at the end of a ride, was astonishing, awesome and exhausting. After a few runs I had to go to my knees to catch my rasping breath and search for some more courage. I reminded myself of a horror movie, because the sound of my breathing was louder than the roar of the wind and the ocean. Like when the damsel is running away from the serial killer and all you can hear are her gasps. (FYI I am also the only person in the history of SCUBA lessons in a pool in PE to have sucked up an entire tank of air in one session. So deep breaths are clearly my thing when I feel my demise is imminent.)
I decided, when I saw something grey and triangular in my path, a path from which I had not the skill to deviate, that downwind stand up paddle boarding is scarier than querying a manuscript. Turns out it was a seal waving at me, but it is still less nerve wracking, less difficult and certainly less death defying to query a book.
So, my initial downwind journey was a heady mix of adrenalin laced rides, plunging nose dives, tightrope like balancing on a 14 x 26 board, and being brought to my knees by the sheer thrill/terror emotional bungee jump. Please note, though, that I caught a wave in, which I have never done on a 14 foot board before.
When the next week came with a windier and longer course proposed, I forced myself to go in order to improve.
If only I knew that improvement was not on the cards.
I won’t lie. I was terrified all over again. More terrified than the first time because I knew what to expect. My stomach was in knots and my teeth were chattering as I drove there, despite it being 28 degrees outside.
When someone’s SUP was semi-destroyed as it blew across the parking lot it should have been a sign.
But, I am not one to admit defeat or bow out in the face of fear, so I paddled/blew out at Boulders again. This time we had to get out far enough past that big rock (or be dashed upon it) and then take a line to Glencairn. My first problem (as with Boiler Beach the week before) was uh, where’s Glencairn anyway? I’m from PE, so I don’t recognize these landing spots from the blue yonder. My second problem was tied up with other fears that involve sun damage and melanoma. I slathered on so much Island Tribe in the last minute that my hands were slick like the slimy rocks at Kromme River.
Some days you are the windshield. Some days you are the bug. This was my six legged day. I kneeled. I stood. I kooked. I fell. My board flipped. I panicked. I gasped. I kneeled. I stood. I kooked, I fell. My board flipped. I panicked. I gasped. I kooked, I fell….. You get the picture.
Over and over and over and over again, until I fell AGAIN and the paddle shot out of my oil slick hand. There were about ten seconds where I could have and should have swum for the paddle. But I did not.
The paddle was gone.
And it was just me, and my board and the deep dark ocean.
Hahaha. I’ll save that for my fiction.
The non-fiction version is that there was an entire crew behind me so I just waved and a knight in salty rashvest came to save me. (AKA the again, eye-rollingly patient coach Tyran. He must need a stiff drink after Wahine days. Or one of those helmets with straws.)
Anyway, the main thing is the beach of golden sand was eventually under my feet, although I paddled the rest of the way mostly on my knees and only felt the flutter of returning dignity when I caught a magnificent ride in. Wave of the day onto the sand.
And I staved off the urge to crawl back the car.
Here is a list of all the Terrifying Sea Stories I Can Think of. If you have any to add please let me know, so I can be more haunted than I already am.
Endurance- Shackelton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing is a must read.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. US airman Louis Zamperini survives 47 days in a lifeboat in the Pacific only to be picked up by the Japanese military.
A childhood of Reader’s Digest sailing stories like this one.
Haven’t read this one but it looks like just the thing Adrift – Steven Callahan