October 31 began beautiful and sunny down here at my Punta Banda hacienda, about twenty minutes south of Ensenada, Mexico, and I thought I’d take a good kayak outing to Todos Santos Island about ten miles away.
I told my girlfriend, Mary, where I was going by email, and left about 10 a.m. I thought I could do the round-trip in four or five hours. The seas started out calm enough, and in my old-style high-volume riverboat I had with me my spray skirt, whitewater paddle, wetsuit, sunglasses, visor and a little water bottle, just in case. I even put some sunscreen on.
I don’t usually bother with a PFD because I love to swim in my wetsuit. It provides plenty of buoyancy to keep me afloat. There was so much big, beautiful water out there, I had girlfriend issues and other stuff to think about, and I needed some time with me and the big guy upstairs, to sing, pray, figure things out—you get the picture.
A steady, nonstop nine-mile pull from the mainland, taking a little over two hours, brought me within a mile of the island. The wind started to kick up. Ferociously. Five-foot rollers with the occasional eight- to ten-footer—no big deal for a whitewater kayaker, except that the wind and current I was now fighting was not letting me make any forward progress.
Of course I was sealed in my boat with the neoprene spray skirt, which was supposed to be keeping all the water out. Well, it was a little worn and with all the wind and water spray it seemed to be opening up around my waist just enough for a trickle, which became a steady flow, to get inside my boat. I was suddenly up past my ankles in water.
Now this was not that unusual of a development, but the sad thing was that I was not making any forward progress at all, and this was a high-performance kayak with an expert paddler—as I like to think of myself—at the helm. Egos get us into all kinds of trouble, as I was about to find out.
Soon the water was up to my knees and the boat, with an additional few hundred pounds of water inside, was responding sluggishly. If I leaned over too far one way or another, it wanted to help me complete the circle, or at least the first half of it. Suddenly, I was paddling as hard as I could, still not close enough to the island to get in the lee and what I hoped would be calmer water. I paddled as hard as I could.
Every time I stopped to rest, even a little, I would lose all the ground I had gained, and the wind blew on— steadily. I couldn’t go back for nine miles or I might wind up farther away from any land when my boat filled up completely, and I knew that would be bad. The wind-driven spray was working its way under and through my spray skirt, and there was nothing I could do about it. Drip, trickle, drip, trickle.
This went on for another three hours, and I was paddling as hard as I could just to stay in place. It was killing me that the island was getting no closer. My arms and shoulders and back were screaming, but I dared not stop. I couldn’t chance opening my spray skirt to bail a little because wave after wave was washing over my deck and I couldn’t risk having the kayak fill all the way up.
The waves and whitewater action were taking my full attention every moment, and I couldn’t even let go of my paddle with one hand. I dreaded the thought of going into the water, so I paddled on as long as I could—bracing, adjusting and reacting to a kayak full of hundreds of pounds of water, floating barely above the surface. This really sucked.
I have not bailed out of a kayak in years and can usually roll and weather any kind of conditions, unless I have a boat full of water, that is. I’ve flown my kayak to Cabo and Hawaii, caught mako sharks off of it and surfed it in Encinitas for 25 years.
I have taught and guided river, ocean and surf kayaking for literally thousands of people. I am comfortable floating around offshore, at night, you name it, but I have never been in a boat full of water stuck offshore with a howling 40 mph (35 knot, 64 kph) wind before, that’s for sure. I was praying a lot and using all the whitewater skills I had just to stay upright.
Finally, a complex combination of waves hit me in the front and the side simultaneously and that was it. I was over. No point in rolling, the boat was full. Out of my boat swimming.
Damn. I quickly went to the stern and looped the webbing sling around my wrist. I was almost relieved at being able to stretch my body out a little for a change and take a rest, of a sort. I floated there as I weighed my options. I knew I should stay with the boat. It was bright red and stood the best chance of being seen from a distance. Dressed in my black neoprene wetsuit I looked like an injured seal, a notion I tried not to think about too much.
I worked at every combination of bailing out the boat, convinced that I could get back in the kayak if I could get the water out. As I splashed and splashed with my cupped hands at the water inside the boat, I thought about the old fisherman’s trick of slinging a bailer full of water over the surface of the sea, mimicking a school of excited bait fish, to attract the bigger predator fish, even sharks. I tried to put that thought out of my mind as well.
Even if I had to climb back inside upside down under water and roll back up, I was ready to go for it, but wave after wave was splashing over me and the boat, so this idea was hopeless. I was no longer a kayaker. I was a swimmer.
The sun was out, the water wasn’t too darn cold, and I like to swim in the open ocean, so I had that going for me anyway.
I was really tired from the effort I’d put into paddling, and I was still about a mile from the island. I got kind of a sidestroke and frog-kick thing going and pushed the boat in front of me;
I kept it upside down to keep a bubble of air inside to help float it. It looked like I could actually make some headway. I didn’t want to lose my paddle, of course, and experimented with holding it in various positions where it wouldn’t create any drag. I just kept kicking and pushing, kicking and pushing, switching sides as fatigue set in. The island didn’t look like it was getting closer. At all.
Even when I went into the water I had already given thanks for all of the blessings in my life and the people I have loved and the experiences I have had, and did some hard-core should-I-live-through-this contracting with the man upstairs. Now that I was slogging along completely alone in a big, empty ocean, the conversation deepened.
It seemed that only a little time had passed when a fishing trawler came close by, and I screamed and waved my paddle for all I was worth. But it kept on driving, sadly, unbelievably.
My scrambling forays up onto the back of the overturned kayak to rest and get warm were coming closer together while I was having serious conversations with myself, not believing that I was going to go out this way.
I tried a kind of paddleboard technique of lying down to swim my upside down boat, but my arms were absolutely dead, and my feet fluttered in such a spastic fashion that I was sure it would attract sharks. One little bite would do me in for sure.
My pushing and kicking were actually having just the tiniest bit of effectiveness, but I was still very far off from Todos Santos Island and it looked like, at this rate, it would take me until about eleven at night to get there. I started to think about being out when the sun went down.
I knew after the first hour in the water that I was already getting hypothermic: my dexterity was going, my breathing was rapid and my thinking was a little desperate. That’s not to mention my screaming muscles. I had been in the water for three hours now.
The one big decision I had left was whether to abandon the boat and try to swim for it. I knew I could swim the distance of a mile on a good day, even if I had to float on my back and kick, but the idea was not exactly a reassuring one. What if the current just carried me away from the island? I knew that if I abandoned my boat no one would see me at all and then I might not make it. The current and wind still hadn’t slowed down. Blowing like stink out of the west. Nonstop. All day.
I was getting really, really tired and it took every bit of mental control I had to keep myself together. I have been in plenty of hairball situations before, but this one was sapping my energy fast. It was something I was not in control of, and I was getting really cold. Things were looking bleak, but I refused to give in. I just kept pushing and kicking. It helped to have something to do, to have a goal.
Suddenly a giant tug appeared behind me. It was pulling a garbage barge from Ensenada and it looked like…YES, HE SAW ME! He took forever to maneuver to a position where he could get close enough to present the side of his big tug to me. I was still pulling my boat along and swimming for all I was worth, which was not much at this point.
The wind was not through with me yet, however, and it pushed him away from me faster than I could catch him by swimming. To say this was discouraging is to put it extremely mildly. I still had a chance to swim for the huge, long barge he was towing though, and I could see guys on deck scrambling around trying to manage the gigantic cable between the two massive craft. They didn’t want it to be the first thing that I reached. If it suddenly went taut or I got tangled in a loop while I was near it, the result could be fatal.
I had to make a decision. It took me about a millisecond. I told myself there was no way I was going to miss that barge, so I left my kayak and paddle behind and set out with the strongest stroke I had left to catch that barge! Being a giant boxy thing, it stuck out in the wind even more than the tug and it moved away even faster. Now I was literally up the creek without a paddle, or a boat, and really, really, really tired.
Now the tug had straightened out its trajectory and was moving away from me. It couldn’t be, I thought. It was leaving. NO! I yelled, I screamed. I used some expletives about the code of the sea or some such thing, but off it went. I just could not believe it. This was going to be it for me now, I was sure.
My kayak had not drifted too far away and somehow I was able to get back to it with some effort and to scramble and sprawl my huffing and puffing frozen, tired body over it once more. OK. I was still alive. The paddle was nearby and I grabbed it too, thinking I had my signaling device back, but I knew there would be no more swimming for me. It was getting later, I had now drifted farther from the island than where I started and I was “running on fumes” at best.
Just then, out of nowhere, came one of the biggest bow-smashing, rooster-tailing high-performance watercraft I have ever seen. It was about 60 feet long, and most of it was low to the water. There were a bunch of uniformed guys on deck. They were Mexican Marines! The tug must have made a Mayday call for me and left me only because they knew I’d soon be rescued. The Marines’ vessel had a cockpit way up front that looked like a stealth fighter, and these boys could drive. Their high-performance machine was built for catching drug runners or whatever else the mighty Pacific threw at them. I was saved.
It was unbelievably scary to be alongside a big boat rising up about 15 feet and then smashing down in each huge roller. The crew threw me a rope and I was able to grab it without letting go of my boat and paddle. They hauled my kayak on deck, took my paddle and pulled me aboard.
I was now quite hypothermic and my body was working hard to compensate for a very low core temperature and abnormal metabolism. My vital signs were all screwed up; my breathing was rapid and my heart was racing.
Thank God this vessel had a warm and cozy inside where they blanketed me up and we tried to converse in my terrible Spanglish. Between chattering teeth I told them to drop me at the Punta Banda boat ramp where I’d left my truck—I would be OK to swim to shore.
They insisted that I go back to Ensenada for a medical screening and I was certainly in no condition to argue with that. I had been running on pure adrenaline for six hours, with three of that in the water, and I was starting to come down. I felt pain everywhere and was a little nauseated and light-headed.
It took about 18 minutes to cover the 12 miles back to their Navy base where I managed to clamber with some assistance up onto the side of a cruiser—a good-sized Navy ship—that the Marines had tied up alongside, and then onto land on the other side. They loaded me into an ambulance for a short ride to their ER, where I was stripped down and heated up with hot blankets, heat lamps and about six nurses working on me. It took my core a good hour to return to some semblance of normal temperature.
The nurses kept jamming a thermometer under my arm and then pulling it out again. I don’t know what my actual core temperature was, but each time they read the thermometer they seemed to get more excited about getting me more blankets and heat lamps. The lamps felt really good. I drank some tea and hot chocolate and tried to massage the aches out of my really sore chest, arms and shoulders. I had definitely used up one of my nine lives on this little outing.
I didn’t have a nickel on me, of course, but no one asked me for any kind of payment either. “We’re the Navy,” they explained. It turned out this group was the most highly trained maritime rescue group in all of Mexico. My prayers had been answered by the best of the best. They not only had a high-tech fleet, complete with helicopters and rescue swimmers, but they regularly respond to emergencies as far as Tijuana to the north and 120 miles to the south of Ensenada.
Now I’m not what you call a “normal” paddler. I got hooked on paddling large-volume plastic roto-molded riverboats when the company I was guiding for on the Green and Colorado Rivers let me take some boats home to my San Diego beachfront house in the early ’80s. I quickly discovered how to surf and was literally out there every day, right alongside the board surfers and loving it.
I have been paddling in the ocean for more than 25 years, comfortable in El Niño 15-footers, competing in the Bay-to-Bay 21-mile race we have here in San Diego, and exploring every river channel, estuary, marina and whatever is happening on the water, all in this same type of kayak, which, on balance, tracks as well as most sea kayaks out there.
I regularly do endos and paddle spins, surf backwards, paddle up to the sportfishing party boats miles offshore, and go out with a fish finder and gear to catch all kinds of fish— including mako sharks—a story for some other time. I have used my kayak as a dinghy for my sportfishing boat on solo trips on the Sea of Cortez.
At an annual parade of lights in San Diego Harbor I illuminate my kayak with glow sticks and do a 15-foot drop off the end of the pier into the drink. To say I am comfortable in my kayak is pretty accurate. And yet, I found myself in an unexpected situation. It’s obvious that I should have told someone, other than my girlfriend by email, that I was going to the island, but for me ten miles is no big deal, and I like going solo. I like the peacefulness and experiencing nature at its most pure. It’s essentially a private experience.
I often go as a kind of meditation and I rarely tell anyone. I have soloed big mountains and big rock walls for days at a time and come back with a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of being the expanded man. All that time alone in contemplation is great for the soul, or at least it feels like that to me.
It would have been a simple thing to paddle with someone else and do a simple rescue and dump the water out, but there really isn’t another serious paddler for a hundred miles down here. If there were, I would probably be paddling with him or her already.
Frankly, there is no one down here who could have done much about it if I had gone missing anyway. I knew that and, as the saying goes, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”
What about the PFD?
Let me tell you about that. You see, I am comfortable rolling. Very. The PFD messes up my act underwater, upside down, and when I’m up top it is just one more piece of gear that either chafes or rides up or just makes me hot. When I do wear one—mostly I use a trimmed down PFD when I’m fishing—it’s mainly for the pockets.
My wetsuit gives me great flotation and is almost a vehicle in itself. I regularly jump in the ocean and drift and swim for a mile or two in it. I know it won’t keep my face out of the water if I am unconscious, but the Type III PFDs that most kayakers use aren’t designed to float wearer’s face up either. The lack of a PFD didn’t figure much in this situation.
I am not saying don’t bring one, just giving you some insight into my personal thinking here. I’m sure it was my wetsuit that kept me alive. It is a full-sleeved, full-legged wetsuit. I don’t care who you are, three hours in the water is a long time. I would put on a full wetsuit before a PFD anytime.
I think of it as a survival suit, and, remember, I paddle the relatively warm waters of Southern California. If you paddle colder waters up north, you should be paying attention and get the neoprene hood too.
Once we’re past the surf down here in Southern California, and even more so in Baja, it’s usually just pretty darn nice so we are quite spoiled. We generally paddle warm and dry. On this particular day I was literally thinking that I wouldn’t even get my hair wet.
My kayak has 5-inch-thick foam columns inside, front and back. They stop the boat from oil canning when a few thousand pounds of water crash down on it in the big surf and they keep it floating when it is filled with water. They were the only reason I was able to paddle a boat full of water for three hours, and they kept the kayak afloat when I climbed up on it as it floated there upside down.
But it’s not enough for built-in flotation just to keep a boat from sinking—it has to keep it capable of being paddled effectively. Without float bags, my kayak could take on a considerable amount of water, enough to make it extremely slow and vulnerable to capsize.
If I’d had float bags, I wouldn’t have been so bogged down by a load of water, rolling might have been an option when I got knocked over and I would have been able to stay aboard where I was less exposed to the chilling effects of the water.
As far as techie gear like a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) goes, well, prices are coming down so if you can afford it, why not? The current models are compact enough to fit in a PFD or paddle jacket pocket. The PLB signal is picked up by satellite and relayed to a mission control center and then to the local rescue authorities.
I have a VHF radio on my fishing boat, but my experience with having electrical devices aboard my kayak has generally resulted in batteries shorting out, short equipment life and more hassle, and let’s not forget the expense. I hadn’t looked into the more recent waterproof handheld models; I had never been interested in electronics until now.
My solution has always been this: When in trouble, paddle out of it. That didn’t work this time.
I like to go lightweight and fast, and don’t carry much of anything if I can help it. Just to give you a concept of what I’m talking about here, this is how I launched that day: I backed my pickup truck up to within about 25 feet of the water on a rocky beach next to a slippery old cement boat ramp.
I untied the one rope holding the boat in the pickup bed. I had the boat on the ground and was inside with spray skirt attached and paddle in hand in less than 45 seconds. With a gorilla push start I was doing a slide down the boat ramp (see, plastic boats do make sense sometimes) and splashed into the water, already moving, not stopping in this case, until about nine miles later. That’s just me.
I regularly laugh at all the sea-kayaker fishermen who buy literally thousands of dollars of stuff, from electric bait tanks to pedal-driven kayaks, who have to use wheels to get all of it to the water. My whole boat is light enough to carry it on my shoulder for quite a ways
Bottom line, I don’t really want to carry a lot of extra stuff. What I can tell you is this: I go out there several days a week, year-round, so I get very lean with my gear. Every area is different, every paddler is different. This is just me. And in Baja and Southern California, the ethic is a little different perhaps because the weather is so mild and forgiving.
Now the weather on this particular day was different, unexpected and unpredictable. I am also a paraglider pilot with about 1,000 hours, and I’m very tuned in to wind and direction and developing fronts, different types of clouds—you name it.
This particular blow actually ripped the roofs off of houses down here and knocked out power lines—and it was not forecast. It was just my luck to be out there that day.
Normally I can bail quite effectively with a sponge and get most of the water out, but in this case I couldn’t even let go of my paddle with one hand, and I dared not open up my spray skirt, something you don’t normally think about.
Statistically, if you paddle a lot, things will happen to you. It is these unforeseen incidents that are the “statistical outliers” that we need to be prepared for, as I found out.
The smaller version of aerial flares commonly carried by kayakers wouldn’t have fared too well in the wind, and wouldn’t have been all that visible in the daytime anyway.
I think a smoke signal would have been useful. Anyone who spends a lot of time on the sea will tell you that you can see smoke for miles. In my sportfishing boat I am regularly 50 miles or more offshore, and whenever you see the horizon interrupted by smoke, it definitely gets your attention. I will be looking for some from now on. I also find myself newly curious about shark repellent.
Thinking about the potential of being “benighted” out there, provided I hadn’t succumbed to hypothermia by then, one of those clip-on flashing strobes would have been great to make sure I could be seen by ships in the area who could easily have run me over and never known it.
I do give thanks to the Lord above that someone did see me out there and that I was rescued. As a climbing guide, kayak instructor and head of a ropes-course company, I have managed high levels of risk and made safety judgments for more than 200,000 of my clients. I’ve been in some scary situations before on personal adventures and expeditions, but I have to say that this was my closest call yet.
It is an amazing thing to watch your strength atrophy, your stamina degrade and your mental anguish get right to the very edge. And believe me, you never, ever, want to get that cold. I took a good measure of who I am and what I can take that day, and I now have a very accurate idea of where my own personal edge really is.
This incident was personally memorable and definitely up there with the intense experiences I’ve had in my life, even as a kayaking and climbing guide. In Yosemite I once saw a guy die in a climbing accident right in front of his girlfriend. After his body was taken away she decided to climb again that afternoon, to help her process the experience. It’s been two weeks for me. Maybe I need to go for a paddle tomorrow.
Coincidentally, I am working with some folks on our peninsula to organize a rescue group there. We do our own cliff-rescue training and have made plans with the Commandant of the Ensenada Naval search and rescue station to coordinate our efforts and training with them.
There are a surprising number of accidents and incidents on the Punta Banda peninsula, with everything from fishermen being swept off the rocks and boats sinking to cars over the side and the occasional tourist making a misstep along this beautiful, but exposed and potentially treacherous coastline.
As a rescue trainer I never thought I’d be a victim myself. It looks like some much needed rescue team coordination can come out of my experience, something I can use to benefit others who find themselves in perilous situations.
Bart Allen Berry is a professional climbing guide, kayaking instructor, ropes-course and corporate trainer who has been living and working part time in Mexico for the past eight years.
With a corporate ropes course and training center on the Baja coast north of Ensenada, Bart leads regular team-building and leadership trainings for the Baja Norte Maquiladora industry. You can contact him by email at [email protected]
A Note from the Editor:
Bart’s story comes on the heels of a discussion of experienced kayakers who find themselves unprepared for the conditions they encounter.