Mark Rathsam the Deputy Lifeguard Chief for the City Of Del Mar was having an uneventful day when he received a concerned call from Brian Szymanski. Mark had been friends with Brian for many years and knew that he wasn’t the type of guy to call for no reason. What he heard from Brian was that he had been paddling with me from La Jolla and about a half hour into the paddle I had disappeared. Brian had an idea of where he lost me, just off Blacks, but it had been at least an hour before he finally was able to get to shore to make the call. Mark had been looking at the windvane all morning and had seen gusts well over 50mph and sustained winds in the mid 30’s. He had heard via the grapevine that the paddlers were going to be on it. He was a solid paddler back in the day and he kept an eye on the NCP goings on as much as he could. “Today was a bad day to go missing” he thought to himself as he got on the radio.
Our Friday started off with everyone frothing to take advantage of the seasonal south winds that can sometimes blow long and hard enough for our North County Paddleboard crew to get a really solid downwind paddling experience. Good quality downwind paddling is a relatively rare occurrence in San Diego and the early indication was that today was going to be special. The Facebook group was buzzing, texts where flying back and forth as people attempted to co-ordinate schedules to take advantage of the best time when the wind was predicted to be directly South and when it would blow the strongest. Stronger of course was better.
Once we had solidified the plans I cruised up to The Ding King to pick up Brian Szymanski, my friend and partner on PaddleAthlete.com. Rob Machado happened to be shaping a new surfboard at the shop at the time and decided to jump on and paddle with us. On the way down we picked up Molokai veteran George Plsek and drove down to Torrey Pines State Beach to check it out. When we arrived the wind was howling, it was pouring rain and we just got there in time to watch legends Tommy Hines and big Dan Van Dyke paddle their stock prone boards through the substantial surf, far out enough out to turn downwind and start flying. I remember being surprised about how quickly they made it through the surf zone which was a mess (Prone paddleboards are too buoyant to push-under broken waves and you either have to go over the whitewater or power through it so it was a combination of luck and power paddling that got them through that quickly).
This wasn’t exactly the clean entry we were looking for, and although the La Cove was off limits we thought we could sneak in there and run downwind. But once we got to the Cove we saw European SUP paddlers Belar Diaz and Greg Closier being turned away by the lifeguard. We decided to jump in around the corner from the Cove. It looked creamy! Whoop how stoked are we!
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We quickly suited up and I vacillated for a minute on whether I should wear a leash and somehow attach it to my bottle cage as the old girl had no leash plug. That fateful decision I made not to wear a leash would turn a fun paddle into a potential nightmare, but at the same time I don’t always wear a full wetsuit either so donning my 3/2 had a hugely positive effect later on. I considered that that board is solid and heavy and as prone paddleboards go she is pretty stable, plus the conditions looked perfect so, “what the hell let’s go anyway” was my mindset. I’ve done this run numerous times in the last few years but here I am with this legitimate crew and feeling a little under-qualified. Regardless, excitement was bubbling.
Brian Szymanski, on the “green machine” hollow stock NCP paddleboard, is a North San Diego county paddling icon. Brian has multiple crossings of the Molokai Channel under his belt and is two-time stock division champion of the Catalina Classic, an annual grind from Catalina to Redondo Beach. Then there is Rob Machado one the most respected surfers in the world and an absolute master downwind paddler on SUP and paddleboard. George Plsek a professional caliber downwind and distance paddler , this day on his Unlimited Bark. Belar Diaz on his Fanatic 14′ SUP, who is an elite SUP racer. Greg Closier on his stock Hobie SUP, is the European Long Distance UL 2010 Champion, winner of the 2011 Trophée Guyader. I’ve done my fair share of paddles but paddling with this crew meant I had to really elevate my game.
After being stopped by a lifeguard and having to convince him to allow us to enter the water at our chosen spot, we dry haired-it and took a quick heading North from La Jolla back to Torrey Pines where the cars were parked, a short six-mile run. It was gravy downwind for the first 20 minutes, but as we got closer to the Scripps Pier we were outside the wind line and the conditions started to get really mixed up and windy. The previous day had a substantial amount of wind swell from a different direction than the predominant swell of the paddle day, causing waves to bump into each other from multiple directions. The end result: rideable bumps mixed in with the cross swell. Although I’ve been in and around the Ocean for 40+ years and have paddled the Molokai2Oahu a couple of times, I’m not really all that experienced in downwind paddling, at least not in conditions such as we faced on this day. It is a real art when the conditions are mixed up. Cat-quick reflexes are required and great balance. A skilled and experienced downwind paddler can really fly in even the toughest conditions, and I was expecting to be left behind by the crew. The plan was to regroup every few minutes. Brian is extremely patient and helpful and will always stick close by when we paddle together, but I was behind the pack and expecting to meet up soon.
Suddenly everything went south. After being rolled a few times by cross chops, I then pitch poled over the handlebars on a big whitecap. I couldn’t hold on to my board and when I came it was gone. Instantly. Aaargh! The wind was so more than strong. It was furious. It was angry. Watching my heavy board spin away like tumble brush in the desert was mind blowing and, uh… disheartening. I’m alone.
Brian Szymanski and Rob Machado weren’t that far away actually, we were re-gouping every 5 minutes or so but we had just made a stop — so it wouldn’t be for another five minutes or so that they might begin to wonder about me. They were impossible to hail from where I was floating in the water. I thought to myself, “Well, I could try to swim after my board.” The decision not to was made for me after about 10 secs. I watched my board cartwheel into the distance. I was screwed. No-one was around.
I was two miles off Blacks Beach. The wind was blowing 30knots in a good size swell. I was wearing a black wetsuit against a black white-capping sea and I could barely make out the cliff tops. As a technology consultant I’m constantly figuring out the best approach to solve dramatic and complicated problems that seem to appear out of nowhere. I really believe this helped a lot in the decisions I made in the water. I did the math and figured out that the best and most expeditious way to save my own skin was to put my head down and make it happen for myself rather than float around waiting for someone to find me. From my past experience I knew dealing with this situation was all about conserving energy. Flipping out did nothing except burn up those reserves. I felt ok, I wasn’t injured, I’m still fairly warm and would probably stay that way for a while as the ocean was a balmy 61 degrees, so initially the situation was stable and I needed to keep it that way. I began to swim to shore. After about 30 minutes of taking the direct route to shore and getting beaten on by the whitecaps, I turned downwind heading more or less north east, toward Torrey Pines State Beach.
Turning with the swell and the wind was much easier going, but I knew this would potentially would keep me in the water for a lot longer but I’d burn less energy. I started making headway, or at least what I thought was headway. I was passing kelp paddies. I passed birds who looked curiously on at me. Although it did occur to me that they could be heading out to sea and I was merely swimming in place because a stable frame of reference wasn’t really available to me. Anyway, I wanted to keep positive so I believed I was making progress and I was happy about it. I could barely make out the outline of the headland. I was counting stokes – 20 crawl, 40 breaststroke, one-minute combat stroke — repeat. My manner was calm. Conserve energy. I had no idea where I was going to end up or how long it was going to take me. The Cliffs just didn’t seem to get any closer. I was concerned about cramping.
I was coming up for a breath on a breast stoke when, about 50 feet directly in front, I saw a shark fin. At that moment I probably could have changed my underwear. After all, I was swimming in the La Jolla Canyon. March is Great White Shark pupping season. Those mommies are usually not in a good mood. Shite!! Thankfully it was just good size Blue Shark cruising the surface. From my experience fishing around San Diego I knew the big blues are like wolves, curious but are a bit cowardly when alone and mostly eat squid and fish. I was relieved when it cruised away. From then on I kept my eyes open the whole time and I ended up seeing her one more time. I turned around a few times to make sure nothing was following me. My Molokai crossing experience taught that looking back is not a good idea (the mess behind you can freak you out) so I didn’t do that very often. Looking down into the blue abyss while swimming calmed me.
Eventually, after about 80 minutes of swimming, I made it to the beach at Flat Rock on the Southern most corner of Torrey Pines State beach. I’m guessing I started off just North off Blacks Beach 2 miles offshore so that was a fair drift. I entered the surf line right at the biggest rip in the whole beach. Just my luck on this day. I was thinking to myself “WTF, seriously!!” After all this, you drop me a huge rip? Is this some type of cruel joke?” and all I could do was muster an inward chuckle. Of course I more than glad to get to shore. There were a couple of curious onlookers who must have been confused about this dude just appearing out of the ocean. I jogged down the beach and saw Rob walking towards me and he was stoked, but had a bit of a deer in the headlights look and I can understand why! They thought I was toast, and George Plsek was mumbling how heavy he thought this was all the way back to the car. He had been a LA lifeguard for a long time so I figured it must have been pretty heavy, but I was running on adrenaline and was pretty calm. If I was a gnarly ocean swimmer or a competitive lifeguard or the like this situation wouldn’t have been that heavy unless the current was bad or they encountered a predator, but this I am not.
After being notified by George Plsek that I had been found and I was safe, Mark Rathsam began to scan the ocean with his Binoculars. It was mess out there for sure but suddenly he spotted what he ultimately confirmed was my 14′ paddleboard. It was spinning and rolling with the wind and swell much like I had seen it when it blew away from me. It had taken just 2 hours to blow over 4 miles down to the Del Mar lifeguard tower. He grabbed one of his guys and jumped into the RIB (Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat) and went after it. It was rolling so fast that it was all but impossible to grab onto, but after multiple attempts they secured it with a strap and thankfully brought it in. I was so appreciative, they all deserved the Rum and the 12 pack I brought over to them the following day for sure!
There are some monday-morning quarterbacks who think they would have acted differently. I have to be clear about the fact that no-one left me behind in any way shape or form. This is how the whole entire NCP crew has been doing down-winders for a long time, we regroup every five minutes. It’s rational. It’s reasonable. It’s a big ocean and we were moving super fast. Once Brian and Rob had noticed I was gone, what could they do but wait for me to come past again? It is what I would have done! After a few minutes of waiting they figured I either paddled by or I was in trouble and decided immediately to go and get the lifeguards. Paddling around looking for me was pointless in those conditions. This scenario exposed a big hole in our safety mechanisms, which we had assumed worked because we’ve never had an issue before. It is a bigger issue for a lot of paddlers. Paddling with a buddy downwind is only possible if they’re paddling the same speed, and that isn’t always going to be the case when people are riding bumps. I did get a bit cocky didn’t I? I mean no leash, no colored vest, no safety gear and paddling way offshore – simple things that’ll get you lost at sea! Tough survivor? More like dumb luck!”
Listen to the interview on Down The Line Surf Talk Radio