Friday, May 13, 2011


A tale of windsurfing on the Oregon Coast by Olaf Mitchell

Cape Sebastian  Photo: Olaf Mitchell
Some years back I helped to frame the roof on this awesome house at Hubbard’s Creek near the town of Port Orford, Oregon. Port Orford is out on Cape Blanco  and a remote, utopic  little fishing / artist village. It’s the kind of place you pass through on your way to somewhere else and never give it much thought.
Hubbard Creek
Hubbard Creek has a very territorial  group of local surfers. That’s another story that I should tell. It’s about how grown men can act when they feel that their surf territory is threatened by strange surfers from 25 miles down the coast. That sounds funny unless you are the one about to get the shit kicked out of you, in your wetsuit, at 6:30 am, just for having a cell phone in your hand.

My partner on the framing project was Victor “the inflictor“ Roy. Victor is the world champion in masters division in downhill skiing and he is also a wind surf legend from the early days in The Gorge.

Victor had the task of waking very early every morning and analyzing the barometric gradient models for the Columbia River Gorge. He would then record his wind forecast for that day and phone it in to a radio station in Hood River. Victor’s forecast would be aired hourly throughout the day so the wind surfers in The Gorge would know where to go for the most favorable conditions.

Little did anyone in The Gorge know that Victor was actually hanging out with the Pistol River gang down on the south coast. We were living large and having a blast while framing a really cool house, surfing and wave sailing, every day.

The Pistol River Gang  Photo: Linda Marshal
Every morning I would wake to the sound of Victor’s gravelly voice saying “Good morning sailors, the best conditions will be from wherever to wherever bla,bla,bla.” Then I would hear his van door open and the next sound would be him kicking the side of my van saying “Surfs up! Let’s go!”

I would roll out of my sleeping bag and drive about a quarter mile down to the beach at Hubbard’s Creek. Victor would already be there and have his wet suit on waxing up his surfboard.

My wetsuit was usually still wet from the previous evening’s session. It was harsh pulling that wet, cold rubber thing on having had hardly enough time to wake up.

We would paddle out before the sun came up every day and surf whether it was good or not.

Hard as it was to get motivated, I never regretted it after the first wave hit me in the face.

We rarely surfed for more than an hour on those mornings so we were out of the water, dried off and had our stoves going making coffee and pancakes on the beach.

After we finished the morning surf and breakfast rituals it was serious attention to business, nose to the grind stone, power framing until around one o-clock. Usually, at about that time one of us would get a call from one of our gang with a wind/surf report from Pistol River ,about 25 miles south of Hubbard’s Creek.

One particular day we got a call from, I think it was Dana Miller saying (in a sing song and tempting manner)” Gale’s back in town!” Meaning that the wind on the ocean is blowing gale force and it’s time for the troops to rally at Cape Sebastian, one of the Pistol River area’s wind surf launch sites.
Dana Miller  Photo Olaf Mitchell

We dropped our tool belts and buttoned up the job site. We were on the road in about five minutes.

The home owner was a windsurfer as well,and Dee wasn’t far behind us.

On the drive down to Pistol I had a good chance to check out the ocean. It was howling! Gale was defiantly back and she was in a foul mood!

High surf and gale warning flags were flying outside the Coast Guard station at Gold Beach.

I didn’t figure that anyone was going out on the ocean that day. It was just too gnarly.

I pulled into the Cape Sebastian parking area to find all the usual suspects assembled. Some of the gang were already out sailing and getting waves. Others were rigging their small sails and about to launch.

I checked out the ocean and it looked big, but doable, so, I rigged a sail as well.

It was odd to me that there was such a big difference in the ocean from what I had observed on the trip down from Hubbard’s.

With the direction that the wind was blowing, the cape and the small island in the bay had created a comfortable wind shadow and things had toned down to a seemingly manageable level.

Dana Miller Photo: Trudy Lary
Greg Martin Photo: Trudy Lary
I sailed for a while and rode several medium sized waves. Then this monster cleanup set came through that completely annihilated me! I was separated from my gear. I was swimming and getting worked by the following waves. I wasn’t the only one to get nailed by that set and it seemed as though every sailor out was caught off guard by that set.

Victor, who had been charging to punch through that same wall of a wave that took me out, had been denied as well, only, he, still had his gear. And my stuff wound up fairly close to him.
Victor Roy Photo: Trudy Lary

Victor saw my situation, I just looked desperate! For what reason I still to this day can’t explain why but Victor grabbed my rig and was holding it along with his own while I swam over to retrieve it. By this time the next set was about to show up. I was terrified by the idea of the two of us and our sailboard gear being caught in the same mast high wave! As swiftly as possible I grabbed my rig from him and water started just as the next equally massive wave was bearing down on us. I shoved my feet into the straps and pumped my sail to try to get some power in it before the monster devoured me. My timing was better this time and somehow I made it over the first wave of the set which allowed me access through the next three waves. My adrenaline was soaring by the time I made it safely outside the impact zone.
Greg Martin Photo: Trudy Lary

Looking back I noticed that I was the only one that had made it through that last set and the ocean was littered with swimmers and loose gear was bouncing everywhere in the frothing white water.

I was in the straps, hooked in and planning. I was heading farther outside and trying to relax a bit when I realized that I was in the shadow of the island that I mentioned earlier. The further I sailed the lighter the wind became until it was gone all together and I just fell over backwards. It was soo still!
There are a few places that I wouldn’t recommend swimming and the spot where I was is one of them. A nice lonely patch of still water in an otherwise violent sea felt like just the place where the landlord would look for a snack!

Although it was very still, every now and then a puff would swirl through and give me a little hope of a water start. I tried to keep my rig in a water start position but it was so fluky that I just seemed to go around in circles. The gusts of wind spilling around the small island were coming from every imaginable direction. I swam my gear through the seemingly endless calm until I felt the first puff. I smiled and raised my sail so that it filled a little then set my back foot on the board and this way I navigated with a little power and some resemblance of control. I was still moving farther out to sea. I was hoping to clear the shadow of the island and get a fully powered jibe on the outside, and charge through the dead air using the (apparent) wind generated in my sail. I’d had enough of this particular brand of fun and I was ready to go back to the beach and have a beer with the gang!

As I sailed farther from the shadow of the island the wind picked up to a comfortable velocity and then without a signal, Gale came from her hiding place and hit me like a bomb! The force was so great that I was flattened! Luckily, I still had a firm grip on my rig. There was no way that I could have survived those seas without a flotation aid!

I had been in strong, violent ocean conditions in the past but this was clearly beyond anything I had previously experienced. It was defiantly” Victory At Sea” conditions!

Panic was not an option! Every time I attempted to water start I would be launched so hard that the rig would be nearly torn from my grip, or, I would be violently flattened back in to the water. I realized that sailing was out of the question. I had to hang on to my gear at all cost! My life depended on it! On one of my attempts to water start the force of the wind ripped a hole in my sail. I was actually happy about that because it made the sail less powerful.

I came to the realization that I was in the grips of energy that I had no hope of controlling! My one and only hope of salvation was to keep my wits about me, hang on to my rig and go with the flow!

I accepted the fact that this just might be the end of the road! This was it! This is how the story ends! So sit back hang on and enjoy the wild furry of nature unleashed!

After accepting that I was in a very tight spot, I realized that my efforts although totally futile were resulting in a small amount of progress and that I was actually unknowingly heading toward the next island and that if I could hold some resemblance of a coarse I might be able to work my way into the shelter of the lee side of it. A lot of things had to go right in order for that to happen and none of them were.

M y fleeting glimpse of hope vanished when my attention turned from the distant island to what was right in front of me!

The Oregon Coast is a visually striking scape with its rugged sea stacks that project from the water with the pounding wind swell colliding with them creating a visual extravaganza that will stay with a person for a life time as one of the truly great memories of nature’s power! This day I had a front row seat!

Now, this was not that first time that I had ventured into this arena and I thought that I knew where all the sea stacks were but with the size of this wind swell, rocks were manifesting in places that I had never seen before and I was drifting out of control directly toward one that was typically submerged.

Terror once again took over. I was drifting in giant waves, powerful current and nuclear force winds toward an aircraft carrier sized rock that was being periodically exposed and dry only to be swallowed again by the next swell. The sea has no conscience and it was about to deposit me right on top of it!

Once again my mortality came to the surface and I accepted my eminent demise at the hand of GOD!

I wasn’t going without a fight so I made a hasty plan that when the wave deposited me on the rock I would pick up my rig and charge with power and determination as fast as possible for the far side of the of the rock bare feet or no this is life or life. My only chance was to make it to the far side before the next wave swallowed and crushed me in to the rock’s previously exposed razor sharp surface.

Now that I had a plan it was time to execute!

Get Ready I’m coming I Hot!

The monster was getting closer and closer! As Yoda said “there is no try!!!”

I was up and then down in the mountainous swells drifting on a collision course the rock only meters in front of me I am wide-eyed and anxious for it to happen when the timing of the swell lifted me completely over the jagged slab without the slightest contact.

I couldn’t believe it! The emotion swelled in me beyond any that I have ever experienced.

The violent winds that drove me to my near demise subsided a little bit at the same time I passed the rock.

I was in a total state of euphoria as I water start my damaged but still serviceable sail. I sail in to the beach a mile down the coast from where I launched not more than an hour ago.

I have no words for how I felt after reaching the beach that afternoon other than I was just emotionally drained and numb.
I took a moment and noticed the sky, the sand dunes , rock formations, drifted logs, even bird foot prints in the sand, the green forested hills were greener than I ever noticed, and a variety of other things that I typically took for granted on a daily basis were ever so much more so!

Greg Martin had driven down to give me a ride back. He looked at me with a big grin and said” Man we were watching you from the beach with binoculars! We thought you were a goner! I responded” Me too Dude, That was way too close!”

Greg Martin Photo: Olaf Mitchell
Greg said “Throw your rig in the truck and I’ll give you a ride back to the launch.”

I responded” Thanks, but I think would like to walk back and I’ll carry my stuff, I need a little time to digest what just happened and let my soul catch up”

Victor and Clayton At the Crow's Nest Photo: Olaf Mitchell
He looked at me and said “cool dude, everyone is already de-rigged and heading for the Crows Nest. Take your time and come on down and I’ll buy ya a beer. K?”
 “I’ll be along in a bit.” I said, as I lifted my board and sail in the head carry position and started the mile walk down the beach in my wetsuit and barefoot reveling in the fact that I was issued an extension pass to live yet another day.

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