So long sunshine, hello STORM SURF!!!
The end of summer isn’t all bad news. With fall comes the brilliant yellows and oranges of the trees. And with fall, the crock pot comes out of summer storage and the house is filled with the smells of hot, homemade soup I love to make fresh every few mornings. And, with fall, comes a paddler’s delight, wind!
Last fall Bellingham Bay erupted with windstorms day after day. But, the mother lode didn’t hit until February 4….
We woke up this morning to the howl of the wind and the call of the bay. Winds were blowing 30 - 40 mph, gusting to about 62mph; waves were predicted to be 4 - 8 feet. "The biggest wind storm in three years", the weather forecaster warned.
We met with about 8 other surfskiers at Marine Park in Bellingham. I gave Larry and Shaun a big hug, greeted Eric and Peter, and gave Mike a high-five. Jeff and David were huddled in deep conversation, looking out at the wind torn sea. Morris jumped out of his VW and walked over, holding his small daughters hand, making sure she didn't get blown away. "I'll drive shuttle if anyone wants to do a downwind run!" Morris offered.
We all enjoyed the reunion for a moment, then turned toward the seemingly magnetic force that had drawn us all to the sea. We put our backs to the wind and braced against the gusts as we surveyed the ravaged ocean water. A low laying fog seemed to blanket the entire bay. But, on closer look, I realized this was mist from the wind ripping against the water. An occasional flurry would roll through like a freight train, a mini tornado moving along the water, marking its path.
We passed around binoculars and pointed out debris in the water from the tidal storm surge, while others discussed whether they would be able to hold onto their paddles in the nuclear conditions and chatted about their wives stern looks as they had loaded their boats and left their homes earlier that morning.
Brandon and I walked away from the group and made a plan. A one way downwind run from Marine Park to Squalicom Harbor, less than 4 miles away. We could experience the fury of the storm, but stick close to land. We knew this was a class 5 paddle, but that we had paddled harder. We would stick close, watch each other, and were confident with our skills. We told Morris the plan, gave the others a final chance to join us, and prepared to hit the water.
It took three of us to unload each boat. One would loosen the straps, while one held the bow and one held the stern to protect the surf ski from sailing away in the wind. A crowd gathered at the shore while we donned dry suits, beanies, life vests, leashes, and waded into the icy winter water. Larry proudly shot pictures while Shaun spoke to a windsurfer who had just come in from his own adventure on the bay. "That is Heather and Brandon Nelson." I heard him say. "They are nuts!" I heard the windsurfer reply.
Brandon launched gracefully into the surf while the wet suited windsurfer splashed into the water next to me and pointed the bow of my ski into the wind and waves, and I mounted and paddled away yelling my thanks as I went.
From there all was silent, it was Brandon, me and the sea. I stopped paddling for a moment, took a deep breath, felt my boat beneath me. As a unit, my boat and I rolled with the turbulent sea. I felt at peace and smiled knowing this is where I was meant to be. With a calm mind, and a confident stroke I turned my bow down wind and began the journey towards Squalicom harbor.
We hugged the shore, bracing into the up to 80 mph gusts of wind that were slamming us from the east, and riding the swells from the south. On Lake Baikal in Siberia we had paddled in similar winds, and the same calm enveloped me then that I felt now. Loose hips, clear mind, focus.
About 1 mile later, I was in absolute concentration, paddle bracing against the wind, boat flying down the face of a wave, when I heard a raucous literally beside me. We were at Boulevard Park, and the gang had followed us. With the high tide, I was almost riding on the lawn of the park, and the crew was about 5 feet away from me as they cheered us on and snapped pictures. Brandon and I 'hooted and hollered' on by and faced the crux of the paddle. It was time to cut across the wide-open waters of Bellingham Bay to the harbor, where the waves would be hitting us broadside. I paddled slowly, and precisely, aware of the mango blur of Brandon's dry suit just to my side.
Stroke, stroke, stroke, brace. Stroke, stroke, stroke, brace. It was like a mantra in my head, keeping me focused on the ever-closer harbor, focused on my stroke, and keeping me calm.
A quarter mile from the harbor entrance the refraction from the rocks turned my mantra to stroke, brace, stroke, brace. Progress slowed, but the harbor was in my grasp. Through the buoys of the harbor, the gateway to safety, I took two powerful strokes and rode a wave in and entered in style.
Our paddling friends were at the harbor, soaking wet and shivering in the rain, huge grins on their faces. They helped us load the boats, then one by one disappeared, leaving Brandon and I alone to absorb the power of the sea, the freedom of adventure and the ultimate bond of experiencing that with your best friend.