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A ROUGH WATER WEEKEND BECOMES A RESCUE MISSION Struggling to perform a head count, Whitak-

Last October, the sea kayak community was reminded of just how marginal our control of the elements is, when a surf clinic turned into a chaotic rescue mission at the Lumpy Waters Symposium in Pacific City, Oregon. The third annual symposium had attract-

ed nearly 30 top-level coaches and some 90 participants with the promise, according to the event website, of “interesting conditions, but not to the point of being harried.” The incident occurred during the first ses-

sion of the weekend, when 12 students and four instructors convoyed 45 minutes up the coast from the event headquarters for an af- ternoon surf clinic at the mouth of Netarts Bay. Here, a wave-washed sand spit thrusts north into the mouth, creating a constricted aperture through which the bay’s waters surge in and out with the tides. Fine weather, no wind and a six-foot swell

held promise of long, smooth surfs for the intermediate Long Boat Surfing class. Still, Mark Whitaker, part owner of Columbia River Kayaking and class co-leader, was ner- vous about the location. “The tide was ebbing,” Whitaker recounts

on his blog (, “[and] the mouth of a river or bay is a dangerous place to be on a strong ebb.” Having never been to Netarts before, and

feeling himself the least experienced of the four instructors, Whitaker says he deferred to the expertise of his co-leader, world-class surf and expedition kayaker Sean Morley, and what he assumed was local knowledge among the other coaches. Once positioned toward the inside of the

spit, Whitaker realized that the trashy waves and strong, offshore current of the ebbing tide were going to make it very difficult for him and fellow instructor Richard Davis to manage their five students. Meanwhile, Morley and assistant instruc-

tor Jamie Klein had led their students into the larger surf on the outside of the spit.

er states, “I turned around to see…a much larger set of waves come through and capsize multiple students from both classes all at once.” The total number of swimmers was later confirmed to be nine—over half of those on the water. Thus began a nearly two-hour effort to re-

cover swimmers and bring everyone back to shore. During the ordeal, Whitaker would be capsized by crashing waves a dozen times and both end toggles ripped from his boat while towing. Morley would be forced to wet exit and lose his boat while assisting a swimmer, but manage to re-enter a stray kayak to con- tinue the rescue effort. The incident eventually concluded with

everyone safely back on terra firma, but only after Morley asked a participant to call for help, initiating a multi-agency response from the Coast Guard, Tillamook County Sheriff and Netarts-Oceanside Fire & Rescue. Two Fire & Rescue jet skis brought the last swim- mer—mildly hypothermic but still clinging to Morley’s kayak—to a waiting ambulance. Following the incident, the response from

the Pacific Northwest sea kayak community was largely humility and support, rather than finger pointing. Nevertheless, an apologetic Morley stated, “Clearly, my reputation will take a big hit as a result of this incident, but I really don’t care…I know I will be a better and safer coach and leader as a result.” Looking forward, event coordinator Paul

Kuthe of Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe says lead coaches at this year’s Lumpy Waters Symposium will need to be “intimately famil- iar with the area.” He also plans to reexamine the venue selection process. “The number one mistake…was that we

placed the enjoyment of students before safe- ty,” Kuthe says, acknowledging that at rough water gatherings, “the tendency is to go too big, too soon.” For more insight on how we manage risk—and why we seek it—turn to Rock the Boat on page 26.

Touring Whitewater Recreational

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