This is an excerpt from a piece of writing I have been working on over the past few years. I imagine this will form a full chapter in my next book. I don't always write about every mission I go on but this day compelled me to write down every detail....
This was the wildest day of my life at sea and anyone who knows me knows I don’t say that lightly. If there has ever been a perfect example of a full team of guys pulling together in several situations it was this day at Area 70. Engine failure, hypothermia and conditions dramatically changing last minute rarely happen all at the same time miles from shore but they did this day. This text is an ...excerpt from one of the chapters I have written in the past couple of years about some of our missions. I’ve left out a lot of the detail for ease of reading but it gives the jist of what was a very serious day at sea and it is a good example of how pre-planning and experience with good men pay off when the elements turn against you.
Going to bed at midnight and setting the alarm for 3am seems like a pointless exercise knowing full well that those three hours may result in about an hour of sleep, an hour of tossing and turning and an hour of fretting about something I forgot to pack but have told myself I will do when I get up.
I got up, feeling confident and full of energy despite virtually no sleep. I walked outside my house to see a taxi sitting half way up the street with its engine running. It must have just dropped off people who had been out for the night; it was early Sunday morning after all. The sky was full of stars and not a breath of wind. Another taxi swung into the street as I began to load the last few things into the van, the driver looking at me out the window with “where on earth is he going surfing at this time?” I was concerned that the low pressure system that was due to be centering over Area 70 in the night giving it calm conditions had in fact centred over Portrush instead. This would mean potentially windy conditions at the break. I checked the wave buoys and they were still reading a solid 6 metres so in theory there would be waves. I pushed my new gun into the van over the top of the boat and gently shut the doors so as not to wake the neighbours. I have got into a habit recently of making a cup of tea before leaving for a mission. I had a few minutes left before I had to go pick the guys up so I put the kettle on and chilled before hooking the ski onto the van and creeping out of the street. The first port of call for me was my friend Hanno Windsich. He lives just down the road from me and I was to meet him at 0350. He was standing in for Ricky to pilot the Beard Commander. Ricky had hurt his elbows in the gym so stepped down. Hanno is a solid reliable guy and I trust him and his judgments. We had been through a full safety brief etc and trial run the day before to make sure he was ok with everything and knew the drills we would go into for the various eventualities that may arise when out there. As I approached his house he was standing in the dark on the footpath will all his gear beside him eating a bowl of porridge. We loaded his gear into the van then set off to collect Charles and Howard before heading down the icy road to the west coast.
The ice turned to water and the closer we got to the west coast the heavier it began to rain. The clear skies became heavy and overcast, much more like what I’m used to seeing on these big wave missions. I became increasingly concerned about the wind at Area 70. As we pulled into the harbour there wasn’t a breath of wind and we saw smoke from a chimney rising vertically into the air just around the corner. However there was a slight chop on the water surface which led me to believe that it must be windier at sea. We decided to get ready anyway and get out there. Quite often I feel really drained upon arrival at a slipway or a beach because I’ve spent the previous two days buzzing around getting ready and making plans before even surfing but this morning I was upbeat and ready to go! We were almost completely set up as the morning light began to show.
The tide was almost over spilling onto the remote harbour wall. It was due to drop by 4.4m so we knew it would disappear quickly. We launched the Beard Commander (We will call it BC from now on!) first and Hanno warmed the engine up around the harbour for ten minutes while Howard and I slipped the ski in. My new board has an extra leash plug built into it at a specific spot so that it can be tied to the res cue sled and transported more easily. Tying big board’s onto the ski or sled is always an issue. In fact my friend Axi Munian lost one from the sled one day when we were on our way out to surf Prowlers. We never found it again. Howard and I tied the gun on and we passed Hanno and Charles, who was now aboard BC, my tow board to keep for the ride out. I’m pretty stubborn when I have something in mind and in the past I would only bring a gun out so that I would be forced to paddle and not tow but I’ve had a few shockers lately taking that approach in bad conditions which would have been better suited to towing. So lately especially at Area 70, I’ve been bringing both tow gear and paddle gear.
The last time we went out to Area 70 we got hit with really bad conditions. All the guys were really sick. It was so rough out there. It rattled Charles a little and literally left him severely bruised down one side of his body from the pounding he was getting aboard the boat in the choppy seas and verging on hypothermia. He kept asking me yesterday if it will ever be as bad as that again and I had said no. Literally an hour after we left and started getting changed back into our clothes that day the forecast conditions of no wind and sunshine happened but we had to go. It was a tough day. Yesterday was supposed to one of the days were the wind goes completely still for a few hours because the centre of the low pressure was due to pass over us. The forecast had been changing by the hour for the past five days so I knew it was going to be either perfect conditions or most likely wild conditions as the strongest winds in a low pressure system spin around the edge of the centre. So literally a 50 mile movement of the low pressure systems location could make or break our session. The tide was dropping fast; we fired up the ski and headed out into the open ocean clear of the headlands.
As expected the low had moved and not in our favour. We were now head on into choppy rough seas with a 3.7m swell running through it and a strong wind. I knew this was going to be hard on us all. The last day this happened the swell was slightly bigger but it looked to me like we were going to encounter similar conditions so I was worried about Charles. This guy is a full on maniac. He has a heart condition and can’t swim! Not only did he have to have heart surgery, but he rigged the operating theatre with cameras that he could operate during the operation using a remote trigger. He knows no limits and as the saying goes; he suffers for his art but does it without even thinking about it, it’s just who he is. The last day we came out here it took us 40 minutes to get out to the spot. Yesterday I could see the wave breaking from a long way off in the distance, it looked really big but I knew the swell was due to drop quickly with the dropping tide so we needed to get on it quickly. Hanno was piloting the BC and Howard was at the helm of the ski with me on behind him. We were leading the way to break the chop for Hanno and Charles so they sat in behind us on the BC and got a bit of shelter. Howard dropped back once we were about half way out as it was taking us a long time to make head way in the chop just to check on those guys. As they pulled up alongside Hanno looked like the conditions weren’t bothering him in the slightest and sat there with a big smile on his face wrapped up in his 6mm suit, huge coat and hiking boots. He looked pretty at home! Charles on the other hand was suffering pretty badly. He was already extremely cold so we stopped and went through everything to warm him up. I had originally tried to distract him by trying to make a joke of it and get him laughing and talking and stuff but he was having none of it. He is a big complainer anyway so I slagged him a bit but still nothing. All of us are trained and experienced in giving first aid and lots of other things at sea so we all recognised straight away that he was showing signs of hypothermia. All his movements were slow and he was beginning to hunch over. His hands and feet were frozen but he said his body wasn’t yet he was shivering so much his jaw was rattling. The boat was taking on a lot of water and he was struggling to keep bailing as Hanno piloted. Hanno had flasks of hot water in the boat for this scenario exactly so they got them out and began pouring them onto his feet and hands. Charles was struggling to put the lid back on the flask. He was definitely starting to lose it. He demanded that we kept going and that we weren’t giving up but Howard and I had other plans. We agreed with him but we both said to ourselves that he had five minutes left and if he hasn’t improved then we are aborting. The time we spent stopped lost us 15 minutes of travel time as we drifted back towards where we came from in the wind. We were only half way there and already 40 minutes had gone. We led them out another five minutes before checking again and somehow Charles had improved. He had hunkered down in the bow of the boat and had began to warm up. We kept going. One thing that made me laugh was taking a quick glimpse into the boat and in the 8 inches of water swilling around Hanno had resorted to wrapping two plastic bags from the supermarket Lidl over his feet and tied them above his ankles. It was comedy in a dark moment! I wish I had have taken a picture it was hilarious. Charles curled up in the bow wearing all his clothes over his wetsuit and my ski jacket and Howards hi vis jacket over that and Hanno sitting there wearing his shopping bags with a massive grin on his face!
We stopped a couple more times to check on Charles but he had improved slightly and was determined that we should keep going. Both Howard and I knew we were already pushing the limits at this stage so far out at sea and if anything happened we were going to be in the shit big style. We spotted a commercial fishing boat a couple, of miles away and we agreed that if Charles takes a turn for the worse we will make a dash for it to get him dry at least and we need an ambulance he can be airlifted from there more easily. I know this sounds completely mental so far but all of us know that it takes boundaries to be pushed to make things happen sometimes and Charles was doing just that. I also know that this is early days at a new location which has potential to produce really huge waves and all this is part of the learning experience we all need so that we are comfortable out there in all sorts of scenarios. I must admit though I felt like pulling the plug a couple of times for Charles sake but he wanted us to keep going. It was a total of 1hour 20 minutes before we made it to the spot yesterday!
Hanno and Charles sat were i told them was safest to sit but they were under no illusion that anywhere was safe to sit. We did a walkie talkie check and agreed that if either of us have engine problems or I go down hard what our plan was and Howard and I set up. Our normal mark ups on the mountains in the distance were more or less covered by low lying cloud which made it even more intimidating way out there. We went for a couple of waves which didn’t really break and then a bigger one appeared. We were really deep on the approach and coming from behind the peak but in front of the approaching swell line. I was shouting at Howard to pick the speed up because I thought I was going to get smashed but he knew where he was going and positioned me perfectly on the peak and drove up over the shoulder. I remember thinking oh shit this is drawing hard. I went airborne over a chop as the wave detonated into a huge plume of spray in the corner of my left eye. I made the landing and was now going at mach ten straight down the face of this thing winding the windows up (swinging my arms like windmills trying to regain balance before falling backwards into the wave). I hit another ledge and went airborne again and again somehow landed it. I was so focussed at staying on my board that I ended up straight at the bottom and engulfed in white water. I was going so fast it was mental. I managed to hang on as I got spat out in front of the white water and managed to get my board on an edge to try come around it onto the shoulder but got hit again by it and squirted forward again this time hitting another piece of chop which sent me flying sideways in the air still attached to my board. As I landed on my back I could see that I was clear of the biggest part of the wave but the last lip was about to hit me. I penetrated the surface, got rolled a bit but nothing too major. I surfaced and Howard was straight in to get me. He was so quick at grabbing me and thankfully so as I could feel the current dragging me across the reef towards the impact zone.
The next scenario was the BC engine failing. We wasted no time and through a rope on the bow and towed them back to harbour. As soon as we docked I got the engine started on the van and Charles got in to get changed and warm up. The tide had drained so much that the slip way was now hanging out with no water at the bottom of it. We roped the BC up and dragged it up the slimy slipway. This is always a consideration at this launching spot and has meant waiting a couple of hours before being able to get the ski out. However Howard needed to be back in Portrush for 1630 so we didn’t have time to wait. There is another slip about 30 minutes away by ski so he headed back out as I drove the van and trailer to it and waited for him. I normally don’t like anyone at sea on one engine alone but we had radio contact so if anything happened we could have got to him fairly quickly. That was one of the most intense missions ever and I’m sure it will stand us in good stead for all the other sessions we are going to have out there.