Near Miss on the North Sea

Sunday, 04 January 2009 02:18 | Written by  Paul Rosenquist
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[Editor: Paul Rosenquist took part in the recent Dubai Shamaal race.  He's from Sweden and is one of a small but rapidly expanding group of Swedish surfski enthusiasts.]

After Dubai I headed home with even higher levels of enthusiasm for the sport of Surfski Paddling - the game of using superior strength to catch waves which gives one even more superior speed.

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In rowing, at the level I was at least, all rowers had about similar skill. Physically each sculler at the world's elite level is a freak of nature when it comes to combustion levels... and basically the guy that dares to get closest to death wins. If you completely crush your opponent in the final sprint, you win by a few decimeters... and that is huge.

Surfski - a whole new game!

Surfski paddling is a whole new game! One second you are doing a miserable 8km/h, and the next, 20. Passing an opponent can be done with twice his speed... awesome. This is, if you have the strength (easy to get), and more important, the skill to ride the waves Mother Nature offers you (not easy to get).

Hugely lacking the latter, (8 swims in the first half of the Dubai Shamaal), I felt hugely motivated to learn more.  Back in freezing Stockholm I called Björn Ohlin, one of Sweden's coolest photographers (http://www.essingen.org/) and one of Stockholm's fastest flat-water marathon paddlers. He works close to me and we decided to train together during lunch hours. Björn was raging in his boat - being beaten on most of these sessions by a rower in a 17kg Surfski while giving it his all in his thoroughbred racing box. Anxious with a new face on next year's paddling scene he carefully asked if I was not going to chicken out again when the season starts off and get back into my scull. No way man, not this year...  This is too much fun!

Christmas in Holland

Christmas came and we decided to drive our wagon 1500km south towards The Hague (Holland) to celebrate with my mom. Good thing with living in Sweden is that winter in Holland feels like summer... The sea is a lovely 9°c Cool, paddling a Surfski at Scheveningen (The Hague's coastal area) is a first for me and I guess has hardly happened ever before anyway. The weather during this week was awesome, -2°c in the air, 9°in the sea, a North Easter blowing about 10 to 15knots and a nice 1.2m swell. Anxiously I clambered over the massive sand dunes protecting the little sub-sea country and got a first view of the sea... gulp... a pretty solid looking shore break for about 100m...

Hell, that's what I'm here for. Not really sure about the tides, currents, and all, I decided to get through the break, and head north upwind-ish along the coast, and enjoy some downwind on the way back. On a sunny day before Christmas the beach is pretty much the best place to go for a walk with your family and your dog, so plenty of folks. The sight of someone marching with a funny looking thing under his arms into the sea and paddling away is unusual I gathered from the comments and looks... After the third set of waves I punched through one so big that when the bow dunked back down I actually bounced out of the ski. Sort of feeling sorry for the ski, I climbed back in and headed north.

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Later that week, and more cocky due to some really awesome paddles up and down the coast and decided for a little longer trip, since I had some more time. I wanted to paddle a little bit passed Katwijk and turn there. The wind was even stronger, and perhaps slightly more off shore. Something I didn't really like...  Anyway the last few days of offshore wind flattened out the shore break, and all that was left, was a superb swell and 1.3 m waves going from north to south along the shore. I started beating the wind for 12km and decided not to hammer it too hard, and save some energy to burn on catching more rides on the way home.

Downwind fun - or not

A bit more than an hour later I reached Katwijk, and decided to turn around...I could not wait! Sun in my face, howling wind in my back, and 12km's of Downwind fun ahead of me! It always strikes me how weird it feels to catch the first ride directly after having been beating into waves for a while. Awesome, I reckoned I should be home in half an hour at the speed I was going. The Swell could be coming slightly onshore at a 45degree angle and the wind waves were straight from behind. Could not be better I guess, but I did not find it super easy. I tried as hard as I can to catch each ride I could and felt a bit of stress when not catching some...  silly.

Then the ski made some weird dip and I tried to brace it out, but failed and ended up swimming. Keen to hold on to the paddle, which was leashed to the boat, I quickly lifted the boat over my head to get on the upwind side to get back and continue this super ride. I saw my camelback was hanging half overboard, so, I decided to fix that first while still in the water.  I was working with my hands slightly over my head, bobbing up and down in the waves. When I rotated my arm back, I suddenly felt a pretty familiar feeling......of my shoulder dislocating... NO!!!  Not here...not now!!  Within microseconds I realized the impact of this. I was blowing out to sea. I tried to get my arm back in place, holding the boat and twisting around and stuff, but the pain made it impossible. The cold was stiffening my muscles and that does not help either. With some effort I laid on my stomach on the ski and felt how much my bloody shoulder was hurting.

Remounting with a dislocated shoulder

With some teeth grinding I managed to get my bum in the seat and both feet at one side of the boat. Oef... A lot warmer not being in the water at least. I felt at least the hypothermia problem a bit further away again. Now travelling at an ever greater speed in the wrong direction I had to take further action. I was about 300m from shore at least and people on the beach could not see me. Running into a fishing trawler a few hours later would not be good odds to bet on. I tried to swing my leg over the other side and get straight into my seat... Somehow, I did not concentrate 110% I guess and went overboard again. I repeated this damn action twice more....then really starting to realize that this was getting very serious I could focus more...  and get into my seat and straddled the boat.

Now all I had left was paddle to the shore... Unfortunately could I hardly hold my paddle with my right hand and did not dare to lift my feet into the boat.... I needed the stability. Paddling with the power of 2 year old I managed to make a slight angle towards the shore and 30minutes of 10 stroke,... load scream in pain, and 10 more strokes later I decide I had enough and hoped that it would be shallow enough to walk in. I somehow came around some sand bank I guess, so no shore break at all... lucky. I could not touch the bottom though, and had to swim the last 50 meters dragging my boat with the good arm. Shivering like a twig I climbed onto the beach and dragged the boat up. Two families with a dog just walked by...jackets, woolen hats and everything pulled up over their ears to protect against the wind and the cold. 'Nice day for a paddle?' They asked with irony in their voices...

Life Guards

Well.. it is great I said..but my shoulder is not ok and I asked them to call for the life guards to send a car to get me of the beach. The -2° and 17kt wind must have generated a pretty nasty wind-chill and I had at least 4 liters of sweat gushing around inside my drysuit. I sat down behind my ski, in the sun, while the extremely helpful folks on the beach swapped my neoprene skull cap for a warm woolen hat, and putt their warm dog on my lap... Amazing how much comfort a furry animal can give. I was shaking like a twig and I felt how the pain in my shoulder was making me sick. The life savers usually patrolling the beach in Holland don't work during this part of the year, so the off shore life savers were put into action.

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These are the guys that are used to driving a massive tractor with an even more massive Life saving RIB into the surf to fetch vessels in distress 1km and beyond the surf. Apparently they could pull 4 of the 12 volunteers always standing on a 5minute standby away from their Christmas tree and to drive their massive Unimog up the beach to fetch me.  A paramedic had joined them from the ambulance that was waiting in Katwijk. The ambulance ride was, despite the bottle of laughing gas and a shot of morphine, horrible. My arm felt it was breaking off.

Dr. House v the non-relaxing muscles

The ER I arrived at was apparently really busy and Dr House, that seemed to run the show there hoped he could jam my arm back in place with some hard jerking. I told him that the exact muscle I so desperately needed to relax to be able to let the arm slide back in its socket was used for hauling oars about 3000 times a day for the last 5 years. No way that you will win a tug of war with them I said.

It just does not make sense relaxing a muscle that is hyper-tense while having someone putting a foot in your neck and pulling on your arm with all he has. Mate, I grunted between my teeth, if I want, I can pull you right over the table now...there is now way I can relax. It feels like you are pulling every single piece of hardware to bits in there. OK, as you wish... I got another shot, and woke up in another room, with my arm back where it should be. The footprint in my neck telling the story...

Feeling surprisingly well I went home and had some explaining to do my not so happy wife and mom.

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What I learned:

  • I would love to say, don't paddle alone...but that does not work in some places...because there are no others to paddle with.
  • Bring a mobile phone, I planned to but forgot to bring the pouch and did not bother to buy a new one while having at least 6 at home...
  • Bring a flare and a rocket. I planned this too, but they were stolen from my office desk a few weeks earlier.
  • Get my shoulder sorted out now. This was planned, but the surgeon wanted to see if it would happen again...
  • A bit more respect for offshore winds.

I've read worse on Surfski info I said at home... this was nothing... sort of.

A huge thanks to the still anonymous family taking care of me on the beach, and the guys (Arwin, Hugo and their colleagues for responding to their 34th call for the year.  Dr House...mmmm well... thanks man.

[Editor: Another Swedish paddler, Peter Ekström, recently wrote to tell us about his blog: http://www.globalsurfski.wordpress.com/.]

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