Adventure on the Graveyard

Yesterday was an adventure in nearly all sense of the word. This is a lengthy story. Sorry in advance. A lot of lessons were reaffirmed and learned anew yesterday. I've been trying to get to Wrightsville for a couple months now and the logistics of running a new water sports shop, plus life, have taken priority.  Last year, I was on the ocean 7-8 times before the Carolina Cup. Yesterday was my second this year. My friend, Mike and I met up with the always enjoyable, John, with plans to paddle the Graveyard and get comfortable on our new boards (Infinity Blackfish and Starboard All Star) and learn some insight from John's local knowledge. This would be my 4th time circumnavigating the island and Mike's first.

With winds howling out of the ENE at 20-24 (ie. straight down the beach due to Wrightsville's orientation) and air at 60 deg., we walked over the dunes to find a chaotic ocean. The forecast was calling for 4-5' surf and it was accurate. Waves were 3' to OHH (at least for me, I'm 5'4") with a really tight swell period and coming onshore at contradicting angles. I looked at John and said "John, I'll be honest, this is a little beyond my abilities." I was nervous but determined. I was fairly sure I could get out but, I was a little concerned about Mike. He's a good surfer but, this was only his second time on a 14' x 25.5" raceboard in the ocean. A challenge for most on a good day.

Before we launched, Dave, one of the local Ocean Rescue guys pulled up to chat with John. It was a pleasure to meet him. Very knowledgeable and fun to talk to. He said he would hang around to watch the carnage! Good thing he did.

After a brief chat, to establish a plan (basically, if we couldn't get out, we would go to the sound and meet in the jetty) we gathered our boards, John on his prone, Mike and I on our SUPs, and away we went. I was instantly impressed with how easily I was able to paddle through the first few waves on the Blackfish. My first time doing this on a 14' instead of a 12'6. Then the inevitable happened. A bigun took me out :) I climbed back on, said "Damn, that's cold!" and proceeded to knee paddle, looking for an opportunity to stand up. It was all I could do to get through a few tight waves, only to get reset into the angry seas. After repeating this scenario 5-6 times, I made it through the break. I noticed John was sitting and waiting but, couldn't see my friend. We were too far apart to talk when John started paddling back in. I stood up after I had recovered and warmed up, to see if I could see anything and to get a feel for the board while standing in those conditions. I was moving crazy fast so, I sat back down to slow my progress down the ocean. Shortly thereafter, the steepest, fastest wave I've ever experienced ripped under my board and actually launched me off my knees! That was fun! At this point, all I could see was Mike's board by the Ocean Rescue truck and a guy with his hands on his knees looking down at what looked to be my friend. Then I thought I saw John wave me in (he was actually telling me to stay out!). So, I paddled in out of concern, thinking they were administering CPR! Apparently, my friend just couldn't get out and Dave was offering him tips and advice on the conditions. Mike decided to cross over and paddle down Banks channel to meet us at the jetty.

Or so I thought. After talking with Dave again, I tried to stop shivering and headed back out. I got about waist deep and couldn't move. I was doing everything physically possible to get my board perpendicular to the waves and stay upright. The water was tearing past my legs in a cross-current. I had my feet spread wide, bracing with everything I had and it was all I could do to stay standing. A cross-current is basically a rip-tide that runs the length of the beach. In all my years on the ocean, I've never experienced anything like that.  Now that I've had a day to process it, I realized that the current was so strong that it was driving my fin and keeping the board parallel to the beach, putting me between the board and the break. I knew this was a very bad place to be. Thankfully, Dave called me back out. Otherwise, my determination would have put me in a dangerous position. He pointed out I was loosing energy fast (I have no natural insulation). I then realized how fast. I was shivering uncontrollably. We decided it was best I head over to the sound as well to meet up. I had just lost too much energy to power back through the break.

As I'm walking up the access path, I can tell my body isn't right. The closer I got to the road, the harder it was getting to function. I was losing the ability to control my muscles. I realized that hypothermia was likely setting in so I laid the board on a yard and laid down on the asphalt drive to try and regain some body heat while there was still a little sun out. Luckily, it was a side street and I didn't get run over as there was nothing else I could do at the moment. Once I was able to regain some sense of control, I knew I had to get moving. So, I launched in the sound, found Mike and paddled back to the Blockade Runner to get some dry clothes out of the truck. In the process, I was impressed with how easy the Blackfish was to paddle into such a crazy wind and chop. After warming up, we hopped back on the boards to head towards the jetty and meet back with John to download and discuss.

I was very embarrassed and humbled by the morning's experience. John can clarify I mis-stated anything, but basically, it was crazy conditions. I felt terrible (and still do), for leaving John to paddle around the Jetty on his own after taking time from his family to paddle with us. It just didn't work out. So we paddled back to the BR and chatted a while longer. I always enjoy learning from John. He's always encouraging, pleasant and insightful. It's even more fun when I ACTUALLY get to paddle with him.

At that point, we decided we needed to at least get a few miles in to make the 8 hours of driving worthwhile. We had an hour and a half left on the meter so, we decided to paddle the Harbor Island loop to learn what we could about the that part of the Money Island course for Mike. Plus, I wanted to paddle through the drawbridge to experience the funnel with the crazy 20+mph headwinds and see what Lee's Cut was like in side chop, side-winds and against the current. The downwind home was a fun way to cap it off.

Needless to say, there was a lot learned from yesterday. First, I CAN get out in the worst of conditions. It wasn't pretty, and I had to humble myself, going to my knees to get there, but I made it. Had I stayed out, I would have likely accomplished my goal of a practice lap around the Graveyard. However, my friends safety was more important to me than any personal goal.

Second, I should have worn a heater shirt, just in case, that I could peel off once in the jetty. Again, had I not come back in, I likely would have been fine. Though, you should always plan for the worst case scenario.

Third, don't let your pride get in the way and put yourself, or worse yet, others, in a dangerous situation. Sometimes it's ok to bow out and go to plan B. Then you make the most out of plan B.

Fourth, have a set of easily identifiable hand signals to communicate if you can't "communicate". When we are pulling skiers, wakeboarders, wake surfers, etc. we have a clearly defined set of hand signals between the driver and rider/skier. This increases safety, reduces communication errors and makes the experience more enjoyable. Much better than trying to scream over a boat motor, or in this case, howling winds and angry seas.

Fifth, for those of you doing the Harbor Island or Money Island races. If you have a headwind into the drawbridge, be prepared for the funnel. You'll be able to move along pretty well right up to it. Be prepared to modify as necessary, once you're there. Get lower, change your stroke for the situation if needed and be mentally prepared for a tougher paddle through to the other side. For me, it was a fun experience (yeah, that's probably a bit twisted).  Also, Lee's cut against the tide with 20+mph side winds is no joke. It is a little faster against the dock in some places along that stretch, but not all.

Lastly, even as tough, embarrassing and defeating as this day turned out to be, I still had fun! Mike always says, "We get to do this today!". He's right and I'm always thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the water in its many forms and the people that do the same. We made the best out of the situation and that's all you can do. We're stoked to continue advancing our skills and looking forward to the Carolina Cup on the 25th. Never lose respect for Mother Nature.

Before getting "On the Road Again," we made a refuelling pit stop at Tower 7 for a beer and some always excellent food. Thanks for reading!


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