Friday, November 13, 2009

Surprise on Monterey Bay

As if Loreley herself was on the Santa Cruz harbor jetties, calling them to ruin, two Nereid rowers recently paddled for their lives in a dawn row on Monterey Bay.

While on a weeklong, post-HOC vacation on the California coast, club members Frank Schaefer and Erin Martin made a 6 a.m. date with Beth and Ginger, two avid and gracious rowers from the Santa Cruz Rowing Club. The day before, an offshore Pacific storm had caused onshore swells of 15-20 feet – a surfer’s dream, a rower’s nightmare. Some 12 hours later, Beth anticipated that conditions might be a little rough, but perfectly rowable. Ha…

The two open water 2xs, decked with lights and life preservers, launched long before there was any hint of light in the sky. Leaving calm waters and docks of sleepy sail boats behind, Beth and Ginger slipped into the 100-foot wide channel, between the two rock jetties sheltering the harbor. Erin and Frank followed their middle line, avoiding the waves breaking on the Mini-Cooper-sized boulders on each side.

The plan was to row due west, one mile out to sea, to a lighted buoy visible in the distance.
“Yee, haa!” hollered Beth. “It’s a little rougher than I thought. Let’s just take it easy and see how it goes."

“Oh shit,” was all Erin could say from the bow. Immediately gripped by sea sickness, she was shocked to see herself looking down at Frank, and then up at him, as the waves lifted and dropped the boat. “This is insane.”

And then it got worse. “Ride ‘em cow boy!” Beth yelled as the swells got progressively taller and wider, ranging 5 to 7 feet. Total darkness made the experience more surreal. There was one way to survive: the Free Radical Mantra – just shut up and row.

Soon, the divine cadence of strokes took over, the seasickness abated, and the rhythm of the waves began to entertain. After about 25 minutes, the boats reached the tall green buoy, where a trio of sea lions eyed their visitors with inquiry. A line of red and orange curtained the eastern horizon. The peace of the scene overpowered the sea.

Circling back, Erin and Frank could now see the waves coming at them, which was not necessarily comforting. A bit of water splashed in the boat. Even so, the sensations became familiar. After just 10-15 minutes, the boats were near the mouth of the harbor.

“Follow us again,” Beth called as she and Ginger headed into the channel, unaware that a particularly large set of waves was coming in. Frank and Erin started out on the same line, but were soon pushed about 20 feet to their starboard, closer to the southerly jetty.

“Look out! Be careful! Look out! Watch it!” screamed Beth and Ginger in a chorus so sudden, loud and highly pitched that every axon in Erin’s and Frank’s bodies seized up in alarm. Glancing over their shoulders, they realized that the last swell had driven them within 15 feet of the southerly jetty. And they were pointed straight at it. To port, another wave in the monster set barreled toward them.

“Starboard, starboard, starboard,” Erin yelled. Both rowers pulled with all their might, turning the boat parallel to the jetty. But the cresting wave had pushed the boat so fast that Frank could almost touch the outermost rock with his oar.

“Row, row, regular rowing,” Erin shrieked from the bow, instinctively remembering from white water rafting that one should never stop paddling in a rapid. The top of the wave turned white as it began to break. Frank pulled with the strength of an Olympic champion, and Erin hung on, and the boat gracefully dropped over the backside of the wave, clearing the rocks.

“You did it! Great job! Way to go! I can’t believe it! That was awesome!” cried Beth and Ginger in euphoric relief. The episode had lasted no more than five seconds.

The flat water of the harbor felt like a good, deep exhale. Within 30 strokes, the boats were on the dock, all four giddy with gratitude that neither rower nor boat had come to harm. “If I had some Irish whiskey, I’d be passing it around right now,” Ginger said.

Beth laughed too. “I had the sick thought that I’d forgotten to get you to sign a waiver!”

After warm goodbyes, Frank and Erin walked back to the nearby house where they were staying, longing for coffee.

That day, Loreley was no match for the Nereids.