It was November 2005 and we were headed to the Adventure Racing World Championships in New Zealand.
The five-day race was going to start with a five-kilometre run to our kayaks where we would continue with a 70-kilometre ocean paddle. In case of poor weather conditions, race management had prepared a couple of other race plans for the start. Plan B was to include a shorter paddle, while Plan C was to cancel the paddle and have the teams coasteer (run along the ocean).
Race day arrived and I woke up early. It was still dark and it was raining. I could hear the wind howling. I was already hoping for Plan C.
Two of my team mates went down to the beach to get our kayaks ready. When they returned, I asked my teammate and husband, Greg, what the ocean conditions looked like. He didn’t say much other than, “There is definitely a few swells out there.”
At the pre-race briefing, the race director explained that the weather conditions were definitely not ideal for paddling, so we would be moving to Plan B’s shorter paddle.
The race started with a sprint to the boats. Twenty minutes or so later, I caught my first glimpse of the ocean. “A few swells out there” was not the most accurate description.
Luckily, in the heat of racing, there was no time to think. We hit the ocean and were immediately pummelled by 10-foot waves crashing down on our kayaks.
I looked around and there were kayaks upside down and people being beat up by the surf.
We continued paddling for a couple of hours. I saw a couple of porpoises swim by several feet from the kayak. I was actually starting to enjoy myself.
It was time to head into the checkpoint, which was on the beach. I looked ahead of us and saw a few kayaks capsized. Once again, I thought, just keep paddling.
The first swell hit us from behind and we managed to get through it still upright. A few more went by and I started to notice they were getting bigger. Before I knew it, we were riding on top of a huge swell.
The kayak was leaning on its side.
We tried bracing but I soon found myself upside down and fumbling to get my spray skirt off. I got my skirt off and swam to the surface, while Greg did the same.
We hung onto the kayak and I tried to get back in. We continued to be hit by waves and were thrown out a few more times. We finally realized our efforts were futile and decided to just start swimming in with the kayak.
At one point, Greg said to me, “Just hang onto the kayak and we’ll be fine.”
We continued to swim to shore, with a death grip on the kayak. Another big roller came in and the kayak was ripped from our hands and launched into the air. So much for, “Hang onto the kayak and we’ll be fine.”
I remember looking up and seeing an enormous wave almost on top of me. I quickly took a breath of air as the wave came crashing down on me. I felt like I was in a giant washing machine being tossed around under water.
I focused on not panicking and eventually was spit up to the surface. This continued every minute or so as we would be hit by another wave.
One of the times upon resurfacing I looked around to see kayaks and bodies everywhere. There were several jet skis out rescuing people.
Eventually a jet ski came our way. The guy told me to drop my kayak paddle and grab onto the back of the machine. Was he nuts? Did he not know this was a $500 carbon fibre Epic paddle?
He immediately ripped it out of my hands and said hang on. I grabbed onto the back bar of the jet ski as he took off.
As we ploughed through the surf, my body slapped up and down across the water. We eventually were close enough to shore that he stopped to let me go. He stood there for a second or two looking at me rather awkwardly. I think I may have been standing there in a bit of shock still, as he eventually said, “You might want to find your pants.”
I looked down. Yep, sure enough, my pants were gone.
Luckily my pants were still attached at my ankles. I may have muttered thanks, I’m not really sure. I think I was so happy to be back close to land again that my embarrassment was minimal. It was only when I thought about it later, that I started to laugh at how ridiculous I must have looked.
As I stumbled out of the water, I looked around. The beach was in a state of total carnage. There were kayak bits as far as the eye could see.
There were people stumbling around the beach and dozens still fighting the surf. I quickly learned that our other two team mates had been swimming as well, but had made it back to shore and were fine.
Fifteen minutes or so later, Greg stumbled into transition with not one, but two paddles in hand. Having not been rescued, he had eventually made it into shore on his own.
We helped him get warmed up and fed and we were soon out of transition on our bikes.
As I rode out of transition, relieved to be out of the ocean and on my bike, I thought how Schwatka Lake had definitely not prepared me for paddling in big ocean surf.
But, hey, there are no porpoises to kayak with in Schwatka either.
Denise McHale is an adventure racer, ultra runner and marathon runner. She and her husband, Greg, race as part of the top Canadian adventure racing team in the country. They are also the race directors for the Yukon Adventure Challenge. This year’s event is a 12 to 18-hour adventure race and is scheduled for July 12. For more information check out www.yukonadventurechallenge.com.