Big Sur--A Close Cal--Feb 19, 2000

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Posted by bigsurdiver on February 19, 2000 at 20:53:36:

February 19, 2000. I just got back from diving off the Ab lab in Big Sur. More accurately, my buddy and I were given a second chance by Neptune. Here's what happened, and I'm still analyzing it.

I got up in the AM at about 9, checked the weather in the morning and decided to go freediving for a few fish. My buddy D. had come down from SF to Pacific Grove where I live so we didn't want to waste the day. We’ve been talking about it for weeks but the diving condition had been bad this winter. The night before, we talked about how perfect the diving was going to be. We were jazzed. In the morning, it was partly sunny and no whitecaps in sight as we drove south on HW1. Today is the day to get back in the water after weeks of crummy weather, and we were determined. Looking back, this is one factor in the chain of events that led to near disaster. We were too eager to get into the water.

We drove south past Carmel, past Garappata, came up on the spot, and parked the car off Highway 1. After unloading, we climbed down the steep cliff that is typical of Big Sur diving, and began to get prepared. Actually, it looked calm when we arrived, with sets of 5 and 7 coming in. When we drove by Monastery earlier, I remember thinking how calm things look. Air was warm. We watched and mentally timed the sets for about 15 minutes, and noticed that there were periods of beautiful calms between the sets. We discussed our dive plan. My buddy, who is experienced, and I then donned gear and got ready to make our entry into the water.

We both have years of experience diving Monterey, North Coast, freediving in Baja, Canada, and are pretty strong swimmers. We are both in our early 30’s, in good shape. I am also trained in kayaks, a certified scuba diver for years, and am very comfortable around surf, waves, and cold water. My buddy is even more experienced. We dove together many times before, and never a hitch, sometimes in worse conditions. Another factor. We were too confident.

The entry was in a channel cut into the rock cliff. Within the channel, it was quite protected but the good dive sites are outside and require a swim out. As we got ready, I saw waves broke to the right off a huge rock pile at the north end of the channel opening and to the left off the vertical cliff that stretches southward. They look menacing but out beyond the surf line, it looked divable. We’ve been in worse conditions before. This should be simple if we dive the plan. We slid into the water in the channel and waited.

We waited until the last wave of the current set died down and started kicking out of the channel. The plan was to shoot through the channel during the calm period, then at about a SW direction to bisect the opening between the giant outcropping of rocks to the right that juts out to the sea about 30 yards and the cliff to the left of the channel opening. We planned to get to about 50 yards off shore, where the water was calmer and about 40-50 ft deep to begin our free dives. I had been here before and always had a great time.

Right about the time I cleared the channel, I lifted my head to see if I was still going in the right direction. At this time, I was angling away from the shore, swimming south west and making excellent progress. My buddy was behind me about one body length away. We planned the dive and now are diving the plan. We have done this many times. Suddenly I got a glimpse of the first huge wave about 30 feet away to my right, coming in from the open ocean, ready to break. It actually came as a complete surprise as I was expecting the calm period to last much longer, per our timing earlier. I remember thinking that it seemed too quick that the next set should come. Rouge waves—shit.

I mentally went "uh oh" and almost immediately got pummeled by the huge wave. One second, I was on the surface, swimming along blissfully and the next, I was underwater in a washing machine cycle, bubbles and foam made it dark and I couldn't even see my arms. I had no control over where the surge was carrying me. In less than a second, our carefully mapped out plan was wiped out. This is a different world from the calm we saw above before the waves hit.

Without a hesitation, I jettisoned my speargun. Having the tip waving about when I had no control over which way I was going was simply not cool. Smart move #1. I remember thinking that if the next wave comes now, this speargun may come around and hit me (it’s a mahogany AB Biller one—boy I love that gun) but other priorities, i.e., watching out for rocks and air management, took over and I simply go screw it--can't think about it now. I didn't want to ditch the weight belt since it is a custom job that took me a long time to get just right (a stupid reason) and besides, I rather like diving down to avoid getting smacked by the waves (a good reason). Thinking back, it was amazing that I was calmly analyzing everything while being tossed around, waiting to come up.

I came up and the sky instantly darkened as the next wave roared toward me, ready to break. It sounded like a freight train coming, with the menacing low frequency sounds of foam and surf preceding the wall of water that looked to be about 10 feet high from where I was. Still calm, I sucked in a quick gulp of air, immediately dove down to avoid being thrashed by it. It was pure confusion as the wave hit, and I must have been about 10 ft down in the spin cycle, not sure whether I was upside down or right side up. It was also dark underwater, which was pretty amazing since it was only 11AM but the bubbles and foam must have blocked out much of the light. We were also at the edge of a kelp forest, and although the kelp had been thinned by winter storms, I’m sure this didn’t help with the lighting situation. I cradled my head in my arms, as I didn’t want to get knocked unconscious if the waves smashed me against the numerous underwater boulders in the area. I dove here before, like I said, and I knew that the area is dotted with giant boulders underwater like giant popcorn balls—one of the main reasons why the fishing is so good.

I waited for a long time until the wave passed by, and came up. Coming up again, I got immediately hit by another HUGE breaker, and unfortunately, I got no air before getting pulled downward again. As I got pulled down, the urge for air increased and threatened to bring about a panic response. I have been in this state before when I was caught in kelp earlier coming up from a deep free dive (I untangled and was fine—obviously). Mentally, I went into the Zen mode to slow things down and reduce air consumption. Freedivers know what I am talking about here. I began force myself to relax (an ironic statement but forcing is necessary at this time) to reduce air consumption. I have this mental trick of going through various parts of my body and mentally “turn off” its air usage, much like one would go through the house to turn off the lights before going to bed at night. Other freedivers have other tricks, and that is mine.

I also was trying to guess which way I was being pushed and try to search my memory for the rocks that I had seen on earlier trips. With all the foam and bubbles under water, and the kelp, I couldn't even see two feet in front of me—so it was hopeless trying to look for them. I came up again, got immediately pummeled but I was out of air and had to try to stay up for a little longer to get a gulp of air before diving down. This little delay, which was intentional, allowed the mass of water and foam to rush up from behind, under, and above, and rip my mask off my face and broke the seal, and I lost my two contact lens immediately. Luckily, the mask stayed on my head and I held on to it with my left hand as I dove down again. Needless to say, I had no idea if I still had a snorkel—and this was about the only time in the whole ordeal that I felt a sense of alarm. In this condition, snorkel equals life. With no snorkel, there is no chance. It’s that simple. The sea can be unforgiving—I always knew that but struggling in this mass of confused air and sea, the dry snorkel (god bless this invention) was my ace in the hole. I fumbled about, felt it still attached to the mask, stuck it back in my mouth, and was greatly relieved. Through all this time, I had no idea where I was, whether I’m to the right against the rocks (bad), to the left against the shore cliff (really bad) or simply get cycled in place (which I hoped was the case, as I don’t like rocks).

About this time, I began to feel tired. It had been only a few minutes since the first wave hit but the combination of lack of air, losing my contact lens, fighting the dark water in my wetsuit the whole time, and having a mask full of water began to clue me in that this is not your average dive day. Good thing was it had been a very short time, and I was not at all cold. I cleared the mask underwater and waited until the motion seemed abated about me, and popped up and looked around. What I saw was an amazing sight. It was as if I have been transported to another dive site, one completely unlike what we saw when we began to swim out. There was a sea of white foam all about me, noise and confusion so that one can hardly tell where the water ends and where air begins, and through sheets of spray, what the hell is that brown mass?? It didn’t take long to register. I was only about twelve feet off the cliff wall (which had been about 80 feet from me to my left when the first wave hit), and right in front of the cliff wall was a huge outcropping of submerged rocks which barely breaks the surface, and I was being pushed toward it. If the wave hit me now, I would have no control, may get dumped upside down, and right up against the rocks or scrape past it then get slammed against the cliff wall. If I hit any of them head first, I would be out. With the distance I’ve been moved by the last few waves, there is no doubt in my mind of the tremendous speed with which the wave could carry me when it hits. If my arms or legs get tangled underwater in the mass of confused kelp, I would be in jeopardy. I reached down and touched my knife when thinking of the tangled scenario and to my relief, the trusty blade was still with me.

A roaring sound to my left began to get louder and louder, and I feel the rushing mist of air and water spray on the exposed area of my face, felt the air pressure changing—the next wave was coming and I knew I’m going to go toward submerged rocks and toward the cliff beyond. No question what comes next. I punched the weight belt (smart move #2) and took the biggest gulp of air that I could, and tucked into a fetal position—forearms in front of face and hands covering top of head.

This wave meant business. The first few waves only wanted to tenderize me. This one is meant to finish the job. I was immediately lifted up, and the next thing I knew, I saw blades of christmas garland kelp (I never bothered to learn the name even though I’ve dove with them for years, except that they are brown and look like christmas garlands—you Catalina divers ought to know them well as they are all over the entry area of Casino Point dive park) rushing past me at an incredible speed. I resist the impulse to reach out and grab a hold of them, knowing that such would be futile. In my fetal position, there was no orientation control possible, and I simply got rolled and it got darker, and lighter, and darker, and lighter as I got pushed with the surge. Even with 30 lbs buoyancy my 7-mil farmer john wetsuit, two neoprene underlayers, hood, and gloves gave me, I was still getting pulled under. Feeling the refracted waves, I knew that I was very close to the rocks, was pretty sure that I was going to hit rock, and was hoping that I won’t get knocked out right away, and mentally going through my mind of the last things to get ready before hitting. Unbelievably, I was in my problem solving mode, felt no panic, and was pretty calmly waiting for the next event. I’ve done everything possible—and now I just need to look for an opening to make my move. Looking back, I credit this to my surf kayak training, which essentially taught me to stay calm but be ready to make split second decisions, and ready to commit and act decisively when the opportunity arises even when all hell breaks loose about me. That opportunity was about to come.

All of a sudden, I felt the backwash beginning to pull at me and recognized that I’m being pulled out. This slowed down my forward motion toward the rocks. Lucky break #1. I broke out of my fetal position, gain my upright position, head for light at the surface, broke the surface and saw right in front of me, through the wall of spray, the incredible noise and confusion, the cliff. This last wave must have been huge since it lifted me clear off the first set of submerged rocks, and I sped past its top without even touching it, and I was pushed by the mass of water up high against the cliff, about five feet where the water level should have been. Incredibly, right in front of me, there was a clump of rock stuck to the cliff about the size of a small child head, like a hand reaching out saying “grab it buddy, grab it, this is your chance.” Lucky break #2. I likened it to a small child head in my mind because I have a two-year old son who means the world to me and I did allow myself to think about him briefly while underwater (but I blocked it out quick before I get into a mentally destructive downward cycle of negative thoughts). I felt the powerful backward rush, saw the cliff receding slightly as the receding water grabbed hold of my fins and body and began to pull me backward. Without thinking about it, I lunged forward and grabbed the rock clump with both hands. Got it.

As the water receded, the mass of water rained down on my head and body but as more of my body become exposed out of the water, more of my weight rests on the clump and I was concerned that it may break off. I swung my left leg up blindly to my left, felt the tip of the fin caught against something on its way up but I jerked and my left foot seemed to land on something solid. I turned my leg so the heel would rest on whatever it is that is there (otherwise, the blade of the fin would catch, bend, slip out, and my leg would simply fall backward). The left leg did not fall back as the heel found the tiny rock shelf. Bingo. Lucky break #3.

I began to hear the roar of another wave coming from behind, the telltale rush of wet air and spray rushing toward me and bouncing off the cliff, and mentally told myself that this is it—gotta go. Without seeing what I may grab, I let go of my left hand so that my weight is now supported mostly by my right hand on the little rock clump, swung my left arm out blindly and reached around. The left hand, fully gloved, did not feel anything but somehow I caught on a ledge with the left hand. It was a beautiful little ledge, with a cut into it parallel to the cliff surface from the top so that my fingers can stick into the cut and grab the rock like a book. That ledge saved my life.

With no time to spare, I let go of the right hand, felt the weight get transferred to my left leg and left arm (my right leg simply hang uselessly against the rock with no place to rest on the whole time). In this position, my weight hang off the rock and it was a matter of split-second before I would get peeled from the rock by my own weight, unless my right hand caught something as it swung around. Years ago, I did some rock climbing and there, the lesson was that you need three points of contacts if you want to stay on the rock. At no time do I need it more than now, with the wave about to come. All this, I did out of instinct and training without really thinking about it. My right hand aimed for the same ledge that my left hand found earlier and I simply kept on reaching as my body began to fall backward. People usually say that it seems like slow motion when things like this happen. Bullshit. I was just doing it, and for me, time didn’t slow down, and neither did that damn roaring sound of the incoming wave.

In a split-second, I caught the ledge with the right hand, and still feeling my body following the falling momentum—and with the wave about to hit, I desperately gambled for broke. I simply didn’t want to go back into the water without a fight. I’ve committed to move and now am in a precarious position, and that will have to change. I pushed against my left leg so that my body would shoot upward and outward, simultaneously breaking the downward momentum of my body but also adding to the outward momentum of my body as it continued to peel from the rock face. It either was going to work, or I have succeeded in pushing away from the rock and falling back into the seething sea below—not great but not too bad since I would at least clear the cliff as I fell (my hindsight analysis—I wasn’t even thinking that at this point). Of course, if I fell, there is no telling where I would be carried by the next wave, or what it would do to me. I wasn’t sure I would be as lucky again, but I was confident that I would try again. For some reason, I was confident during the whole time that my current situation was simply an inconvenience and that at some point, I’d be on dry land—not if, just when. Later analysis questioned this.

The gamble worked. My downward motion was stopped momentarily by the push of my left leg, and my body was held against the rocks by both hands, with both legs now simply dangling against the cliff. The left foot had slipped as I pushed hard against the tiny and slipper rock shelf, as I knew it would. Desperately running out of time, I pulled on the ledge with my arms, felt my body lifted upward by the jerk, and scrambled up the ledge as the wave smacked against my fins and swept my lower body out from under me.

Everything had worked. It was a blindly choreographed move that came together like magic at the last moment. If I did not find that clump of rock and grabbed it, I would have been pulled out with the incoming wave, and pummeled again. If I didn’t gamble and moved off it before the next wave came, that next wave would have ripped me off the cliff face and deposited me back into the ocean. If I didn’t let go of my weight bell, I would not have been able to pull myself up as quickly and may have been grabbed by the wave. If that ledge wasn’t there, I’d be back in the water. Even as I was about 10-12 feet from the sea (5 feet up after being deposited by the last wave and another 5-7 feet up the ledge after pulling myself up), the wave reached up and swept my lower body sideways, but I knew the worst was over. Within one or two seconds, the wave receded, and I reached down, ripped out first one fin and tossed it up above and then another, and then scrambled upward. The confused refracted waves reached up a few more times, as if they were gestures from an angry sea still lusting after its prey. The next few waves of the set were equally powerful, but the game had been won.

One second before, I was gambling for broke. The next, I was sitting in sunshine. And I was really, really tired. Immediately, I tried to look for my buddy. Without my contacts, my vision is poor. I saw something moving in the mass of confused waves, and was fearful that it was my buddy so I ran along the cliff toward it. It turned out to be a seal. Even though I knew that there was little I (or anyone) could do if my buddy was still in the water, I didn’t want to give up and continued to run up and down the cliff, look down at the water, look out at the mass of confused foam and an angry sea, and saw nothing the whole time. I began to consider running up the road to get help.

As I raced around, I saw a hole in the rock about the size of a large bed. In this hole, against the rock cliff, I saw my buddy. Like me, he got pummeled and ditched the speargun when the first wave hit. Like me, he got swept toward the cliff by subsequent waves but he somehow got further south than I was (he swore he had no idea where he was the whole time, which is very similar to my experience). He had somehow spotted the opening to this chamber in the rocks, saw light above and realized it was an open-air chamber so he won’t be trapped like the two divers did a few years ago in Partington Cove a few miles down the road (they both died, and one was supposed to be a master diver—or so we heard). He had gambled and dashed for the opening, knowing that if he missed it, he would have to deal with waves smashing him while being surrounded by rocks. Miraculously, he made it into the narrow opening in between waves (I said he was good), managed to swim in a bit further before getting pushed up against the cliff that lined the inner surface of the chamber. Where he was, there was no clump of rock to hang on to and he simply hugged the textured cliff with his arms and legs (or more accurately, with the neoprene of his suit), and hanged on like a fly against the wall. Even though the waves surging through this hole was not as punishing as those out in the open sea, I have no doubt that he would simply be ripped off the wall as the next wave hit. Luckily, we were now in the calm between sets (that damn calm that eluded us earlier).

I scrambled down the rock face of the chamber, and he simply reached around and undid his weight belt (he admitted later that keeping the belt was a stupid thing), and handed it to me. We did the same for his fins (long, long Cressi, like mine), and without those encumbrances, he began to find a way to climb up. Within minutes, we were both on dry rock.

We rested for a long time, gulping down water, and simply gazing at the calm sea, then rose to gather our gear (minus two spearguns and one weight belt). We broke the silence by joking about how easy the trip back to the car is now, with less to carry. He took out his camera and took a picture of both of us at the spot where Neptune had been displeased with us. We stood and watched in awe as calm turned into an impossibly angry sea as the next set arrived a few minutes later.

The drive back was in high spirit. For what it’s worth, we got wet and only lost gear. We stopped at a lunch spot, ate and recounted how lucky we were, analyzed what we did, how we could have done it differently (not a whole lot, except for not entering the water in the first place and ditching his weight belt). We recognized that neither panicked and how much we think alike, and how the ending may have been much, much different had we gone with any number of other people that we knew and frequently dove with.

Big Sur is great and beautiful, and still beckons me. As soon as I send in this post, I will hop on my favorite online dive store to buy replacement gear. We have another date in our respective Palm Pilots for the next trip. Next time, we are determined to get fish, but they will be from Safeway if the condition is anything like today’s.

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