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Anatomy Of An Accident

Breaking down the decisions that lead to Daniel Fox's epic crash landing

Photographer Daniel Fox was on a 1,000-mile kayaking expedition from Victoria, B.C., to San Francisco last September when a series of choices caused him to experience the power of nature full-force. Illustration by Andrè Caetano.

CHOICE 1, Departure: The weather forecast was bleak: strong southerly winds, rain and a westerly swell. But Fox had deadlines to meet. He launched into the mouth of the Columbia River in Astoria, Ore., on an outgoing tide at noon on September 21.

CHOICE 2, Bailout: With the sea state at Columbia Bar living up to its nasty reputation, Fox decided to land in the lee of South Jetty, a breakwall extending more than a mile into the Pacific. The jetty offers shelter from the typical northwest swell, but the waves were particularly heavy, and coming from the west.

CHOICE 3, No Return: "The swell was coming dead-on and pounding my landing spot," says Fox. "I had two choices: to go back into the Columbia River against the current, or to keep going." Despite the heavy swell, the sky was clear and the sea "almost metallic due to the absence of wind." Fox aimed for Seaside Beach, 17 miles south on the Oregon coast.

CHOICE 4, Last Light: At twilight, Fox reached Seaside Beach and thought he saw an opening in the shore break. As he began to paddle in, three massive waves erupted in front of him. "I looked at the clouds of white seawater rising up into the sky and suddenly it became clear to me that there was no way my feet would be touching sand this evening." He turned for Indian Beach, six miles distant.

CHOICE 5, Contingency: Bioluminescence erupted from Fox's paddle strokes and the Milky Way lit up the sky. Fox began to relish the idea of paddling through the night, but as the gentle breeze grew into a 20-knot headwind, an emergency landing seemed the best option.

CHOICE 6, The Attempt: "I remembered from the map a series of rocks that could offer safe passage to Indian Beach," says Fox. "So I went for it. It was dark and all I could see around me were whitecaps." A freight-train wave capsized Fox and broke his paddle. He managed to roll up, but when the next wave rolled him again he was forced to wet-exit.

CHOICE 7, Hypothermia: A lull in the waves gave Fox a window to scramble back into his boat, grab his spare paddle and empty the cockpit. After the swim and 10 hours on the water, his energy was drained. He began to shiver. He judged the risk of hypothermia to be greater than that of a night landing in heavy surf.

CHOICE 8, Last Chance: Fox felt as if he was paddling in a dream, separated from the lights of Cannon Beach by a wall of surf. A monster wave overtook him as he made a dash for the beach. "The wave literally fell on me, and within a second the kayak was broken in two below my knees," he recalls. "It was quite a swim."

FINAL CHOICE, Return to the Sea: When his feet touched shore, Fox felt "grateful for the fact that I was alive." Though humbled, he plans to try again next year. "I think there will be a joy that would not have been there had I done it on my first attempt."

On shore the next morning. Photo: Daniel Fox
After the accident. Photo courtesy Daniel Fox

–See more on Fox’s Close Call.

–Read Fox’s tips for paddling photography.

–This feature originally ran in the March 2015 issue.