Jamaica Circumnavigation Attempt Cut Short

Sometimes the Ocean has Another Plan: ‘Tek ah ruff life eazy’

1. Port Antonio was protected from both weather and sea conditions, making it an ideal place to launch.
Port Antonio was protected from both weather and sea conditions, making it an ideal place to launch.

Story by Helen Wilson | Photos by Mark Tozer, Wes Moses and Alan ‘Skanka’ Hottat

I guess I should start by saying there’s no such thing as a bad expedition. When setting off, you can’t expect for everything to go as planned, and if it did, where’s the adventure in that? What you hope for though, is that you’ll have the odds in your favor. You expect to have good days and not so good days, ups and downs, but that things will keep moving forward. A Jamaican proverb tells it all, "Donkey sey, deh whurl noh level." (Donkey says that the world isn't level).

If you read my previous blog, you’ll know that Wes Moses, Mark Tozer and I were attempting to become the first sea kayakers to circumnavigate Jamaica but had been running into some difficulties with the weather and sea conditions. In addition to waiting for a weather window to open up so that we could launch, Wes had been having problems with his back and was doing everything he could on land to make it so that he’d be comfortable enough to paddle when our window opened up. Unfortunately, despite stretching, ice, resting, and walking, Wes was unable to continue.

Our weather window never really fully opened, but it cracked enough so that Mark and I felt like we had a chance to cover some distance. So Wes and photographer Skanka escorted Mark and I to Port Antonio. The harbor was incredibly protected, but just outside we could see steep, marching swells, covered in whitecaps, most of which were spilling at the tops, but some were turning into full, breaking open-ocean waves. At least now, as opposed to previous days, the swell and wind would be behind us. Mark and I were ready to go.

2. Paddling behind Navy Island (a historic island once owned by Errol Flynn) enabled us to enjoy a relaxed paddle in clear, calm water with spectacular scenery and an undisturbed sea for the first two kilometers.
Paddling behind Navy Island (a historic island once owned by Errol Flynn) enabled us to enjoy a relaxed paddle in clear, calm water with spectacular scenery and an undisturbed sea for the first two kilometers.

A glance at the map told us that the headland to our left was in fact an island. It only took us about half a second to unanimously decide to paddle behind it, therefore procrastinating on our inevitable downwind run.

Much of Jamaica is surrounded by a reef, and as we rounded the island we noticed some very large waves forming over a shallow area. As we paddled closer, I became mesmerized by how clean the waves were. From one side of the harbor to the other, row after row of perfectly symmetrical waves broke evenly. The ones at the front were small and clean, and the ones at the back seemed massive, but still clean. The break was so perfect, there wasn’t even a channel to sneak through.

Mark and I separated enough so that we could make the crossing together without the concern of running into each other. As we punched through the first couple of breaks, the warm spray in my face surprised me. We’d been in Jamaica over a week, and still I was expecting the tingle of cold water. We were paddling through at a gentle, but steady pace, trying to conserve our energy for the larger waves at the back. We were enjoying timing each wave so that we’d reach the top and drop down the back with a graceful splash. I was loving it! With each wave I’d glance over at Mark, and his timing seemed to be exactly the same as mine.

I stayed tucked and felt a strange crunching sensation in my collarbone. I was still sealed in my kayak, but now I was lying on my right shoulder in the sand, getting swirled back and forth.

Timing will only take you so far though, and at one point I saw a wave start to curl in front of me and realized that I was about to get clobbered. I had three choices: paddle as hard as I could, putting myself right in the impact zone, roll over and let the bottom of my kayak take the hit, or keep paddling and inevitably get surfed backwards. I opted to paddle hard into the wave, and as predicted I felt it collapse on top of me. I felt it pick me up and begin to surf my boat, but I kept paddling as hard as I could and maintained enough speed to start moving forward again after just a couple of seconds.

While I was in the wave, I felt something hit me hard in the chest but was in no position to stop and look. Once I was out of the surf zone, though, I looked down at my chest and was surprised to see my hydration pack stuck to it. The pack had been attached to my deck lines in four places, but the force of the wave had released it and thrown it at me. I glanced toward Mark,and we stopped for a minute to marvel at the back of the waves; then we turned west for our downwind run.

Because of the direction of the wind and swell, we had to work hard to keep our kayaks on track. Each breaking wind wave would spin us slightly, making it hard to maintain a straight line. It was a gorgeous day, however, and the sunshine, flying fish and clear water kept our spirits high. The swell was large that day, and every now and then we’d pass an island and watch large waves crash into them. Occasionally the swell around the islands became steep enough to break around the edges, and the breaks would continue all the way to the mainland, a distance of close to a mile in some cases. Needless to say, we stayed far outside.

The open sea was gorgeous as well, and we made good progress with both the wind and the swell behind us.
The open sea was gorgeous as well, and we made good progress with both the wind and the swell behind us.

When we arrived in Orange Bay we called Wes on the marine radio. He had a visual on us, but we’d not yet spotted him or the guesthouse where we’d be staying. We moved in closer to the shore paying extra attention to the surf on the beach. In some places it seemed relatively flat, and in others it appeared huge. After a few minutes we saw Wes on the beach. It wasn’t the flattest place we’d passed, but it certainly wasn’t the bumpiest either. We paddled closer, scoping it out the best we could.

After spotting Wes and Skanka, we carefully approached the guesthouse in Orange Harbor.
After spotting Wes and Skanka, we carefully approached the guesthouse in Orange Harbor.

I started paddling in at a steady pace, constantly glancing over my shoulder to see what was coming in behind me. I backed over a couple of large steep waves, and a quick glance behind me told me now was my chance, and I followed them in, trying to stay right behind them. My bow hit the sand, but the beach had a strong undertow and pulled me backwards, tilting me to the right. I threw in a low brace, but a wave running parallel to the shore pushed me over toward the brace and onto the sand.

I stayed tucked and felt a strange crunching sensation in my collarbone. I was still sealed in my kayak, but now I was lying on my right shoulder in the sand, getting swirled back and forth. “Sand roll,” crossed through my head, but my right arm wouldn’t move, and my left arm had instinctively grabbed onto it. “Help me,” I called out, and Wes ran over. Still getting swirled around in the soup, he pulled my sprayskirt and I felt myself being dragged out of the kayak and up the beach by the shoulder strap on my PFD.

I lay on the sand and still couldn’t move my arm. I was convinced that I’d dislocated my shoulder.

Despite careful timing, sometimes landing on an unfamiliar beach can have surprises. In this case, the surprise was an incredibly strong undertow and rock-hard sand. This pictures shows one piece of my broken clavicle "tenting" the skin.
Despite careful timing, sometimes landing on an unfamiliar beach can have surprises. In this case, the surprise was an incredibly strong undertow and rock-hard sand. This pictures shows one piece of my broken clavicle “tenting” the skin.

With Mark’s support I was able to use my left hand to show him where it hurt. I touched the place that the pain was radiating from and was surprised to find a hard lump. Soon, we were on our way to the hospital. The hospital was small, providing basic health services, and the staff was friendly. After X-Rays we were notified that my clavicle was broken, and the bump sticking out was in fact one side of the bone. Unfortunately, the break wasn’t lining up, so the doctor gave me a local anesthetic and then tried to manually manipulate the two pieces together. It didn’t work, and we were told to go to a bigger hospital in Kingston. Two more hospitals later, talk of emergency surgery and taking a piece of bone from my hip to do a graft, I decided I wanted to go home and see my own doctor. Getting a flight, however, was not easy, and finally I was able to fly from Jamaica to Panama City to Los Angeles to San Francisco, and finally, to Arcata, where a friend met me and drove me straight to the doctor. This was nine days after the bone had been broken. Three days later I had surgery to put all of the pieces back together with a row of screws and a plate, and my doctor assured me that the break would heal in about six weeks and I’d be stronger than even before I broke it.

In addition to X-rays, examination and an attempt to manually put the ends of the bone together, the nice doctors washed the sand out of my ears.
In addition to X-rays, examination and an attempt to manually put the ends of the bone together, the nice doctors washed the sand out of my ears.

So what happened? That’s the question. And my only answer is that life happened. Jamaica was hit by unusually wild weather and ocean conditions. People in Jamaica reported that the waves are much bigger than normal, and the conditions even gave the local sailors a fight on their annual New Year’s outings. Beaches were being washed away, and there was a shortage of fish to eat because the seas were too big for the fishermen to get out. And all of this fell into the timeframe of when we’d planned to do this expedition.

As for the accident, I really felt like I did everything “right.” We used technique and experience to sneak behind an island, break through a large surf zone, use the seas and the wind to our advantage, and we timed our landing so that we got through a surf zone to the beach without even surfing. I tucked on impact, but I hit the sand exactly right to break my clavicle. The lesson, I believe, is that sometimes the odds are not in your favor. You expect to have good days and not so good days, but things sometimes don’t move forward.

From the moment we started the expedition, things didn't go as planned. It wasn't the adventure that we planned, but it was the adventure that we had. The teamwork was amazing and we made the best of the expedition. I am currently at home, recovering from surgery. Wes is in Seattle with family receiving treatment for his back, which turned out to be a slipped disc. And Mark is picking up the pieces. There is a saying in Jamaica, 'Tek ah ruff life eazy' (Take a rough life easy), and that is exactly what we are doing!

So are we done? Will we try it again? Absolutely, we can’t end on that note… stay tuned.

–Read more sea kayaking tips and trip reports from Helen Wilson, or visit her website: www.greenlandorbust.org

–Check out more photos from C&K.

Five hospitals and twelve days later, the doctors at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, California were able to put me back together with a plate and a row of screws.
Five hospitals and twelve days later, the doctors at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, California were able to put me back together with a plate and a row of screws.