Some events are so singular, they prove quite tough to use in a story.
If the event one seeks to relate is striking, and shoots far past the realm of the ordinary or the expected, it can seem like a Deus ex Machina—that odious plot solution used in melodrama. (Via this clumsy device, gods meddle in human affairs to foist an artificial result upon all participants.)
Deploying such a solution tends to gut a story, since resolution is no longer in the hands of its characters. Thus the tale loses all human scale, and also any genuine human significance.
I meditate upon this now because of an event that happened to me some 30 years ago. It’s one that I’ve never managed to use in a work of fiction, or piece of journalism—or scribble about in any fashion at all. Not until this moment.
However, I present it to you in all of its rather unlikely glory: I once surfed atop a tsunami.
WAVE BYE-BYE, HONEY
The nearest I’ve come to writing about it before was in my most recent novel, “Came A Horseman.” In that book, I conjured up a scene where a sea kayaker wrecks on a rural coast after being snatched up by a mighty storm swell. That scene was largely based on my own crash landing on the Klamath River Bar during my 2005 voyage from the Oregon border to San Francisco Bay. (You can read about that real-life episode here.)
But I’d never tried to describe my earlier tsunami ride, in fiction or in journalism. Because in fiction it would overwhelm if not obliterate the remaining parts of any story (see above). And the episode also seemed too difficult to present in that factual and verifiable manner that a resolute journalism tradition ought to demand.
You see, I had no witnesses. And not much in the way of hard evidence, either.
Except for one major bit: shortly after 11 a.m. on the morning of April 25th, 1992, a 7.2 earthquake erupted on the Mendocino Triple Junction, a major Pacific Coast fault. This offshore junction is where three tectonic plates jam against each other: the North American Plate, the Pacific Plate, and the Gorda Plate. The junction is generally regarded as the northern terminus of the legendary San Andreas Fault.
Back when the USGS (the United States Geological Survey) owned a headquarters in Menlo Park on the San Francisco Peninsula, its staff mounted a visual display of earthquake activity a visitor could glimpse as soon as he/she walked in the front door. Every temblor recorded over the past century or so was awarded an orange dot to mark its epicenter on a map of California. A string of dots marched up the San Andreas. But when you reached the Triple Junction, one saw a gigantic blotch of overlapping dots.
It looked as if a graffiti artist had emptied a whole can of Day-Glo whilst merrily tagging the map. Which might suggest to even a casual observer this spot is sort of active. Or, in mortal words of our bluesy, boogie-woogie bard, Jerry Lee Lewis, that place has “a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.”
Y’know, in my own modest way, I’ve also been active. I functioned as an outdoors writer for most years of my professional life because I’ve always felt much more alive and inspired when attempting an act highly physical—and hopefully arduous—out in nature. Of all outdoor sports I’ve tried, high up in my top five, has been kayak surfing. I was on the first USA team that went to Ireland to compete in 1988, I helped launch contests back home on the West Coast, and so on and so forth.
FAIRLY FLAT, ‘CEPT WHEN IT AIN’T
Thus it came to pass that on the morning of April 25, 1992, I was out in my surf kayak goofing around with a handful of pals in a surf zone that extends south of the Maverick’s Reef near Half Moon Bay. I say “goofing” because there wasn’t a lot to get excited about. On that particular morning, the Pacific Ocean lived up (or down) to its peaceable name by staying mostly calm. In our quest for rideable swells, we paddled over the ridge of submarine rock that sprawls south from Maverick’s. We only occasionally found a small peak that would kick up but soon subside.
We paddled more than we rode. Eventually, my companions succumbed to utter eyelid-fluttering boredom and went off to Pillar Point Harbor to score lunch. Such a pursuit promised a more tangible reward than what they’d accomplished in a whole morning out with me.
Hoping against hope that a decent swell might still crop up, I chose to hang by myself out at sea a bit longer. As I did, I kept gazing westward, hoping to spot a lump. But all I saw was an odd fog formation, a long and low line of pale color that ran across the entire horizon.
Hmmm. Not only was that a strange shape for fog to take, it seemed to be swelling in size as it slid rapidly toward me. But how could it move that way on a day that boasted just about zero breeze?
THAT’S NOT A MOON—IT’S A SPACE STATION
I strained my eyes, seeking to figure out what I saw, and strained my brain also. Despite my decades on the water, I observed a phenomenon that seemed inexplicable, even surreal. Finally, as my sixth-grade teacher, Sister Charles Catherine, might’ve said, “dawn broke on Marble Head.”
I realized I wasn’t looking at some bizarre fog bank. I was regarding a wave—one whose foaming crest spread for a far grander length than any wave I’d ever seen. Since it was generating foam that far out to sea, it had to be rather tall, too.
This revelation sparked a burst of panic and dread. Which then sparked something else.
A prevailing cliché about any adrenalin boost is that it prompts a “flight or fight” response in the human body. Actually, it presents a few other options as well, including “freeze,” or “furiously-seek-to-figure-it-out.”
That latter choice has been my reigning favorite over the years, especially when it can be mated with, “take fast action.”
I knew waves deliver most of their energy and become most chaotic when they “stub their toe” on shallow water, and at that very moment my kayak sat right above a reef. I also knew that to the east of me lay a channel of somewhat deeper water that was the north-south boat route into the harbor, marked by a line of buoys.
That was the place that I thought I needed to be in order to have a chance of surviving this giant wave in an amiable fashion. I spun my boat around and paddled like hell.
FEET, DO YOUR STUFF
But, here I made a discovery: a tsunami cannot be outrun. They’re just too bloody fast. The first surge from the April 25 quake traveled the 305 sea-miles from Cape Mendocino to Monterey in just 64 minutes. And yes, that’s roughly 300 mph. Depending on the strength of the pulse, in deep water, a tsunami can even exceed 500 mph.
What’s traveling is energy, not water itself. Water’s simply the conductive medium. Water flexes or undulates as the pulse travels along, in nearly the same way that a blast of sound or a shock wave can rocket through air, using it as a medium. However, water itself is not moved in any significant fashion until the wave stubs its toe, whereupon the disrupted energy snatches up much of the ambient water, then hurls it onto land.
As I paddled frantically to the boat channel, I kept tossing glances over my shoulder at the approaching wave. I saw it come on so damn fast, I felt like a man attempting to run a sprint over a sheet of oiled glass.
A mere tenth of the wave was green face; atop that was a giant roll of foam. A second or two remained before it would gobble me up.
I knew if I got buried in that hill of foam I could not take any breath without choking. So while I furiously paddled, I also hyperventilated, seeking to saturate my blood with as much oxygen as I could.
My stern scooted up the face and in an instant my whole world went blank—by which I mean, blanc. It wasn’t the blinding whiteout of a gentle snowfall, but a far different critter, roiling and forceful and chaotic and turbulent. It resembled that old carnival ride, Tilt-A-Whirl, but even less predictable. Up, down, forward or back turned into vague concepts. I knew everything depended on remaining upright. If my kayak began to tumble, if my spray skirt popped open and my cockpit filled with water, I would be swept along for the entire ride.
And at some point, this thing was going to slam into land.
A TRULY BRACING EXPERIENCE
My luck, such as it was, consisted of the fact that I’d already been surfing a lot for 10 years, and paddling whitewater for still longer. My Eskimo roll wasn’t quite bomber, however my bracing skills were formidable. (Ideally, a kayak is transformed into the lower half of a paddler’s body, and each twitch, pitch, or hitch of the hull informs the paddler where and how to throw a stroke, many of which are brace strokes that keep the kayak from overturning.)
Amid that heaving foam pile I threw more brace strokes in more wildly different directions much more swiftly than I ever had in my life.
Then I felt a slight stiffening of water resistance beneath my hull. I might still be immersed in that roiled foam pile, but I sensed the wave had reached that deeper water of the boat channel and so it temporarily had begun to assume a more classic shape. This offered me a slim chance to escape before the looming bugger hustled into the next set of shallows and crashed ashore. I dug my paddle blade as deep as I could and stroked hard. I broke out of the foam pile and slid at high rate of speed down the steep green face. And I could take a deep breath again!
Which I really liked.
But I couldn’t indulge myself or waste so much as a fraction of a second. I knew my dice had to be tossed on whether I could collect enough momentum to slice back through the foam and escape off the back of this wave prior to its impact onshore.
The kayak that I rode, a Phoenix ARC, was a low-volume squirt boat with extremely sharp rails. Its best trick was its ability to spin on a dime, then award a paddler eight cents in change.
So, that’s what I did.
BACK DOOR MAN
I charged headlong down its face, cranked my hardest possible bottom turn as soon as I reached its trough, then charged straight back up the wave’s steep face to try to pierce its foam. Once immersed, I had to throw a lot more braces. For an instant, I teetered on the edge of being imprisoned by the foam yet again. But then I was through it and dropping in open air as the huge wave hurtled onward and left me behind.
I splashed down into relatively level water. My mouth stretched wide as I panted, struggling to backfill my large oxygen deficit. Meanwhile I scanned frantically out to sea. But I saw no more phony “fog banks” out on the horizon.
I wondered what might be going on behind my stern, as that big swell slammed ashore. Would it manifest as a “never turn your back on the sea” rogue wave that knocked beachcombers off their legs and rinsed them into the drink, that drowned dogs and wrecked piers and sank boats?
I hope not!
Welp, my own part was over, and I desperately wished for the gig to remain a one-act play. I pointed my bow at Pillar Point harbor and stroked for home.
Once there, over many subsequent days, I scanned the news. I heard about the $75 million dollars in quake damage in coastal towns near Cape Mendocino, even odd events like the second-story toilet still held aloft on a drainpipe while the rest of the home had crumbled all around it. That phenom had occurred up near Petrolia. But I never heard anything about anybody getting injured by any tsunami in the entire Greater Bay Area.
It may be that the energy dissipated more rapidly than I imagined. A direct route, like the deep-water line from the Cape to Monterey, offered much more peril. What I’d seen and experienced was that energy spreading out to one side as it had coursed directly southward. Wherever it bent east, it also began to drag across the continental shelf.
Within San Francisco Bay proper, for example, a surge was not recorded until more than two hours after the quake. By contrast, the Monterey surge had arrived in a single hour.
BEYOND THE EVENT HORIZON
As a writer, I then faced a challenge. What to do with my experience? Lacking any witness or photographic evidence, I didn’t feel I could write it up as a piece of journalism, not even as a “reported” opinion column. On my outdoors newspaper page, such a first-person account could come across as egoistic—since I owned no way to demonstrate my yarn was neither imaginary nor exaggerated. And in the years after, I never could think up a way to insert it in a piece of fiction without having it fully dominate the story, and make everything else in it utterly shrivel by compare.
So, a few days ago, I just decided to write it up for this newsletter, presenting it as a stand-alone essay to illuminate a particular type of writing challenge. Reading it over, that choice seems a decent solution. Since, among other goals, I do aim to make my monthly missive a treasure chest for singularities…
And here’s a fresh marker to plant beside that road.
So, onward. Bons voyages, y’all!