17 October, 2017
By David Helme
It was late afternoon and we wanted to get out of the house, so we drove down to Clover Point. A gale was blowing. The kiteboarders were off the bluff zipping back and forth, bouncing over the waves.
We drove around the circle drive and parked facing east as we usually do. The wind buffeted the van from behind and made streak marks on the water in front of us. Waves rolled and galloped passed the point, some breaking in white caps but the water was mostly a frigid grey. In the eastern sky there were hints of blue where the cloud was a thin smear.
There was little activity on the water. There no boats going to and fro. No freighters out on the strait. And there was no wildlife to be seen along the shore, with the exception of the resident gulls and pigeons which were in the air. My wife, Toshie, remarked on the “lack of entertainment.” The wind surfers were behind us, on the west side of the point.
Then a paddle boarder came into view about 100 meters off the end of the point. He had the wind at his back and was heading across Ross Bay in the direction of Gonzales. We had seen people go by on paddle boards before when the weather was warm and the water flat calm, but never in the fall during a storm. There was something wrong with this picture. It was a bit like seeing someone riding a bicycle through the air.
The paddler was not dressed for the water or the weather. He had nothing on his feet, which were being washed constantly by the freezing water, and no shirt on his back. He wore a pair of shorts but that was all.
He seemed to be in a hurry to get where he was going. He paddled hard between waves, and then surfed the wave, standing, managing, albeit just barely, to keep upright on the board as the wave lifted him and the board. The surfer surged forward on the wave and down. He was being swept along at a good pace and was disappearing in the greyness when another paddler appeared off the point.
The second paddler was not as steady on the board as the first, and slipped off into the water just after passing the point. We expected the paddler to get back up on the board and get going again, but the paddler remained in the water. The paddler swam towards the board for about 10 seconds and then stopped. Then we noticed that the board was free and making its own way east. The distance between the board and the paddler widened rapidly with every wave that passed beneath it. The paddler had stopped and was treading water.
We got out of the van. The wind was blowing hard enough that we had to pull back on the doors to shut them. There was a handful of people standing on the grass in front of their cars. They were waving the paddler to come in. Someone said someone had called 911.
The paddler was facing shore now. The board was gone. He waved his arms above his head once, twice. Everyone waved back. It seemed like a long time before he started swimming to shore.
I walked past a woman who said calmly that there was nothing we could do. She kept her eyes fixed on the swimmer. I got the message. The paddler would have to make it on his own. I assumed this was the person who had called 911. I did not feel calm. My emotions had started to churn inside me.
A young man stood on the rocks where they jutted out farthest in the direction of the paddler. Other people moved down towards the water. A higgledy-piggledy line to the water was forming.
I went down the steep path to the rocky shore below and looked for wood I could throw in the water. My wife was yelling at me but I could not hear what she was saying.
The paddler continued to swim towards us. He did the crawl with head up. Long, even strokes and then later the breast stroke or sidestroke. I can’t remember which. You could not tell if he was making good progress or not. But he was getting closer and that was a good sign.
I had found a large round of wood and stumbled over the rocks with it cradled in my arms, my feet twisting in the crocs I was wearing. I didn’t know what I would do with it. Then as it looked like the paddler was at the halfway mark or so and was going to make it. I tossed the round aside and went to join the others near the water’s edge. We stood in silence watching the paddler swim towards us.
Blankets were passed down to the man standing on the rocky point who had been joined by a few others.
As the paddler got closer we saw that he was a she. When she got to near the rock people reached out to her. She found footing and slowly got herself out of the water while holding someone’s hand. We looked on. We were all rather quiet as we examined this sea-borne apparition.
She was asked her if she was alright. She did not say much and she showed no signs of emotion. She said the water was cold. After getting her balance, she straightened up. She was a big-boned young woman. She wore tight black riding shorts or some such and the flower-print top of a swimsuit. She had a bump and bruising on her right cheek below the eye. Her long thick arms had a reddish tinge to them. (My wife remembers them as being white.) With the blanket draped across her shoulders, she stood there on the rocks. She seemed in no hurry to get to higher ground. She turned towards the bay and looked out at the water.