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Escape From Glass Window Bridge - A Kiting Sea Story

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RickI
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Escape From Glass Window Bridge - A Kiting Sea Story

Postby RickI » Fri Apr 28, 2017 5:06 am

"Escape, escape from what? Why, escape from the sea."

Or a short story about how and why I placed myself into this extraordinary
life threatening situation and how I managed to get out of it.


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Want to get out, here you go. This is the best, perhaps only realistic place to exit the ocean along five or so miles of wave pounded, 25 to 80 ft. vertical rock cliffs in the area of Glass Window Bridge, Eleuthera in the Central Bahamas. I am near the center of the frame in all that white water.


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Sending my kite to safety high up on the cliffs. Next how to get myself up there in one piece to join it?


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"X" marks the spot between North and Central Eleuthera or about 225 miles ESE of Miami and 52 miles ENE of Nassau.


Part I - Some Background on Glass Window Bridge


I enjoy photographing dramatic structures such as shipwrecks, lighthouses and geologic features while kiting using GoPro cameras. I also have had a passion for open ocean round trip kiting runs, at times challenging ones going back a dozen years or more. These kiting runs have happened both at home and abroad in some exotic settings. So, this experience combined aspects that were well familiar along with some new, alarming hazards that I had the opportunity to try to learn about on the fly. This overview provides a look at some of the basis for what was to develop into a somewhat unhealthy fascination for the place. The fascination still exists but hopefully the lust to get up close and personal with the hazardous side of this dramatic and occasionally violent place has ebbed in the face of experience.


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The view south over the area of Glass Window Bridge into Central Eleuthera. There are the deep cobalt waters of the Atlantic to the east with the light powder blue waters over the brilliant white carbonate sands of the Bahamian Plateau to the west. I shot this photo in 2014 when Capt. J. P. Robinson and I flew over to the island for some kiting and diving one weekend in March. It was an amazing action packed visit to this world class destination. I visited the area again for just 24 hours in January 2016 which is in large part the subject of this article.


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Note the wave cut caverns at the cliff base. These common erosion features at the base of these tall cliffs will play a role in the story as things proceed. The cliff on the far right is 80 ft. high, something you don't see in my home state of Florida.


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I first became aware of Glass Window Bridge and the remarkable characteristics of the place not too many years back despite having visited the Bahamas for approaching half a century. The narrow strip of limestone cliffs between North and Central Eleuthera are dramatic in appearance. The shear violence of waves during "rages" or periods of major wave activity and runup along this coast and related lore are striking. (photo from panoramio.com)


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A rage captured by Jackeline Brignoni DeMiller. In past events, folks have seen the large waves barreling in from the horizon to shoal to substantial heights and slam into the island in vast explosions of spray.


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The nearer cliff with all the receding water is south of the bridge and about 60 ft. high. Some powerful waves were running through on that day.


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The proximity of the deep waters of the open Atlantic, large fetch and unusual bathymetry including that projecting shoal to the south likely contribute to the remarkable rages and wave/spray runup in this area.
https://www.uow.edu.au/content/groups/p ... 014953.pdf


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This geologic work of others indicate that the seaward or eastern promontories of the cliff are comprised of a limestone shelf topped with some massive boulders. The boulders have been estimated to approach 35,000 cubic feet in size and weight about 2500 tons. It is theorized that the boulders were flung up here during extremely powerful tsunami or other massive storm waves during the later Holocene. Such theorectical violent storms of such remarkable extremity are outside our present day experience fortunately. More at https://www.uow.edu.au/content/groups/p ... 014953.pdf


and still a good deal more about the geology of these impressive features in Paul Hearty's work at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pa ... istory.pdf


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You can make out a horizontal line seperating a massive boulder that was thrown there from the limestone strata beneath it which formed in place.


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A rendering from 1877 of Glass Windows arch, located on Harbour Island (?) as presented in an article, "Isles of June," Scribners Nov. 1877 I was fascinated by this place the first time I saw it in person for many reasons, historical, scientific and from a waterman's perspective. Plus there is a singular atmosphere about the place. I can imagine this feeling pervading the minds of visitors going back through time even to Pre-Columbian days. I don't know that any record survives of those early impressions, they are left to our imagination.


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I spent a good deal of time attempting to find a photograph of the rock arch before it fell into the sea. Ironically, I found a partial image in a book I recently acquired, "Stark's History and Guide to the Bahama Islands" (1891). An online version of the book can be found at http://ufdc.ufl.edu/CA01200011/00001/1j It would be great if I could find a wider angle view of the entire rock arch, still looking (hint).


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Another illustration of "Glass Windows" from "The Atlantic Islands As Resorts of Health and Pleasure" by S.G.W. Benjamin (1878). The rock bridge is looking pretty thin in this rendering. Is the arch pending time to collapse or the result of artistic license?


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Winslow Homer painted Glass Windows arch during his Bahamian sojourn. Homer visited the region during winters between 1884-1885 doing now famous water colors on island themes for "The Century Illustrated Monthly," a successor publication to Scribners. Some say Homer was responsible for the name "Glass Window Bridge" given the viewing pane aspect of his artistic rendering. There is some confusion as to whether Homer painted the rock arch at Glass Window or another similar but possibly smaller rock arch at Hole-In-The-Wall at the south end of Great Abaco. I understand several bridges were subsequently constructed and destroyed by heavy seas through time.


One article summarizes the destruction of the rock arch and history of the man-made bridges as follows:

"NATURES FURY can be devastating. For centuries, there was a natural stone bridge connection between north and south Eleuthera. Phillip Thompson of Gregory Town remembers his parents talking about taking walks over it on a regular basis. Then in the 1940's, several hurricanes combined to destroy the seemingly-immortal land bridge and a concrete replacement was built. For decades, this bridge was patched with reinforced concrete, but in 1992 and 1999 Mother Nature struck again without mercy. Hurricane Andrew chipped away at the old bridge significantly in '92, but in '99 the real damage came.

For more than 2 days and nights, Hurricane Floyd, a Category 4 hurricane, pounded the area of the Glass Window with persistently-high winds and waves until nothing of the original Glass Window remained. Although the bridge was repaired and Queen's Highway re-connected within a few months, the geography of Eleuthera has changed forever. Even after four years, workers stay busy reinforcing the shoreline in order to re-pave the severely eroded asphalt.

The name "Glass Window" is still used, however, to describe the opening that connects the Atlantic and Caribbean oceans. Although natural rock has been replaced by man-made steel and concrete, the sense of awe still lingers. Stop the car and climb the rocks. Then marvel at the power of the Atlantic surf pounding against and through the narrow cut. The feeling is spectacular!."
http://www.bahama-vacation.com/glass_window.html


Hurricane Floyd was a very bad hurricane for the Bahamas and elsewhere. I recall it cut a new inlet through the island of Elbow Cay in the Abacos. Wiki has this to say about it: "Hurricane Floyd lashed the Bahamas with winds of 155 mph (249 km/h) and waves up to 50 ft (15 m) in height.[7] A 20 ft (6.10 m) storm surge inundated many islands with over five ft (1.5 m) of water throughout.[12]" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Floyd Such powerful wind waves likely sent a horrific rage to this coast with all the attendant damage.


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It seems was akin to the Hole-In-The-Wall rock exposure at the south end of Great Abaco. Looking at the apparent scale it seems likely that the Eleuthera arch was larger. I was sad to learn this wonderful rock structure also fell into the sea in recent years. More at:
http://rollingharbour.com/2012/04/08/ab ... y-in-maps/



Brett Davis of Frangipani shot and edited a great drone video over Glass Window Bridge during a rage in 2014. Brett is also a kitesurfer, excellent professional photography specializing in singular Bahamian photo shoots and is an accomplished drone pilot. https://www.facebook.com/FrangipaniPhotography/
https://vimeo.com/114161523



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NZDYiVBBCc
Another video which accents some of the physical processes of a rage, sloshing waves with incoming waves hitting reflected waves, the overtopping of Bahamian plateau light blue waters with roiling foam from deepwater waves and the gamesmanship of cars attempting to navigate this hazardous stretch of road.


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The bridge being rammed about 8 feet westward and toppling a lane of traffic off into the water to the west during the "Perfect Storm" of 1991. http://bit.ly/1K2hF4A This and subsequent storms came close to destroying the bridge entirely. Since that time it has been repeatedly repaired but it is thought that it might be taken out entirely by a future storm event. This bridge provides an important transportation link for the island of Eleuthera. Access is periodically closed to traffic during times of unsafe wave activity. Both trucks, cars and people have been swept off the bridge over the years. A story about once such accident in 1996 appears at http://www.eleuthera-map.com/rage-glass ... idge-1.htm Ninetenth century accounts speak of a picnic party of young people being dashed by a sudden wave with the loss of some. I suspect the stone land bridge may have had special significance and provided a source of spiritual significance and fear among the Arawacks well before Pre-Columbian times on the island.

The conditions that create a rage, seem to include powerful, longer period waves from a distant or nearby wind or tectonic source. Stories relate how distance waves have been seen sweeping in from the horizon to strike the cliffs. Local wisdom says to wait at least five minutes after the onset or for the passage of the seventh wave to rush across the bridge to hope to avoid being washed over the side into the rocks.



https://vimeo.com/161713890
Watch this video!
An exciting video of two local Bahamians running the wave gauntlet in an attempt to make it across the bridge and wave impact zone during a rage. Be sure to turn the volume up to capture the dialog.


A number of people have been washed off the cliffs during rages and lost. There is a famous story of Sam Pedican lost in 1934 and possibly occupants of a car related in a well written account at "Call to Lower Bogue." http://www.eleuthera-map.com/rage-glass ... idge-1.htm


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A recent look at the east side of the bridge with concrete delimination and spalling.


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I wanted to thank Mrs. Ross of the Haynes Library in Governor's Harbour whom I contacted during my research for this article. The Library, nearby Cupid's Cay and Governor's Harbour itself are well worth visiting. https://www.facebook.com/hayneslibraryeleuthera/


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The approximate course I took from Harbour Island to Glass Window Bridge in 2014. At that time the wind was quite light to near stalling also I was concerned about land effects negatively impacting the wind. The wind was near dead onshore in the area of Glass Window prompting fears of a nearshore dead air zone. So, I stayed well offshore for most of the passage. With tacking the run was around 10 miles in total.


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A shot from my successful kiting run down to and back from Glass Window Bridge from Harbour Island in 2014. The wind was very light and waves small at around 3 to 4 ft. or less. Given the violent runup of waves and incomplete understanding of the phenomena I didn't want to go out in much more than those sort of seas. Even with that waves/spray were bursting up 50 ft. just to the north of Glass Window Bridge. The wind was so light that I was concerned about being able to relaunch the kite from the water if it stalled. So, I was very careful to keep it flying and staying well offshore from potential dead air pockets created by the cliffs in the onshore breeze.



(To be continued in Part II)


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RickI
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Re: Escape From Glass Window Bridge - A Kiting Sea Story

Postby RickI » Fri Apr 28, 2017 5:08 am


Part II - 2016 Kiting Run From Harbour Island to Glass Window Bridge

(scroll up for Part I - Some Background on Glass Window Bridge)


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There was a beautiful start to the day as is so often the case in the islands. I walked down to capture the dawn off Harbour Island that morning.


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"X" still marks the spot of this adventure on this chart from the early 1700's by Johann Baptist Homann.


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I came back with Dan a couple hours later for my planned roundtrip run down to Glass Window bridge and back.


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Pulling away from Harbour Island in 2016 to test the wind and see how well I could tack upwind to judge whether it is worthwhile to run down to Glass Window Bridge. I was carrying three GoPro cameras shooting twice each second. This included one looking at me from the kite using a SKORD MOUNT, another looking out the back of the kite canopy for that artistic view and lastly my old standby camera on the helmet. This provided minute documentation of this run from multiple perspectives, at least until cameras were taken out of play by various steps along the way. Checking local and distant weather conditions out in the Atlantic, there were no obvious systems to propagate "rage-like" waves or more than fairly small waves in general during my session. If this weren't the case, it would provide good grounds to scrub the idea of a round winder to Glass Window Bridge.


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I left the beach at Harbour Island close to high tide which allowed me to skim over a lot of the dead elkhorn reef nearshore. I was on my favorite twin tip kiteboarding which draws very little water. At a lower tide, striking and being flung off your board at speed is fairly easy to do. I had let Dan know where I was going, how long I thought it would take (whoops) and when I thought I would be back. I was wearing my normal ragout including a helmet, NP High Hook harness for flotation and to carry signaling gear, Swiss Protection kevlar socks to keep my feet in one piece. I failed to bring gloves unlike in 2014, for the possibility of having to climb out. I was to buy an ACR ResQLink™ Personal Locator Beacon for just this sort of run, in another few months after this trip for challenging kiting and SUP runs.


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Passing by some of the large isolated buildings on the way to the bridge. This area can have some particularly strong wave runup even in smaller wave activity.


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The wind was both stronger and side onshore this time, lessening but not entirely removing concerns about fading wind near the rocks. I would reverse course to see how well I could make back upwind every 10 minutes or so. This was intended as insurance to help me get back to where I started. It improved with each check until the suddenly wind started to ease. The forecast had it building through the next day but in nature, things will depart from what is predicted at times. I started to try to work offshore in scissor tacks between two high cliff sections several hundred yards apart. I kept at this for over a half hour but ended up coming closer to shore rather than further off the rocks. I could have run downwind to the south needing less wind power than beating upwind would require. Unfortunately that choice would have had me landing in 50 to 80 ft. high vertical cliffs often with a large wave cut notches at the base. Like the roach hotels, I suspect you go in there but you don't come out at least not without being smashed into the rock and drowned.


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The southern turning around spot, I went back and forth for a quite while failing to make to windward and ultimately back to Great Harbour. Exiting here with all the caverns, over-handing rock ceilings and 50 ft. cliffs wasn't on. This resulted in a growing sense of serious foreboding. I might have been able to exit the water in this area of cliffs in theory but it was far from a certainty.


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Fortunately, I spotted one possible haul out location in 2014 and on Google Earth. It is that narrow "low-lying" area among all the cliffs. It was no accident that it was inshore of me as I centered my tacks over this small possible landing area. So, after an extented but futile effort to run offshore upwind and lacking other options I decided to land at this spot. (Photo from Panoramio.com)


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A surface view of what was a narrow pan area, the goal and my salvation, in the midst of some pretty high vertical cliffs and breaking waves.


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It took considerable maneuvering, a good deal more than I initially realized to pull this save off. This wasn't a viable exit area, most of the rocks looked like this or worse. My exit was south of this area.


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I tried riding in as close as I could but at one point, I had to drop off the board and try to side stroke closer. I was unable to attack the kite in sining fashion to power on to the plateau without risking stalling the kite in diminished wind and looming rock. To lose the kite like that was to risk wrapping myself up in line while still trying to exit the ocean.


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A lot of things start going through your head at this point and continue until you are safe on dry land, to stay. Guessing what if, analysis, weighing risks making a plan and placing things in motion. This area no doubt has a nice crop of large tiger, hammerhead and bull sharks and I'm about the only tender morsel floating along the surface for many miles. Still, this is a triage-like process, what are the greatest threats and in the order in which should they be addressed. Between waves, adverse currents, avoiding bashing into rocks, landing the kite and getting out of this bizarre reality I had dropped myself in, sharks fell off the list. Until and if sharks decided to crash this party it was just the waves, rocks and myself trying to come to a survivable accord.


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The view inside an exploding wave. After getting slammed like this 29 times (each one was caught by my helmet cam), swimming continuously, you start to get a bit worn out.


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Side stroking in while carrying the board along for about a half hour against a strong current outflow from water spilling off that rock shelf. I had hoped to surf on to the shelf but there was this strange stagnant node about 15 to 20 ft. off where there seemed to be no real net lateral transport of objects, i.e. balloons, boards, me. Also, try as I might, I was unable to yank myself in with the kite either. Still, with persistence things may eventually come to you or vis versa as in this case. Just remember to try to not swim against the strong current but to find a way around it.

I saw no boats anywhere throughout the entire session so help from that quarter wasn't on. I usually assume I am on my own when kiting even more so in out of the way places like this. When I concluded I would have to land within a narrow shelf close to the water I set up to make the best attempt that I could. I did some rapid learning about wave interactions and hydraulics in such a strange environment at the cost of a good deal of exertion.


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Last time I did this in 2014 things worked out better with both myself and my board making the roundtrip back to Harbour Island. It wasn't easy but I wasn't forced to self-rescue either. I had just enough wind to go the distance in 2014. This time in 2016 I had to make the best landing I could or stay out there until I was washed into the cliffs.


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Waves on the order of 5 to 12 ft. plus would come in occasionally bursting skyward against the rocks and flooding over the rock shelf with violence.


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The water level would drop rapidly below the level of the shelf with passing waves.


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An overhead view of the rock shelf and surrounding cliffs.


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I wanted to drop the kite on the downwind side of where I planned to climb out of this blender, ideally with the lines and bar out of the way. It took a long time to get this close, so I was more than ready to deactivate and release the kite. The trick was for me to end up on the flat plateau of rock, ten feet or so in the air in this shot. At other times, the water might be ten or so feet above the plateau with incoming surf and filling of the plateau like a bathtub. With waves coming through with a period of about 5 to 7 seconds timing my assault on the cliff.


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I had many waves explode over me confusing things a bit and making breathing more difficult. I was getting pretty tired by this point. Catch an exploding wave during a knackered inhalation and things might get particularly bad.


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FINALLY, off goes the kite on to the cliff as planned! The hard, easy part over, now on to the really hard stuff, joining the kite safely out of the ocean.


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I sent the kite leash right after it not wanting to have kite canopy, lines or anything else nearby to get tangled in or otherwise impede the next part of the self-rescue.


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Down my 17 m Contra kite goes. I learned later, seems like a year later, once I was onshore that the kite just stayed on the rocks motionless and undamaged for me to catchup. Way to go Cabrinha, excellent gear to count on when things go south and you get flushed with it! If you're going adventuring, it is good to have gear you can trust. It does't get much better than Cabrinha in my experience over many years of fun and demanding times on the water. http://www.cabrinhakites.com


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Now that the kite is out of the way, you can see it resting way up there on top of the cliff, I need to sort myself out. Getting out of this mess was going to take still more doing. This is a composite of two photos and one Stephanie Nikita formed her interpretation from. Her painting appears at the bottom of this article.


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Slowly coming closer to the cliffs while being buried in exploding waves at regular intervals.


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Getting close to the rocks, repeatedly and trying to climb out wasn't easy. I decided around this point to let go of my board as it was going to likely stop me from getting out of this place. I had that board for close to ten years and had used on great kiting adventures all over. It was a custom board dreamed up and fabricated by Lloyd Northrop III when he launched Waterboards. Lloyd was a great guy and well liked in the kiting community. He tragically passed away of natural causes in 2011 while kiting and surfing. I was heart sick to lose the board but somehow I think Lloyd would appreciate the tradeoff I was compelled to make. More at: http://fksa.org/showthread.php?p=48592


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I eventually worked in close enough to grab something with bare hands, jagged dead coral is all that is available but it will do. Unfortunately, the water fell suddenly yanking my grip free and so I fell back into the churning water. This happened twice before I hung on hard enough to stay put. My hands were sliced up sliding around on all that sharp rock but my feet were intact thanks to my Kevlar Swiss Protection socks, thanks guys! Their socks have saved me from several bad lacerations and likely some reconstructive surgeries too over the years. https://fyf.io


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Grabbing a hold of the rock and not allowing myself to be blown off by waves and dropped off when water fell between crests, at last!


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Lots of wave dunkings along the way. I am grateful for all my time free diving, sometimes in waves. It really helped to avoid swallowing water during the wave battering, swimming and climbing.


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In time I made it up on to the rock pan area, traversed around to the flat area and sat down away from the water to grab some much needed rest and recovery. I was exhausted, just laid back and breathed deeply, turned my helmet camera off and waited to catch my breath.


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Unfortunately, I hadn't counted on a massive wave coming in, inundating the entire flat rock area to a depth of 12 to 15 ft. and vacuuming everything back over the ledge and into the sea, including me. This was a wave which had flooded in at another time but illustrates just how things filled up. I had been sitting around where the "X" is before the water ran back out over the cliff with force. The lot sucked me right out and tossed me back into the sea, right where I had started! My helmet came off in the maelstrom but was bobbing nearby on the surface when I came up. A few choice and not readily printable words and then concluding well, I got out once, I'll just do it again. That is what I did growing more tired but heavily determined to get out of this mess. It took eight minutes of fighting but I made it back up.


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Once I made the shelf again, I blew off how exhausted I was to walk to the far side of the flat rock area and to climb up fifteen or so feet higher before resting. I wasn't certain that I was up for a third go at getting out of the water through all that shifting sea, sharp rocks and battering waves. Another time in the ocean with so little energy left might just see me stay out there.


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A look at my predicament with some of the problems and solutions shown.


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Ira Fagan was exploring the area and by pure luck for me walks towards the water and sees this bright kite and wonders what's going on. He came up at an excellent time as I had just recovered enough to tear down and pack up my kite gear.


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Packing up to drive to the airport thanks to Ira's help. We both had seats out on the same flight. After all the stress of getting back on to land and staying there, it was a real relief to not have to worry about missing my flight. Thanks Ira!


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I would like to say a very sincere thanks to the folks at GoPro for making the capture off all this imagery possible. The prospect of mounting two cameras on a traction kite wouldn't have been very feasible not so many years ago, much less units that provide such excellent still image quality. Some think these little cameras are only good for video, fortunately for me, that couldn't be further from the truth. It was good to know, at least while such things were still on my mind while trying to escape the danger mess that I had dropped myself into, that these trusty cameras were grabbing exquisite views of the action from both on high and near the surface. GoPro has profoundly changed my world of adventure in the oceans, on land and above the lot since 2009, and for so many others worldwide. Thanks guys, please keep the marvelous innovations coming! https://gopro.com


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Stephanie Nikita, a talented Facebook friend from Switzerland painted a scene from my escape inspired by a composite photo of the cliffs and waves shortly after I sent my kite ashore. Thank you Stephanie!


###


So, in hindsight, what to have done differently to avoid all the drama, swallowed water, lost board and potentially a great deal more?

1. Don't do the kite run.
Always an option but then there is that driving fascination with the place to deal with. Plus there was the basis of the last successful trip in 2014.

2. Have a chase boat.
This would have been the most sensible precaution. It would have taken more planning and expense but dying is not only expensive it is also quite inconvenient. The area was pretty empty while we were there but it is likely a local boat and captain might have been located to help out. So, note to self, no matter how appealing going at this sort of thing solo might be, bring a boat next time. Think of the extra photos it might provide?


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So long from Eleuthera, hope to make it back soon.



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