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A Southwest Story of Survival

Explorer C

I was on a 20-mile expedition, a sea kayak trip with three fellow paddlers. We travel offshore in the Pacific each year and do an unsupported kayak trip.  We're experienced sea kayakers who have done this for years and paddled thousands of miles across the Arctic and South America.

On this trip, we had paddled the rugged and rarely visited northern side of Santa Cruz Island.  Located 27 miles off the coast of California, this island is made up of 200- to 500-foot vertical cliffs and the largest sea caves in North America.

On our last trip, the seas had ten-foot swells rolling through every ten seconds.  We were paddling for shelter at the National Park Ranger station at Prisoner's Cove.  We knew a storm was rolling in later in the night, so we decided to preempt the Ranger Station and seek immediate shelter in a remote cove.  Suddenly, gale force winds jolted us backwards.

The Pacific Ocean can change in minutes, and we were bracing as our kayaks flipped in the swell-driven, white cap waves that crashed on us. This situation arose in a matter of thirty minutes. By now, we were about 500 yards offshore.

My 16-foot expedition kayak has internal composite air holds that store my survival gear and provide ancillary air-floatation to the kayak. Those air holds were soaked from the repeated flipping in the open ocean storm.  After time, the kayak seals failed and my kayak flipped on a 12-foot swell and sunk just below the surface of the water.

I tried but could not paddle it down the face of the 12-foot swells and three-foot wind chop waves.  It was time to swim, holding my paddle and a leash to the submerged kayak.  I watched the shore and my fellow paddlers grow distant, as I was blown further out to sea.

The three other kayakers were bracing against the storm and occasionally flipping, but their kayaks remained stable. In training, we practice flipping and reentry into kayaks--normally not really a big deal. However with the storm, we were all separated by large, storm-driven and unchecked swells. We were parallel to 400-foot cliffs with no beaches in sight.

While swimming, I didn't know whether the other three guys were alive or in my same predicament.  Later, I found out that each individually had fought their way to some shelter ashore.

By that point, I had been swimming in the open sea in 60-degree water for about two hours.  I had a life jacket on and a survival suit.  I tried to empty out the air holds, but every time I opened the air hold, another giant swell crashed down on me.  I spent a lot of time hanging onto the rope leash of the submerged kayak, treading water, trying to stay with it as it jetted down the face of the swells.

There was a moment, I had a chance to abandon the kayak and swim 100 yards in the storm for a Gull and Seal Rock. It was a risk.

I remembered my training and ultimate rule of the ocean, "Never give up your boat or kayak for an open swim"  because the risk is too high.  All of my survival gear was in the holds of the kayak. I deployed my 30-foot floating emergency throw rope and tied one end to the kayak. My intention was to have the rope float behind the kayak, and if I got tumbled and separated from the out-of-control kayak on the bottom of a swell, the trailing rope would increase my odds of staying with the kayak. It worked, and I was able to hang on with the homemade 30-foot dog leash.  The kayak acted like a sea anchor.

I was concerned.  Had my three paddle friends lived?  I couldn't see them with the huge waves and wind. Had they called for help on their distress radios?  I've been a crew member on helicopter rescues similar to this situation--I knew that many start simple and end badly.

Still talking aloud to myself, I said, "this is not good Tim, get your act together....  You have to rely on yourself.  Inside I thought, accept that maybe no one knows you're in trouble, and keep your head straight.  I repeated it to myself, "don't rely just on your gear."

Suddenly, I saw Frank, a fellow paddler, about a half-mile away on a cliff.  He had made it.  I could only tell it was Frank by the color of his life jacket.

I thought, “Okay Frank, we have paddled together for 20 years, do the right thing, do you see me way out here in the storm?  Call for help buddy!  Don't even try to come out here or we’ll both be in the same situation.”

It was weird, but I quickly learned, don't look behind in the following seas and up the face of the waves. I did it a few times while swimming and the swells were so huge that it psyched me out.  Most times, I would get sucked up the swells behind me and float back up each ten-foot swell.  I'd then get pushed down the face of the swells, like body surfing a eight- to 12-foot wave every five to ten seconds.  Sometimes the swells crashed on me. Being endlessly tossed around was ominous. I was out of breath a few times and knew I had to conserve energy.

I have taught survival classes, and I am an excellent swimmer and long distance runner--these two additional facts that helped save me.
I knew I was in deep trouble, but I also knew the one-piece Gortex survival suit quadrupled my survival odds against the frigid waters.  I felt the drive to not die of exhaustion and hypothermia, but I have to be honest, I was worried.

With time, I swam eastbound in the ocean for about a quarter mile to a 200 by 200-foot floating kelp bed, a mile off-shore. It was moving seaward, about 3-4 miles per hour. That was disconcerting.

The swells were at my back, and I was able to use them to help me swim.  Seeing no other option, I literally low-crawled onto the kelp on my belly. It offered some floatation, as I rested on my back floating on top of the kelp.  I was getting tangled in the kelp in between swells but it was better to be on my back than fully submerged swimming. I could keep myself on top of the kelp on my back and 90 percent out of the water. This helped with the onset of hypothermia.

I tied my submerged kayak to the edge of the kelp with the 30 foot throw rope I mentioned earlier.  I tied my paddle leash to my life jacket and a two inch-thick hunk of kelp ten feet into the heart of kelp bed. I figured, if I didn't make it, I wanted someone to find me. The large, stormy swells still came over me, and the wind was racing at 30 to 40 miles per hour, but oddly enough, a few times, it was almost peaceful on the kelp.

For the first time, I braced for a long period at sea.  Reality set in, Frank and Joe may have not contacted anyone. I opened the submerged kayak hold, and got out some supplies. I even had enough time on the kelp to get to my Satellite Emergency Transmitter. While I was swimming, it had been underwater a lot of the time in the back of my life jacket in a survival pouch.  I activated the emergency beacon, and took stock of my salvaged survival gear: flashlight, space-blanket, water, food, and a handheld emergency aircraft radio.

While floating on the kelp, I transmitted a repeated "Mayday" on 121.5 MHZ on the small, handheld radio.

No answer.

I tapped "SOS" in Morse code by clicking the transmitter and breaking squelch.  I know it sounds corny now, tapping SOS,  but I knew that transmit-tapping Morse code can be heard ten to twenty times farther than the voice on the small aircraft emergency radio.

I watched the jet contrails way above.  There was no answer to my Mayday. I decided to save the radio batteries and get ready for a long swim and night time. Awhile later, I tried the radio again when I was on top of the swells.

I called out "Mayday, Mayday, 121.5, is there anyone there?"

Silence... until, out of the blue, in a calm voice, "This is Southwest 764.  What is your emergency?"

These two Southwest Pilots were monitoring the International Mayday frequency of 121.5.  I choked up when the Pilot answered my radio call for help. He was so calming.

Later, I found out it was Captain Paul Sudderth and First Officer Bernard Shanahan.  They told me to hang in there.  I explained who I was, my predicament, and that my kayak had sunk and I was swimming in the open ocean. We went over my location, condition, and details.  They told me that he would call the Coast Guard and they would get help on the way.  Moments later, he called and told me the Coast Guard was launching a helicopter from Los Angeles International (about 40 miles south).

Meanwhile, I got torn from the kelp bed as a swell kept crashed down. I really didn't care.  I knew I could make it and help was on the way.
I knew that survival with the rescue suit is six to 14 hours. When all was said and done, I swam for about three hours.

Ocean survival in this cold water, without the right equipment, would be two to three hours.  Without the radio call answered by Paul and Bernard, the will to live, excellent gear, and physical fitness, I'd be dead for sure.

I watched as the Rescue Copter searched along the horizon, then suddenly a change in course when they saw me.  I was hoisted up; very, very cold but very happy.

We flew along the coast line, and the other three paddlers had made it to a very small cove. The Coast Guard was unable to get to them, and they stayed there for a day and a half, until the storm subsided.  A boat then made it out to get them.

Southwest Airlines should be proud of Captain Paul Sudderth and First Officer Bernard Shanahan.  I know I am.

If they represent the quality of Pilots you hire, then by God, I will always fly Southwest Airlines.

Explorer C
This story was sent to me by a close friend who is Bernard's brother. I would expect nothing less out of Bernard, he is the type of guy who always does the right thing at the right time at any cost. I am also involved in adventure and extreme sports, and I pray that if some day I am in a bad situation someone like Bernard will be willing to lend a helping hand.
Explorer C
I am breathless reading your story. I thought my life was exciting but this account of "going through everything I learned since Kindergarten to survive" is positively amazing and inspiring! Thanks for sharing it. Alexandra
Explorer C
Sounds like the Surf leash you had really helped you stay where you wanted and not get swept away !