October 14, 2001 Howling, 40-mile-an-hour south winds, pissing rain, a 28-mile stretch of beach with endless rows of storm surf. . .while most of us would flee to the nearest Cineplex during these conditions, Brian Keaulana and his crew of merry watermen decided there couldn’t be a better day for the final chapter in their week-long Billabong Odyssey training course.
Up until this point, it had been fairly smooth sailing for invited Odyssey surfers Brad Gerlach/Mike Parsons, Darryl “Flea” Virostko/Shawn “Barney” Barron, Josh Loya/Ken “Skindog” Collins and Shane Dorian/Ken Bradshaw. Sure, they were stationed in one of the nastiest stretches of coastline in the world: the Cape Disappointment region in southern Washington. They heard about the thousands of shipwrecks, saw one nasty storm run through the region earlier in the week and knocked the wind out of a few Skis on Thursday, when Keaulana sent them out into the surf for the first time.
But this was all 6-foot Todos compared to the Cortes monster that awaited them on Friday: simulated rescues in conditions that would concern even the heartiest lifesaving veteran. “The whole training course didn’t necessarily make us better tow-in surfers,” says invitee Ken “Skindog” Collins. “It made us better lifeguards. Just going through the process on a regular basis: what are the hazards of a situation? What are the risks? Friday made us much smarter about the whole process.”
Working with Pacific County Technical Rescue, Team Odyssey used the Washington war vets’ storm-battered beach as a launch pad. “The currents go every which way out there,” Captain Doug Knutzen told the crew. “It’s a long, flat sandbar with no real break in the surf. If you lose your Ski, it won’t be very easy to retrieve it.”
In the interest of making it even harder, Keaulana had a literal bag of tricks to play on the surfers. At one point, he pulled out a few tennis balls, launched them into the surf and had the teams motor out and retrieve them. In another, he set up some markers on the beach and had Ski-pushing races along the wet sand. But the biggest test of the day came when Keaulana created a real situation and required the crew to act on it.
OK, said Keaulana. Barney, Flea, Craig Davidson and Raimana Van Bastolaer are Chinese tourists. They don’t speak any English, and they’re huddling in the impact zone, hanging on to a rubber ball, which is a family heirloom. They won’t let go of the ball, don’t understand a word the rescuers are saying and are sinking. . . fast. So it’s up to Josh Loya and Ken “Skindog” Collins to save them. “It was classic,” said Skindog. “Barney was just spazzing out, going Jackie Chan on us. He was fighting us the whole time.”
They lost the heirloom, but did a pretty good job of pulling the others to safety.
Back at the compound on Friday night, among a round of well-deserved Budweisers, the crew felt like they had just survived some sort of tow-in boot camp. “We were practically hugging each other at the end of the day,” said Mike Parsons. “There was no competitiveness whatsoever — we were all full of encouragement for each other.”
“I came here to learn about the equipment,” added Shane Dorian. “And I learned way more than I thought was even possible.”
With fresh Water Rescue diplomas in hand, the Odyssey crew broke down training camp on Saturday and will now simply wait for the buoys to signal the green light. And when their maiden big-wave voyage is at some unnamed West Coast cloudbreak, they can at least strap in knowing that they’ll be in good hands: each other’s. “In just the past few days,” continued Skindog. “We’ve been put into situations that forced us to really get to know each other and trust each other. You couldn’t ask for better preparation for surfing giant waves at a sketchy new spot.” –Evan Slater