Editor’s note: This story about South Thomaston, Maine, native Sarah Waterman’s ordeal while competing on a surfski in the Na Pali Race in Kauai, Hawaii on Aug. 3 was published by thegardenisland.com on Friday.
Sunday’s Na Pali Race was a tough grind for just about everyone who managed to cross the finish line. One participant who completed the 17-mile course had a far different experience than all the other yellow jerseys paddling the majestic coast.
About 45 minutes to an hour into her paddle, Sarah Waterman huli’d (capsized) twice as a pair of waves clipped her surfski at the wrong angle. Climbing back on after the first, the second was more damaging.
“If you’re cruising and you push too far, you’ll actually go past the wave and then it crumbled on me,” she said.
She lost her water bottle and was looking for it when a wave got hold of her surfski.
“The wave took it and it just went roll, roll, roll, roll, roll and snap! My leash broke,” she said. “So I start swimming. I take my paddle and I’m chucking it like a spear and swimming to it.”
Repeating this process, Waterman realized that she was losing ground on her boat and the ocean was taking it farther and farther from her.
“No! Where’s the ‘undo’ button?” she thought to herself.
At that point, she took apart her paddle and stuck it into the back of her life jacket, which, as it turns out, was a very important piece of equipment on this day. She took her bright yellow race jersey and wrapped it around her blade, hoping that it would be spotted sticking out of her life vest.
Still armed with her water and a whistle, Waterman estimates she was about a mile off shore and decided to stay in the same line that she was heading to be spotted most easily. Uncertain how long she’d be in the water, she allowed herself one sip of water every 15 minutes to replenish while exerting energy. She also still had two energy chews and an energy bar.
“And I had my ChapStick,” she laughed.
At the time she lost her surfski, Waterman had eyed a point on the coast she estimated was about 15 minutes away.
Now in the water, she said it became about a two and a half hour swim. The current was preventing her from moving as fast as she might otherwise be able to and some box jellyfish had decided she was a nice target and began attaching to her limbs.
“And the waves, they’re just smashing and crashing on me,” she said. “It was really choppy, really rough. Once I passed that spot that was 15 minutes away — which was not — it started getting a little calmer when I hit Kalalau.”
Through all the chop, the current and the jellyfish stings, Waterman remained calm, confident and impressively stubborn.
“Never once did I think ‘I’m just going to give up.’ That’s not what I do,” she said. “You started this, you’re going to finish this. I’m headstrong and a bit of an idiot, I guess.”
But with the passing time, Waterman wasn’t seeing any other paddlers or escort boats around her. Having started in the last group of the race, she had nobody trailing.
She remained positive in her attitude because getting negative only gets in the way, she says. Anything she’s doing, she’s doing with a smile on her face.
Just after passing Kalalau, Waterman saw a couple boats heading in the direction of Polihale, including two catamarans. She began waving her jersey with her paddle and blowing her whistle.
“Okay, these guys will definitely see me,” she thought. “They’re higher up in the water, they’re going to see me. So I’m swimming. I’ve got my energy. I’m cool, I’m calm, I’m not worried about sharks because if they’re going to eat me, they’re going to have a good meal. And it’s going to be a good fight.”
Having gotten closer, she again took her paddle and threw it high in the air. That’s the move that finally got the attention of a Blue Dolphin Charters catamaran, which was something similar to what she had asked for earlier in her swim.
“My mom passed away and we spread her ashes in the ocean, so my mom’s in the water,” she said. “I was talking to my mom, I was talking to my dad’s friend who died in a diving accident. I was saying ‘Mom, please, just send me a dolphin. Send me anything, I just need a little help. I’m strong mama, I can do this, I’m going to be okay.’”
As the boat pulled up and noticed her in the water, Waterman let out all her joy and happiness at once, greeting the unsuspecting visitors by yelling “Hey guys, how’s your tour?”
When on board, she asked the time, learning it was a quarter after. “A quarter after what?” she said, not having had a watch all day. It was 5:15 p.m. and Waterman realized she had been in the water for more than four hours.
Shortly thereafter, the boat spotted her surfski, which they collected and took towards Polihale. She hopped off with her boat and paddled to the finish, hitting the beach at about 6 p.m.
“If it was going to happen to anybody, I’m glad that it was me,” Waterman said about her ordeal. “I know I can handle myself. Out there I was thinking ‘This is a perfect example, Sarah. The only person in life you can count on is yourself.’
“I’m glad that I had my life jacket, I really am,” she added. “Leashes — a good leash! — and life jackets are key.”