I've heard quite a few Long Island windsurfers rave about the wavesailing at Democrat Point, or “Demo”, on the western tip of Fire Island. But every time I hear talk about Demo, invariably there's also a story about someone getting into a jam...if the wind drops or your gear breaks, word is that the currents will take you to Portugal. I asked about this in the Long Island Windsurfing Forum, where (along with encouragement to try sailing Demo) I was told that I needed to read the story of "mikedabaker".
I read it.
Wow. It is as vivid a description of a windsurfer in trouble on the water as I have ever read. I asked Michael “mikedabaker” Vitti if I could run his story in this blog, just to share it with a few more people. Mike graciously said yes, so here it is.
(Note: People I've spoken with who know Mike have stressed to me that he's an exceptionally fit athlete and surfer. In other words, a less fit and wave-savvy windsurfer might not have made it.)
Oct 13, 2004, 2:00PM. I got to the beach and the wind had just lightened up. I waited. Soon the sun came out and the wind picked up and the sand was blowing. Ran back to my van and rigged the trusty 4.7 and the 99 liter board.
Decided not to wear the dry suit as my plan was to make this a quickie session, so I put on my wetsuit. I was kind of tired from doing trail work the previous morning and sailing all Saturday afternoon but those waves looked juicy and I wanted a piece of them.
I sailed straight out, making a bee line for the outer sand bar, jumping all the way. As I approached the impact zone I noticed it looked really gnarly, and contemplated jibing away from them and heading for the inside bar at Cedar Beach.
As fate would have it I decided to go for it. Since the wind was side off the waves were really hollow, and I spotted some really vertical ramps to send me skyward. These combined with the incredible speed I was traveling made it seem like I was getting launched into orbit.
I jibed outside and came into the breaking waves for some down the line sailing. Caught two good rides then suddenly I fell in trying to escape the froth of a previously broken wave. I gathered my gear together to position myself for water starting, then turned to look into the mouth of a freak rogue hollow wave that was sucking and about to dump right on me. As I was sucked into the mouth of the beast I held tight prepared for the mother of all Nantucket sleigh rides.
I had one hand on my foot strap and one hand on the end of my boom as I went through the rinse cycle. It felt like my arms were about to get twisted and ripped off so I let go and tumbled along hoping my board wouldn't get too far away. I popped up and swam for my board as fast as I could before another wave came to clean me up.
I quickly assumed the water start position and out of the corner of my eye I saw a slight looseness to the sail and figured oh well, I got another hole in the sail. “That's good.” I thought, because I was overpowered anyway, but upon closer inspection I saw the whole panel was gone. “No big deal,” I thought, I'll just luff/limp back in with whatever is left of the top and bottom of the sail.
As I tried to waterstart again I noticed something looked really wrong with this sail. I waited for a lull in the waves constantly breaking on my head to finally get a good look. Crap! The whole sail was ripped straight across the top of the boom, including the heavy fabric seam along the clew edge.
Okay, that sail is useless. I laid the mast on the tail of the board and started paddling towards shore. 45 minutes later I realize I'm not making any headway. I'm still in the impact zone and getting pummeled.
Okay this is a bit more serious than I had thought. Time to get rid of the sail which was now acting as a sea anchor. Time to take everything apart in between wave impacts and slip the sail off the mast. Said a few words to my old faithful friend…"adios amigo" as i watched the sail head south in the outgoing current.
And speaking of outgoing current, I was not far behind.
I was close to the fishing boat when this all happened, but now I was pretty far away. I saw a windsurfer sail out to just about where I was and I gave a wave indicating I was okay and he jibed and headed away. I kind of figured the Coast Guard was going to be called due to my predicament.
Now I am out past the outer sand bar, and I quickly put my one piece mast on top of my board along with my boom, then I climbed on top and started to paddle more earnestly without stopping as I knew I had to get in front of the breaking waves so they could help push me towards shore.
My first attempts at riding the bigger waves in towards shore ended in complete failure as my gear and I were tossed about. Trying to belly ride my board with the one-piece mast and boom on those huge waves you see out by the buoys was a ridiculous attempt in futility.
Numerous times I was separated from my gear and eventually I told my mast and boom goodbye. But every time I got rid of them they would float back to me like scared little kittens wanting to come back on board. “All right, I'll take you along for a little while but if you start to screw things up for me...your outta here!”
As I drifted along I never saw land getting any closer. I was only able to stay in the outside sand bar's breaking waves. As I neared the second buoy…a red one…I decided to tell my mast and boom to get the hell out of here. I just couldn't ride the waves in with that mast hanging to one side as it would always turn me to the side and I'd roll sideways and capsize.
But they always floated back to me...get the hell outta here! I gave in as I was adding up the replacement costs. But I vowed to ditch them if I was still swimming past sunset. I had my eye on the Fire Island lighthouse and was glad to have that beacon to guide me in when it got dark.
Finally I learned how to ride the waves in and adjust for the mast
hanging off the end of my board. Now I had my sights set on demo.
Paddling a little more seriously with head down and deep strokes, I
tried to get close enough to catch a big outside set to push me in
I'm close now as I could see the jetty. Suddenly I felt the ocean falling beneath me and looked behind me to see the mother of all waves about to break behind me. I quickly shimmied my weight to the back of the board to prevent pearling and felt a rush of white water crash upon my back. I had a death grip on the rails of my board because if I lost the board out here I would be pulled out to sea again with no floatation and that would be really bad.
It was quite a ride in, bouncing along with the white water and steering myself from a wipe out. Soon the wave flattened out and I schooched forward to drive the nose of the board down the face of the wave so I could keep this ride going. Now I'm heading straight for the rocks of the jetty but I'm not going to let this wave go. I'll smash right into the rocks if I have to.
The wave reformed and I steered the rig to the left but the waved jacked and dumped me off. I surfaced after going through the turmoil and my gear was gone. The current was pulling me out and I'm swimming towards shore hoping for another wave to push me in. I turned around and saw another big one behind me. I was able to swim fast enough to catch it and body surf in, finally touching the sand but only getting sucked out for another tumble. One more wave pushed me in and I happily was finally walking on sand. I ran down the beach and gathered up my gear, then looked back at Overlook. I saw a boat coming out of the inlet with flashing lights and figured it was the Coast Guard. I knew I needed to contact them to call off the search so I ran down to a fisherman and asked him if he had a cell phone to call the Coast Guard and call off a search for me. "Where did you come from?" he said "Out there" I pointed.
They wouldn't call off the search until they verified that I was the right person they were looking for. After they determined I was the right person they asked how I was going to get back and I said I guess I'm walking. They offered to send a car...like I'm going to say no?
I looked over at Overlook again and I saw tons of flashing lights on the beach....I was like uh oh...this is turning into a big thing. Next I see a Suffolk police helicopter and another smaller coast guard boat. I noticed that the Coast Guard cutter first went to the last place I was seen and traveled the same route I had drifted and was soon off Demo searching.
Boy these guys know there stuff...I would have thought to look elsewhere due to the current.
Finally I see an ATV and two police vehicles coming down the beach and I was offered a ride. I apologized for getting everyone involved but they were glad that I was found alive. It doesn't always work out that way.
-Sail with a buddy
-Use one of the strobe lights that strap to your arm. I had mine in
my van...it works better if you actually wear it. The waves were 6-9
feet and you're not visible without the strobe light.
-Stay in shape or stay near the shore. That was one long paddle...about two and a half hours of non stop paddling in addition to the numerous wipeouts.
-Offshore or sideshore winds will make it difficult or impossible to swim back. Combine that with an out going current and you have a deadly combination.
Thanks to Stan and Lou for making the right decision to call the Coast Guard if I was out for a longer period of time it would be good to have that back up especially if it were after dark.
I've already started to write a thank you letter to the Suffolk Marine Police and Coast Guard."
(Three years later it's still a vivid memory for Mike. After reading an advance copy of this post he wrote the following:)
" The waves that day were about logo to mast high on the outside. Water temps were in the low to mid fifties. Air temps were upper fifties. I made it back to the beach just before sunset.
I was very strongly motivated to reach the beach on my own power, after I saw the helicopters and coast guard boats. I thought they would charge me for the rescue! How dumb was that?
Also an interesting side note:
I wore my light weight wet suit so it would make me colder faster and force me to only have a quickie session...because...I was supposed to pick up my kids from school and I didn't want to be late! If i was snug and warm in my drysuit...I wouldn't want to cut my session short.
Because I never showed up to pick up my kids at school...it set off a whole chain of phone calls, which reached my wife who happened to be on a business trip....I WAS BUSTED!
Instead of being glad to find out I was still alive...my wife didn't speak to me for a week! My kids were used to it though cause I've arrived to pick them up from school late and still in my wetsuit several times. Once I had to go to the principal's office in my wetsuit to pick up the kids, who were being entertained by the office staff."
(Aside from being an avid windsurfer and surfer, Michael Vitti is the president of CLIMB (Concerned Long Island Mountain Bikers) and is busy building mountain bike trails and a BMX tracks. He helped lobby successfully to get the first mountain bike trails in New York City parks. Mike says "These parks had a problem with heroin and crack addicts. We're changing the predominant use in these parks from one type of junkie for adrenaline junkies!" Check out CLIMBonline.org Mike was once a baker at a health food store, and was known to show up at sessions with muffins to share.)
(photos of Mike on better days courtesy Ely Spivack, and h2omen.com.)