Crazy Adventures of the Aquatic Kind

Glen Nevis, Scotland - Part 1
"Because it's there!" answered George Herbert Leigh Mallory, the flamboyant British mountaineer when asked why on Earth, would he want to climb Mount Everest. The fact that Mallory perished on Everest did not stop me from some primordial desire to climb mountains. Not the Everest, mind, just some local rocks in Scotland and maybe Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain.

I started reading mountaineering magazines and buying the equipment as I could afford it. After a while I had a collection of nylon ropes, carabiners, harnesses, descendeurs, ascendeurs, chocs, climbing boots and stylish green tweed jodhpurs I wore with red knee-high woolen socks. Quite a fashion statement I made on the mountain!

Due to lack of time, chronic shortage of dough and other interests, my climbing barely progressed beyond basic scrambling and bouldering. On one rare occasion I was practicing my spider skills on the lower reaches of Ben Nevis, when some locals told me about the "Great River Nevis Race".

This off-the-wall race was a fundraiser for the Ben Nevis Mountain Rescue team. Despite the fact that Ben Nevis is only 4,409 feet (1,344 m) high, the winter conditions are often so brutal with high winds, freezing fog, snow and ice, that climbers perish or are stranded on near-vertical cliffs. The Mountain Rescue team is a voluntary organization and its members are often called upon to venture into inhuman conditions and life-threatening terrain to rescue people they do not even know. A noble cause, I thought! And so benign a way of contributing!

The race rules were remarkably simple. All I needed was "an inflatable craft without sides" such as an air mattress, a wet suit, crash helmet and a life jacket. Moxie was already built in, I'd hoped. The course was about two miles long and the river was really a mountain stream on steroidsÉ. Massive boulders, wild rapids, white water most of the way with a 30-foot waterfall to break the boredom in the middle.

I signed up immediately and borrowed most of the gear. The wet suit probably belonged to King Farouk of Egypt; it hung loosely on me with massive folds across the abdomen. I looked like a Michelin Man in serious need of inflation.

One fine Sunday morning - which in Scotland means persistent drizzling rain, fog and temperatures hovering in the low fifties - I, along with a couple hundred shivering fools, found myself at the starting line deep inside Glen Nevis. I scouted the course on foot the day before and the river did not look bad - as long as I could remain on top of the air mattress to cushion the inevitable impact with rocks and boulders.

With 30 second intervals between racers, we plunged into the wild icy creek. Along with everyone else, I tied the air mattress to my wrist with a six foot long lifeline - in the unlikely event that I would fall off and become separated from it.

As I leapt into the river and clambered atop my mattress, the current picked me up and unceremoniously tossed me into the first series of rapids. I slid over a large boulder and immediately lost my hold on the mattress. With the exception of a couple of calmer stretches, that was the last time I rode the mattress. For the rest of the course we were two separate entities tethered by the short cord, both fighting just to survive the madcap tumble. The rapids were merciless and any attempt at control over my motion was instantly and cruelly squashed. I tumbled ass-over-elbow, generating purple bruises all over my neoprene-clad body. Along the way I spotted other racers sitting on the river bank looking for the next breath and dejectedly considering whether to continue or hike to the nearest pub instead.

Near the end of the course was a stretch of relatively calm water. I could rest a bit, knowing that ahead was the dreaded waterfall. The race marshals directed me to exit the river and walk to the waterfall edge and without any further ado, throw myself into the fall pool.

I hit the bubbling surface and went under. I felt the air mattress timidly tugging at my wrist - a reminder that the bitch made it to the top. Not me, however. White water is saturated with air and has no buoyancy. More serious was the fact that the waterfall was right on top of me and held me under in slow, deliberate death rotation. After a minute or so I thought, OK, I should really surface about now, but nothing happened. I started to panic a bit and try to figure which way was up. Another minute later, the waterfall was done with me, released its grip and allowed me to break the surface, gasping for air only to glimpse the spectators at the top soundlessly pointing and laughing at me. A split second later I was picked up by the current and thrown into the next set of rapids. The air mattress reluctantly followed. Then the river was suddenly peaceful and I coasted to the finish line, bruised and battered but alive and a little bit proud. My ranking did not matter much; I think I was in the lowest third. For the rest of the evening we drank beer around a campfire and I got to mingle with the real mountain men.

Santa Catalina Island, California - Part 2
I was fresh out of Scotland, pale as aged cheddar cheese, and living in Pasadena, California, working for a manic real estate developer. We were trying to "re-vitalize" four blighted city blocks in Downtown Pasadena. The neighborhood was so snarky that it was a popular movie location substitution for downtown Detroit. The architecture of the existing buildings was a cocktail of Art Deco, Spanish Colonial Revival, early fifties Nostalgia and a few traces of filigree Victoriana. My task was to transform these largely nondescript structures into a cotton-candy-ish Main Street Disneyland and at the same time comply with the stringent preservation guidelines. Talk about conflicting criteria! But it made the job challenging and I enjoyed it. My social life was a bit slow, maybe because, as a recent transplant, I just didn't know many people.

One day, a pair of junior architects on our staff asked if I'd like to sail to Santa Catalina Island with them over the weekend. Their yacht club had organized a race. How nice of them to ask, I thought, and accepted without hesitation. Only later, it became apparent that the real reason was not my effervescent personality or my movie-star good looks, but my considerable body weight. I was needed as ballast on their 25-foot sailboat.

Spending my first 18 years in a landlocked country meant that I had only a distant relationship with the ocean. Even in England and Scotland, being surrounded by the sea did not provide me with any maritime experience. There, the sea is often a cold, lead-colored mass that is best avoided and only the fearless, bearded fishermen in rusty trawlers dared to venture. But this was California, the land of carefree surfing off sandy, gently sloping beaches. The ocean, like the climate, was a benign, friendly element. Or so it seemed.

One early Saturday morning, I packed a few essentials:

  • Pair of Shorts
  • Swimming Trunks
  • Couple of T-shirts
  • Pair of Jeans
  • Cheap Sunglasses
  • Bottle of Myers's Jamaican Rum
  • Fresh Orange Juice

and drove to Marina del Rey to meet the skipper and his mate. The boat was a typical fiberglass sloop with a mainsail and a jib, and small cabin. With three of us on board it was comfortable, but with one more person, the space would have felt somewhat crowded. We cast off and slowly coasted down the long main channel of the marina. There was hardly any wind and when someone offered us a tow to the ocean, we gladly accepted. Beyond the breakwater, the ocean was lively but comfortable and we sailed toward Catalina, barely visible about 30 miles away. All was well. I got to sail a bit and felt like an old salt. An hour later the wind started to increase, the waves developed white caps and after a short time we were in gale force winds. At that point, my considerate sailing mates donned the ONLY TWO lifejackets on board. The waves crashed relentlessly over the gunwale, swamping us with cold water and within minutes everything was soaking wet. Even though I was shivering with cold, I assumed that this was sailing as usual; a bit of wind, one gets wet. Normal stuff, so I was not worried.

"Cocktails, anyone?", I inquired innocently as the craft tilted perilously to one side. I took the absence of an answer as an affirmative. I started mixing drinks in the steeply tilted cabin, blissfully unaware that we were battling for our lives. The gale continued for another three hours as we all felt like Titanic passengers, facing certain death, but doing it with style and aplomb. We were taking on a lot of water, nearly lost the jib and despite the wind, it seemed as though we were barely moving. I was miserable and simply held on, teeth chattering on the bottle of Myers's, as I chugged the rum straight from the bottle to combat the numbing cold and creeping fear. Suddenly the wind died down and we were in the lee of the island. Another 45 minutes and we limped into the Isthmus harbor.

I changed into my only remaining pants and T-shirt that were semi-dry and we giddily celebrated our good fortune with martinis. The harbor had only buoys to tie to and to get ashore, some enterprising local operated a water taxi. For ten dollars he'd take us to the beach; there was a restaurant there, but little else. We thought that this was too much to pay so we inflated our little rubber dinghy, and rowed ourselves ashore one by one using a long line to bring the dinghy back from the beach. Piece of cake, I thought as I daintily lowered myself into the unstable rubber craft. The ocean was relatively calm in the harbor as I comfortably rowed to the beach. I was almost there, when an unseen rogue wave picked me up and tossed me straight into the surf. I spent the entire evening in the restaurant, my soaked clothes dripping water like a "Vodnik" - a "Water Sprite".

At midnight, the party started winding down and it was time to bed down and get some rest. I liked being on terra firma and sleeping in close quarters on a rolling boat with two guys I barely knew did not appeal to me. It was a beautiful calm night so I decided to sleep on the beach. The skipper sent me a sleeping bag and the half empty bottle of Myers's for comfort and companionship. Then I lay peacefully on the beach contemplating the benefits of sleeping on an exotic island that seemed a lifetime away from cold and blustery Scotland. In no time, I was fast asleep.

Suddenly, I woke with a start. It was still dark but the starry sky was obscured by huge shapes that were milling around me. The ground shook, I heard snorting and there was this pungent, musky smell. I was totally surrounded by... buffalo. A hundred of them, at least. I lay there as quietly as I could, scrambling to figure a way to avoid the huge hooves from crushing my skull, but the herd slowly passed without showing any interest in me. Later I found out that the island had a huge wild buffalo population, introduced there initially by the Wrigley family, who at one point owned the island. Apparently the buffalo liked the beach. I survived the night on the beach unscathed and later hitched a ride back to Marina del Rey on a large and comfortable yacht. My ocean sailing days were over.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions