The Green Beret Combat Dive academy expanded its curriculum vastly to accommodate a perceived deficit in waterborne operations training in its community. To fill the void, the six-week Waterborne Infiltration Course (WIC) was developed. One of the infiltration platforms taught at the course was the two-man Klepper Kayak. It was a stable, light, silent and low-profile vessel powered by a two-man paddling team.

The academy cadre spent a great deal of time on the water, training in every aspect of the kayak until it became very efficient in the use of them in most aspects of saltwater operations. But there was at least one condition that was virtually absent in the training environment in and around Key West Florida where the school was located; that is, surf conditions. Key West is situated on a vast shallow-water reef complex that extends over five miles out to sea. This served to dampen most surf conditions short of just some rippling waves.

Satellite image shows how the reef that Key West is part of keeps the water shallow (greenish-blue) out to as far as 6.7 miles offshore before it drops off to deep water (blue).

To remedy the shortcoming, the academy looked away from the reefs of Key West to Patrick Air Force Base some 325 miles north of Key West and its surf dampening safety. Three of us loaded an academy cargo truck with a half dozen kayaks and set to driving north. Along with me were fellow cadre and good friends Samuel B. Foster and Scott Steele, two of the top kayak hands in the cadre. I was ok with the kayak, but Sam and Scott were aficionados to the degree that they owned their own racing kayaks and kayaked on their days off.

A juxtaposition of Key West’s Smather’s Beach, on the left half of the photo, that shows zero discernable surf; while the surf is very pronounced in the right half of the photo where the beach at Patrick AFB is shown.

We prepared for two days and two nights at Patrick to shake out our experience with kayaks in the surf. On our first day, we assembled three single-man kayaks, though our intent was to only have two men in the water with kayaks at the same time. That left one man observing on the beach ready to swim out and provide rescue assistance if needed — we were young but not stupid.

Men in a two-man Klepper paddle out into mild-to-medium surf conditions.

Sam and Scott, being the bit-chompers that they were, scrambled to the water with their kayaks and went all in for a baptism of fire. Oh, they were baptized alright; their mangled kayaks and pummeled bodies came washed ashore like Tom Hanks and Wilson.

Tom Hanks from the movie Castaway along with his sidekick, the bloody handprint on a “Wilson” volleyball.

“Can you build us a fire to help us recover, Geo,” Sam croaked from where he lay partially submerged in sand.

Nearby Scott was in a bodily configuration that a couple of people couldn’t even have intentionally put him in — it didn’t look human in any respect, but I could see the rise and fall of his breathing, so…

“Sam, that was awful — truly (TRULY) an awful thing to see. I thought I was going to have to call your wife.”

“Well, then it’s your turn, isn’t it?” he hissed in the way he did when he knew he was going to enjoy someone in severe pain — just the thing that sociopaths do.

Conditions at the Patrick ARB beaches are conducive to actual surfing and therefore a good choice for our kayak sea trials.

Here is the first lesson of the day gleaned at the speed of light by Sam and Scott: Stay away from all surf — incoming and outgoing — with the rudder still attached to your vessel. Scott’s yak (kayak) had its bow push high into the air, then the whole boat shoved backward by a breaker (breaking/crashing wave). With its stern low and bow high he was pile-driven into the seafloor thereby destroying his rudder.

Lesson 01: remove your rudder prior to entering the surf and stow it in your cockpit. Once outside the surf zone kayakers will assist each other to emplace rudders prior to resuming transit.

Geo’s turn at surf began with an immediate transmogrification into Ice-g for the ride. Sam and Scott both sat out to watch Ice-g get his just reward to soothe their wounded egos. Typically we waded our boats into shallow water and then jumped in. Our weight would make the yak sink and bottom out on the sand until the next wave came in and floated us so we could paddle out.

Cartoon by the author depicting a capsize drill.

I bottomed twice before I was in deep enough water to hover above the floor. I paddled hard toward the oncoming breaking waves. Sam and Scott shouting from the beach, armchair-coached me with jewel-encrusted snippets from their five-minute veteran wisdom:

“HOLD ‘ER INTO THE WIND, MATEY!” — “RGR, SAM!”

“KEEP THE BOW 90 DEGREES TO THE BREAKERS!” — “WILCO, SCOTTY!”

“LOWER THE MIZZEN AND THROW OUT THE GAFF, YA FILTHY BILGE RAT!” — “I CAN’T FIND THE MIZZEN, SAM!”

“THAT’S WHY IT’S CALL THE ‘MIZZEN’, YA PINDECKO!”

I wondered why the next rather large breaker was getting bigger, and then it hit me. I recall lowering my head and pushing my paddle straight out in front of me and bracing it with locked arms. When the wave hit it reared my bow skyward and snapped my paddle off on both sides right where it stuck out from either hand, leaving me holding a two-foot-long (worthless) stick in my hands.

Two British pipe-hitters from the vaunted Special Boat Service (SBS) Regiment on transit in a Kayak. The men of the SBS have demonstrated time and again that they are world-renowned masters of their craft.

The waves rolled me up onto the shore, like a chunk of a wayward, waterlogged driftwood, at the feet of where Sam and Scott stood regarding me with bowed heads. I still desperately clasped fast the two-foot broken paddle shaft  in my right meathook.

“Is that the new ‘stealth paddle’ Geo?” Sam sneered.

And Scott: “Mister, I have to say Neptune and Davy Jones both give you a perfect ten for sticking that landing just now!”

“Build me a fire, boys… please?” I croaked, “…to help me recover.”

Lesson 02: Pull your paddle in tight to your kayak parallel to the direction of surf when it breaks over you to preclude hydraulic pressure from snapping both blades off and leaving you with a worthless “stealth paddle.”

(L-R) Neptune God of the sea et al, Davy Jones Locker — an age-old reference to the bottom of the sea.

Breaching surf was truly an acquired taste, one that we became accustomed to by the days’ end. Though we continued to take an Operation Rolling Thunder-style pounding from the surf, we had many successful transits beyond the surf line. Beyond the surf line, or surf zone, is where we became begrudgingly acquainted with the second half of the horror of kayak operations in surf — coming back in.

Returning in the surf was definitely no country for old rudders; those had to be removed prior to re-entry into the surf atmosphere. One can envision catching a wave and riding it onto the beach neatly and smoothly, scooping up a bikini babe and a piñacolada at the end. Yeah, well… SHIT AIN’T LIKE THAAAAAT (Ice-T, Bodycount)!!!

Going out was tedious, but coming in was exhilarating, hilarious and terrifying. The instances of pile-driving, post-holing, and augering-in were much more numerous. Simple brilliance prevailed though, meaning that either Sam or Scott came up with this solution:

Lesson 03: a combat loaded kayak is better off intentionally swamped outside of the surf zone and ridden back through the surf to the beach. This technique allows your vessel to ride low and sluggish and be controllable by the driver.

That really was the ONLY sensible answer to getting the yak back to shore without damage to the vessel or injury to the driver. We held onto the yaks by the bow with both hands and our legs up hooked over the gunwales (sides) and crossed on top of the yaks. We kept the yaks pointed perpendicularly to the beach as the surf pushed us from behind all the way onto the beach.

By the end of day two, we had destroyed over $3,000.00 worth of Klepper kayaks. We only had one operational kayak remaining, cobbled together from surviving pieces of other shattered vessels. We laid out and photographed all of the destroyed kit, carefully recording each piece for the commander’s accountability back at Key West.

The interior skeleton of the Klepper kayak illustrating all the breakable framework pieces. These are made of laminated marine plywood with Captains varnish sealant.

That evening we built a sizeable bonfire there on the beach. Having declared loudly that we had discovered fire we proceeded to dance loudly and wildly around the inferno tossing the “yak bones” into the blaze as a sacrifice to Neptune, the God of the sea, for sparing our lives. We cracked bottles of Captain Morgan’s Spiced rum and drank as we danced, spilling most of it on ourselves as we tried to drink.

Finally, we capped the evening in drunken song:

“Gooooot a whale of a tale ta tell ya lads
a whale of a tale or two

‘Bout the floppin’ fish and the girls I’ve loved
on nights like this with the moon above

It’s a whale of a tale and it’s all true
I swear by my tattoooooooo!”

By Almighty God and with honor,
geo sends