ELK, Calif. — Steve Sinclair and a buddy were admiring a winter storm off Mendocino one day.
Sinclair's pal was sitting in his kayak in shallow water flirting at a safe distance with the breakers--the sort Sinclair calls "ultra-huge"--when the backwash sucked him and his kayak out through a temporary gap in the surf. Then the sea closed in again. There was no sign of the lost kayaker.
Sinclair, a former Pacific Palisades lifeguard, managed to push out through the booming waves in his own kayak. He found his friend unhurt. Since they were already at sea, the two decided to paddle around a little in the tempest.
Having a Blast
It was an odd realization, Sinclair said later. Here they were in fragile kayaks that tend to splinter in rough water; in a monstrous sea that could easily crush them. But they were having a blast.
"The feeling was much more like skiing than kayaking," Sinclair said. "The sea was like a bunch of wind-swept mountains, but all the mountains were moving.
"Once I figured out how to do it, well, shoot, it seemed like a full-on sport."
Sinclair and three or four of his friends ("We're all overdriven former L.A. surf maniacs") are possibly the world's only devotees of this new sport called storm sea skiing.
Merv Larson, an aquatic craft designer who lives in Ventura, said he knows of no other kayakers anywhere who intentionally launch themselves into storms.
"What he (Sinclair) is doing is pretty extreme," Larson said. "He's pretty much of a maniac. It's real violent up there (the Northern California coastline). The water is a lot more alive than in Southern California."
The allure of lively water is just what keeps Sinclair and his wife, Connie, and their two children in the tiny town of Elk, about 10 miles south of Mendocino. The family lives modestly on what Sinclair brings in with his kayak touring business, Force Ten Ocean Whitewater Tours (taking tourists to sea only in non-storm conditions), and his wife's part-time job in a local bed-and-breakfast establishment.
A blond, fair-skinned former competitive swimmer, Connie Sinclair puts up cheerfully with the occasional hardships and inconveniences of the family's life style. She said she dated a number of men when she was younger, but settled on Steve for a husband in 1978 because she knew with him she'd never be bored.
Even when they were kids growing up on the same block in Claremont, Connie observed that Steve always seemed to be having more fun than anyone else she knew.
Sinclair said he was "superhyperkinetic" as a young man. "I had a penchant for attacking everything with extreme exuberance."
This raging energy did not escape the attention of then Claremont High School coach Gene McCarthy, who recruited Sinclair onto his swim and water-polo teams. When he saw how Sinclair took to the water, he gave the young man his first surf-ski, a kind of a cross between a kayak and a surfboard.
Sinclair has been devoted to the ocean--and to Gene McCarthy--ever since. He still frequently refers to his former coach in conversation, and he named his first son, now 3, after the retired mentor.
The coach respects Sinclair as well, McCarthy said in a recent telephone interview. "The kid's got a lot of heart. He's a Chuck Yeager in disguise."
Sinclair moved to Elk in the late '70s when his mother settled here with the thought of opening a restaurant. She left town not long after when the plan didn't work out, but Sinclair stayed, supporting himself by doing odd-jobs.
Sinclair injured his ankle playing baseball one year and couldn't afford to have it treated. If he couldn't run, at least he could still use his arms, he said, so he began kayaking in the ocean every day for exercise. He went by himself, in high winds, squalls and full-on storms.
In the long hours alone, he said, he began to think of his kayak as his little appaloosa pony, carrying him anywhere he wished to go in this last great prairie, the sea. There were no boundaries, other than what Sinclair could endure. When it was stormy, Sinclair said he felt like he was riding out to a gunfight. When he won the round, he rode home quietly satisfied.
A Calming Effect
Connie noticed that her husband was calmer when he came back from the sea than at any other time.
A kayaker herself (she sometimes paddles out with Steve when they can find a baby sitter), Connie knows that a lot can go wrong out there. The boat can capsize in a wave and snap violently at its dislodged passenger. Fog can be disorienting and obscure the coast.
Watching From the Cliffs
Connie sometimes crosses Highway 1 from the one-room hut that houses the kayak tour business and stands on the cliff above Greenwood Cove to watch her husband blast off into a storm. In minutes--if it's severe out--Sinclair's orange helmet completely disappears among the swells.