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Rescued Kodiak surfer: 'All the bad things that could happen, happened'

Craig Medred
U.S. Coast Guard photo

Offshore from Kodiak Island in the middle of December, the wind, current and tide conspired to provide Alaska surfer Scott Jones a starring role in a U.S. Coast Guard video. He's the hooded guy riding in the rescue basket rising below a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. Jones didn't plan it that way.

Blame Mother Nature.

A resident of Eagle River, a suburb of Anchorage, Jones has been surfing Kodiak for about a dozen years without a problem. But this time, the wind, the waves and the tide conspired against him. One minute he was laughing at a friend battling a racing riptide along a beach on the south side of the 3,670-square-mile island in the Gulf of Alaska, some 250 miles southwest of Alaska's largest city. The next thing he knew, the same tide was pushing him around a headland to the east of a popular Kodiak surf beach.

"I started paddling against the rip and realized there was no way I was going to get out of this," Jones said when reached by telephone Wednesday. So he did the smart thing and went with the flow as he angled toward shore. He figured he could get in close to the beach and then paddle back around the point separating him from the beach, but it didn't quite work out that way.

"That's when the gale force winds picked up," Jones said. He went ashore to wait, thinking they'd die down. They didn't. He said he tried once to paddle out and around the point. But between the rip and the wind, sea conditions were brutal. "I was getting slammed by head-high waves," Jones said.

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"It felt like all the bad things that could happen, happened at once," he said. "I've been surfing there for about 13 years. I've surfed bigger waves and worse conditions. It was just a combination of things."

Jones described the riptide as a raging river. The sea swells were up to 10 feet high, he said. And the tides, thanks to a full moon, were among the highest of the year.

Under some conditions, Jones said. "I probably could have walked around the corner." But the high tide this time eliminated that option and the waves pounded the shore. He was stuck. He figured he was either going to have to wait until the tide was low so he could walk out, or listen for the sound of a helicopter if his surf buddy called the Coast Guard to report him missing.

Thinking the latter a good possibility, he made his way along cliffs to where he knew there was a cave. It was about 50 feet above the surf.

Jones did some calculations and figured that he was far enough above sea level that the 250-foot-long hoist on a Coast Guard helicopter would reach him if the pilot hovered over the headland above. He hung out in the cave and waited. The weather at the time was nasty. Ryan Murdoch, another surfer on the scene, said wind "was blowing at least 50 mph." Jones said he was never particularly uncomfortable, but admitted he was happy to hear the helicopter come whup-whup-whupping overhead and realize his buddy had summoned help.

"I feel safer surfing in Alaska just because those (Coast Guard) guys are here," Jones said, and because the few in a small fraternity of Alaska surfers look out for each other. In California, he said, a surfer is likely to find himself one among a hundred or more with no one paying attention to anyone but themselves. In Alaska, it's different.

"There were four other guys out, and they knew what happened to me," he said. "They knew I wasn't going to be able to get out of there as soon as I got ripped around the point." He figured the odds were high they'd call help rather than leaving him to wait out the tide. When a helicopter finally showed up and lowered an empty rescue basket, Jones said he had no reservations about jumping in.

"That didn't faze me," he said. "I snowboard. I'm used to being in high places. (And) I pretty much didn't have any other escape but to climb up a mountain. I was just glad I didn't have to sit out the tide and walk out of there."

Jones -- known as "Jonesey" to other surfers -- is one among what Murdoch estimates to be 50-to-100 surfers undeterred by the chilly waters off Kodiak.

Jones is, however, not the "Scott Jones" who lives in Kodiak, although that Scott Jones is also known as Jonesey and has also gone for a ride in a Coast Guard rescue basket. The Scott Jones of Kodiak said he was pulled off a commercial ship after he smashed his ankle in an accident years ago.

That gives the two Scott Joneses something in common: Both are thankful the Coast Guard is around.

Surfing is a growing sport in Alaska thanks to constant improvements in wetsuit technology. Scott Dickerson, a Homer photographer and surfer, runs a website dedicated to promoting the sport in the 49th state. The website blog recently featured a story and photos on "Surfing Kodiak between storms."  The sand beaches of the Gulf around Yakutat remain the best-known Alaska surfing destination, but Kodiak, Homer, Sitka, Cordova and even Montague Island are being to attract more attention. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com