Swimming With Cameras

Posted by Greg Hammond on

Anyone who has ever been to the shore knows that you don’t turn your back on the ocean. Every photographer has heard this and said it to others. And yet, when you get caught up in shooting . . ..

On Thursday morning before dawn, July 5, I went down to a remote area jutting out into the north side ocean of west Maui just to the west of the Olivine Pools and near the Mushroom-Shaped Rock. Unlike the Olivine Pools, there is no parking here (you just have to know where to stop and park your car as far off the side of the road as possible), the downhill 4WD-rutted trail is almost entirely hidden by sugar cane and other brush, and the shore is blockaded by a large, wide and deep boulder field. I was part of a Gary Hart workshop that visited this spot last year during the day and at low tide. It was/is beautiful, and even at low tide, the ocean’s power crashing into the rocks is impressive.

On Wednesday, July 4, I scouted during the day. It was beautiful, and using TPE, I found a spot that I thought would afford excellent foreground and middle depth and interest, reflecting pools, and with good background for the sunrise on Thursday. All looked good, though I did mention to my partner Mary that night at dinner, that the only thing I was unsure of was the tide and any changes in water depth on the flats closest to the water and the tidal pools.

I arrived at the boulder field before dawn after slipping and sliding through the wet trail. It was still very dark, and even with a good headlamp, and having traversed it several times before, it was slow going. And the surf was thunderous. It was obvious I was dealing with a different tide than the previous day. I would learn later there was an eastern swell magnifying waves on the north shore.

Yes, that's Maui; just looks like New England. When I arrived at my spot, it was under about 4-6 inches of rushing water, instead of the calm inch of water from the day before. By itself, that wasn’t too daunting, though it slowed my setup slightly. Finding a place to set my pack above the repeated tidal swells from the waves took a little longer, and in the dark, it took a little longer to make sure the tripod was secure. But I got it all there, and had a chance to watch the wave action for several minutes.

I’ve read you should watch the ocean for at least 10 minutes, and of course never turn your back on it. Occasionally larger waves and water rushes would push through requiring me to lift the rig high to reduce spray exposure and then wipe down the rig. I was shooting on an RRS TVC-34L, leveling base, Arca Cube, and RRS rail. As noted in the image specs, I shot the Cambo 1600, Trichro, Rodie 40, ProGrey 150Z, and a Lee case of multiple ND, gradient, and polarizer filters. In my pack was a Sony DSC RX-10 IV, the Rodie 23, and some odds & ends.

As the dawn light began to appear and reveal beautiful clouds, even better than I had hoped,I probably began to pay less attention to the waves though it was impossible not to hear the roar, and I was fairly comfortable I could hear the difference of the larger ones. I was facing to the east, perpendicular to the waves, so I could see the water out of the corner of my eye. As the light was rising, I had reduced exposures from 2 minutes down to about 8 seconds. Just as colorful light hit the clouds and then shimmered on the tidal pool water, I snapped another sketch shot on my phone. And then I heard another wave hit the rocks hard. I looked up from my rig and saw a wall of water rise over and down on me. And all my equipment. Before I could pick up my rig, we were under water, as was my backpack.

Fortunately I was swept toward land into a tidal pool. I tried to keep the Trichro above water by holding the tripod legs low. But I was too far under. The Phase One, the Cambo, the Rodie 40, the ProGrey Filter holder and glass filters, the Arca Cube, RRS rail and tripod, all took a complete bath. I scrambled out of one tidal pool only to have the next wave push me into another. At that point, I knew the shoot was done, and focused on getting the hell out of there. I did nott have my PLB, my partner did not know my shoot location, and nobody else was around. Even with good river sandals, everything was slippery and slow going.

Back on dry land, I found my iPhone X still working [as was the Sony], so I called Steve Hendrix at CI. One of his first questions was whether anyone got this misadventure on video. ;-) But no. I told him I needed to get a replacement for the Trichro, because it seemed pretty dead, and I was heading to Bali the next Tuesday. Anyway, he confirmed my address, and said he would get on it right away. I left Maui Saturday. The loaner Trichro was delivered to my home Friday. That might be expected by some, but it was impressive to me. Thanks Steve, CI, and PO!

P.S. Everyone asks me about insurance. We’ll see how that goes. Phase One has declared the back a total loss.
P.P.S. I learned more than one lesson from this experience, and it’s all about preparation: a location map for my partner, check the tide tables, carry my PLB at all times, possibly camp out the night before so my set-up time in the dark is minimized. But seriously, use the Ruggard storm shield that was in my Shimoda pack, and I just forgot to pull out.
P.P.S. The shot posted above was the last I took with my iPhone before getting hit. 

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