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Vol. 15, no. 1
February / March 2012


Alone in a Rubber Boat (Page 2)



From middle photo: Audrey's husband John with his surfboard; the family at home on the North Shore (from left to right: John, Audrey, Noelle, Jock, Ann, James and Scotty the dog); Jock with his first surfboard.

I meet Audrey Sutherland
at her beach home near Hale‘iwa, and we spend several hours over two days mostly sitting in the Adirondack chairs on her back lanai watching the North Shore afternoons play out over the water. Beside us on the lanai lies one of her kayaks on its side in the shade, fully inflated and ready to go. But it’s been a while since it hit the water. Audrey’s 90 now, and while she was paddling Alaska into her early 80s, nobody out-paddles age forever. She hasn’t been on one of her epic transects since Alaska, and she doesn’t even recall the last short paddle she did. I had heard she’d done a short paddle across Kealakekua Bay on her 90th birthday. “Kealakekua doesn’t count,” she says. “I don’t think it was my birthday, either.” Kealakekua Bay is just a mile across, and as it turns out, a “short paddle” for Audrey means something like two hundred miles. And for the record her birthday’s in February (same day as Thomas Edison and Daniel Boone, she likes to point out), and she paddled Kealakekua in March or maybe April, she says.


The giant North Shore surf has yet to arrive, but there’s still plenty of action to watch from Audrey’s lanai. Surfers make the most of a small, late summer swell at Chun’s Reef. A big catamaran tracks across the horizon. Stand up paddleboarders come and go. A Coast Guard helicopter flies by. A Coast Guard plane flies by. An outrigger sailing canoe with two men aboard tacks back and forth. The sailing canoe really catches Audrey’s eye, and she studies it through her binoculars for markings that might indicate where it’s from but she doesn’t find any. “Take a look,” she says, handing me the binoculars, but I don’t find any markings, either. “It’s probably out of Hale‘iwa,” she says. The canoe lands on the beach at Chun’s, stays for a while, comes back out, disappears around the point, reappears and eventually capsizes. The two men right the overturned boat and paddle on, dismasted.


Directly in front of Audrey’s house is a surf spot called Jocko’s, a freight-train left that’s named after one of her sons, big-wave pioneer Jock Sutherland. Audrey raised four children largely on her own; her husband left for good when the children were young, and Audrey taught them to be self-sufficient and filled them with her love of reading early on. Near Jocko’s there’s a spot in the reef with a cave in it, and Audrey says she wants to get out there with her mask, snorkel and fins before the winter surf comes up. “I just want to check in on it,” she says, “make sure it’s still there.” Right in front of her house lies a rocky pocket beach where turtles haul out for their afternoon naps. People who don’t know or don’t care that it’s illegal to harass turtles routinely stop to pose for pictures with them, or worse. “I’ve seen people do awful things like stand on the turtles,” Audrey says. “When they do something really stupid, I stand up and yell.” One of her recent projects was to pound a stake into the sand with a sign reading: “Please stay six feet away from the turtles.” She thinks she put it too close to the water, though, and she wants to move it farther up the beach before winter.