Trial by Sea [7]

By Ian and Tracy McLeod

After owning our two-person Tasman Twin sea kayak for a couple of weeks, it was time for our first sea trial, which was to be a nice easy paddle from Palm Beach to Maitland Bay, which we estimated would take about two hours. The time and distance seemed to be fairly effortless as we had done quite a bit of river kayaking in a solo kayak involving many hours of paddling at a time. We had, of course, taken into consideration the fact that sea kayaking would be much more strenuous due to wind, wave action and current.

Tracy and I left Palm Beach on a beautiful, sunny morning. Not a cloud in the sky, it was all clear in the weather department as we headed for Maitland Bay. We had a nice leisurely journey and our approximation of the journey taking two hours was correct.

The seas were slight with a one metre swell, and an outgoing tide from the Broken Bay assisted our journey north. We paddled into a light north-easterly wind which we planned to use to our advantage later as we anticipated that it would pick up in the afternoon to assist our return.

We arrived at Maitland Bay to find there was not a soul in sight, so we unloaded our belongings onto the beach and settled ourselves down to soak up the sun. The water was very inviting and luckily we had our snorkelling gear, so we entertained ourselves in the water before enjoying our picnic lunch.

It was mid-afternoon as we finished lunch when threatening storm clouds from the direction of Gosford cut our stay short. Our original plan had been to stay until mid-evening but this was not to be. By the time we packed our belongings into the Tasman Twin we could hear the sound of thunder in the distance and feel the first few spots of rain.

Realising we had absolutely no time to waste, we launched our kayak into the surf and hastily started to paddle back towards Palm Beach.

We had been in the water for only a short time when a second storm from Pittwater to the south approached and in no time at all the thunder and lightning was directly above our heads. The wind velocity increased to approximately thirty to forty kph with heavy rain lashing our faces, making it very difficult to see and pick our course through the waves, which were two metres high by now. We were living in fear of being struck by lightning at any time.

The rain became completely blinding as the storm increased in intensity and a course through the waves could not be judged. Our paddling efforts were in vain against the wind, which had by now increased to about fifty kph. With some apprehension, we made the decision to turn and run before the storm, which would take us out to sea. This was a very tense moment as we did not know how the boat was going to react. Turning the Tasman Twin had to be precisely judged, first by starting the turn as the kayak crested the first wave and second by swinging to the port side to use the wind from the south-west to help us come about quickly so as to have the stern exactly square to the second wave. The whole manoeuvre took place in the trough between two waves.

The following few minutes seemed like hours. We soon realised that the Tasman Twin could handle the situation exceptionally well. The waves were now approximately 2.5 metres with white caps and the wind now lashing against our backs. The visibility by this time was now about fifty feet and we were able to assess the situation with a little more confidence knowing the boat was coping better than we were. Our main aim by this time was to stay upright and afloat.

Without paddling, the wind was driving us through the water at several knots (about seven to ten kts estimated) so we had full steerage. We dug our paddles into the water and used them as brakes and to assist steering; the Tasman Twin would broach very quickly otherwise. Capsizing was always imminent.

We learned later that wind speeds of eighty-nine knots were recorded at the Palm Beach seaplane base of Aquatic Airways. Had we capsized in these conditions, it would almost certainly have been fatal, even with the personal flotation devices we were wearing. At this stage there was ten litres of water in the lap of our spray skirts, the weight of which stretching them down to form a bucket of water which was impossible to dispose of.

There seemed to be no end in sight and we were wondering how long our physical and mental stamina would hold out. It was taking a great deal of physical and mental effort which we knew we would not be able to maintain in these conditions. Our main fear was to be caught by the fall of darkness because we would not be able to read the sea and then capsize would have been inevitable.

Some thirty minutes into this storm and the first signs of shock and exposure were becoming evident. I realised that if I was feeling this way, then so was Tracy. Up until now, we could not communicate due to the noise of wind and rain howling about us. Our only means of communicating was through bashing the sides of the boat with my hands to indicate which side the paddles were needed to maintain steerage. As I could not turn around to talk, all I could do was to scream out that I was extremely cold and that this was the first sign of shock.

The seriousness of the situation was eased slightly when two penguins popped out of the water in the lee of our kayak. Two more joined them and we felt this helped as they were seeking shelter with us, so through there eyes we must have looked better off than they were with waves crashing about them. Their curious barks seemed to be aimed directly at us as if they were asking for help.

Up until now I had been able to keep my sense of direction. There had been three wind changes in the time we were caught in the storm and I estimated that we were heading roughly north-east. We did not have a compass, a very definite mistake for anyone going to sea in a kayak.

Time was the enemy so we made the decision to wait for a lull in the storm so we could come about and make a break through the back of the storm. Another ten minutes passed before such an opportunity became available. I yelled to Tracy start paddling as fast as possible so that we could get up sufficient speed to make our coming about in these conditions safe. Remembering that a Tasman Twin is twenty-one feet long and needs a large area to turn, we picked our break in the waves and paddled like crazy, realising that this was going to be the most dangerous manoeuvre so far – just one chance to get it right.

The Tasman Twin came about much quicker than I had anticipated. We still had full speed and started to break our way directly square on through the waves, the bow clearing the crest of the first waves by seven or eight feet. I could only see by turning my head side on to the driving rain. We kept this up for fifteen minutes or more until we finally broke out of the back of the storm. Using our paddles as brakes during the early part of the storm had worked, slowing us enough to let the storm pass over us. The seas were still rough but the wind and rain had eased and there was an exhilarating feeling of “we are still alive!” If it had been possible, we would have jumped for joy. Within a short period we had blue skies once more and it was time to assess where we were.

The headlands on the mainland were only just visible which meant we were over ten miles out to sea. We could not make a break straight for shore as the sea was still too big to take side on. So, we picked a south-westerly course, which was about sixty degrees to the angle of the wave action, and paddled on. As the coastline became clearer it was unfamiliar to me, and I realised with a sinking feeling that we were also many miles up the coast which meant several hours of hard paddling to get back to Pittwater.

The Tasman Twin was bounding over the waves and surfing down their backs like a wild gazelle, and one could get a full appreciation of the excitement of sea kayaking at its very best, but Tracy did not think this was exhilarating. She was frightened and wanted out. This sense of excitement overpowered the pain of sore muscle, aching bones, and the wind and rain burn to our faces which was so severe it had split my lips. Nevertheless, we managed to paddle on strongly for about one and a half hours before Barrenjoey lighthouse was in sight.

The exhilaration of escaping the clutches of the storm and of being alive was still surging through our bodies, making our sore muscles keep working. The pain barrier seemed easier to paddle through and of little significance; all we could think about was going home.

The concept of time throughout this ordeal was hard very hard to realise, what were only minutes seemed like hours and hours seemed like an eternity. As we paddled the next few hours, our thoughts went back to the storm and how felt during this terrifying ordeal.

The voyage back to Pittwater was relatively uneventful, except for the occasional bark from distant penguins and the chatter between one and other. We felt that this tight situation had pulled us together – fighting the physical strain, the mental strain and of course the fear.

By the time we reached Broken Bay, we would have gladly killed for a cup of tea, having had no chance of any break at all for the last few hours. The water near Barrenjoey became extremely calm and we only had to fight the outgoing tide and physical exhaustion. A game fishing boat running in from the same storm passed perilously close with its wash coming right over the deck of the Tasman Twin – we both commented that it would have been a tragedy to have survived the storm only to be capsized by someone else’s thoughtlessness.

Darkness was closing in as we paddled up to the beach where the car was parked and stepped out on shaky legs feeling very cold. We unpacked the boat and found there was very little water in the bilge, just a couple of litres which had dripped through stitching of our spray skirts.

Quietly we put the Tasman Twin on to the roof racks and headed home for a cup of tea and hot bath with a story to tell!

With the experience we had achieved throughout this unforgettable adventure, we learnt that the minimum necessities for any sea kayak voyage of any kind are:

  • Seamanship
  • Fitness and stamina
  • Personal Flotation Devices
  • Waterproof spray skirts
  • More than one bilge pump
  • Spare paddle
  • Compass
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof torch Flares for long journeys