Pentathlon Man [8]

By Peter Meredith

I think the biggest mistake I made that day was not checking the weather forecast. There were others. Like not taking note of the subtle signs in the sky and the air, not consulting a map, not taking the right kind of shoes. It’s a wonder that things didn’t go more seriously wrong than they did.

But how can you read signs from a perfect day?

I paddled out of the mouth of the Tomaga River at Mossy Point, just north of Broulee on the south coast, on a brilliant mid-morning. My wife Sue had dropped me and gone off, promising to be back at the same place later. The sea was like a distorting mirror, undulating lazily under the fat sun. Not a breath, not a ripple. A cluster of surreal islands seemed to float rising and falling with the soft swell off to the north-west. I paddled in a straight line across the bay to Burrewarra Point. The swell was bigger there, but I was still able to sneak in between outcrops and get a close look at barnacled rock, pink and black in the crystal water. I was hoping to see some exotic sea creature, but all the action was taking place in the air: thousands upon thousands of butterflies were flying over the water in same kind of crazy migration that would take them out to sea.

I turned back and paddled slowly below the cliffs, checking inlets and tiny secluded beaches for a suitable landing spot. I’d brought food and snorkelling gear and wasn’t going to let them lie unused. After all, if you’ve got big hatches you’ve got to put gear in them. And if you’ve got gear aboard you just have to use it.

I passed a bloke in a tinny raising cray pots. He ignored me. Not long afterwards I found what I was looking for: a beach ringed by cliffs and inaccessible from land. So I beached and went snorkelling.

I’d been nosing around in the shallows for about 20 minutes when I heard the sound of an outboard motor. I looked up and, with my mask half out of the water, saw two worlds at once: waving kelp and flashing fish below, and in the upper world the cray fisherman’s tinny speeding off towards Mossy Point. THAT was definitely a sign, though even at that late stage I failed to heed it.

Ten minutes later I was drying myself an the beach when an invisible hand suddenly picked up my kayak by the bow toggle, spun it round and tried to run off with it. At the same time 1 heard a roar in the trees on the cliffs above. Leaves, branches, my towel and t-shirt began to whirl about the cove. I looked out to sea and saw not glass-smooth water but a carpet of crawling, greeny-white froth. A southerly had hit. The cray man had seen the signs and I hadn’t. I really resented him for that.

In a mindless panic I launched, vaguely intending to head back towards Mossy Paint. It was an insane notion, I realised as I tried to round the small headland outside the cove. The chop was already a metre high and the spindrift and froth were swiping my face, blotting out visibility to windward. I battled to make it round the headland, knowing that if I capsized I’d be on the rocks in 15 seconds.

Round the headland I found myself in a wide bay with a curving beach. At the far end of the bay was another headland and perhaps beyond that was a landing place closer to familiar territory. As I paddled across the bay I knew I’d never make it. The beam wind was making my rudderless kayak weathercock into wind and I was having to paddle on one side for long stretches. I was tiring fast. Twice, three times I nearly went over. And the waves were getting bigger by the minute, crashing over the boat and getting in my eyes, nose and ears. So I ran for the beach. My landing was messy, but the solid ground felt marvellous.

The beach was deserted. A solitary path led into thick bush. I had no option but to walk. So I shouldered the boat and plodded into the trees, wondering how much of this stuff I’d have to traverse before reaching civilisation. The path was narrow and twisty and now and then I had to make fancy three-point turns to get round the bends.

After about half an hour a thong gave out, so I kicked both thongs off and walked barefoot. This might have looked impressive had there been anybody to witness it, but it sure made my feet hurt. As well, I could feel my spine being compressed into a curvaceous S. Sea-kayaking was beginning to give me a pain.

Just as I was thinking of hurling the boat into the bushes and leaving it there, I came to a clearing surrounded by a cluster of cottages all painted in environment-friendly colours and all empty. A surprised man came out of one cottage to greet me. From him I discovered why the cottages were empty: they were holiday cottages, and of course there was a recession in progress. Caretakers of holiday cottages during recessions are lonely people, willing to talk to anyone even people who bushwalk with kayaks on their shoulders. Believing that the wind had dropped and that I might yet be able to re-launch and paddle to my destination, I asked him the question all sea-kayakers constantly have an their lips: “Where’s the sea?”

By the time I emerged from the bush onto sand. I was running out of time. The beach stretched for maybe five kilos in a long shallow curve to a black blob that I took to be Mossy Point. I had less than half an hour to make my rendezvous. The wind was dropping but the sea still looked nasty, a kind of milky green, so I decided to leave the kayak and run. After a quick hit of fruit’n’nut chocolate bar, choc-chip cookie and Christmas pud with chocolate sauce from my emergency ration pack, I set off at a trot, wearing my PFD and carrying my paddle, confident that I’d make it in time.

All went well until I was about 100 metres from my destination. Then two sensations assailed me at the same time:

  1. A belching back-firing nausea resulting from all the emergency food I’d eaten.
  2. The realization that I’d made an amazing miscalculation.

Yes, I’d forgotten about the river. It’s dead easy to do that when you’re in a kayak but a different matter when you’re on foot. There it was, flowing swiftly between me and the car park at which Sue would be arriving any minute. Too swiftly? I didn’t know, and the least thing I wanted was to be swept out to sea without a kayak while attempting to cross it.

As I was standing there regretting not taking up hang-gliding, a surfie trotted up from the beach I’d just run along. After a few remarks about the southerly, he came round to the topic that was evidently uppermost in his mind: “Lost your boat?”

He’d have loved it if I’d said yes, so I told him I was training for a pentathlon event – kayaking, bushwalking with a heavy load, running on sand, swimming rivers and desktop publishing. Bored by this, he plunged into the river and swam his surfboard across with the greatest of ease. That looks easy, I thought, so I threw myself in after him.

It WAS easy, but to onlookers it looked really impressive. Several people on the far bank watched in admiration as I negotiated what appeared to be vicious rapids. In fact the water was only a fact or so deep in places, and although it looked as if I was swimming, I was actually grabbing racks and bits of seaweed and pulling myself along.

I hauled myself out on the far bank a minute before Sue arrived. Punctuality has always been one of my strong points.

We went back to retrieve the kayak, and later, over a mug of hot tea. it struck me that the southerly, being more a south-easterly, would have blown all those butterflies ashore. Who was crazy, the butterflies or me, I wondered.