Safer See Kayaking [17]

By Patrick Dibben

Some of you may have heard about a kayaking incident a couple of months back where a sea kayak was found floating at sea with no occupant. This was widely reported on ABC radio although their facts were, from what I’ve been told, quite wrong.

The incident involved one of our club members. It’s probably best if you get the story from the person involved but basically from what I’ve been told they were forced to abandon their boat close to shore after it became water logged and almost impossible to paddle. They clambered to shore with the aid of rock fisherman and reported the incident to the Police. The kayak was eventually found 200 km further south and 25 kms offshore by a fishing boat and reported to Police at Bermagui. The Police on the south coast were unaware of the previous report and traced the owner via a manufacturers sticker on the boat.

This and a a timely article in the latest edition of the Investigator Canoe Club’s newsletter on flares prompted me to look at safety/rescue equipment on the market.

Night Paddling

Lights: You are probably aware that, although Waterways Handbook doesn’t state it, the minimum requirement for kayaks at night is a 360* visible white light. In reality this can be pretty difficult to achieve and then the strength of an unfocussed battery operated light is not going to be great. A light where you can see it is going to reduce your night vision to a dangerous level.

In some ways it might be simpler and more effective to adopt standard navigation lights. I checked out a local marine shop and found clip on lights made by Sea World for $17.95. These take ‘D’ cells and of course come in red, green and white. They have a clip on section which you attach permanently to your boat. It’s made of black flexible plastic and looks like one of those clips designed for broom closets which some people use as paddle parkers (you could use it for this). When you need your lights you just clip them in. The clips have small stainless steel reflective shades which shield the lights so they are only visible from the correct sides. These shades also detach from the clip. The only disadvantage with this light would be they would be slightly visible by the paddler.

Another alternative is a combination light made for sailing boats. The Ronstan combination red/green light is $29.90 and takes ‘D’ cells. It works out cheaper than two individual lights. I was unable to open a packet to check it out fully but it appears it might also clip on/off. The way this light is designed it would not be visible by the paddler but might be more difficult to install in the middle of a curved deck.

Strobes are not approved for lighting boats and come into the category of rescue equipment.

Reflective Tape: This was $12.50 a metre for a strip which is approx 6 cm wide.

Rescue Equipment

If all else fails and it comes to the point where you need to be rescued you will need to be seen or heard.

Flares: Heres an outline of what I found available:

  • Orange Handsmoke Mk 3 For day use only, visibility 4 km, duration 60 seconds – $22.80
  • Red Handflare Mk 2. Visibility 10 km at night, duration 60 seconds – $18.50
  • Para Red Mk 3 Distress Rocket Visibility 15 km (day)/ 40 km (night), duration 40 secs $67.50
  • Inshore Distress Kit Two Red Handflares and two Orange Handsmoke $77.90

Dye: Dye might be of use if people are already on the lookout or you were below a rocky shoreline where people are around to see you. It’s ideal use would be when a plane searching for you is nearby. It would probably last much longer than a flare but would not be as easily recognised as a distress signal by the casual observer. The Fairway Sea Mariner Dye pack is $20.00. The dye is orange in colour.

Strobes: The one I looked at was waterproof and reasonable rugged. They would be quite visible during the night but would anyone realise they were a distress signal if they weren’t already looking for you. Their effectiveness during the day might be less than a mirror.

Mirrors: I found a thick stainless steel mirror for $3.20.

Whistles: Ideally the whistle should be attached to your life jacket which, of course, you are wearing. A plastic whistle I looked at cost $1.25. These could be quite useful to attract the attention of another kayaker if, for instance, you became separated from your paddling companions.

Air Horns: These are pressure packs of compressed gas with a horn at the top. They are loud! These are the sort of thing that are used at the football to start and finish games. The ones I looked at were reasonably large and cost $20. I have seen smaller versions and these may have some use if paddling at night, in fog, in a crowded harbour where you might use it to warn a larger vessel if you think they may not have seen you. They may need to be kept in a plastic bag to prevent corrosion. Try one out in a shop – you get a fantastic reaction !

EPIRB: These are ‘Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacons’. These may be a good idea if you are doing a trip in an isolated area or if paddling well out to sea. There are EPIRBs and there are EPIRBs. Older EPIRBs relied on detection by aircraft. The newer EPIRBs make use of detection via satellite.

Older 121.5/243 MHZ EPIRBs

Those manufactured or sold prior to February 1990: Originally these were designed to be detected by overflying search aircraft, international civil aircraft or military aircraft. They were not designed for satellite detection and therefore the stability and accuracy of the transmissions was not a critical factor.

Tests have recently been carried out by the Department of Transport and Communication to see if these older non-satellite EPIRBs were able to be detected by the SARSAT (Search And Rescue Satellite) System. Of 25 beacons tested only a small number were detected and of these the resultant positions were so inaccurate as to be highly misleading !

Not all aircraft monitor the 121.5/243 MHZ frequencies. Apart from this there are vast areas of the Australian coast not monitored at all and thus detection is either via chance or by a search aircraft if a full scale search is launched.

Those manufactured or sold after February 1990: These are required to meet Ministerial Standard 241 (MS241). As such they are detectable by satellite however two satellite passes are required to fix a position and then this is only accurate to within 20 km.


The COSPOS/SARSAT system was designed for EPIRBs operating on 406 MHZ using digital signals. All 406 MHZ EPIRBs sold in Australia are compatible with this SARSAT system. They can be detected to an accuracy of within 5 kms and can also identify the EPIRB through an international registration system. Thus they would know they are looking for a kayak instead of a container ship. Some EPIRBs also have the capability of indicating the type of distress eg. medical, collision etc. I believe these cost around $200.

Identifying Your Boat

It’s obviously a good idea to mark your kayak so it can be identified. If we adopted a convention on where to mark the boat then this would make it easier as well. You could use a Pental pen to write your name in a spot where it won’t wear off easily such as the underneath of the front deck in the cockpit and on the rear bulkhead. If your kayak were stolen the marking under the deck is less likely to be discovered by the thief and may then aid in identification and proof of ownership.

The club sticker would also be a good idea as this would lead authorities to people that may be able to supply valuable information. If you marked your kayak with, for instance, your name only then this may not help them if you live by yourself – they still don’t know anyone else to contact.


There lots to be said about PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices) and making your boat buoyant and water tight – too much for this article so I’ll leave that to the next edition of the magazine.

Common sense is obviously pretty high on the list of safety items a kayaker needs. Hopefully those who carry rescue equipment won’t then feel more game to take on what they wouldn’t otherwise. Carry them as a sensible precaution against the unpredictable and as my hero once said ‘A man’s gotta know his limitations’.

Broughton Island [17]

8th and 9th May, 1993

By Michael Maleedy

Bruce Easton and I started from Sydney early on Saturday morning. It was a sunny day. Mackeral scales and mares tails streaked the upper levels of the sky. With eyes raised to the heavens, partly in supplication, I hazarded a guess in Bruce’s direction.

“Fair weather?”

“High winds,” he replied, as we tied my Greenlander to the top of his car.

Too late for a change of mind. We were off on my biggest aqua-adventure to date. Out to Broughton Island. An unknown. A trip “offshore”.

The car trip was, as car trips often are, uneventful, and we soon saw Alex Preema’s kayak sitting on top of his car in Port Stephens. Alex directed us to a launching spot and we detoured for pie and chips and Bruce’s vegetarian something, arriving as Alex finished loading his boat.

I’d never loaded a kayak with camping gear before but felt instinctively that heavier things should go in the middle. A few goatskins of water would I thought, be helpful and soon we were on the water.

Alex, in his eagerness, had forgotten to batten down his back hatch. Fortunately we discovered that before we ventured off and we fixed it.

Nervousness and excitement jostled for lead position as I warmed up my paddling muscles. We passed through the twin headlands of Port Stephens and out through the islands scattered around the entrance. The sea was taking on a special colour, an omen for the trip. It was like green liquid glass. A deep succulent emerald.

Boondelbah and Little Island lay ahead of us and we shouted queries at each other. Should we go around Cabbage Tree Island or between it and North Head? We decided to go out around the island named for the palms that grow all over it. As we swung around to the north, we saw Broughton Island as a faint smudge ahead.

Above: Michael Maleedy discovering Sea-Caving (Photo: Bruce Easton)

“Doesn’t seem too far”, I thought, “something like Manly to Long Reef, maybe a bit more”. Off we paddled, a south-west wind blowing spray off choppy waves of about half a metre. We’d gone for about an hour and the grey smudge of the island was no less of a smudge. Looking back, Cabbage Tree and the Headland still stood out clearly. We’d hardly moved. I felt much more tired than hours of paddling usually makes me feel. The idea of being offshore and committed to a long paddle was obviously draining me more than I would have expected.

It was at about this point that the first dolphin leapt from the water. He was about an oars length away on the right of my boat and made me gasp with shock. Much more than the dolphins of film or photo, this creature was solid and abrupt. For all the world like a dog. A sea-cur. They weren’t there for long, these delightful creatures. Just enough to cause our three craft to move instinctively closer together, for we humans to exchange appreciative looks and mouth appropriate sentiments and then they were gone; leaving us to paddle on, lost in our own worlds of wonder and delight. A world I’m sure you fellow ocean-canoers also inhabit.

It took us about two and a half hours to reach the island and we entered a long, thin bay which sheltered a sprinkling of fisher folks huts. We pulled ashore just north of this little village and quickly set up camp. There was just enough light to allow for a quick exploration of the island so off we set again to hug the coast to the north. Bruce is an adventurous soul. He poked his way through all the nooks and crannies while Alex and I stood off wondering at the bravery or stupidity of Bruce’s confidence. I didn’t actually see the wave which almost wiped Bruce out but turned at the shouts, to see him metres away from a cliff, cresting a breaking wave. His Klepper and skill had saved him again.

We continued around a large bay and then headed south to investigate a sea-cave we’d noticed on the way to the island. We approached the cave as close as we dared to see the swell disappear into it and explode against the walls and spray create magnificent plumes of energy. “No! Not today. “Not any day”, I thought, as I tried to imagine manoeuvring my unwieldy Greenlander in such a confined space.

Night was falling, so we went back to camp for a hasty meal. The food was barely eaten when I was overcome by sheer exhaustion. I crawled into my sleeping bag and was instantly asleep.

I woke suddenly with an aching back. The muffled sound of the sea reminding me were I was and my stomach an empty pit. I had to eat! I looked at my watch. It was 11 pm as I stuck my head out to see that the leaden sky was weighing down the night, hiding a sky I’d hoped to see white with stars.

My clattering and banging in the cooking lean-to that Alex had provided brought him questioning into the night. What was I doing? Eating!? At two o clock in the morning? I was never to live this down. Alex to this day is convinced that I’m an eccentric night-nibbler. For the rest of the trip I had to endure taunts and jokes about my nocturnal peculiarities. True, there was nothing edible on the entire beach the next morning but, hey, a guy’s gotta eat!

The following day, Alex decided to climb to the highest point on the island while Bruce and I paddled. We headed off toward the sea-cave we’d investigated the night before. On the way to it we discovered a rock garden which would allow us passage to the south of the island and enable us to approach the cave from the side opposite to the one we’d looked at the day before. Cautious, as usual, I led the way through the jumble of rocks, pausing to let waves pass before paddling furiously to get to the open water beyond. As we left the rocks and cliffs and came out into clear water we saw the first of about twenty soft drink cans floating about, scattered, together with plastic bags full of rubbish over a huge area. We collected them, piling our kayaks high and took them across to a dive boat which had arrived to take advantage of the delightful, crystal waters. The divers agreed to take rubbish away for us and then watched as we edged our way toward the sea cave. From this side the explosions of water against the cliff walls seemed even more dramatic and dangerous. A two metre swell, crashing through a channel about four metres across was something not even Bruce was game to enter. We agreed to move around to the north entrance again and twenty minutes found us following the swell into the mouth of the cave. Strangely, once we’d committed ourselves to the lunacy of entering and once we were inside, all the movement and spray were no worse than a moderately windy day off a headland. Bruce led the way through the passage and hesitated just before the exit. I was picked up and hurtled forward by a following wave. I screamed, “We’ve made it. Go! Go!”. Bruce gave a quick look back, a couple of paddle strokes and we burst out of the gap to the applause of the divers on the boat beyond.

Once we’d been through and realised how safe the exercise was in reality we returned through the cave. The photos Bruce took of this show what seem to be almost calm, flat water. they don’t show the dynamism of the sea in that confined space.

Above: Michael Maleedy leaving Broughton in his wake (Photo: Bruce Easton)

The adrenalin buzz we received from that adventure gave us the energy then to paddle north to investigate the rest of the island’s shoreline. Broughton Island is a pretty featureless heath, but the cliffs and rock formations which ring it, are stunning. The bubbles and flows of once molten rock seem caught in time. I don’t know the origin of the island but looking around from the ocean, at certain points, you can imagine yourself in the bowl of an extinct volcano.

We travelled as far around the island as time would allow and found another cave which led through the cliffs. A quieter cave this time but with it’s own peculiarities. It was very shallow, so had to be navigated on the rise of a wave. An interesting experience and not for those with precious kayaks.

On our way back to the camp site we passed close to a rock outcrop. Fortunately we were not hugging the shoreline as we had previously. A sudden rogue wave leapt out of a completely calm sea. As we watched in awe, it smashed against the jagged rocks, metres from our fragile boats. I can’t imagine how we would have dealt with the situation of being caught between those cruel rocks and that cunning wave. Perhaps a quick capsize to create enough drag to let the wave pass over, then a roll and a fear-filled dash for safety. That wave lived in my memory and dreams for days.

Back at the tents we found Alex sheltering from the rain that had started to fall. He’d had a great time. We envied him what must have been magnificent views from the top of the island.

After lunch we packed and headed north. Rather than paddle round the whole of the island we used the second cave we’d discovered to make the trip a bit shorter. The day was getting on and we had a way to travel so we moved south onto a remarkable sea.

The sky overhead was leaden and heavy and the ocean as flat and featureless as I’ve ever seen it. Every now and then the swell would move through from the south west like a huge creature turning in its sleep. It was sheer pleasure to slink along its surface through a profound silence. Far in the distance was a faint groan I took to be traffic on a highway. The others told me it was the sound of breaking waves on the shore kilometres to the east. Every now and then we’d stop and listen, to virtually nothing. No wind, no water movement. Complete silence, almost. Once or twice on the journey, a light squall would pass over us. If we stopped then, I’d lie back on my boat and listen to the clinking glass sound of raindrops hitting the sea surface.

Eventually the headlands of Port Stephens were immediately ahead of us and we slowed down to luxuriate in the magnificent aqua’s and purples of the shallows around the islands.

As we passed through the twin sentinels of the bay we were met by a a pod of dolphins moving like one animal as they broke the surface. We moved towards them but they disappeared to reappear a hundred metres behind us, then off again in the distance. We were too tired to pursue them and headed for a landing, a quick pack-up and a welcome dinner at Alex’s In-laws.

If this becomes an annual event, as I suspect it will, I recommend it to any competent paddler. It’s a trip that will live in your memory for a long time.