Bad Day at Tuross Bar [25]

By Mark Pearson

Saturday 27 May 1995

… and this was serious. The wind was now starting to pick up as the tidal current eased. Out to sea the horizon was lumpy – the sou’wester was in full cry out there. Less than three kilometres and I was heading that way. A terrible looking place. I began shivering again as I struggled to keep my position draped over the upturned kayak; After forty minutes of immersion, the 17 degree water was making it’s intentions clear. Blood was now in full retreat leaving grey white limbs.

I gazed hopefully at the distant shoreline – was that a figure on One-Tree Point? I again lifted the paddle into the air and waved it wearily. Was I too far out to be seen? I guessed I was now at least eight hundred metres out. Chris Soutter’s parting word’s kept ringing in my ears ‘Hope you come back in one piece’. Yeah Chris, maybe a cold dead piece. But how did I get into this mess anyway……..

I had paddled the Dancer once before on Lake Burley Griffin in February, accompanying Chris while he test-paddled my Seafarer. I rolled her three times – the first after unintentionally capsizing while lean turning (farewell yet another pair of Glarefoils!), and the second to show Chris, who was relatively new to kayaking, the basic technique. She was the easiest boat I had ever rolled, and to prove this my third roll was just a wide sweep and lay-back with no hip-flick. Up she came. This was cheating, I told Chris – what a boat he had to learn on.

When Chris kindly offered to lend me the Dancer for the weekend I jumped at the chance. I’d seen Gary Edmond and Co. surfing in white-water boats at Coledale and, in their expert hands at least, it looked fun. So I loaded the family and kayaks and headed for Tuross Heads, where I normally go for a paddle with Norm Sanders. On this particular day Norm was applying his powerful physique to repairing a friend’s roof, so I would have to surf alone. At 11 am I took my wife Kerrie, three year old son and two of our host’s children to the sheltered Caravan Beach which adjoins the two hundred metre wide Tuross River bar. It was a fine but cool day of about 15C.

Inshore, at least, the sea was benign – even the bar, normally a place of chaotic waves, was subdued, with waves of about three feet at most. I knew that the tide was running out, and that this was not a good thing at Tuross. I well remember the day last year, in my pre-rolling era, when Arunas Pilka and Nick Gill seemed to spend most of an afternoon rescuing me and my up-turned Seafarer in nasty ebb tide waves. I made the monumental decision to have a play anyway. After all, I told myself, the waves were small and this boat just about rolls herself, right!

I quickly launched into the river-mouth, admittedly in a rather ill equipped state. Due to the lack of decklines my paddle was not leashed and I could carry neither a sponge or water. My clothing was adequate; a Dry-Tech shirt, thin wet-suit vest, PFD, nylon paddle jacket, bike pants and neoprene booties. As I approached the wave zone I thought about a quick roll, but as I had not warmed up yet decided to get the circulation going first with some vigorous paddling.

I was now ready to catch waves. I quickly found out that the Dancer was slow and hard to keep straight – despite frantic paddling I was left behind by three waves before finally getting the speed to get a ride. I was puffing with exertion when picking up the next wave, and as I paddled to maintain a line I was hit by a refracting wave coming in from my right – the Dancer spun to the left and I braced but, much to my surprise, went straight over. Now, as I am not normally prone to such a rapid capsize whilst bracing, here I must provide some background. As a result of breaking a blade against a cliff wall at Merica River a month previously, Norm had persuaded me to join the growing ‘unfeathered’ club (as an inducement he had offered to, and did, re-build my paddle in this configuration). I now think that my brain had yet to fully come to grips with the new equipment, and in the heat of the moment my right wrist instinctively turned the shaft to set the paddle flat on the water. Of course this caused the ‘new

So, such was my surprise at the speed of the capsize, I didn’t get time to suck any air in before going under. As I manoeuvred the paddle into the set-up position, I knew that I would have air for just one roll. But the anxiety caused by nagging lungs led to a rushed attempt and down I went again. There followed a difficult wet-exit due to a stubborn sprayskirt. After less than ten minutes, the fun part of the day was definitely over.

I was now in neck-deep water holding on to the Dancer and the untethered paddle. The current was strong, and although I tried to ‘walk’ the boat the sixty metres to the nearest sandbar I was soon out of my depth. It was at this stage that I realised I needed a plan.

I came up with Plan A – Re-enter and Roll. Plan A provided me with a quick education on the characteristics of capsized white-water boats – with no bulkheads and minimal in-built foam, the Dancer was about as buoyant as you would expect a lump of plastic with a hole in it to be. Reentry was therefore tricky and unpleasant, as I was unable to use the ‘reverse somersault’ technique that worked well with the Seafarer. Once in, I swept and hip-flicked as strongly as I could, but the waterlogged hull would not right itself to a point where I could then brace. I persisted for about eight more attempts but then started to tire. Why I persisted for so long with Plan A still escapes me – if I had got her up, I would been sitting in a wallowing and 90% submerged log, with no chance of bailing it out and every chance of going over again.

So when I came to my senses I instigated Plan B – Towing the Kayak. This involved towing the boat while ‘swimming’ on my back with my three available limbs. Despite several minutes of hard work, the movement of nearby trees relative to their backdrop told me that I was fighting a losing battle. Plan B joined Plan A on the scrapheap.

I was now four hundred metres out from the bar, and considered my options while resting. I doubted whether Kerrie would even be aware of my predicament. With two three-year olds playing at the water’s edge, I quite rightly wouldn’t have been the focus of her attention. I couldn’t get into or tow the boat, which was only useful to me as something to hold onto. The current and increasing wind were still pushing me out and northwards. Plan C now revealed itself!

I would swim for it; now, before I drifted too far out. If I could make it ashore I could then launch the Seafarer with my spare paddle and hopefully re-capture the Dancer before it disappeared from sight. The long swim definitely did not appeal, but neither did drifting out towards that terrible looking horizon.

But I was horribly unsure about Plan C. The two halves of my rapidly cooling brain debated. The sensible well-read half made a strong case for staying put, detailing several tragedies where the victim had left the boat/car/plane due to their own misguided Plan C. However the other half, led by a powerful coalition of Primitive Fear (of deep cold water, nightfall, sharks etc), Instinct (to head for land) and Increasing Panic forced Plan C through without amendment. I slipped the spray skirt off and rammed it and the paddle into the front of the Dancer. The sensible half continued to nag at me – how was I going to tell Chris that I had last seen his beloved Dancer drifting in the general direction of Lord Howe Island! And what about the paddle – Norm had spent hours working on it.

And so it was with a heavy heart that I pushed away from the little kayak and commenced a steady free-style towards land. But the proponents of Plan C had not taken into account the weight of water-filled arms (thanks to my paddle jacket). I tired rapidly and after about 70 metres my brain, in an emergency sitting, voted unanimously to return to the security of the Dancer. She was now on her side and drifting away, but with the aid of my now dwindling supply of adrenalin, I was just able to catch her. I hung on, exhausted, until my breathing recovered.

I realised that my energy levels were now low and that a conservation policy would be wise. Plan D was implemented – waving my paddle for the benefit of any one looking out to sea. I seemed to be the only craft on the ocean – where are all the motor-boats full of fat fishermen when you need them?

And this is where I began..

I was now trying not to panic – I knew I could do nothing more for myself, and that I would have to wait until someone came to rescue me. Kerrie would eventually raise the alarm, but given my history of disappearing for two hours when I’d said one (be it kayaking or fishing), it could be a while before my absence would alarm her. And how far from Tuross would I be when they started looking? I was drifting to the north east at quite a rate. Apart from being angry with myself, I felt vulnerable, weak, cold and increasingly aware of my mortality.

And then a siren sounded in the distance. An old World War 2 type siren. It sounded for a good minute, stopped, then started again. I tried not to hope too much that this was related to me. What if they were just testing it, or there was a fire somewhere, or it was just a noon ritual. I thought of disaster movies, and the anguish of shipwreck victims as the search plane flew over without seeing them. Poor bastards. But I was sure I could now see a figure on One Tree Point; again I waved my paddle. The shivering was now coming in waves as my body protested at the prolonged immersion; this was now torture.

Ten long cold minutes passed and then a flash of red on the bar. Soon I could make out that it was a Rubber-Ducky moving quickly, leaping over waves, two men on board. More paddle waving, but it was not needed, they knew where I was. The Tuross Rescue Squad (TRS) had arrived. They quickly pulled me and the Dancer aboard. I tried to tell them what had happened but talking was difficult due to the ‘rigor mortis’ in my jaw. They radioed ashore that they had located the boat, and that the ‘patient’ was OK. One of the guys thanked me for rescuing him from a bad round on the golf course!

They landed on Caravan Beach, and after ensuring I was OK and taking some details, the TRS headed back to base. They, at least, had enjoyed the outing (their first since the previous Xmas). Kerrie was as surprised as anyone to see it was actually me that was rescued – she had seen the Rubber-Ducky heading out to sea but thought it was on a training run. Michael, my three-year old, thought that this was all terribly exciting, and wanted to know every detail of the drama.

As I was fumbling my way into some dry clothing a middle-aged man approached. He had been taking a walk and had seen me in trouble, but couldn’t find a nearby house with anyone at home. He had finally flagged down a friend’s car, who had raised the alarm. I thanked him sincerely for his efforts through clenched teeth. I learned later that a second call was also received from another house resident.

Thank you Tuross.

Norm had heard the siren from his perch on the roof, but did not connect it with me. Given that I had come through the ordeal OK, his main concern was for his reputation – ie. the local populace would assume it was he, the only ‘regular’ kayaker in Tuross, had been rescued.

What is mild hyperthermia like? Well, despite a long hot shower and layers of clothing I found it hard to get warm for the rest of the day. I also felt dog-tired, dizzy and like I had a severe head cold.

The next day I felt somewhat better, and Norm and I headed to Tomakin with our sea-kayaks. For the first time I actually appreciated the weight and size of the Seafarer as I carried her to the water. I felt at home as I squeezed into the snug-fitting seat and slipped into the water. She picked up speed rapidly, cutting re-reassuringly through sizeable waves without fuss. This was a boat for the ocean – big, tough and capable! I rolled her a few times just for my self-esteem; to prove I still could.

What followed was a very satisfying surfing session followed by a short paddle to Broulee Island. It was a beautiful sunny late autumn day. On returning to Tomakin, my little boy ran to me; ‘Daddy, Daddy – you didn’t have to get rescued!’ he said incredulously. Obviously it’s going to take quite some time to live this one down!

So what have I learned from this life threatening experience. Well, I think a new commandment should be added to the do’s and don’ts of sea-kayaking:

When alone, never cavort with a strange Dancer in an unfriendly Bar

On a more serious note, the feelings I experienced out there will take a lot of forgetting. If I had not been spotted when I was, I shudder at the thought of the desperate hours I would have endured becoming severely hyperthermic in rough seas. For me then, the legacy of this ‘scare’ is a much more cautious approach to sea kayaking, especially when alone. As Dave Winkworth once said, ‘one minute you’re having fun, the next your life is in danger’. It’s true. Hopefully the experience will help me avoid having to write another story like this one.

Footnote: I sent a cheque for fifty dollars to the TRS the next day.