My friend Chris Soutter, raw sea kayaker but expert fisherman, gasped and trembled uncontrollably as I detailed the species of fish I had seen at beautiful Merica River in Easter ’95. To settle him down, I agreed that we should set aside a weekend in March ’96 for a 4-day paddle from Womboyn to Nadgee River, returning via Merica River. Planning for the trip commenced in January.
This wilderness coast was well described in ‘Going with the Flow’ (NSWSK No.26), so this report concentrates more on how the trip survived the CHIF (Critical Human Interaction Factor). For this area has witnessed several doomed paddling expeditions caused by either the failure of individuals to agree on objectives, or blend on a personal level with others in the group. This particular paddle was also one in which I learned many valuable lessons; about sea-kayaking, about myself, and more particularly, about the foibles of my paddling companions.
The following account is therefore based on actual events – names have not been changed to protect the innocent.
As we invited other paddlers to join us, the numbers rose to a possible seven paddlers. After the usual sundry withdrawals, we finally got down to four ‘definites’, Chris, Norm Sanders, John Caldwell and myself, and one ‘possible’, Jim Croft. The saga of Jim’s inability to decide whether to come or not is a story in itself, and there is not room in this magazine for all the details. Suffice to say that Jim, after changing his angst-ridden mind at least 18 times, finally secured leave passes from both wife and work with only one day to spare. Tragically (for Jim at least – for by now the mere mention of the word Jim’ caused our arteries to tighten), he then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory due to lack of suitable transport.
Chris and I drove down on the Thursday night to meet with John and Norm at Wonboyn. We found John near the local shop, and he directed us to a ‘secret’ camping area that Norm had found in nearby bushland. Our arrival flushed Norm out of his tent, complaining loudly about the headlights giving away our presence to the ‘inbred locals’. It was at this point that Chris and I realised, to our dismay, that our trip companions were quite drunk. They had evidently spent the evening swilling down John’s entire 4-day supply of sherry. Having heard of several incidents in recent months involving inebriated paddlers (one who broke his hand in a pool table argument with a Gallipoli veteran), Chris and I remained calm and ensured that nothing was said to provoke them. After a quiet and subdued cup of tea we retired for the night, hoping that they would be well enough to paddle in the morning.
Norm is a professional sea kayak designer and journalist, John a carpenter, Chris a financial adviser and I (at least at the time of writing) a public servant. Norm and I started serious sea kayaking together in January 1994 after a chance meeting on Tuross Lake. To my shame, he has since left me way behind in all facets of the sport – building three kayaks, earning his Instructor’s certificate and recently completing a PHD on sea kayaking equipment. John’s credentials were also impressive – he had only been sea kayaking for a year, but was already an accomplished expedition paddler with silky skills (he still holds the world record for learning to roll – 3 minutes 42 seconds at Mystery Bay, February 1995). Chris had only one decent paddle under his belt, the Royal Banquet of May 1995, but was picking things up well. Me, well I suppose I’ve paddled a bit, but my only (dubious) claim to fame is that I have been rescued more times than any other club member – once even by an official rescue boat! The group then, obviously contained two factions, one brimming with expertise and experience, the other handicapped by inexperience and incompetence (respectively).
Darkness before dawn
Friday morning. Norm, as is his custom, awoke us at dawn with loud incantations for us to get moving. We headed for the boat ramp, cooked and ate our Semolina (the kayakers ‘breakfast of the 90’s’), and commenced loading. As we packed, I thought it might be prudent to visit the adjacent toilet given the five hour paddle that lay ahead. Typically, the facility had no toilet paper, so I returned to the ramp. As my supply was already packed away, John kindly produced a cigar sized mini-roll for me from his custom-built micro-toiletry bag. I did my business, and was pleased to find that were was enough left over to blow my nose. On returning to the ramp, John indicated that he too was going to the toilet, and asked me for his paper back! With horror, I realised that I had probably just used John’s entire 4 day supply! Self doubt now overwhelmed me as I realised how profligate my city habits were out here in the wilderness! Chris, a man of consummate inter-personal skills, saw my predicament and lent John his roll. He also gave me another roll as a spare. I was now terribly awkward about proceeding with the trip knowing that I was a figure of contempt in the minds of my companions. But it was too late to turn back – I had to tough it out in the hope that the incident would be forgotten. My first lesson here was to never again allow my toilet habits to be so brutally exposed. The second was confirmation of John’s gear philosophy. Even amongst sea paddlers – this man travels light!
Looking the part
As we departed the ramp, Chris and I couldn’t help but think that our experienced companions looked so much better than we did in their kayaks. They had similar gear, similar paddles and (Norm excepted) similar boats, but for some reason they just looked like they meant business. It suddenly dawned on us why – Norm and John both sported magnificent flowing beards, grey and black respectively, which added to their aura of storm-hardened sea veterans. Chris and I urgently nurtured our stubble to disguise our pathetically bland countenances.
Wonboyn Bar trauma
It was cloudy but still as we paddled up the lake to the dreaded Womboyn Bar. Norm’s and John’s blood alcohol reading was now about .07, so they were able to paddle in a reasonably straight line.
Chris had very little experience of surf conditions, so I was hoping that the bar would not be too challenging. But the growing roar of the surf indicated that there was going to be work to do. The beach was indeed lively, with regular two metre sets rolling in. We landed on a sand bank and made a plan – the exit order would be John, myself, Chris then Norm. John decided to paddle along the shallows and exit some 150 metres north of the bar, I went for the more traditional route straight out but nearer the rocks. The waves were slightly smaller here although there was more danger if I got into trouble. We both punched out on the same comparative lull.
Norm and Chris also decided to follow John’s route out. Norm was obviously on edge knowing that this was Chris’s first attempt at punching out through sizable surf. After studying the sets for some minutes Norm issued the order for Chris to paddle out. But Norm’s renowned seafaring judgement had been impaired by acute sherry poisoning! Two waves of Tsunami proportions were coming in, bearing down on poor Chris. ‘Go! Go!’ yelled Norm, anxious not to be held responsible for the club’s first fatality. Chris, deafened by the surf, hesitated and turned round, thinking Norm was calling him back. Switching instinctively to ‘Loud American’ mode, Norm fired off a stream of choice invective to further convince Chris to get moving. By the time he straightened up the two waves were on him, the first breaking just in front and the second rearing up frighteningly over his kayak. Thankfully, his momentum was sufficient, and John and I were treated to the great sight of the fully loaded Puffin shooting through the two metre wave wall, airborn, before landing upright. Chris was out, and had been blooded in big surf without injury. Mentally though, he was a quivering mess; not from the tsunami, but Norm’s verbal abuse. I explained to Chris that all who paddle with Mr Sanders go through this ordeal at some stage, and that he was lucky to get his over and done with so early in the trip! My counselling skills proved effective, and we were able to continue. My lesson here – in the surf, your fate can rest on the judgement of others. This is not a good thing.
As we turned southwards for the 23 km beat to Nadgee, the wind strengthened from the north. This was the main reason I had invited Chris – his presence seems to guarantee following winds. As we passed level with Merica River, John spotted a small seal chasing fish.
Two hours later we neared Newton’s Beach. For some reason I had thought that we would land at Newton’s for lunch, so I had no food handy. As we neared the beach Norm told me in no uncertain terms that landing had never been part of his plan and that, anyway, the conditions were such that we had to continue on. With that he paddled away authoritatively, munching on something substantial, and callously ignoring my pleas for food. Chris, again showing great inter-personal skills, gave me a small amount of scroggan, which in no time gave me a commensurate attack of indigestion. (I’m rapidly coming to the opinion that the only food that can be eaten during vigorous paddling is Semolina – the paddling supplement of the ’90’s). My lesson here – make sure that your plan matches the plan of the dominant member of the group.
The northerly was strengthening, and it was now possibly to catch some surfing rides. This activity helped me forget my simultaneous hunger and heartburn. Then, as I looked over my shoulder to check for waves, I noticed a shark’s fin a mere 10 feet from my stern. This was my first view of a shark from a kayak. Flattered by the interest of the creature, I slowed down for a better look. But the shark, sensing my hunger, dived to the safety of the depths.
Teamwork and individualism
Chris and I were impressed by Norm’s desire to keep the group together for safety reasons. When one of us lost concentration and threatened the tight shape of the formation, Norm was sure to paddle over and gently rebuke the offender. This was teamwork, and it felt good! However, after we had landed in an organised and planned fashion through tricky surf at Nadgee beach, Norm and John left us in their wake as they paddled up the estuary. The ‘bearded ones’ then grabbed their dry bags and sprinted up into the trees. Chris and I, still in our kayaks growing stubble, were momentarily bemused – until we realised that this magnificent display of hamstring power was all about preferred tent sites. Later that night, as I lay in wretched discomfort in my tent (pitched precariously on a rocky, ant-ridden slope), I mused on this last lesson of the day – teamwork stops at the surf line!
Fishing at Nadgee
Fishing was the only pursuit where Chris and I had status’. It was therefore an important psychological pursuit to combat our low self esteem levels. We had a rewarding morning session at Nadgee, catching and releasing a number of bream, keeping one each for lunch. Much to Norm’s disgust, John showed genuine interest in our little hobby, shadowing us unobtrusively and patiently as we fished, like a pelican would. And judging by the way he later devoured his fish, his throat bulging as each mouthful passed down his slender gullet, it was easy to imagine that John may actually have been a pelican in a past life!
Saturday at Nadgee saw big seas at work and no chance of us getting away. It soon became apparent to the rest of the group that Norm wasn’t his normal self. This first became obvious through his more vitriolic attacks than usual on our innocent fishing activities. Chris and I showed excellent interpersonal skills in ignoring these outbursts. But there was obviously something wrong – he had a peculiar pessimistic, haunted air about him. Later that Saturday afternoon as Chris and I practiced our bracing skills inside the surf line, Norm could be seen further up the beach. An eerie solitary figure sitting on a washed up buoy, seemingly hypnotised by the 3 metre seas. He sat there for many hours, no doubt mulling over his past ordeal of being pinned down here for four days with a badly disfunctional group. We respectfully left him in peace.
The after dinner conversation that evening was the low point of the trip, with Norm, like a soothsayer of ancient times, speaking at length of his fears for the future of mankind. His doomsday outlook had a profound effect on our impressionable young minds. We retired to our tents, all but suicidal, to contemplate the futility of our remaining lives on this planet.
Thankfully, Sunday morning saw blue skies, a cold south westerly, a sizable but diminishing surf and everybody still alive. We broke camp and headed north for Merica. As we paddled clear of the surf zone there was lively conversation throughout the group. With relief we realised that Norm was himself again – plain old snappy, intolerant and argumentative. It was good to have him back!
A good variety of food was prepared and consumed. Chris scored early points with a complex stir fry, as did John, having brought one of Jute’s delicious cakes. Norm plodded along with his patented rice, tuna and soy dish (occasionally showing versatility with a soy, rice and tuna combination). Chris and I had also brought a bottle each of Lambrusco, which, after their Wonboyn performance, we hid from the other two until required. For my main meal of the day, I tended to go for Laksa and noodles with some vegies. The packet of Laksa for my last dinner at Merica River was a different brand, a ‘gift’ from Laksa expert Nick Gill. Instead of the usual paste, I was startled to discover it was a powder that looked (and smelled) like raw tobacco. I pressed on regardless, still optimistic and with confidence in Nick; but as the acrid smell of the concoction started to dominate the camp, so did the complaints from my watery-eyed companions. Determined to get a meal out of it, I kept adding ingredients – brown sugar, soy sauce and finally, semolina (the meal rescuer of the 90’s) until, long after the others had dined, the dish was ready to eat. As usual in life’s little disasters there was a silver lining – there were no mossies round the camp that evening. My lesson here – never accept food from vegetarians – no matter how well-meaning.
Fishing at Merica
The fishing here turned out to be rather disappointing. The schools of fish I had seen 12 months previously were noticeable by their absence, and Chris was able to catch only one decent specimen to feed the voracious John. Later, Chris and I pooled our considerable knowledge in a discussion about the possible reasons for the scarcity of fish – water temperature, freshwater content, breeding cycles etc, etc. In the end we agreed that it was none of these, but a decidedly unnatural and shameful event. Bloody Jim Croft’s constant thrashing around the lagoon last December! Stressed, dizzy and exhausted in avoiding the ever circling Puffin and it’s accompanying anchor-sized lures, the wilderness fish of Merica had understandably fled to sea in search of a more peaceful haven!
I was always the last to finally squeeze all my gear into my bulging Seafarer Plus. My sweaty antics provided at least half an hour’s free entertainment for the others after they had finished, during which they invariably held ‘smart comments’ competitions (‘why don’t you get a second kayak for a trailer’ etc’). I showed good inter personal skills by taking this treatment without retort. John was the most impressive packer – this sea-kayaking prodigy took on average fifteen minutes to dismantle his tent, pack his dry bags and load up. A true disciple of our Vice President. My lesson here, an important one, reduce the load and join the Smart Set!
Almost as we left Merica we could tell that conditions were unusual. A large wave refracted round the point and flipped John over as he entered the sea from the creek mouth. John showed his class by rolling up, but the group was aware that such waves were not normally a feature here – so what would they be like on the exposed coast to which we were heading. Our worries were confirmed by our first sighting of Wonboyn some four kilometres away. Massive waves were smashing into the rock platform adjacent to the bar, sending spray 30 ft into the air. This was the story for the entire northern half of Disaster Bay coastline as 4-6 metre swells in Bass Strait swung up the coast. Much to our relief, Norm suggested that we land at Greenglades, at the southern end of the bay, where the swell would be less awesome. From there we could then walk the 4 km to the cars. Norm and John, of course, would have preferred to demonstrate their mastery of the 3-4 metre waves at Wonboyn, but both suppressed the urge to test their manhood for the good of the group.
Greenglades was sheltered from the westerly wind and offered sporadic sets of nasty dumping waves. I volunteered to go first and landed successfully in a rather boring lull (paddling just about all the way in). Chris was next, dutifully waiting for Norm to issue the go ahead. Norm nodded and Chris began his run. Incredibly, Norm’s legendary seafaring instinct failed Chris again, perhaps this time due to the strain of constant leadership! (Or perhaps he wanted Chris to suffer for torturing those poor little bream – his memoirs may shed some light on this!). Anyway, a nasty 6 foot dumper loomed as if pre-arranged. Poor bastard I thought, as I waded into the surf with my camera at the ready. The dumper pounded down with horrible power on the hapless Puffin, with a shocked Chris managing to hold on for a couple of seconds before coming out. Having got my shots of his misfortune, I then helped him and his waterlogged kayak out of the water. Norm and John then came in during yet another long lull, much to my camera’s disgust. To make sure that Chris had fully learned his lesson this time, I made him write ‘thou shall not trust in others in the surf’ a hundred times in the sand.
This was a great trip. Interesting weather, some good fishing, wilderness everywhere and challenging sea conditions. Seas so rough in fact that it was all ours – we did not see a single power boat in the four days due to the ‘fatties’ fear of the dreaded Wonboyn Bar. And I got some nice photo’s too.
I was pleasantly surprised with my own performance on the water – my judgement in big surf was spot on, and I handled following seas and beam winds in my rudderless craft pretty well. In fact, I’m still at a loss why my customary incompetence deserted me for such long periods. Perhaps merely by paddling with those you idolise helps you lift your game somewhat!
And how did this group measure up in terms of the CHIF? – well, this one turned out to be a good one that had similar objectives, gave each other space when needed, and coped well with the mood swings of key individuals. In fact, despite some of the more embarrassing moments, I would gladly venture forth with them again to any destination. Unfortunately, after this candid account, whether they would choose to invite me is another matter!
This article was brought to you by Semolina — paddling food for the 90’s