Another Bad Day at Tuross Bar [31]

By Norm Sanders

Sea Kayaking is a sport where any lack of skill, lapse in attention, inadequate equipment or sheer bad luck can turn a pleasant day’s outing into a life-threatening experience. On the afternoon of Saturday, June 21, 1997, many of these factors combined to produce a situation which could have ended very badly.

I had arranged to meet a very recent convert to sea kayaking at Lavender Bay, Tuross Head to give him some pointers in his brand new kayak. He was enthusiastic, fit (a rock climber and surfer) and eager to learn. I offered him my spare PFD on the beach, but he declined. (Mistake) I remember saying at the time that “You never know when you might need it.”The tide was running out strongly. (Warning) We intended to paddle out to the entrance and practice bracing in the shallow water to the north of the channel.

The primary break was 2 metres high, 100 metres out and dumping. We tried to stay away from the main tidal flow in the entrance, but I felt that it was no place for a beginner. My companion at this time was behind me in shallow water near the beach. I caught a small wave to head back to Tuross Lake. I looked around and was horrified to see that the beginner was now getting swept seaward. He had turned into the surf and had become locked into a no-win situation. With no bracing skills, he felt that he had to keep punching straight into the waves – which were small at first. He didn’t realise that his paddling speed was combining with the tidal stream to carry him towards the larger breakers at some 6 knots. (BIG Mistake, BIG Lesson).

The inevitable happened. He got caught in a dumper and came out of the kayak. He held on to his paddle, but the paddle leash broke and the boat got away. He and the kayak were now in that terrible washing-machine zone where the tide kept pushing them back into the worst of the breaking waves. Several of us have had some bad experiences on the bar in the past and I didn’t relish the prospect of going out there. I thought I had no choice.

I was alongside very quickly and told him to grab the decklines on the stern of my kayak. I hoped to be able to tow him to shore, or at least out of the tidal stream. There was no chance of getting him back in his kayak, and he couldn’t have handled the conditions anyway.

A big wave came crashing down and he couldn’t hold on. I was off balance and turned over. I rolled up and got hit immediately by another wave. I rolled up again and bumped into his kayak. I went under and hit the other boat. I was thankful for my helmet, but blew the roll and had to wet exit. I thought at the time that this was not a good thing. The situation was getting grim. The next wave snatched my kayak from me and swept it towards the beach before I could organise a re-entry and roll.

Two of us were now in the water about 100 meters from shore, one without a PFD. I shouted that we had to get out of the current by swimming along the coast. I headed south. He decided to go north, which turned out to be a better choice. Soon after we parted, he hit a sand bar and was able to reach shore. I was getting severely hammered by every wave that came along. The realisation came to me that a person could drown out here. I was very glad I had my PFD. At last, during a lull, the tide took me out past the breaker line and I was able to make some headway down the coast. I was surrounded by water bottles, a bailing scoop, sponges, a hat and the two wet boots I had loaned my companion before we left the beach. Eventually, I felt the water temperature rise and knew I had at last broken free of the cold Tuross Lake outflow and was in the warmer ocean.

I now turned toward the beach and dog-paddled back into the surf. In the absence of the malevolent outgoing current, the breaking waves soon propelled me into shallow water and I was able to reach the beach about 200 meters south of the entrance. It was extremely good to feel the sand solidly underfoot. My companion had collected up the two kayaks and pulled them up the beach on the north side of the entrance. I still had to swim across that wretched tidal race again. I walked inland before entering the outgoing flow again and made the crossing to the north shore before being swept out to sea.

We were very happy to be reunited, with our kayaks intact, on dry land. I was more tired than cold but he was shivering. I think my heavy polypro top, cag, PFD, and hat and helmet helped to keep me warm. (The hat and helmet cut down a major source of heat loss.)

A man came along to see if we needed help -he had already called the Tuross Rescue Squad, which arrived a few minutes later in their IRB. We thanked them sincerely for their effort. There were times out there when I was wondering if maybe I had pushed my luck too far this time.

What did we learn?

  1. Stay away from entrances when the tide is running out.
  2. Always wear a PFD.
  3. It is very difficult to rescue someone in big surf which is pounding in against the tide. Far better to avoid the situation in the first place.
  4. Make sure that all the dangers are spelled out to others in the party… Communicate.

Looking back, it would have been better if my companion had simply bailed out in shallow water before he got in too deep. Often, we concentrate on staying upright in the kayak at all times. Sometimes it’s better to get wet, as I had to do once while broaching on a wave. The wave just shoreward had just exploded on some particularly nasty Tuross rocks and it would be only seconds before I joined it. In this case, I didn’t bail out, but rolled over to get off the wave and then rolled up afterwards. Since the water was only hip deep, I could have also done a wet exit and towed the kayak clear. I frankly didn’t realise how much difficulty I would have in attempting the rescue on the bar. I probably should have raced back to a phone and contacted the Tuross Rescue Squad immediately. (In spite of having to live with the inevitable local rubbishing which would ensue.) Well, we survived and learned a lot. Next time we’ll practice bracing on a beach where conditions aren’t so traumatic. I may have been getting a bit nonchalant, but this scare has given me a renewed respect for the power of the sea.