Lessons from Beecroft [37]

By Alan Teall

I recently joined the club following the purchase of a Q-Craft Kakadu Expedition sea kayak in May ’98. Prior to joining, I spent 6 months , 2-3 days per week teaching and training myself in order to be as proficient and self reliant as possible in order to not be a burden on other paddlers so that I could ” Get out there ” have fun and learn from other members.By putting into print my account of this, my first ever club arranged trip ( A full and detailed report has been given to Norm Sanders. ), I leave myself and the other paddlers wide open to varying opinions and criticism, however my only reason for recanting this account to you is to graphically show you how actions that can appear to be of minor significance can lead to actual or potential disaster.

On the 8/11/98 the circumnavigation of Beecroft Peninsula (Jervis Bay) was arranged under the guidance of a club Paddle Co-ordinater (PC). Let me be very clear here, semi identifying the PC in this article is in no way a personal attack on him, it is however necessary to mention him throughout this article. One month prior to this event, I contacted the PC and clearly and in depth informed him of my experience and skill level and asked him if I was up to the trip, indicating that I felt that it was just within my capabilities and that I wanted to ” Get out there ” in the safety of club arranged trips in order to identify my strengths and weaknesses. The PC felt comfortable with what I had told him and agreed to me participating in the trip.

A few days before the trip, the PC contacted me and I confirmed my intention to attend along with a reminder to the PC of my strong desire to ” Get out there ” unless the weather was life threatening. Clearly my enthusiasm clouded any common sense judgement on my part and confused the PC’s assessment of me.

On the morning of the trip there were 5 of us: Myself in my stable and well fitted out but comparatively slow Kakadu, the PC in his impressive deep blue Seayak dressed in dark clothing and wearing a black PFD ( How to make yourself invisible on a cloudy/rainy day without even trying! ), plus 3 immaculately presented Mirage sea kayaks with those you beaut large bladed carbon fibre paddles being paddled by one female and two males who shall remain nameless.

Prior to our departure South into Caramar Ck. and into a slowly strengthening SE swell and winds, I reminded everyone of my limited yet enthusiastic experience to date along with a warning that, ” I am fearless when in a group and will rely on the group to make the serious decisions while I try to learn and improve my technique during the day. ” . The only other significant comments made at this time was from the PC who requested that we always remain within shouting range of each other. At this point I made a very serious mistake in that I assumed that quite regular food and water stops via rafting up if necessary would occur as this is what I was used to. They turned out to be a rare event regardless of the persistent hard slog into these unpleasant conditions. I also hadn’t realised that lunch was to be 20 km away at Gum Getters Inlet. Even though the PC had clearly laid down the rules of sticking within shouting range, the 3 Mirage paddlers were constantly paddling to their own rhythm leaving me behind and out of contact once we passed Honeymoon Bay. As we neared and passed Longnose Point the rollers became huge and a lot of fun, however with these large seas, increasing winds, reduced light due to heavy cloud and approaching rain, the PC became mostly invisible due to his boat and body colour. At this time I found myself alone and isolated as the Mirage crowd left me behind while the PC decided to run the gauntlet ( out of shouting range…) without telling us. Already 2 hours into the trip I was beginning to suffer from my first ever hypoglycaemic situation without realising it. This was due to a hard slog into the elements while always playing ” catch up ” along with a lack of regular rest and refreshment stops. Eventually we were reunited ( within shouting range that is… ) as we neared the Point Perpendicular Lighthouse where the PC once again laid down the law about staying together. Even though I looked and felt like I needed a feed and a rest and even though I made clear mention that I suspected that I may capsize and require assistance, we agreed to carry on with the carrot being that of long surfing rides and an easier time due to following seas from a change of direction to the North. As we headed off again and now out into open sea and still into the weather, the conditions intensified causing my energy levels to drop while once again the Mirage crowd took off on their own leaving the PC in the awkward situation of not being able to communicate with them about this tiring paddler that he was now becoming well aware of. The PC had no option but to let them go and stay with me. The change from a head on sea to a beam on situation drained what strength I had left as we paddled maybe a kilometre or so North a safe distance from the cliffs. With the conditions actually pushing us towards the cliffs and with no energy left, a rebound wave caused me to capsize ( gracefully I might add…).

Even if I had ” rolling skills “, my exhausted state would have prevented me from rolling up anyway. To the PC’s credit, he was instantly managing the situation and at my side without delay. I was so glad to be out of my kayak that I was in no rush to get back in, but the PC could see that it wouldn’t take long before we both would have been dangerously close to the cliffs. Fortunately, a low volume cockpit, sealed bulkheads and electric bilge pump took care of the water in the cockpit problem while an expertly positioned assisted rescue/re-enter manoeuvre was executed in no time at all thanks to my past practise and preparation and the PC’s skill and level head. To add to the PC’s stress level he had to cope with watching the others paddle away and gradually out of sight oblivious to the situation at hand.

Sensibly, the PC made the right decision to call off the chase and head back into Jervis Bay, but unfortunately for me, this meant a return to the hard slog that drained me before, only now I had heavy rain to add to my misery. I kept saying in the foulest language possible that I needed to raft up for a rest and a drink but my requests were denied in favour of forward motion ( unfortunately, neither of us thought of using my ready to deploy forward tow rope! ). Extreme exhaustion now started to wear me down mentally especially as my requests were constantly denied. Soon after I asked as to how much more I had to go through before we called for help ( I had a waterproof marine transceiver in my cockpit but couldn’t unsecure it without a raft up situation. ) but a negative response deflated me completely and I now knew all too well that if I capsized again that I would never have the strength in these conditions to re-enter. Due to my condition, the situation and along with not getting the responses I needed, I simply prepared for the worst in that I expected to capsize again then founder via a painfully slow death by drowning or being dashed against the rocks! Eventually, the PC uttered some words of hope indicating that he knew of a sheltered cove not far past the headland. This was a much welcomed ” carrot ” that enabled me to muster a little extra energy from who knows where. Soon enough we landed in the slightly sheltered cove and I was given all the time I needed to refresh and rest myself and thanks to my store of odds and ends we had firestarters to get a welcoming fire on the go. We couldn’t help but wonder at the fate of the others and much to my surprise the PC expected to be able to use his mobile phone in this small ravine to contact the others but that was never going to work specially as we didn’t have their phone number anyway. Once well rested and recovered, the trip back to Caramar Ck. was uneventful. Upon our arrival at around 4 PM, we found that the others had made the circumnavigation safely and although my capsize had occurred at around midday, and although they waited 1 1/2 hours at Gum Getters Inlet, the alarm was not raised with the Nowra police until they completed the circumnavigation at around 3 PM. In hindsight, any rescue attempt ( to occur after 5 PM I was told ) would probably have been too late if I or we had in fact initially survived being dashed against the cliffs in a worse case scenario.

So there you have it, almost the complete story warts and all. Forever more I’m sure I’ll be remembered as the new member who bit off more than he could chew and nearly drowned himself! I do know however, that from my previous trips ( solo and in groups ) that I would have completed the circumnavigation and without capsizing simply because of the fact that I/we would have paddled at a pace within my/our limits and had regular rest and refreshment stop via rafting up. Having said this, I freely acknowledge that I made a few mistakes and ( in my opinion ) I believe that the PC made quite a number of mistakes ( someone please buy him a PFD that makes him visible! ). As for the Mirage crowd, I’ll let you be their judge, BUT I have no doubt that the catalyst that blended all of these mistakes into a potentially fatal disaster was that of the Mirage crowd with their faster equipment failing to paddle at the comfortable rate of the slowest paddler (putting me in a constant energy draining ” catching up ” situation ), ignoring the standard recognised ( and twice requested ) behaviour of staying within shouting range and generally failing to communicate their intentions. As for me, I recovered from my ordeal by getting back onto the water within 3 days and back out at sea within 4 days and now that I have spat my dummy, I look forward to a starting anew my relationship with the club. Sea Kayaking is exhilarating and bloody dangerous at times and this makes it more than a little difficult for super keen novices like me to know where or how far to tread, hence my willingness to trust well experienced others. Sitting around reading about it or watching videos definitely helps BUT ” Getting out there ” is the only true way to progress and achieve the skills necessary to fully enjoy sea kayaking. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 situation to say the least. It is unfortunate for the PC that he ended up wearing a number of hats over this matter but if he hadn’t stayed back and been there to rescue me ( unlike the Mirage crowd! ) I have no doubt that you wouldn’t be reading this right now, so once again Mr. PC, many, many thanks!

In the two months since I wrote my article, I have received an exceptional amount of pre-publication correspondence via e-mail and phone. Most of it has been fair and balanced which gives credit to the character of the club membership. In early January I received confidential information that was in conflict with my recollections in my article. This information remains confidential but I would encourage those sources to contribute to this debate openly and publicly in fairness to all. I stand by what I originally wrote as it is essentially correct as it is a record of actual events, communications and outcomes as they occurred TO ME on 8/11/98. I still have strong convictions that if any member of the group that day had any reason or discussion regarding my ability, equipment, deteriorating condition or weather and sea conditions they should have told me directly for which I would have gratefully turned back or not even participated in the first place. Assuming that the rest of the group were in fact aware of my impending plight, then the last thing I would have expected in those demanding conditions would be for part of the group to separate from the weakest paddler regardless of personal agendas etc. From a social, group and club perspective, looking out for and managing the weakest link is the only acceptable behavior and one that every individual should morally accept. ” Lessons from Beecroft ” and this ” Footnote ” speak for themselves and I need say no more except that I accept that many of you will want to express your thoughts and opinions and I should encourage you to do so via the newsletter and if necessary with me via e-mail (preferred) or by phone. I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible on the water and at club events in the near future.

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