Paddling with the Ancient Submariner [37]

A Trip From Bermagui to Tathra

By Mark Pearson (photos by David Whyte)

Prologue

“Trip Leader: Arunas Pilka”: for 2 years I had viewed this Club Calendar footnote with caution.

July ’96 was long remembered. The infamous Jervis Bay to Ulladulla slog; the second day a dour battle against a rising sea and relentless sou’Easter. Add to that a solid dose of humiliation because I was the slowest paddler and knew I was holding the others back. So I pulled out halfway, leaving the others to another four grinding hours of the most joyless paddling imaginable. I still remember the image of the resolute Doug Fraser, gaunt and swaying on his feet after he had crawled into Ulladulla, a living corpse if ever I saw one. All in all the sort of experience that had one contemplating taking up a more sensible hobby.

And then of course there was January 1994 at Pebbly Beach. Norm Sanders, Jackie Windh and I are novices about to enter the surf for the first time. Arunas is experienced and attempts to reassure everybody by showing the way. He gets semi-trashed and washed back up the beach twice, before powering out backwards at full throttle. We had been nervous enough before this ‘demo’.. but were absolutely petrified after it!

But that wasn’t all. My caution was also bolstered by powerful club folklore: After all, everyone knew that;

  • Arunas’s trips catered for those for whom paddling and pain were synonymous;
  • you must average 8 kph irrespective of the wind or sea conditions
  • he would re-organise car shuffles to guarantee a headwind.

And then of course there’s that story that just won’t go away about some poor bloke who couldn’t keep up and got left behind on a rock…

And, let’s face it, as an individual the man has form. Paddles snapped and shattered all over the place, boats sheered in Kamikaze surfing sessions, gauntletting at night, and of course the famous destruction of his brand new Raider at North Head. In summary, pieces of Pilka fibreglass litter the seabed from Sydney to Montague Island.

But times change, and there have been subtle signs, apart from greying hair and slight weight loss that Arunas is mellowing in his physical and fearless approach to our sport. Significantly, he had recently gained further qualifications to progress to Board of Canoe Education Instructor? And, some would say, what free-spirited individual would want to submit himself to the scrutiny of that dour, puritanical organisation?

So perhaps, after two long years, it was time to give Arunas Pilka another chance. But I would closely monitor his performance as a leader, organiser and general all-round bloke, adding and deducting points as appropriate. As usual, I was hoping for something unusual to happen. And even if it didn’t, I suppose I’d think of something…

The Trip

David Whyte and I drove down late on Friday night – we stole a camp at a picnic area on Wallaga Lake before heading for Bermagui where, after a scenic breakfast on the headland, we headed for the boat ramp.

Some time later Dennis Kleinberg arrived. We knew Dennis was coming from Sydney (but even if we hadn’t we’d have guessed just by his kayak – the sort of gleaming shiny yellow Mirage that could only come out of the ‘harbour city’). And this Mirage was a magnificent specimen with all the mod cons that today’s paddler demands (electric pump, day hatch, paddle float system, large deck-mounted compass, paddler-side airbag etc…). I also noticed this was a Mirage 580. Not only now had the Mirage gone metric, but also apparently there were some modifications to its hull. Don’t know if the changes were for even more speed or maybe just to give the Mirage the ability to turn.

Heading out past the breakwater

Chris Nimmo then arrived. He had sold his disintegrating Puffin and bought one of the original prototype Classics. For an outlay of only $700 Chris seemed one very happy paddler indeed.

Dennis was tired after a five-hour drive from Sydney, so David drove his car to Mogereka Inlet to meet Arunas, Adam and Gordon Carswell. The rendezvous went reasonably smoothly although Arunas did rather hide his car under a tree and I drove right past without seeing it. I deducted one quarter of a point. I met Adam – only twenty-five and new to the club but dead keen having just bought his first kayak – a plastic Storm. We drove back to Bermagui in Arunas and Gordon’s cars and got ready.

As Dennis prepared to embark one couldn’t help but be impressed with the amount of gear he carried on his person. His sea kayakers’ version of a Batman utility belt contained hand paddles, goggles, whistle, nose-clip, grappling hook, first-aid kit and emergency Bat-signal beacon. Very impressive indeed – with this set up I couldn’t see Dennis having any problems passing BCE assessments – in fact, the belt alone would probably guarantee him an Advanced Proficiency certificate (particularly if one Norm Sanders was the assessor!).

The whale …

The fleet was ready – the yellow Mirage and Storm, Arunas ‘grey ghost’ Raider, Gordon’s self designed TLC, and the three white Inuit Classics, and a fine sight it made too as it moved smoothly out of the Bermagui river. We lent moral support to an emotionally distraught David as we passed the very spot on the breakwall where monster waves had destroyed his Estuary (and very nearly David himself) two years before.

Ten minutes later we rounded Point Dickinson. The group was still fairly tight knit. This surprised me, for I had expected Dennis to set his eyes on the horizon and zoom off as soon as he hit open sea (for the information of new members, from pre-school age Mirage paddlers are indoctrinated into the ‘catch me if you can’ style of paddling). But no, Dennis seemed content to keep contact with the group. I theorised that if you take a Mirage paddler away from other Mirage paddlers, they just might be OK to paddle with … maybe it’s only when they get together in numbers that their group responsibility ethics deteriorate so markedly.

The nor’easter was strengthening, so I stopped theorising, raised the sail, and turned east to allow myself a 500m surfing run southwards to intercept the group. Some minutes later I developed problems with the sail that most would be familiar with … the luff totally unhitched itself from the shroud, leaving the batten flapping uselessly inside the gunwale grommet. I tried to stabilise the rig by reefing the sheet with a bowline hitch, but to no avail.



The landings


The Ryde of the Young Submariner

And because of this frustrating incident I am unable to describe the magnificent sight that greeted the rest of the group as a large Humpback breached but two hundred metres in front of them. However some minutes later the adult and accompanying juvenile came up for a breather in between David and myself – a terrific moment and one I’ll long remember. Two seals then appeared and dived beneath me. I gave Arunas a full point for the wildlife show.

The rest of the paddle to Hidden Valley on Bunga Head was uneventful – the breeze never achieved any real heights, I zigzagged around trying to catch the odd wave, and we covered the 20 kms in about two and a half-hours. We prepared to land on a beach offering a modest surf with occasional waves of barely a metre. I approached Adam, who was contemplating his first surf landing, and passed on the usual words of wisdom about bracing. You know … after you feel the turn throw yourself over on the wave side and brace.. everybody gets flipped over, rarely under … so don’t be afraid to lean hard on your paddle etc etc. All this but deep down I knew he would go in. Adam flipped over.

Arunas then landed – his ride in was visually interesting. The wave was not large but his Raider seemed determined to submerge itself in front of it. In fact all one could see was Arunas’ substantial upper torso and head motoring in to the beach. On hitting the sand, Arunas stepped nimbly out and dragged his boat up the beach. Big deal, you might think? But this was one of the first occasions I could recall Mr Pilka not ending up on his backside due to his unique ‘Jack in the Box‘ style of egress. I awarded him .75 of a point.

The beach at Hidden Valley

We set up camp in a very attractive little meadow behind the beach. After lunch, David and Chris donned their gear again and went for a surfed watched by the rest of us. Chris caught a nice ride, cut-off the wave and spun his Classic sharply just in time to avoid being taken in sideways up on to the sand. “Turn well, those Coracles” muttered Trip Leader Pilka through clenched teeth. The comment a typical mixture of reluctant appreciation and institutionalised ‘longboaters’ contempt for the revolutionary little Classic. I deducted a full point.

The sheltered campsite at Hidden Valley

Gordon and I then decided to get active and we too entered the surf, however the waves were starting to lose their shape with the constant nor’Eeaster so conditions weren’t great for two such star performers, and the ‘crowd’ on the beach soon lost interest and wandered off.

It was a pleasant evening for a relaxed dinner. The conversation was varied. Nurse Chris amused us with tales of dead bodies and the fun things that can be done with them. Despite his dunking, Adam was still keen on sea kayaking and soaked in the knowledge of this venerable group. Dennis astounded everyone with his camping equipment – whereas his kayaking gear was state of the art, his tent and cooking gear were older than most of the paddlers.

The author in his coracle

Most of us seemed to have forgotten some vital piece of gear, so there was much sharing of cutlery, powdered milk, oil etc etc. This communal behaviour added to a general relaxed and comfortable evening. That was until Arunas, who had brought no alcohol, persisted with his habit of criticising mine (magnificent Lambrusco, chilled to perfection in the creek) and then asking for some just minutes later. Another quarter of a point lost.

Some drops of rain started to fall at about 8.15 p.m. – thinking this signalled the end of the entertainment I retired to my tent. Some minutes later, as I listened to the Test match on my little radio, the rain stopped. But, to my complete dismay, I then realised that some of my companions were partying on. I gritted my teeth as this hard core of noisy, oafish revellers continued on for ages (well … at least until 8.45). Then it was over, and accompanied by the hideous sound of energetic belching and flatulence, the group staggered to their tents. I thought about deducting another half a point for these rowdies, who had so assailed the dignity of beautiful Hidden Valley. But, to be fair, I couldn’t be sure if Arunas had been involved. Soon after, despite all the excitement of Pakistan being 250 for one chasing 590, I entered into a deep sleep.

I woke up several times during the night wondering why I was hot – after all, my cheapo sleeping bag dislikes having to protect me from anything less than 10 degrees. My watch confirmed it was 21degrees C in the tent, yet it was quite windy. At 5.30 we emerged to find it was even hotter outside – 23 degrees with a hot north westerly blowing. Weird indeed for October!

We packed and set off in a small surf. The wind was now almost westerly and encouraged close cruising along the many attractive rock formations of the Mimosa Rocks National Park. I spotted a few potential small camps tucked into various coves along the route.

And then ahead of me, David, his confidence amongst the rocks increasing with every stroke, moved gracefully through a narrow gap. But suddenly there was backwash in the gauntlet, and our esteemed Editor, his kayak having involuntarily turned 90 degrees, could be seen very ungracefully ramming a large rock! David extricated himself and landed at the next cove to survey the damage – some minor fibreglass damage on the prow but nothing major.

We landed at Bithry inlet on Wapengo Lagoon for a quick break and a look at this attractive little estuary. We set off for the last leg in a ramshackle line-ahead formation, with Dennis and Adam staying out wide.

Bithry beach; walking the kayaks against the tidal current

Bithry Inlet

We were now 5 kms from Mogareka. As the wind began to gust from the southwest, I sensed that the easy paddling was behind us. Within minutes the gusts started to become squally and were strong enough to get under the hard edge of the Classic and force me into a brace. I countered this by paddling with the starboard gunwale leaned almost to the waterline. Arunas, in his low slung Raider, didn’t seem to be having this problem. I felt for those paddling with feathered blades at this moment – so easy to go over with your ‘upblade’ raised broadside to these gusts. And 99% paddle with those things. I tutted and shook my head. Poor fools! Poor fools!

And then a really continuous blast, a strong wind, probably about 25-30 knots. I started to get equally strong sense of ‘deja vous’ …yes, the famous Point Perpendicular ‘incident’ of July ’96 – ever since that time I have had a healthy fear of paddling for my life into a howling westerly. And how strong would this one get? I turned directly west to get as close to the beach as possible. I was only 200 metres offshore but it took some time to get close in, particularly as I was being semi-garrotted by the cord of my hat as it flapped behind me like a brake parachute. Dennis then joined me, relaxed for a second and was promptly capsized by another gust. To his credit he recovered his composure and rolled up. Arunas then joined us … but where were the others? We looked back to see a bunch of paddlers milling about and drifting away some 400 metres offshore. This wasn’t good – all we needed was another capsize out there to really make it a fun time for everyone…

It was Adam – relaxing for a stretch and a drink he found his Storm pointing out to sea. Try as he might she wouldn’t come round into the wind, even with maximum rudder. Gordon took control of the situation, advising Adam to get some speed up and then use the rudder and sweep strokes to make the turn. It worked and the group crawled in. Note to all new paddlers – on our coast in a howling westerly, the open sea is your enemy. Cliffs, rocks and beaches are your friends. And in a strong westerly, it doesn’t take much to go wrong for things to go very wrong. So stay close in….

We rounded the last headland and approached Mogeraka inlet. Gordon and Arunas sat back and watched us as we made our approaches – an outgoing tide was running and there were some sets of about 1 – 1.5 metres to keep us honest. After Chris, David and I came in without incident, Adam and Dennis then decided to put on a show. They did this by positioning themselves in the middle of the outflow and waiting for the largest set to come in before coming in on consecutive waves. Dennis went over first and Adam followed soon after. Both then gained invaluable experience of the ‘washing machine’ effect – an outgoing tide taking you out and waves driving you back in. Dennis attempted to climb aboard his Mirage, but found that waves always like to hit just as you are precariously balanced and about to slide into the seat. Dennis also reported that his ‘Batbelt’ was a liability in that all the gear hanging from his waist restricted his movements.


Gordon at Tathra

The author shows off at Tathra

The bedraggled twosome eventually found shallow water and dragged their boats in. We thanked them for the entertainment. I remembered my many painful experiences in the BIG washing machine at Tuross Heads. Dennis and Adam had no doubt learned what I had learned … in the washing machine there are only two ways out – sideways drift out of the tidal flow or re-enter and roll.

In all the excitement, Dennis had lost half of an expensive spare paddle – it had been tied down with bungy cord. Hopefully Dennis heeded the comments about the lovely Olive Cleats being the sea paddlers’ best friend.

We made it to the boat ramp without further incident. Gordon was no longer with us, having rudely decided to continue on down the coast to his home at Wallagoot Lake without saying goodbye. And we thought Gordon was a nice guy!

Vice President David Winkworth’s car was parked at the ramp. He was apparently taking some paddling clients up the estuary. The wind continued to howl, so much so that our unladen kayaks were rolled around and threatened to blow away. An hour or so later, Adam, Arunas and Peter said their good byes and headed north to Bermagui to get the remaining cars.

Ten minutes later David and his charges appeared – two young ladies obviously excited by the thrill of paddling with a strong wind behind them. We introduced ourselves and I was soon droning on and on about the joys of sea paddling. However, I quickly became aware that I didn’t have the girls’ full attention. I turned round to see the reason why – Mr Winkworth had taken off his shirt and was moving around lithely in ‘sprayed on’ bike-pants. It was truly the physique of a Greek God, with beautifully sculpted muscles leaping around under his taut skin like.. like .. I struggled for an adequate metaphor…. yes …like a bunch of Potoroos mating in a plastic bag!

I returned to my monologue on sea kayaking only to hear both ladies gasp involuntarily as David effortlessly lifted the bulky Pittarak double with one hand and placed it gently on his roof rack. Realising that our David’s bike pants were selling sea kayaking far better than I ever could, I desisted and we bade our farewells and headed for Bega.

The wind was howling as we headed for the escarpment, the kayaks straining upwards with each gust. Some minutes later there was a ‘thunk’ and David’s kayak was suddenly pointing up at 45 degrees. I pulled over thinking a strap had broken – but it was the roof–rack. The clamp that attached the rack to the car had been bent by the upward force of the wind and popped out – the clamp on the drivers’ side was ready to do the same. A stronger gust and everything might have peeled off. We paled as we realised how close the sea-kayaking world had come to a major tragedy – the loss of two Inuit Classics…!

Epilogue

During the drive home I mulled over Arunas’s performance (see table below) and the trip in general. It had been a good one, enhanced by a good trip leader effort. In fact, but for one or two unnecessary personal indiscretions, Mr Pilka was near to a perfect score.

Trip Leaders assessment – Arunas Pilka
Trip Components Points awarded Points deducted
Pre-trip organisation 2  
Overall control of group 2  
Weather 1  
Wind direction 2  
Wildlife display 1  
General Demeanour 1.5  
Car shuffle organisation   .25
‘Coracle’, ‘Lambrusco’ comments   1
Alighting from kayak with grace .75  
  10.25 1.25
Total 9 (Recommended)

But the more I thought about the good time I’d had on this trip the more something in the back of my mind started to nag at me – perhaps this exercise wasn’t finished. Perhaps I’d started something here… this could be a series! And then my knuckles whitened on the steering wheel as it came to me in stark black and white… another Calendar footnote, an ominous, disturbing footnote; “Trip Leader: Dirk Stuber”. Uhhhmmm – might have to ask for money to go on that one…

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