(see also the landcrew’s story, “It’s been a hard day’s night …” and Robert Gardner’s story “A night out with Susie Maroney” and Robert Mercer and Sharon Betteridge’s story “Desperatley seeking Susie”)
Robert Gardner and I took up the offer of accompanying Susie Maroney on her swim from Newcastle to Sydney. The purpose of the swim was to attempt a new record (150km), and predominantly to raise funds and awareness for RETT Syndrome. Andrew and Salo (our landcrew), Robert and myself met on Friday night and confirmed plans. Robert was going to do as much of the paddle as possible, offering support and company to Susie, especially during the lonely night section. I, not being experienced in offshore night paddling, opted for just the day sections, pulling out at Norah Head at nightfall to rejoin the boats at either Barrenjoey or Long Reef at dawn. At this stage we were also hoping for other paddlers to be joining us along the way.
We were on Merewether Beach at 8am Saturday morning greeted by a solid and messy 2 metre surf. We packed our kayaks and got down to the water for a 9am start. Robert was paddling his trusty Storm and I was in an Orca (taken from Salo yet again). Our launch off the beach provided a bit of sideshow entertainment for the hundred odd spectators. I was pirouetted out of my boat by a large wave. Robert rolled up on the same wave and punched his way through to the back-line. I had another 2 attempts before getting through. I quickly joined Robert, who was now with the 2 support boats (Gemma and Babs 3) and the Coastal Patrol tow boat.
Susie was soon off the beach, in her shark cage and we were on our way. We were paddling alongside the cage at 2.4 knots into a light S.E. wind with a 1.5 to 2m swell. We had 2 squally spells of gusts and rain lasting 15 minutes each before midday. Susie is one determined person. Her attitude was an inspiration to both of us. She frequently got seasick, but was smiling a minute later and powering on. Off Swansea, we were welcomed by 4 paddlers who came out to meet us. They stayed with us for an hour before heading back.
At this stage I informed the skippers that I was pulling out at Norah Head. We were instantly offered accommodation aboard the trawler, Babs 3. Robert and I quickly discussed the situation, took up the offer and notified our land crew. The crew were happy to have us around as we provided constant company to Susie, her crew and frequently communication between the cage and boats. As the afternoon wore on the wind strengthened and swung to the N.E. which unsettled the sea. By 5.30pm we were off Bird Island with Norah Head in view ahead. I helped Robert light his cylumes and I decided to use just my torch, as I would only paddle for another hour. I then discovered my torch had flooded (I had another and 2 cyalumes) and decided to pull onto Babs 3 at the next stop.
By 6.30pm I was on the trawler (kayak too) in dry clothes, the Coastal Patrol had headed back to Newcastle and Gemma had taken up the tow. We were expecting a Coastal Patrol boat from Sydney to intercept us at Terrigal to continue the tow. I soon discovered it was more comfortable sitting in the kayak than on the trawler. The trawler rolled like a dog in the 2m steepening swell and I quickly lost my appetite. I dosed off in the cabin, awakening every hour to check on our progress. At midnight we were off Bateau Bay, Susie and Robert were still going strong, but conditions had worsened. The wind and swell had increased and things were starting to look nasty. I again admired Susie’s determination knowing she would now be cold, tired and definitely swimming against the odds. By 1am (Sunday) Robert was showing concern about the still worsening weather and starting to get cold. He soon pulled out south of Bateau Bay. I awoke at 3.30am to hear that Susie had to be stopped due to hypothermia and was now recovering aboard Gemma. She was pulled out after 3am south of Terrigal. There was now a 3m swell with a 20 knot wind and the back of the trawler was constantly awash.
The crew now went to plan 2. This was to get Susie to Sydney by 10am so she could swim into Darling Harbour and meet the awaiting kids suffering from Rett Syndrome. At daybreak we were south of Barrenjoey. Babs 3 had taken over the tow and still no Coastal Patrol in sight. Gemma had steamed ahead into the harbour to get Pauline (Susie’s mom) to paramedics and prepare Susie for her swim. Pauline had a fall on Gemma and had suspected fractured ribs. The tow in the poor conditions was slow. We arrived at the North Head at 10.30am greeted by 4 eager kayakers. Robert and I soon joined them in the water by seal launching off Babs 3. Susie continued her swim at Bradleys Head accompanied by 6 kayakers, police boats, coastal patrol, media, and pleasure craft into Darling Harbour. We said our thankyous and goodbyes to our newly made friends, rejoined our dedicated land crew and got something to eat. It felt good to be back on solid ground.
Life’s an education – Lessons learnt from this trip:
- Ensure everything is tied down when launching through surf. I lost a small bag of snacks, the only thing that was not tied down.
- Buy quality gear that will not only be waterproof but also ‘surfproof’. My waterproof torch flooded and Robert damaged his mobile phone which was in a Coleman dry pouch.
- It was comforting having Andrew (and Salo) on shore when I got trashed in the surf, as they quickly got me back into the kayak and provided the right advice. This gave me the confidence to try again and eventually get through.
- Ensure reliable communication with land crew. We had no problems as our mobile phones worked well, but the portable 27Mhz radio I gave Andrew was useless.
- Try not to get lost at sea. Without an EPIRB, wetsuit, flares, and the compulsory safety gear, you have little chance of survival in the conditions we were in.