It’s been a hard day’s night … [39]

NSWSKC paddlers accompany Susie Maroney, raising awareness of Rett Syndrome

By Andrew Eddy

See also Sundra John’s story, “A night (and two days) out with Susie”, Robert Gardner’s story “A night out with Susie Maroney” and Robert Mercer and Sharon Betteridges’ story, “Desperately seeking Susie”.

The weather forecast was not good. There was a strong high pressure system over Tasmania, moving slowly eastwards. The resulting ESE winds were predicted to reach 15 to 25 knots, with 2 metre seas on a 2 metre swell and showers, with possible thunderstorms. This grade 3 “plus” paddle was shaping up to be much more than “plus”!

Only hours before the close of Issue 38 of the NSW Sea Kayaker, Susie Maroney’s support and publicity machine had been in touch with the club executive asking for kayaker support for Susie’s next ultra-marathon swim. We managed to include a brief letter in the letters page, but the changes to the calendar missed the deadline.

Susie had asked for paddlers to provide the vital eye-contact and company during the long and arduous swim. Kayakers produce no exhasut fumes or noise, but are able to talk to her, supply her, run errands and messages, and just be there. This would be Susie’s first long swim back in Australian waters since the Mexico to Cuba swim last year. It would also be Susie’s first swim for to raise awareness and money for others.

The swim originated in a request from a little girl with Rett Syndrome. Becky Lillis, through the Starlight Foundation, had asked to see Susie swim. Susie chose to attempt to swim from Newcastle to Sydney, a distance of 150 kilometres and to dedicate the swim to Becky. She estimated 28 hours, non-stop, overnight.

One club member, Robert Gardner, was impressed by the possiblities and pushed the NSWSKC into action, spurring a long round of phone calls. Other club members were willing, depending on conditions, to paddle with Robert for various segments. Most of those paddlers who were invited to participate were able to spare part of the weekend, night or day, Saturday or Sunday. The “grade three – plus” suggestion was meant to account for the likely distance offshore, the length of individual segments, the likely launchings and landings on unfamiliar surf beaches (perhaps at night), the need to paddle at night and the need to be self sufficient and not distract the rest of Susie’s support crew. Of course, the grading system requires modification of a grading with changing weather and sea conditions …

By the end of the preceding week, there were arrangements in place for paddlers to provide non-stop support. Robert was to paddle the entire trip, with at least two others on each leg of the trip, with the exception of the midnight-to-dawn leg, when Robert would probably be on his own.

We anticipated that the most difficult facet of the trip was likely to be pressure sores from paddling so slowly over a long period. Susie’s on-water speed is only a few kilometres an hour, less than half a cruising kayak speed. But then that strong high passed over Tasmania …

Several paddlers, and their land crew, drove up to Newcastle on Friday night. We stayed over at the same hotel as Susie, some of her crew and Becky Lillis and her family.

The paddlers were nervous. By early Saturday morning, the developing weather pattern had already created winds and seas that were beyond sensible for night paddling, but manageable for daylight paddling. By the time that breakfast was over, nerves were even higher, but Susie was going to start, so the paddlers would too. Sundra John (see Sundra’s story) and Robert Gardner (see Robert’s story) entered the water, in front of the waiting crowd and TV news cameras.

OK, guys, show them how it’s done!

Show whom?

After Sundra gave the onlookers a little entertainment, with an attempt at a reverse pirouette then a short swim, they were out. The local surf lifesavers put on a similar show, capsizing an IRB with support equipment and one of Susie’s crew. Even the surf experts get it wrong whe the surf is rough enough!

The flotilla of vessels started out with a Water Police launch, two Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol vessels — “Harold Nobbs” towing the shark cage and another accompanying — a trawler, “Babs III” — for people, light and supplies — and a larger, very comfortable vessel called “Gemma” with further facilities on board. After the first hour the show was over until Sydney. “Harold Nobbs”, “Babs III” and “Gemma” stayed on, as arranged. An IRB with Susie’s crew remained tied to the shark cage for three quarters of the time, with Robert and Sundra providing the only human contact for about a quarter hour in each hour, and able to paddle alongside or run messages for the rest of the time.

Very quickly it was obvious that the conditions were not optimal for such a swim. The moderately big and confused seas were hitting all the vessels and the shark cage on the beam. All of the vessels, except of course the kayaks, were rolling heavily and wallowing badly. Despite that, the most serious threat, the closest that the paddlers came to capsize, was the news helicopter’s downdraught!

The first casualty was Susie’s mother, who broke ribs when the rolling of the boat threw her to one side.

After an hour or so the flotilla reached Redhead where several well-wishers were gathered in the drizzle. They looked so small out there on the ocean. The shark cage and paddlers were visible only in binoculars.

The little flotilla about a kilometre offshore at Redhead

The paddlers’ land support followed them down the coast, getting regular position updates by mobile phone and sometimes by sight and compass, all the while calculating speeds and likely arrival times at points down the coast. The mobile phone coverage was excellent, but the handheld 27 MHz marine radio and handheld marine VHF radio were so limited in range, that they were only good for occasionally receiving and not transmitting between shore and the flotilla.

Several more paddlers, came out through Swansea channel, paddled with Susie for an hour, then paddled back. They successfully proved that Mirages can go slowly — Susie’s speed-over-ground (ie., including the current) was just over 2 knots!

The next group of paddlers were due to start at dusk from Norah Head and paddle to Terrigal, but it was obvious by mid afternoon that at Susie’s present speed she would not pass Norah Head until about three hours after schedule — around 9 pm. This meant that the paddlers starting at Norah Head would leave the flotilla at 4 am, about 5 km offshore, then paddle in total darkness to a landing on a surf beach in Beaufort force six conditions. Hmm. No way!

Sundra had left a message, suggesting that he would land at Norah Head. Cabbagetree Bay is a well protected landing, with virtually no wave action or wind in a south-easterly. It is protected by “The Bull” and other shoals, rocks, bomboras etc, etc, etc. Wayne Langmaid stayed back until well into the evening while we developed a plan for guiding Sundra in through those hazards in total darkness. Meanwhile Sundra had decided to pull his kayak up onto “Babs III”. Phew!

By nightfall, the weather forecast had been upgraded to 20 to 30 knot winds and 3 metre seas on 2 metres of swell — Beaufort force six. And Susie was still swimming!

A large group of spectators, including many families and supporters of girls with Rett Syndrome, from the Central Coast had gathered at Norah Head. By phone, I had forewarned John Aldritt, the skipper of the boat towing Susie’s shark cage, that there would be a large group of spectators at Norah Head, so he had arranged to put on a light show on “Babs III”. As Susie passed Norah Head, then the cliffs of Soldiers Beach, the round-about communication between the spectators (flashing headlights, waving torches) and the flotilla (waving torches, static searchlights, chatting to a 2CCC radio announcer over the phone) and the radio announcer (broadcasting the phone interview to the car radios) led to a very excited atmosphere. But wait, what’s that out there? Susie’s still swimming … that paddle flash … Rob’s still paddling! In the middle of a moonless night, in Beaufort 6!

The conditions were rough. Those little craft were rolling heavily. Later in the night, about 1 pm, Robert pulled his kayak out onto “Babs III”. A short while later, after endless bouts of seasickness and a developing case of hypothermia, Susie pulled out too. By this stage Susie had been in the water for 18 hours and had covered about two thirds of the distance from Newcastle.

But the swim wasn’t over. A record might not be possible, however the swim was still dedicated to Becky Lillis. Becky would still see Susie swim into Sydney. NSWSKC paddlers would still paddle in with Susie.

The flotilla cruised down the coast, rolling heavily in the seas, with almost all people on board with varying levels of seasickness. Several times, the hawser between the towing vessel and the shark cage snapped, worn through. The relief towing vessel, the tiny Coast-Guard launch “Komatsu”, spent ages trying to find the flotilla in the darkness, off Bouddi NP.

At 5 am I called “Babs III” for an update on their position, so that a further pod of sea kayakers could find and accompany Susie down from Palm Beach. At this stage, we did not know that the record attempt was over. These paddlers were initially prepared to set out at dawn and follow a compass course up to 10 km out to sea, in order to meet with the flotilla. We adjusted to an 8 am start from Long Reef, where the flotilla would pass within sight of shore.

Not long after dawn I received a call, asking us not to come out. A pod of four paddlers would leave from Rose Bay and accompany Susie into the Harbour. Finding the flotilla turned out to be an exercise in itself and it was many hours before everything was arranged for Susie to swim from Bradleys Head to Darling Harbour.

That afternoon, Becky Lillis and several other girls with Rett syndrome boarded the Water Police launch “Intrepid” from Cockle Bay, Darling Harbour, at about 2 pm for a short trip to Bradleys Head. Susie was to restart the swim there. On the way back, “Intrepid” , Robert, Sundra and four more paddlers from the NSWSKC accompanied Susie right down into Darling Harbour.

“Intrepid” departs with Becky Lillis and some other girls with Rett …

but returns to a different wharf, while the pod accompanies Susie into Cockle Bay (the shark cage has two white banners)

Susie’s last few strokes – outside the shark cage

Then followed the “media event”. There were camera crews from the three commercial networks, many friends and supporters and hundreds of spectators at Cockle Bay wharf. They largely ignored the Coast Guard vessel Komatsu but gave all their attention to Susie.

Susie greets Becky Lillis

NSWSKC long-distance support craft and spectator pod

A very tired and cold Susie thanked two tired paddlers, Robert Gardner (left) and Sundra John (right)

After everything was said, done and photographed, we packed the two paddlers onto the car and found a place to sit down and eat a good meal. Kayaks are normally banned from entering this part of Darling Harbour and, of course, cars are banned from driving down to the water’s edge. Because of this event we were able to accomplish both — quit a treat!