Sometimes It’s OK To Tow The Line [41]

By Sharon Betteridge

“You don’t fit the female stereotype do you?”

Dennis Kleinberg’s rhetorical question was thrown at me as we sat in the rebound off Kurnell.

“When you get to work on Mondays,” he continued, “you must have some interesting stories to tell your colleagues.”

Dennis Kleinberg with his 50 cent jumble-sale wind-meter — now that’s value!

I guess I do. I have fairly conventional leisurely Saturday lunches overlooking some of the best coastline in NSW, but how I get there, by sea kayak, is perhaps a little less conventional than how my workmates get around. If my weekends are less conventional than my workmates, then so too are my Friday nights. While they tear away after work for a few drinks at the local cafe or pub to unwind and then off home to contend with the wife/husband/kids, I detour home via the beach to check out sea, surf and sky conditions for the next day’s paddle.

Friday 10th December 1999 was no different. After detouring via Coogee Beach to watch the sea conditions I went home and phoned for a weather fax, before flicking through all the television channels to get updates on the weekend weather. Our phone had run hot the previous few evenings with calls from potential starters for my husband’s advertised paddle from Botany Bay to Bundeena. The weather was looking good and the sea conditions quite manageable. Details were finalised.

Nine of us assembled at 8.30 am at Frenchman’s Bay, La Perouse. Margot Todhunter and Bob Head had paddled across form Kurnell, on the southern shore of Botany Bay. They had organised a car shuffle, leaving a car at Burraneer Bay so that they could complete the paddle one way, and have a shorter drive to pick up the other car at Kurnell. Nick Gordon was also paddling one way and had organised with his wife to pick him up from Buraneer Bay. As usual Sundra and Salo John were ready when Robert and I arrived. No matter how hard we try they always arrive earlier than us even when they have an hour longer drive, which is often the case. Rob is convinced they either sleep on the beach or Sundra’s Falcon is in fact an aircraft. Dennis Kleinberg and Robert Gardner arrived soon after. As we assembled on the beach Rob Mercer went through the usual briefing and signing of indemnity forms, and read out the weather fax he had received at 7.30 am. To ensure we all felt comfortable on the water it was decided that Robert Gardner would paddle in front and Rob and Sundra would stay at the rear to keep an eye on everyone.

We paddled out of Botany Bay with the nor’easter at our backs, the 1-2 metre swell producing some rebound off the steep shoreline. In the morning light the sandstone cliffs took on an iridescent hue, the silence adding to their majesty. With the wind strengthening behind us Bob and Rob deployed their sails but still had to paddle to keep up with the group. To check on wind speed Dennis took out his new wind meter. After several attempts it appeared that it wasn’t working. Dennis mumbled something about flat batteries, but I suspect that it had more to do with the fact he had purchased it for fifty cents at a school fete. To divert attention from the wind meter Dennis’ new bionic eyes spotted a shark in close to the rocks and heading in the opposite direction. For the life of me I couldn’t see it but I had startled a baby shark in a similar location only two months previously so I wasn’t hanging around to take a closer look.

Continuing south the cliffs opened out to a wide sweep of sand dunes. The scenery is one of stark contrasts. The almost surreal skyline of the refineries flanking the north and south shores of Botany Bay; the towering isolated cliffs of the Kurnell peninsula; the long desolate beaches of Wanda and Eloura; the high rise development skirting the promenade at Cronulla; and the small village atmosphere of Bundeena, lost in an earlier time. The settlements on the southern shore of the river could be seen clearly as we rounded the headland, but the paddle across Bate Bay and the mouth of the Hacking River would take another hour or so.

There was a pleasant camaraderie as we continued on our way. The sea swell and wind giving us a gentle push, as we were lost in idle chat about the meaning and nature of life. Sundra deployed his newly acquired parasail declaring that the wind was now strong enough for it to be of some use. He sailed gently into Bundeena. As my bow scraped the shore I could hear the ‘S’ word being bandied around by the men folk of the group, their eyes straining to see if the Bonnie Vale bar was working. Alas the tide was too full. This, and the ensuing long paddle home into a strengthening headwind curtailed their surfing aspirations.

We lunched near our boats and as usual the discussion about kayaking gear took high priority. I lamented that I needed a fold up table or a boat with a flat deck to sit my mug of hot chocolate on. Margot enlightened me about the wonders of a fold up table she had seen on the internet. I think for now I will forgo both the table and the flat-decked boat.

It was soon time to push on. We waved good-bye to Margot, Bob and Nick as they made their way across the Hacking River to Buraneer Bay. As the rest of us paddled toward Cronulla we somehow got mixed up with a group of large ocean-going yachts that were trying to set up for a race. At last the starting gun fired and they were gone. The wind had really picked up now and it was a hard slog across Bate Bay. Cape Baily on the northern shore didn’t appear to be getting any closer although I knew it must have been because the acrid smell of the oil refineries and the sewage works at Eloura were getting stronger. Sundra and Salo wet exited to swap boats part way across the bay and it wasn’t long afterwards that Sundra spotted another shark. I kept lining myself up with landmarks to check on my forward progress but the flat featureless expanse of sand rendered this a futile exercise.

We stopped for a break in a sheltered spot behind the headland. It was quieter there without the roar of the wind in my ears. I really needed a rest. As I looked at the pretty little boat harbour tucked in behind Merries Reef, Rob must have read my mind. He started to use the ‘T’ word and that gave me the impetus I needed to paddle forward. Soon after we rounded the headland and faced the full force of the wind. Although the swell and rebound had settled, my forward progress slowed. The push into the headwind across the bay had fatigued me and the glare from the sun was making me feel sick. It was getting later and I was lagging, so Rob deployed his tow rope, clipped it onto the front of my kayak and before I had a chance to argue he paddled off at full speed catching up with the group in what seemed like a matter of minutes. For the next few kilometres I felt like a water skier. The added drag didn’t seem to slow him down. Nor did he find it difficult to tow me in his rudderless ‘Coho’. Unclipping the towline was an equally swift procedure and I was paddling on my own again. Accepting a tow had ensured that we continued to paddle as a group. Headwinds seem to affect paddlers differently and towing can be a great equaliser. It ensures the slower paddlers keep up and the stronger paddlers don’t get cold waiting. Even so, our return trip took four and a quarter hours to cover a mere sixteen kilometres, almost doubling the time it took for the outward trip. I never consider ‘tow’ a dirty word and wonder whether a broader acceptance of towing might be the simplest answer to the problem of group spread.

Pulling into Frenchman’s Bay I could see Margot waving from the shore. She had driven around from Kurnell to meet us and was surprised at how long we had taken to paddle back.

After the obligatory rolling practice we changed into dry clothes and washed our gear at a tap (perhaps this will entice the OSD to participate in trips further North). The coffee tasted great as we sat at the local cafe reflecting on the day’s events and planning our next rendezvous … somewhere on the sea.