Death of an Inuit [42]

By Mark Pearson

The plan had been to head for Hidden Valley south of Bermagui on 30th December.

But the forecast was not good – a complex low pressure system was hovering about way off the east coast and the Bureau were forecasting big seas and strong SE winds.

So on that Thursday Chris Soutter and I drove to Norm’s place at Tuross Heads to bide our time with a bit of a lake paddle until we could make a decision on what to do. Thursday turned out to be not bad at all – a moderate south easterly wind but no great swell. We could have departed quite safely that day.

Friday dawned and we were itching to go somewhere. The forecast was the same as it had been for Thursday. We decided that the south east facing Hidden Valley beach would be too exposed, and even if we landed OK we might be stuck on it for days. We remembered out last attempt to get to Hidden Valley in October, which we called off due to a bad forecast. And just as well too, given the ferocious storm that followed.

So we decided on Plan B – we would paddle to that little cove, known as Carraiges Slip, 4 km north of Depot Beach in Murramarang National Park. We had been there several times before… the cove faced east, was about two hundred metres long and quite deep, and rarely seemed to endure much in the way of wave action. The worry was the landing. Carraiges Slip is strewn with moderate sized boulders just below the high water mark, apart from a section of sloping but flat rock platform (the slip presumably), upon which a reasonable landfall can be made.

We arrived at Depot Beach at about 11 am on New Years Eve to find that the swell had at last arrived. Depot Beach normally has a bit of a shore dump but not much to worry about. On this day however there were waves of about 1.5 to 2 metres in sets averaging about twenty. Getting off was not going to be a breeze. Larger waves of about 3 metres were striking the rocks further north up the beach. It looked like a south easterly swell. We decided to push on, despite Norm, who was no doubt remembering the fun he had at Cape Howe, continually shaking his head and muttering “Jeez ‘Killer, your trips…” as he packed his gear.

And because this was ‘my’ trip I sort of assumed the role of Trip Leader. Which meant I was either first or last to do anything, whatever was harder and more risky. So it was Chris, who incidentally had not been on the ocean for more than a year, who got off first with the aid of me watching from an elevated position and Norm pushing. I then got Norm away after a long wait for a break in these persistent waves. I then waited some time for a lull, and had some difficulty trying to hold position in the wash waiting for the moment to push off.

As we pulled away from Depot, the swell grew and grew, until once clear of the sheltering headland, we realised that every few minutes, huge swells, generally in sets of three, were moving through us. These were really massive mountains of water and hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been amongst them. Cape Howe back in ’98 had been big, but these were enormous, even though the wind was not that strong. Norm was 20 metres to my left but there were occasions when we were on the same wave, either side of the ‘summit’, as the great peaks moved through us at speed. Sometimes the top few feet of these waves would partially break, requiring a precautionary brace. Although we were never in any real danger here, the size of these swells (conservatively 5 metres) was something to behold. One thing is for sure, just being out there made us feel puny and vulnerable and probably had some effect on our behaviour towards the end of the paddle.

We headed well wide of the raging bomboras of Clear Point, past Boulder Bay and then started our run back in to the coast from almost a kilometre out. Throughout the paddle I had sat about 50 metres behind Chris and he seemed to be going OK, paddling steadily with the occasional light brace.

There was our cove. Huge waves were breaking everywhere to the left and right, and it appeared that some of these were almost breaking right across the entrance. “It’s closed out” I yelled to Norm. “I don’t think so” I think was the reply.

I tried to talk more but communication was bloody difficult at this time – the wind was strengthening rapidly and we didn’t want to get close to each other due to the sea state, with the large swells now mixed up with rebound from the cliffs. And yet we had to be within about 10 metres to properly communicate. In any event anyone shouting upwind really struggled to be heard.

We were now within 200 metres of the entrance. Although the big green rollers were regularly peaking up in that area, not many were breaking.

Norm shouted, “Do you want to go in first?” I really didn’t but then again I didn’t want Norm or Chris to go first either. And if I got in OK and then someone came out, I could maybe be on hand to tow them and their boat to safety.

So off I went, paddling strongly with regular anxious looks behind. The sea was all over the place, with waves exploding over the low rock platform to the left and hammering into the rock face on the right, surging swell everywhere, but it was difficult to really tell when something extra big would be coming through, and when or if it would break. As I approached the mouth of the cove some three metre greenbacks tracked me down, one steepened and partially broke as I surfed down the face, but then it died away. I was now well inside the cove and slightly out of the wind, and turned back to see both Norm and Chris coming in through the maelstrom, again accompanied by large threatening waves. They looked to be OK.

Without waiting for Norm or Chris I turned to head in to shore, as far as I remember to scout the landing options and to even land if possible. At this point I remember thinking we were through the worst of it, with ‘just’ the rocky shore to negotiate. After what I’d just been through, the conditions deep inside the cove seemed relatively benign, and I stopped about 30-40 metres offshore to observe. The waves here were about two thirds of a metre high and breaking about 5 metres from the rocks. As this was my paddle, and I was Trip Leader, I would have to land unaided.

But what strategy? I knew that timing was going to be essential to minimise gel coat damage. Ahead of me and to the right was the rock garden, just to the left the slipway. Facing directly to shore, I watched the waves action intensely for another minute or so while I untethered my paddle, my ears ringing with the cacophony of sea sound echoing round the rocky cove.

Something then made me look back. My eyes widened… it was unbelievable. I had about one second to take in the fact that a fast but silent two-metre wall of water was about to hit me. Without even time to swear, I was hit, spun sideways and was bracing. This brace itself lasted about 2 seconds, the time it took for me to make the momentous decision to evacuate. For my Inuit was probably heading rapidly sideways onto several rows of uneven rocks, all it needed was for one rock to catch a chine and spin me over and I would be moving along under a heavy kayak. A ‘between a rock and a hard place’ scenario of little appeal. So I came out, emerging in neck deep water to see that the Inuit was sitting serenely on the edge of the slip… amazingly, she looked OK.

I knew that I had to get to her quickly, but I couldn’t seem to make any headway ashore… the back-suck from that wave was strong. But then another big one hit me and I started to make my way in, falling regularly into the holes between the rocks, this being a bad area to walk, even in in calm water.

The Inuit was now moving, swinging out and back. Over the sound of the surf I could here nasty grinding noises and ominous dull thumps as she was repeated slammed into those uncompromising rocks. At last I got to her… she was upright between two largish boulders, and facing out to sea with a cockpit brim full of water. There was a crack or two and some fairly minor splintering on the hull deck joining fore and aft of the cockpit… not good but repairable. She was tough, this little boat. Because of the ‘wedging’ I couldn’t tip her over so I grabbed the back strap and, aided by the stress of the moment, somehow hauled the waterlogged 150 kg mass back and up on to some bigger rocks. Then, seeing some larger waves coming in again, I feverishly began hand-bailing the cockpit so that I could move her further back and out of range of those bastard waves.

For some two minutes I had been totally absorbed in the plight of my boat, but suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw something red. Norm had perceived a lull and headed in. He washed in sideways and bumped against a large boulder, but still in almost a metre of water. I didn’t hesitate. Still in Trip Leader mode I left my boat and ran over to steady the Inuit so Norm could get out before the next big set hit. When they did, it took both of us to hang on. We then lifted his boat roughly over the first line of rocks. My boat had been sucked out again, and had already been taken in once and knocked around. As soon as I could I shouted “Gotta go” to Norm, and stumbled and scrambled my way across to my kayak. But it was too late… just as I got to her she was lifted away from me and smashed hard on a large rock, The sickening sound was accompanied by the sight of the bow hanging off at a crazy angle about a metre back from the prow. Again she was hit and thrown about.

The foredeck was now completely stove in, with numerous large tears in the rear hull. The cargo started to spew out from the ruptured hold, my dry-bagging of food items having got slack in recent times. A Lebanese bread packet, cherry tomatoes, peaches, heaps of containers, my Trangia, all bobbed around crazily in that surging shoreline. I grabbed the carcass of the boat and manhandled it over the rocks, then scrambled along the waterline throwing as much as I could ashore.

Meanwhile, Chris came in on a bit of a lull, and Norm helped him up from the slipway. Significantly, Chris’s boat didn’t cop a scratch.

With the gear on the beach the full realisation of what had happened finally sank in. I was physically and mentally drained due to the intensity of the struggle. I rested my hands upon my knees, staring at the ground, struggling to take in what had happened in four short minutes. My sea kayak was destroyed.

I remembered the highlights of the last three years – surfing those big waves at Target Beach, surfing anywhere, cracking Jim Croft’s ribs on that bommie at North Head, the North Queensland rainforest, Gabo Island, so many trips in between Mallacoota and Cooktown. The little kayak had never really let me down. It was a sad moment. Norm came over and patted me on the back in acknowledgment of the loss, which was a nice gesture.

I checked myself for wounds and was surprised to find my only injury after all the falling amongst the rocks was a bruised knee (and the next day sore back muscles from that ‘dead lift’ of the waterlogged boat).

And that, for me, was the end of the paddle. The most dramatic paddle under 5 kilometres I am ever likely to be involved in. That afternoon the sea state deteriorated further with near gale force winds whipping up even bigger seas. After lunch we carted the main part of the hulk half way to Pebbly Beach along the track, stopping at cliff-top vantage points along the way to view the splendour of those great swells exploding on the cliffs and drenching us in spray. Given the circumstances, that New Years Eve was still an enjoyable evening. Everybody was just happy to be in one piece, Chris had some nice things to eat and at least I managed to salvage my wine and port.

The next day the forecast was at last fair dinkum, with a prediction of strong winds and 3-4 metre swells. The swell however was still large but not as big as the day before.

Over the next two days we completed carting the wreck the 3 km along the track to Pebbly Beach. We finally broke camp in driving rain on 2 January. The guys paddling out with super laden kayaks and me carrying my remaining four bags of gear back along the sodden walking trail track to Pebbly.

Losses? I lost a boat, my sunglasses, my pocket radio (courtesy of a leaking dry bag), and my fresh food. And the big question – should we have been out there that day? Should we have landed where we did?

Maybe we shouldn’t. But in our defence, for ‘safety’ reasons we had already changed our destination to one which had always been a haven from big seas – a place we had been to on four previous occasions and during some decent blows. The cove always appeared to be a natural wave diffuser, the largest wave ever witnessed to complete the journey to the inner shore being about 60 cm high. The next day we checked out the next possible landing spot – Snake Bay, a huge shore dump made it even worse a landing spot than the slip. Which meant that if we had not landed where we did, we faced a nasty paddle going wide around Snapper Point to Merry Beach. And that was not a place we wanted to be on New Years Eve.

The sea state was also far worse than the bureau had predicted (which had been 20 knot winds but only 2/3 metre swell). Critically, there appeared to be two swells in operation that day – a big swell driven by the wind from the SSE, and the occasional mega swell from just south of east – these generated the occasional freaky sets that steamed up the cove and claimed me.

And we probably shouldn’t have taken Chris out, but then Chris did OK, and arguably out-performed both Norm and I in those final minutes. And, of course, when judging our decision to go, it is important to take into account that these were three guys desperate to escape New Years Eve and all the hoons.

So, if only I had remembered the old fishermen’s adage “never turn your back on the sea”. If only I had stopped to talk to Norm and Chris and just watch for a while before making to land. If only Norm had chosen a better moment to make his move (and by the way, I completely reject the notion that Norm was up to his old trick of getting ashore first to get the best campsite).

With patience I am confident we could all have got ashore in reasonable nick. But in all honesty I think that all of us were affected (and traumatised) by the conditions, communication was difficult in all the noise, and just entering that cove was an experience to say the least.

Anyhow, I’m putting the whole thing down to experience. Before the accident I was looking for a longer, faster boat for my upcoming expeditionary needs. Hopefully by the time this article is published I’ll be paddling a unique hand-crafted kayak. You can bet I’ll be more careful around rocks from now on.

Editors note: At 2,810 words for a 4 km paddle, this account sets a new WPK (words per kilometre) Club record.