Paddle to Nowhere [43]

By Richard Birdsey

Our small group rode the swells, contentedly munching on lunch and staring back at the distant coast.

Over three-and-a-half million people lived within fifty kilometres of where we sat, yet we were alone.

Strangely, Stuart had commented earlier on the beach that not many people came on his trips. Looking around at my three fellow paddlers dotted across the vast expanse of the ocean, I was glad.

A soft electronic ‘beep’ announcing the arrival of an e-mail titled ‘Out to Sea’ a few weeks before had stirred my interest. After the usual exchanges of dates, times, etc with the trip leader, Stuart Trueman, I made my way to Port Hacking one Sunday morning in August.

Peering through the trees I could see three figures scurrying about their boats on Bundeena Beach, packing away dry-bags, clothes and other paraphernalia. A cheerful ‘hello’ greeted me from behind and Kevin Melville helped me lug my gear onto beach. I had barely introduced myself to Bob Head when Stuart asked if he could borrow my PFD for a photo he wanted for a website he is building.

Apparently a yellow PFD makes a better photo than inferior gaudy coloured Type III jackets. Off he went, all shining gear and whirling paddles, subjecting the cameraman (Kevin) to a barrage of instructions on camera angles, framing and cropping. Any supermodel within earshot would have glowed with pride.

Following the ‘shoot’ Stuart went through an excellent pre-paddle spiel on the trip parameters, weather conditions, group spread and safety equipment.

“Not many people come on my trips,” Stewart remarked dryly, looking around our small group. A number of dire suggestions were promptly put forward to explain this phenomenon.

Bob looked particularly impressive with a pair of bananas poking out of each side of his PFD like a bandit’s pistols.

Indemnity forms dutifully signed we paddled into Port Hacking hoping to see whales, albatrosses and someone fall over to spice up the trip report.

We soon paired off, myself with Stuart and Kevin with Bob. Bob had his sail ready hoping to get a good run back in the steady 5-10 knot easterly we were paddling into. We quickly settled into a steady rhythm on the smooth water of Port Hacking, exchanging the banter of people enjoying an outdoor pursuit together.

The bommie south of the river mouth was working hard, awash with large waves courtesy of the low tide and swell. A good place to avoid, I thought, my mind going back to when I was nailed by a wave from the bommie off Wollongong’s North Beach after venturing too close.

Our heads turned as a Mirage paddled into our midst. The occupant said he was a member of the NSWSKC but had never been on a Club paddle or attended Club events. Interestingly, another person had the same story in the Bundeena car park. A shame such ‘phantom’ members don’t reap the benefits offered by the Club.

Still, it’s a free country. After a brief rest, slurp of water and gear check we headed out to sea.

Sea conditions were interesting with a one metre swell, confused sea and 10 knot easterly. The curving red snout of my Pittarak pitched up and down and the broken roll of the waves soon became familiar through the bottom of my boat as our small group pulled away from the coast, magnificent sandstone cliffs fringed with vegetation that stretched southwards.

Waves clawed up the cliffs as fishing boats scoured the sea for fish, and small pieces of twigs, leaves and other terrestrial debris drifted by. We started a kayak ‘bush dance’ with different members changing partners to chat and compare notes and boats. Mindful of group spread we kept each other in sight. Glimpses of paddles and tops of heads appeared and disappeared nearby amongst the roaming waves.

During one rest stop Stuart demonstrated a very useful one-handed sculling brace suitable when fiddling with gear, eating, or during ‘relief activities’. This resulted in a comprehensive discussion of methods of going to the toilet at sea. Stuart theorised about the possibility of paddlers rafting up to assist a paddling companion ‘taken short’ – a potentially rich vein of discussion at the next Rock ‘n’ Roll weekend and more interesting photographs for the website!

After a steady two-and-a-half hours of paddling we hove-to for lunch about five kilometres off-shore. Lunchboxes appeared and we rode the swells admiring the coast. The petro-chemical haze smudging the CBD shimmered in the sun and began its daily trip back up the coast. Albatrosses effortlessly swooped between the troughs of waves, one making a low pass over our group. The occasional flying fish rocketed from one wave to the next, panicked by our boats. Large flares from petrol refineries erupted from behind Kurnell’s bushland.

We enjoyed the smell and sound and motion of the sea, and just being there.

After a while we reluctantly started the paddle back, now running with the sea. Bob poked his sail at the unco-operative wind and didn’t get the ride he’d hoped for. Again the group fell into the rhythm of the waves and made rapid progress towards the cliffs of the national park.

We stopped again near the bommie for some bracing practice and a few more tips on leaning and turning in waves. I had a go with Kevin’s wizzo carbon-fibre marathon paddle and promptly came within an inch of falling in. I was not used to the ‘push-past-your-face’ action required to stop the blade diving under the boat. An interesting implement, but getting the best out of one obviously takes practice.

We headed into Bundeena, cleaned up and headed in our different directions. As I drove towards the city it occurred to me that our small group size had really made the day. Enough people to be safe on the sea but not too many.

I think of the solitude out there now as I finish this story, anticipating another soft electronic beep signalling a future escape from the maddening crowd.