Tail-end Charlie [43]

By Ian Phillips

Well that was a top idea… take the day off work, paddle for five hours outside the Heads, then agree to meet the infamous ‘Thursday Night Bunch’ for a quick paddle down Middle Harbour…

Not only was I demented enough to jump to this challenge, I was demented enough to try and do it in my super-cruisey folder…

The day had started magnificently. A pleasant uneventful drive in the blazing sun to a quiet stretch of Clontarf beach. The forecast had been promising, some nice chop and swell outside the heads – just the way I like it – not glassy flat and boring, not too rough and treacherous…

A reasonably quick 25 minutes to create my folding kayak monster from the boot, this time amazingly not forgetting to attach the seat before jumping in at the waters edge. Totally exhausted from inflating sponsons and flotation bags, I paddle off gently, surveying the serene calmness of Middle Harbour before pushing out into the choppy wilderness that is so often ‘the Heads’.

A quick look-out for my arch-rival, the Manly ferry, finds nothing of a similar shape in view, the only potential attackers appear to be a flotilla of 18 footers haphazardly targeting small boats as they dissect the harbour in ever-quickening, mind-boggling patterns…

I push off from my ‘safe area’ in the midst of the Grotto Point bombora and ferociously attack the harbour, determined in my attempt to make it across just once in a straight line, without the necessity to divert for a JetCat, without the requirement to resort to primal fight-or-flight behaviour with a jet ski fink, or indeed without having to bale out completely as an inebriated yachtie slides over my bow, blissfully unaware of me punching holes in his hull as I am keel-hauled below…

Of course my get-up is hardly appropriate for any condition except paddling on bright yellow rivers, as I traverse busy shipping lanes in my dark green boat, black lifejacket and dark green hat… And I wonder why I am the target of so much hostility on the harbour…

Half way across what is really a ridiculously short crossing but often a life-threatening experience, I curse the tugboat that is barrelling down the harbour, seemingly out of control on a mission of target acquisition and control with some poor hapless tanker waiting outside the Heads. I paddle furiously in the opposite direction, certain I can hear muffled laughter as they storm by at something that appears close to 400 knots, and I bob around uncontrollably in their wake, feeling a little like a crash test dummy on speed…

Alas, I will have to try next time for an uneventful crossing. The rest of the short crossing is uneventful, thankfully, only stopping once more when a lost diving school student pops up uninvited in front of my bow.

I reach the choppy heaven that is the washing machine of the Heads, and I pause for a minute, tossing a mental coin on which direction to take… heads for North, tails for South. I ponder for a moment and reject the coin option completely, instead choosing to paddle straight out – remembering Stuart Trueman’s calendar entry about “finding out what’s out there,” and deciding that this is as good a time as any to find out.

It proves decidedly difficult to work out how far you are going and how far you have been when you can see nothing in front of you, and until I turn around and see that the Heads look rather small, I didn’t think I had made much ground, or should that be water?

I fantasise about paddling to New Zealand for lunch, but decide against it after realising that I have to feed the cat tonight…

Instead I choose to lunch in the spot where I now rest – it appears as good as anywhere, and seeing that I don’t see any trees or sand around, I figure it may as well do.

I carry a poor old paddle float under my feet for such occasions, never actually having used the float for self-rescue, but buying it when I started paddling on the advice of some silly twit in a paddling shop. Instead it has become my faithful gin-palace assistant, set up for extended lunches at sea, allowing me to wander the deck and lie back and enjoy the serenity… well almost…

I deploy the device on the end of my spare paddle (terrified that one day it will drift away with my favourite paddle attached and I will be unable to catch it with my slim and slippery back-up unit), and I sit back to a light lunch of muesli bars, warm water and bananas. I consider making a cup of tea with my trusty thermos – the wife always wonders what happened to her favourite thermos – but ever fearful of scalds to my weary body, I think again and re-stow the precious liquid below.

Refreshed and refuelled, and jolly pleased that there were no pesky buzzards, seagulls or whatever they are called flapping around, I pack and prepare for the paddle homeward, deciding that to paddle further would cause me to lose consciousness during my sojourn with the Thursday Night Bunch later that evening…

I pass by a small, pitching fishing boat on the way back, and silently creeping up on their port side, I nearly send two peaceful fishermen to an early grave as I paddle into view in my stealth kayak. I quickly paddle off when they start throwing insults and bait in my direction… Old squid sticks marvellously to Cordura in case you were wondering how to attack me next time I creep up on you…

Apart from my brief encounter with the long-life bait, the return trip is relatively uneventful, as my return trips always are… Perhaps I should conduct one-way trips only…

I arrive back at the beach, positive that I can’t feel my legs, deciding to exit in the water just in case… A good idea too, as I collapse beneath the surface – thankfully my lifejacket supports my poor old noggin and I crawl to the shore, unclipping the painter on the kayak as I struggle past, and crawl above the waterline for a quick snooze…

I had originally planned to paddle up Middle Harbour, meet the Thursday Night Bunch, then paddle valiantly back to my starting point and call it a day.

Dementedly, and no doubt deliriously, I come to the conclusion that I am too tired to paddle up Middle Harbour, deciding it far easier to pack up and drive there, then paddle with the group. I conveniently forget that the paddling distance will be the same, but I have now added a couple of kayak construction procedures to my already lengthy day… Hmmm…

I arrive at the ‘starting point’ for the Thursday Night Bunch, only now realising the stupidity of my actions as I once again create my kayak queen – at least this time it is a little easier to slide the frame into the wet carcass!

I jump in the water, deciding that if I stay in-situ, in-kayak, I may just make the trip without incident and without worrying about whether I can ever walk again…

The ‘Crowd’ starts to arrive, and I greet them aloofly from my vessel, hoping that I can stay this way until we disembark…

Nevil, the notorious leader of the Thursday Night Bunch, arrives and I remain in my boat at the waters edge. He asks if I am going to disembark to meet the group… I reluctantly comply, not wishing to advise at such an early stage that I am in fact stuck in this position from the days paddle. Nevertheless, I manage to scrape myself up the boat ramp in a semi-upright position and make myself known.

I survey the collection of swift craft before me, already fearful that I will never see these people again once we launch, admiring the gracious lines and polished hulls, carbon fibre paddles and massively offset blades. I cast a glance back at my agricultural folder sans rudder and my unfeathered half-touring paddle, and I resign myself to my usual position of Tail End Charlie…

Once the group is set, we launch from the slippery boat ramp and push off down Middle Harbour – our destination: Balmoral Beach.

Within minutes of launch I see the back of several members fading into the distance, and after a spot of bird-watching with the remaining group, they too slowly ease away and fade out of view, the tell-tale blinking of lights the only indication that they are still out there. I try to catch up for a little while, then decide that my long day has been hard enough, and I sit back for a relaxing paddle through the twilight, marvelling at the birds and creatures around me, casting an occasional glance into some well-lit mansion from my vantage point at the base of their jetty.

I explore the shoreline until it is too dark to see, and finally remember that I am part of a group, so push on for the Spit Bridge, hoping that they are not coming back to look for me!

I have always loved the water at night, fondly remembering my days at sea on large ships when I would relax on deck after sunset with a cool drink and the breeze in my face.

But, I no longer go to sea, and I rarely have the time to get out on the water after dark very often, and so I am in my own little dreamland as I push on under the Spit Bridge, fighting a little with the current near the shore, and then paddling a bizarre zigzag pattern through the moored yachts as I paddle past Skiffies restaurant, sniffing deeply as aromas fill the air, almost deciding to pop in for a plate of my favourite seafood…

A massive barge appears, manhandled by two tugboats, and it slowly chugs its way past me, blocking all view as the hulk pushes water in my direction. I contemplate throwing a line to hitch a free ride, but wonder where I might end up and quickly change my mind…

As I round the point to Balmoral, I see the first of the group paddling back, and, deciding that if I keep going I will not get back before sunrise, I turn around and follow, confident that the remainder of the group will shortly overtake me again!

Sure enough, not ten minutes pass before I am amidst the group again, laughing and joking about all sorts of nonsense. Another five minutes passes before my permission is sought for them to push on ahead. “Go ahead,” I call, “I’ll see you shortly,” knowing how much my slow paddling annoys even my closest friends…

The trip back is harder, my long day is taking its toll, and I push deeper with each stroke as I see the blinking lights of the group fade away.

I watch several fish jump around and nab insects on the surface as I slide past a point, and not looking where I am going, very unceremoniously bump into a navigation post, instantly scaring away all the fish I was so keen on watching. Disappointed at my stupidity, and vowing not to tell the Club about this one as well, I paddle on, deciding that getting home would perhaps be the best option for the time being.

I finally arrive back at the launching ramp, lifting my poor old kayak up the ramp to rest near the once-again shiny and sleek vessels of the group, their having already completed a full wash-down and pack-up whilst I meandered back.

I haphazardly dismantle my beast, wildly shoving bits and pieces into the boot, happy to have made it back, pleased to be able to bid my new kayak friends adieu before calling it a night, pleased that I made it back before their launch date the following week…

No, these are not ferocious speed demons, nor are they super men and women with some tightly guarded secret weapon. It is merely me, in my trusty cruising folder, content to meander back and forth, up against the average paddler in the average craft, whizzing through the water at breakneck speeds!

My stint at being a selfish jet ski fink behind me, I no longer desire to travel quickly, or even travel very far. I now enjoy being in the water, paddling for fun, paddling because I enjoy what I paddle and how I paddle. Sometimes I paddle with others, mostly I paddle alone – in fact, when with others I still seem to mostly paddle alone! Nevertheless, I always have a whole bunch of fun on the water.

Sadly I have not had time to make it back to the enjoyable company of the Thursday Night Bunch – that damned bill-paying mechanism called work keeps getting in the way… But soon, hopefully, I will watch their blinking lights fade into the distance again…

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