Parting President’s Report [44]

By Norm Sanders

I didn’t think I’d ever be writing another President’s report. I’ve written dozens of them over the years and, when Rob Mercer took over as President, I thought I was off the hook. However, I now feel the need to make some general observations about the present situation, and so, I give you… Not the President’s Report…

The Chinese character for danger, I have been told, is a combination of two other characters – crisis and opportunity (there is also a Chinese curse which goes: may you live in interesting times).

OK. Everyone agrees that there is a crisis. But just what is it and what do we do about it?

When paddlers join the Club, they do so for a variety of reasons. The main ones are probably to enhance skills and to meet other paddlers. Newcomers recognise that there are those in the Club who are capable of, and dedicated to, teaching kayaking skills. These unpaid instructors have run many training programs over the years with great success. Trainees know what is expected of them, and numbers are such that there are plenty of skilled kayakers present to help out if needed. I can’t recall any training session which encountered real difficulties.

The social aspect is next. The Club calendar is full of paddles ranging from harbour cruises to coastal expeditions. Problems have arisen in the past on these Club paddles. Most of the troubles occurred when a new Club member presented on the beach without proper skills and/or gear. In the absence of written procedures, it was almost impossible for the person who had volunteered to organise the event to prohibit anyone from participating. It was (and still is, to a certain extent) a case of all responsibility and no authority.

Over the years, the Club developed the Grading System, and more recently, the Trip Leader’s operating procedures. In addition, action has been taken to upgrade insurance and deal with other liability issues.

So, the training sessions were already well organised and procedures were put in place to enhance the safety of Club paddles. This left the AGM as the other major Club activity.

When I first joined the Club, the Rock ‘n’ Roll and AGM weekend was held at Patting, north of Sydney. The emphasis was on teaching members to roll. To my recollection, there was no other training. There was, however, a lot of socialising and wine drinking (which was nothing compared to the 400 sozzled Telecom employees holding their annual Christmas party in the campground).

Largely because of the hoon problem, the next AGM was held at Honeymoon Bay. A nearby beach was pressed into service for surfing training and bracing skills were taught along with Eskimo rolling. It was a little like the preachers who start hurling hellfire and damnation at a funeral congregation because they know they’ll never see those folk in church again. Training became a major part of the weekend.

So what started out as a simple social outing with a handful of paddlers (and their families) developed into Rock ‘n’ Roll 2000.

Sea Proficiency Training and Assessments, forward paddling techniques, wooden boat building, kayak sails and fibreglass repair workshops, two speakers without slides, two speakers with slides, rolling and bracing training, AND a flare exercise.

As is well known, the plan was to start paddling at 6 am, set off some flares and come back to the beach for breakfast. The problem was that this was not a normal Club paddle. Club paddles are advertised in advance and participants are urged to contact the paddle coordinator who informs them of the requirements and vets their qualifications. Because of the nature of the Rock ‘n’ Roll weekend, there was no such control over participants.

Some paddlers were gathered on the beach, others were streaming out of the creek and heading directly out to sea. Close to 50 kayakers were involved. In a way, the success of the Club had turned into a disadvantage – too many members on one trip. Perhaps the trip should have been called off at that point.

However, an event takes on a life of its own and it is very difficult to halt something which is already underway. Especially since the sun was shining, the sea was flat, the sky was blue, there was little wind and the destination had been visited before with no problems.

The main group had already left when yacht designer David Payne and I launched in the creek. He wanted to try paddling a rudderless kayak and had to be back in Sydney by noon. After a few minutes, we encountered two paddlers heading towards Currarong. They were beginners who had turned back early.

They were out of danger and assured us that they would be OK so we paddled on. David and I watched the start of the flare demonstrations and then returned to Currarong. I realised that there was a current, but wasn’t aware of the full strength. David disappeared over the horizon ahead. I attributed my lack of progress to old age.

Back on the beach, I gathered up the waiting Sea Proficiency candidates and started on an assessment.

Chris Halliday paddled up. He said he was concerned about the main group, but had learned from a fisherman that there was no problem. I continued with the assessment. Only later did the irony of the situation become apparent – we were practising the usual mock rescue scenarios, while the real thing was going on around the corner. Here was a group of strong paddlers who were not involved due to lack of communication.

Lack of communication. This was one of the major contributing factors as many others have noted – lack of communication from participating paddlers to leaders, leaders to paddlers, leaders to Currarong. And, if the camp at Currarong could have been contacted, there was nobody there to take action. We were all out paddling. Lesson – someone responsible has to be on duty and contactable.

The day rolled on and the dramas multiplied. Once the situation became clearer, Club members rallied and started to compile lists of paddlers and their locations, pick up stranded kayakers and their gear, and generally assist in the situation in a proficient manner.

Poor Rob Mercer! I had talked him into being President on the basis that the job didn’t involve much work. Now this, on his first day!

Slowly, shock set in. Here we were, the premier sea kayak club in Australia, trend-setter in safety standards, and we had exposed a large number of our trusting members to danger.

This then, is the crisis.

The members trusted the Club and the Training Officer, Dave Winkworth. Dave has been deeply affected by all this, and has tendered his resignation. Dave has been the backbone of the Club for over a decade. His energy and skills have shaped the NSWSKC and his strength, bravery and dedication are legendary.

Whatever role Dave decides to play in the future, the Club has the human resources to achieve anything the members desire. If the membership wants to curl up in a ball, so be it (and given the Australian Tall Poppy Syndrome, there are some out there in paddle-land who would relish the Club’s demise).

However, this isn’t the end of the world. The infrastructure which we have developed over the years is still in place. The magazine and website are world class. The new executive has already asserted its authority and the Club is poised to learn from the present situation and be the better for it. This is the opportunity part of the ‘danger character’. It is up to all of us to make the most of it.

As for me, this is really my last President’s Report. All I can say, as the dolphins did in Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “So long, and thanks for all the fish” (and I move that the next AGM be confined to Eskimo rolling, socialising and lots of wine)!

Happy Paddling!