President’s Report [44]

By Robert Mercer

As presidents go, Norm is a hard act to follow. Not only did he manage to get his famous surf-action shot emblazoned across the front cover of the world’s glossiest sea kayaking magazine, but he also has impeccable timing, handing over the reins only hours before the incidents that surrounded the Rock ‘n’ Roll weekend’s flare exercise. My own feeble attempt at standing down the day after the flare exercise highlighted the difference between a real politician and a beginner like myself.

What made Norm an outstanding Club President is the breadth of his life experience. He has an enduring enthusiasm for kayaking among many other pursuits. If you are lucky enough to go for a paddle with him you may find yourself talking about boat building, sail design, vintage motor cycles, gliders, light aircraft, civil aviation, conservation, politics, geology, geomorphology, meteorology, to name a few. You are sure to learn something, and it may even be about kayaking, but either way you will certainly be richer for the experience.

Norm hasn’t been just a figurehead President with outstanding magazine contributions, but also a practical one. He is a Sea Instructor and Assessor, Kayak Builder, and Trip Leader. If you read the article Malacoota to Tallowa Dam (Issue 35 of NSW Sea Kayaker) you will see even he can be lured into ‘gung-ho’ paddling. However, most of the time Norm wears the ‘cruiser’ badge with pride and goes a long way to dispel the Club’s ‘hard man’ stereotype. His famous ‘Wimp’s Weekend’ is an excellent example of the ‘cruiser’ philosophy of sea kayaking (although I have the dubious distinction of having ‘wimped out’ one year). Norm’s approach is as good for the future as it has been for the past. Its emphasis is on sound decision making and development of seamanship and navigation skills to compliment all the strokes. Norm is an outstanding mentor to many paddlers in the Club and his contributions have been recognised by the award of life membership which was granted at the AGM by a unanimous vote.

Now to the incidents surrounding the flare exercise at the 2000 Rock ‘n’ Roll weekend…

At around 9 am on Sunday 26 November 2000, I wandered down to Currarong Creek and offered to help David Payne carry one of Norm’s prototype ‘Inuit’s’ back to the campsite. I was curious as to his impressions of a rudderless sea kayak and we engaged in an interesting discussion on boat design. When we left Norm at Currarong Creek he made the fairly casual observation that the flare exercise was running over time and he had best start the Sea Proficiency Assessment for those who were already waiting on the beach at Currarong. I had been President of the NSW Sea Kayak Club for only 14 hours, and, while the sunshine, the bird song and friendly chatter of late risers filled the campsite, at sea an incident was unfolding.

The realisation that things were not going to plan for our early morning group was gradual. There was no messenger at that early stage. Just a slow trickle of uneasy paddlers returning. The events that had already occurred, and would unfold over the next four hours, had to be assembled from many different perspectives. No one person was simultaneously at Gum Getters Cove, Little Beecroft Head, Lobster Beach, or back at the campsite. There were many acts of true bravery performed by paddlers with a wide range of skills and experience. And there were many wise decisions by paddlers who felt they could look after themselves but could be a liability if they attempted to help others. The Committee has received numerous reports from members. All of these are too lengthy to be published as letters to the Editor. If you would like to condense your account please do so and we will publish them next time. These personal accounts form an invaluable resource that the Club must learn from.

By late afternoon there was a general feeling of exhaustion and relief amongst those who had been involved in coordinating the head count. The evening slide shows went as planned and David Whyte’s and Larry Gray’s presentations were well received, but there was a pervasive feeling that more needed to be said and in hindsight a debrief may have been worthwhile. I know I speak for all the Committee when I say that we hope the coverage of this incident in the Club magazine goes some way towards addressing this omission.

On the issue of a prompt Internet response I remain resolute that this Club is not an Internet Club. The chatline reaches approximately thirty percent of members, and of these around thirty percent are regular contributors. In many ways the chatline is the Club equivalent of the tabloid press. They are always hungry for news and, like their print media equivalent, they will not let truth stand in the way of a good story. I believe a sensitive issue like the flare exercise deserves input from the whole Club and a timely response from the Committee to the whole Club. True to form, the tabloid chatline was full of allegations of cover-up, intrigue, a conspiracy of silence and leaked information. It is good fun, but not the time and place for serious and broad based discussion. Nevertheless, many worthwhile contributions were posted on the Internet – both on the chatline and direct to the Committee.

I read with interest one of Larry Gray’s e-mails concerning his approach to introducing new paddlers to sea kayaking. In training terms his method involves small groups guided by a skilled mentor/s. On reflection, this mentor approach is the traditional way that most longer-standing members of the Club have developed as open sea paddlers. Whilst this approach is a proven success and will continue informally for as long as goodwill outstrips fear of litigation, the running of big events will require a lot more volunteer time. The size of the Club has grown faster than our store of human resources. Put simply, there are not enough mentors to go around.

Underlying the events that unfolded at the ‘Flare Exercise’ was an assumption that our traditional ‘Skills Mentor Approach’ could work with such a large group. There will be much technical analyses of tides, winds, currents and paddler ability. But beyond all this, we must recognise that large groups require a different management style. Among the Committee there was debate as to the future of the Rock ‘n’ Roll weekend. To get a feel for the general sentiment among members I have personally spoken to most Rock ‘n’ Roll 2000 attendees who signed waivers and many who didn’t (sorry if I didn’t call you but the sea awaited). The unanimous response was that the Rock ‘n’ Roll should continue. Fifteen individuals offered voluntary support involving coordination and marshalling duties at the camp and on the beach. Among the most stalwart supporters of this weekend were several people who spent time in the water on the Sunday morning. It appears that the Committee has underestimated the commitment of many of our newer members. A new look Rock ‘n’ Roll will need these people and it will also need more Instructors on the water. If we remove the promise of being a ‘one stop shop’ for training from the Rock ‘n’ Roll we are still left with the opportunity for a good weekend for all members, on and off the water.

Our goal as a Club is coastal paddling and our promotion of Sea Proficiency training and assessment is fundamental to this. Training resources are spread so thin that I think the Club must acknowledge that it cannot currently cope with all the demands of beginners for basic skills training. The training that you receive at Rock ‘n’ Roll weekends is intended as a way forward rather than a complete training programme in its own right.

On November 29 the committee received a letter of resignation from our Training Officer David Winkworth. When I read this letter I realised how personally Dave had taken the events of 26 November. Those who know Dave know that he sets high standards for his trainees, but even higher standards for himself. His personal disappointment at the way events unfolded has made him adamant over his resignation. I hope in time that Dave will come to appreciate the essential contribution that he has made to the Club culture. Most of the key players who assisted people in difficulties during the flare exercise learnt their skills from Dave or through Club programmes instigated by him.

His last minute request to withdraw his letter from the magazine gives hope that he may reconsider his position in the near future.