At the recent Rock ‘n’ Roll weekend a flare exercise was programmed for the Sunday morning. It was to provide members with an opportunity to experience flare procedures and operations in an at-sea environment. In the programme it was listed as follows:
Sunday: 6:00-8:30 am. Grade 2. Early morning paddle and flare exercise… At 7:30 am we will be doing a flare exercise north of Beecroft Head… After the flare exercise we’ll adjourn to Abrahams Bosom Beach for breakfast… Meet on the beach at 6 am.
At around 6:15 am a large group of paddlers congregated at Currarong. Trip Leader Dave Winkworth called back a part of the group that was already on the water and conducted a trip briefing and head count. This large group put to sea but stragglers were leaving without the acknowledgement of the group leader for another thirty minutes. A total of 49 paddlers were counted once on the water.
During the flare exercise, which commenced according to plan and in the predetermined location, the group was swept south. This has been attributed to three factors:
- strong south-easterly setting ocean current of over 2 knots;
- building north easterly winds – 10-15 knots by mid-morning;
- spring ebb tide.
The combined ebb tide and south-easterly setting ocean current were constricted between the cliffline of the Beecroft Peninsula and the ‘Sir John Young Banks’ leading to a localised current of up to 4 knots.
As a result of worsening conditions the group split into three. Many stronger paddlers left during or immediately after the flare exercise and these paddled in smaller groups, or alone, apparently oblivious to the difficulty experienced by those left behind. Of the paddlers who took part in the flare exercise, over half returned without incident.
Those that were unable to make headway in worsening conditions were assisted and accompanied by the four most senior paddlers (one Senior Sea Instructor, two Sea Instructors and one trainee). Andrew Eddy took a group of five with the wind and current to Gumgetters Inlet. They later walked out and collected their boats the next day.
The three remaining senior paddlers worked hard against deteriorating conditions towing tired paddlers. They were assisted by several experienced paddlers including John Wilde and Larry Gray who paddled out from Currarong to help and later did a sweep down the coast. The most inexperienced and least fit were exposed to the roughest conditions as the forces of wind and current strengthened and conflicted. Of the remaining group approximately half stopped at Lobster Beach and did not require any further help.
However, a total of ten paddlers required assisted rescues (most of these around Little Beecroft Head). Two of these were eventually put ashore by a small power boat. It is believed that the power boat had responded to our call to the Shoalhaven Heads Rescue Service. The police had also been notified of the incident and a shark spotter plane, which was already in the area, did a sweep along the full length of the Beecroft Peninsula.
By noon all paddlers and rescuers were off the water. Because not all paddlers had signed waivers and many simply arrived late and followed behind the group, a head count and numerous cross checks had to be carried out. These were coordinated from the meeting room and occupied ten Club members until the early evening. At around 7 pm the police were notified that all listed paddlers and campers were accounted for.