Bustin’ Boats … [45]

The South Australian West Coast Expedition, 2000

By David Winkworth

Early last year I had been trying to get SA Senior Instructor Phil Doddridge to come over to NSW to help me run an Advanced Sea Award Assessment without much luck.

“Phil, I’ve set a date. How does the 15th and 16th of April sound?”

“No good Dave,” he replied, “I’m helping Mal Hamilton with our West Coast Expedition. Why don’t you come over here and paddle with us instead?”

I didn’t need much convincing to take Phil up on his invitation. Mal and Phil operate Blue Water Sea Kayaking in South Australia. They run day trips, instruction sessions, etc, and every so often a big commercial (if I can use that word) expedition like this one in the Great Australian Bight. They have some impressive trips to their credit, including a circumnavigation of Kangaroo Island and a Coffin Bay/Cape Catastrophe expedition. Where do they get these names? Makes you wonder what happened at these places, doesn’t it?

The West Coast Expedition was to be an 8 day fully-catered trip. All our gear would be carried in the convoy of 4WDs – we needed only day gear each day with the exception of a paddle out to Flinders Island for the night when camping gear would be needed. No de-hy on this expedition – no sir. This was sea kayaking’s equivalent of 5 star service. Even a complimentary sloppy joe, screen printed with an exclusive West Coast 2000 expedition logo was included… the ultimate in been-there-done-that items!

I’d never done a catered trip before so this would be interesting I thought. Mal gave me a discount in return for some assistance with guiding, etc, so I sent off a cheque to him.

I drove over to Adelaide, camping for a night at Parnka Point in the Coorong near the mouth of the Murray River. You know, even right at the end, the poor Murray River just doesn’t get a fair go. Paddlers on the recent Murray River Club paddle would remember the beautiful bush and redgum stands along the way. In SA, it’s orchard, orchard, orchard and the final indignity are the barrages at the Coorong which separate fresh from salt. Although the scenery is spectacular here, it is a very harsh landscape with saltbush, sand dunes and dust as far as you can see. I guessed the landscape in the Bight would be similar in a few day’s time… and it was.

I spent a few nice days with Phil and Marg Doddridge in Adelaide and then Phil and I were picked up by Dennis and Gloria in one of the 4WDs towing a very well organized trailer. Dennis and Gloria were ably assisted by Ken (affectionately known as ‘Salty’) and Leonie in another 4WD/trailer rig. Besides our kayaks, these trailers carried a very precious cargo: our food!

Dennis and Co were the land support team for this expedition. They did all the cooking too and were just generally terrific people. They have done quite a few expeditions on the SA coast with Mal and Phil and it showed too! Nothing was too much trouble for them and they handled all problems efficiently and with a ready smile. I was impressed!

Our destination on this warm Saturday was Streaky Bay, about a 700 km drive from Adelaide on the Great Australian Bight. We met up with most of the crew near Port Augusta at the top of the gulf, had lunch and more or less stayed together till we reached Streaky Bay, our planned start for the expedition. There were 11 paddlers and the 4 land crew on this expedition. Phil, Mal, Dave Williamson and Gordon Begg were the leaders – these guys did a Bass Strait crossing together earlier in the year. The only female paddler on the trip was Barbara from Adelaide.

Also along was Ian, who runs Adelaide Canoe Works. He sells plenty of sea kayaks, mainly plastic, and has some innovative gear in his shop. Along to keep him honest was Larry (not Gray) who, by sheer co-incidence (honestly) is the Pittarak rep in South Oz! Gavin was our resident funny man. Every phrase and utterance by us all seemed to be the cue to a few bars of a classic song from him. He certainly kept me amused except that a song of his I would hear in the morning would stay in my head for the whole bloody day!

Plastic Storms and Perception Sea Lions were very well represented on this expedition. Larry had his Pittarak naturally, I paddled my Nadgee, Phil used his lightweight Southern Gauntlet (a NSW South Coast boat from Ron Mudie) and Dave paddled his Raider X. Gordon won the Age Stakes with a classic, battle-scarred Nordkapp. From memory, the rest of the kayaks were bright plastic.

Streaky Bay was so named by Matthew Flinders in the early 1800s because of the streaked appearance of the sea grasses on the bed of the bay. It is a very shallow wide open bay with a reputation on this coast as a home to Great White Sharks. I went for a nice swim here when we arrived. I wasn’t too concerned about the sharks but I did keep a watchful eye out for crocodiles.

Our plan was to launch near Cape Bauer at Streaky Bay and paddle east to Venus Bay with easy daily distances of around 35 km. From Venus Bay we would shuttle on by vehicle to Elliston. From there we would finish the expedition with an out-and-back overnight paddle to Flinders Is about 35 km off the coast. We would meet up with the ground crew each day with the exception of the offshore overnighter.

The next morning we drove up to the cliff top and watched the big swells of the Southern Ocean thump into the limestone cliffs of the Bight. Weathered into impossibly contorted shapes, the cliffs were riddled with fissures which hissed and spat occasional geysers of spray skywards. Warning signs which told of crumbly cliff edges kept us all well back from the edge.

Then it was down to a small beach for our launch. Great masses of bull kelp piled up on the beach told me that swells thumped in here on big days. It felt great to get on the water and wash off accumulated dust of the previous day. Today was an easy 22 km paddle across the bay to a bush camp. Swells stood up steeply on a deep ocean reef near our launch but once through this area it was a grand view to our destination near a spectacular group of weathered limestone tors known as the Dreadnoughts.

“Hmm,” I thought, “I wonder if there’s going to be any action to photograph on this trip?”

Tomorrow I would find out.

The next morning we rose to breakfast where everything was on offer, loaded our lunch bags from a vast array of goodies and got on the water.

It was Monday April 17 and our plan was to paddle south around Point Westall and then south east across Sceale Bay to a small town of the same name fronting a protected beach landing, a distance of about 30 km.

To Point Westall we paddled through massive undulating blankets of foam. I love paddling through this stuff – it’s absolutely silent as the paddle blades cut through it to find purchase on the water beneath. I snapped some great pics here. Of course, the question a sea paddler may (and should) ask in this foam is: “Where is the turbulence that created this stuff?”

We rounded Point Westall to head south east across the bay and encountered some big steep swells off the point. Once through here we could look across Sceale Bay. However, today our view was interrupted by BIG booming sets of swells breaking over a deep finger- shaped reef which extended about 2 km out to sea. Mal had planned for us to sneak through a deep water gap in the reef but it was plain to see this was not on today. The big swells were breaking right across the gap and running all the way to the cliffs. We would have to go around the reef. At no time were any rocks visible on any part of the reef.

Since rounding Point Westall I had been watching the western outer edge of this reef and saw it break twice in perhaps the hour it took us to get close to it. These were very big waves by anyone’s standards. I made a mental note to avoid this area.

As we headed out to sea I think we were swept towards the western reef edge by a current because that’s where we ended up – still well clear of the breakers to our left but close enough to appreciate their size. We were now paddling out parallel to the reef. I was bringing up the rear of our group as Phil called to me:

“Want to paddle in a bit closer to these?”

For some reason I declined his offer. “No thanks mate, I’m quite content to watch these boomers from here,” I called back.

We paddled out to sea towards the outer edge of the reef. The reef surf was really pumping beside us. Gordon was guiding the lead group. Mal, Ian, Gavin and I were pretty much abeam of each other a good distance behind them and Phil and Dave were some 30 metres astern of us.

“Shit,” I thought, “Where was that outer edge break that had only broken twice? Were we heading towards it?” I wished I’d taken a bearing from Point Westall.

A big wave appeared in front of us. Up and up and up we went to crest over the top and down the other side. I braced on my paddle and turned to watch behind. After what seemed minutes, Phil and Dave speared through the feathering crest of the wave to touch down behind it. There was real urgency in their paddling. I then realized that we were exactly where we shouldn’t have been!

I looked back to seaward.

“Christ. Here’s another one.”

This one was even bigger. We all paddled hard and Mal, Gavin, Ian and I cleared the top but only just! Following a freefall down the back we heard the crash of the wave behind us and knew that Phil and Dave were in there somewhere.

“That one’s got them,” I called.

We turned around but could see nothing at first – just masses and masses of foam and white water.

Then I saw Phil, well back, roll up but there was no sign of Dave.

Mal and Ian paddled straight in there towards Phil. I remember thinking DRABC for a change, with the emphasis on DANGER. So I sat there for a few secs looking for the next of those occasional boomers instead. Fortunately that one was the last one we saw.

I paddled back towards Phil. By this time Dave had surfaced. He was unable to roll up because the wave had snapped his boat in half behind the cockpit. The two halves were only held together by a small section on the keel line. Phil had his towline clipped onto Dave’s boat. Dave was lying prone in a deck carry on Mal’s rear deck.

Phil and Dave adopted different strategies when they had seen the wave coming at them: Dave made a decision that he could make it over the wave and lit the wick. The top of the wave broke on him and he was pitch-poled backwards three times in the wave. Phil said later that there was white water above and below Dave’s 5.8 metre boat. Phil, who was just behind Dave, elected to roll over. He turned his boat parallel to the wave and flopped over to wait out the turbulence before rolling up.

I paddled up to Mal. Dave’s arms and legs were in the cool water and he was starting to shiver, probably partly caused by nearly visiting the Pearly Gates! Apart from some muscle stiffness in his neck and a severely dented wallet he was OK. I rafted up with Mal, and Dave got right out of the water onto our rear decks. The winds were light and the sun was warm. We were towed along by a couple of the lead group who had by now rejoined us. We decided to head back to a small protected beach at the base of the cliffs near Point Westall. Barb wasn’t feeling too well drifting around in this swell so she took my spot with Mal, and I shared the towing of Dave’s wrecked kayak with Larry back to the beach. Towing the broken kayak was like pulling a parachute through the water so we tried to cut it right through with our knives but we had no chance. Kevlar is difficult stuff to cut even with the right gear! The passing swells also opened and closed the ‘hinge’ and it would’ve been easy to slice off a finger on the sharp laminate edges.

We all made it to the beach and landed. Gordon made radio contact with the land crew from the top of the cliff. There was vehicle access to the cliff top so we carried all the boats up the cliff to the waiting vehicles and finished the trip to Sceale Bay by road!

Sceale Bay is a small dusty holiday village. Dennis and Ken set up our travelling city in the local caravan park and we enjoyed a terrific meal. I think everyone was thinking over the events of the day, not the least Mal as he could’ve seen all his hard work in organizing these great expeditions blown away if things had turned out differently. Anyway, we all had the chance to offer some input into the debrief which was great. I think I said that I thought it was probably an error of judgement to get as close as we did to the reef break but that these things can and do happen in sea kayaking. I certainly wasn’t blaming anyone and I think the others felt pretty much the same way.

We had the numbers to effect a good rescue after the incident. Where we were near the reef was definitely not a place to play alone or with only one companion. Swimming out of there in the cold water would’ve been impossible I’m sure. The landings are few and far between. Anyone paddling this coast alone would be well advised to stay well offshore.

Dave lost quite a bit of gear in that wave. The netting shelf under his foredeck was cleaned out completely as was his day hatch. He had a brand new VHF radio in a waterproof bag tethered on deck – that was gone. So too his favourite hat and his paddle. In SA it’s popular to tether the paddle to your wrist on a short tether. The wave snapped Dave’s paddle tether. In NSW the popular method is a leash attaching the paddle to the boat.

Both kayaks were damaged in the wave. Phil’s kayak sustained cracks to the hull in both compartments and an opening of the join line near the cockpit. I think some small amount of water entered the hatches. Dave’s kayak came off worst of course. It broke almost right around just behind the cockpit and opened up for the wave to empty out his day hatch. His rudder blade was bent 45 degrees and the whole rudder assembly was ripped out the side of the stern.

The next morning we cancelled the ocean paddle. It was to have been a 40 km paddle to Baird Bay, a long shallow bay, the entrance to which is guarded by a sizeable reef break. We didn’t know if the prevailing swells would let us in through the reef so we elected to drive to the top of the bay and paddle down to the mouth where we were booked into some cabins. Dave went off to have a precautionary X-ray on his sore neck in a nearby town. Late in the afternoon we drove up to Point Labatt Conservation Park to check out a colony of sea lions. The viewing platform is at the top of the cliff and this gives you a good look down onto the sea lions swimming around in white shark territory.

Gordon, Larry and I were the only ones who paddled out of Baird Bay the next morning bound for Venus Bay. The others drove on to Elliston for a day paddle out to the Waldengrave Islands.

We played around with some sea lions at Jones Island near the mouth of Baird Bay before setting off for a pleasant ocean paddle to Venus Bay, 35 km away. No getting ashore anywhere on this leg, it was big limestone cliffs all the way. The tide was moving as we crossed the bar into Venus Bay. This bar would be a nasty place in a big sea with spring ebb tides running – there is a lot of water in Venus Bay.

We were picked up and met up with the others in Elliston. Seems they had had a pretty exciting time negotiating the bar – or break in the reef to be more accurate, on the entrance to Waterloo Bay which is Elliston Harbour.

That night in Elliston was ‘high tea’ for the sea kayakers and what a feast – a long table covered in a white tablecloth, about 4 courses, wines… the works. It must’ve looked pretty impressive to all the other campers there that night. I tell you, I always lose some weight on a expedition… but not this one!

We paddled out of Elliston the next morning on a low ground swell. Our destination was Flinders Island in the Great Australian Bight about 35 km WSW of Elliston. Flinders Island is a low scrubby island of about 37 square km which is home to over 4,000 sheep. Our steering mark for most of the paddle was Topgallant Isles, an impressive group of limestone sea stacks not far from Flinders. No landing is possible on the Topgallant stacks – the limestone at sea level is eroded and undercut. We watched a group of sea lions there, trying to crowd onto the only rock available. As one climbed up, another would vacate their spot and return to the water. Very sociable I thought.

As we landed on a sheltered beach of Flinders Island, I heard the old windmill in the dunes squeaking as it spun in the wind. After a barbecue tea with the caretaker we returned to our tents near the beach. The windmill was squeaking much louder now.

A spectacular sunrise over Topgallant Isles greeted us in the morning and so did the wind. Coming in from ESE, it promised to really slow our group down today.

We launched early on a course slightly upwind of a direct route to Elliston. The building wind was not quite on the nose but it was close enough to make us work hard. We slogged into the wind as we watched the sun rise in the east and fall in the west. This was a long paddle! All day the swell was building from the SE too.

From about halfway home (or halfway out) we could see the steering mark of the silo towers at Elliston but there was still a bloody long way to go in the conditions. I did a few mental calculations and figured that we would be crossing the Elliston Harbour reef around dark… not an exciting prospect given the swell and the description of the bar by the others from a few days ago.

Barb wasn’t feeling too well by this stage – probably a combination of fatigue and sea sickness. We took turns in towing her. Some time later her balance worsened and she needed support, so Barb rafted up with Ian. A swage had broken on his rudder line anyway and his steering was difficult in the conditions. We towed them in a V tow.

The wind and sea was pushing us towards the rocks of the Waldengrave Islands pretty quickly. Phil and I were towing Ian and Barb and Gordon also clipped on to get us clear of the rocks. We decided that pushing on to Elliston against the wind was not an option and the plan was now to turn and run with the swells and wind and seek shelter and a landing for Barb in behind the Waldengrave Islands.

When we turned, Phil and I were still connected in the V-tow to Ian and Barb – Gordon had unclipped. Our boats raced down the swells only to be pulled up quickly by the drag of the two towed kayaks. After only a few of these swells, Phil’s towline snapped. I continued towing and twice I heard Ian call out to me. Each time I turned around I was greeted by the sight of two out-of-control kayaks surfing the swells right up to my boat. In these conditions my 15 metre towline was only just long enough.

We grabbed the first sheltered beach landing on the island. Barb was fine once out of the boat and warmed up quickly. Gordon made radio contact with the land crew and we paddled across the channel between Waldengrave Islands and the mainland to meet them in a sheltered cove.

Apart from the drive back to Adelaide and then my drive back to NSW that was the end of the expedition.

This was my first ‘5 Star Service’ paddling expedition and it was very enjoyable… great company, fine foods and service, top scenery, REAL paddling and a nice blend of excitement and relaxation. I don’t think there is an equivalent set-up to Mal’s team anywhere in Australia. Everyone should do a paddle like this… at least once.

South Australia has some stunning paddling destinations. You can take your pick of the gulfs, the islands or the wide-open coast. There are lots of islands and many areas just remote enough to really get lost. Pick up a few detailed SA maps and you’ll see what I mean. Anyone interested in some SA paddling can give me a call and I’ll put you in touch with the guys in Adelaide. They’ve done a lot of paddling along their coast and are able to advise on paddling destinations to suit your skill level and time available.

Postscript: Despite the forlorn look of Dave Williamson’s wrecked kayak on the racks of his vehicle, it did re-appear to be paddled again! Dave had the boat repaired (I’m glad now we couldn’t cut it in half) and earlier this year succeeded in crossing Bass Strait via King Island. Well done Dave!