The ‘M’ and ‘M’ Paddle [46]

By David Winkworth

It wasn’t the best start to 2001!

Our paddle across Bass Strait in January was cut short on Flinders Island because of the ferry timetable, and then a planned 2 month paddling holiday in WA during March and April had to be postponed.

I was in need of a good paddle – things had to improve!

Peter Provis and Ian Dunn of VSKC were doing a week long paddle of the Croajingolong National Park coastline in February and they invited me along.

“Great,” I said, “Count me in.”

The paddle was to start at Marlo and finish at Mallacoota about a week later. The distance from ‘M’ to ‘M’ is only about 140 km but we would have time to explore all the inlets and rivers, have a few beers and generally relax. Perfect!

Most of this paddle would be along Croajingolong National Park coastline which starts at Sydenham Inlet (Bemm River) and continues right to Cape Howe on the Victoria/NSW border. The first section from Marlo to Cape Conran is freehold land and Cape Conran Coastal Park then extends along to Sydenham Inlet. Nearly all of the Croajingolong coast is wide open to Bass Strait winds and swells with relatively few headlands offering protection. As with our Nadgee wilderness coast, I wouldn’t advise Club members to paddle this coastline without solid surfing and self-rescue skills. Help, if needed, could be a long time coming.

I met Peter at Mallacoota. We camped the night there and, leaving my car there for the shuffle, travelled on to Marlo where we met Ian. Marlo is a small town on the Snowy River estuary – it’s one of those little places where you could retire from the ‘rat race’ and disappear forever, surfacing only for Friday night happy hour at the local pub!

Loaded up with gear, food for the week and plenty of water – there’s not much available along the coast – we headed out to cross the Snowy bar. Each of us took a different line across the bar. Peter went to the left and took on the waves diagonally. I saw Ian get a dream run down the middle out through the waves. As he disappeared over the last big ‘un, I prepared to face the first in a set of six waves to his right! Suitably wet and with a full sinus load of salt water, I joined Ian and Peter outside the break as we turned east. The winds were light and the swell running at around 2 metres. We chatted as we cruised to Cape Conran where we landed for a look around.

From here we could see impressive swells breaking over the exposed Beware Reef about a kilometre to the south. There is vehicle access to Cape Conran and we saw lots of day and overnight hikers there. Then it was back to sea for the short paddle to Dock Inlet, our planned overnight stop. After an interesting landing, we lugged the heavy boats up and up over the bar to the waters of the inlet. Dock Inlet is really a ‘perched lake’, the water level being well up on sea level. It is tannin stained brackish water but quite drinkable if you were desperate! We paddled up the long narrow inlet until we could neither turn nor progress and then manoeuvred back to a nice campsite behind the high coastal dune near the bar. Interestingly, there were very few mozzies here – not far to the west on Gippsland Lakes they attack in squadrons!

Next day we launched onto a bigger swell. Pete was backward endoed and surfed straight back in to us on the beach.

“Wrong way mate. We’re supposed to be going to sea!” I said.

Outside of the break Ian’s rudder popped out of its socket courtesy of a bent hold-down screw. No matter really as this was a day of glassy swells. He slipped the rudder under the rear deck shockcords for the short paddle to Sydenham Inlet. This inlet is the Bemm River estuary. Currently closed to the sea, it is a coastal lake about 3-4 km in diameter.

Arriving at the Bemm River bar around lunchtime, we saw that good thumping waves were breaking on the middle of the bar all the way out. It was the same to the west of the bar but there was a definite ‘quieter’ area on the western edge of the bar. This was the area we chose to negotiate the break.

When the first lull appeared, Ian headed off on the 150 metre (or so) run to the beach. Pete and I watched him appear and disappear on small waves. Time to go … hat in the cockpit, sunnies off and in the day hatch – I never was one to risk losing important bits in the surf.

“OK, I’ll go next,” I called to Pete. He nodded in agreement.

I check out to sea, straining high in the seat as I rise to the top of a swell, for a better view. Looks OK out there – can’t see any monsters. I’m lined up well with our planned landing spot. Can’t see Ian, he must be ashore by now.

Let’s go! Boat’s travelling well. Almost no waves around. I wish there was one or two small ones to catch for a lift and a bit of fun. Hang on, here’s one… I’ll get this… no, too much water on the face. It passes under me.

Better check for waves out the back. Christ, where did that one come from? The big wave way out is capping as it moves in. I’ll beat that wave through its break zone. It’s going to break behind me and the surge will be no problem. Keep paddling hard. Haven’t heard it break yet. Have another look behind. It’s still capping and still coming in – getting closer now. Where are those small waves when you need them? Absolutely nothing. Feel as if the boat’s stalling on backwash. Must be imagining it. There’s Ian backpaddling off the top of a big one near the beach. He’s OK.

The wave is there behind me, still coming. It will break. I will beat it – that’s my decision. We’ve done this lots of times. I’m paddling as fast as I can. Only 50 metres to the beach. Look again. Oh shit, it’s here now. Too late to turn the boat. I’m going to have to ride it.

Bloody hell! This wave is just standing way up. Lean back. I’ll try to back off it. Here we go.

I get carried up the face of the wave to the crest as it steams in. What a view! It’s a long way down from up here. I’m vaguely aware of Ian on the beach having problems with his landing. I’m having problems of my own too. The water in front is being sucked up the wave – it’s turbulent sandy soup way down at the bottom. I accelerate forward with a rush. It’s breaking now in a big dump, taking me with it. I can’t get off it. My boat tips forward from horizontal to vertical in a free fall down the face.

Seems to take ages. I haul the paddle around, slap it against the hull and hold it there as I lean forward and tuck in. We’ve done endo’s before, but not on waves this big… and not with so much weight in the kayak. Something’s going to break on this one. Quick, grab a big breath!

The bow pierces the water and continues down. There is no resistance until the bow strikes the bottom. Thuuuummmmpppp! I feel a great weight (me) on the footrests but I’m well braced and locked in the cockpit. I hear no cracking or splintering.

Immediately the boat is whacked forward and upside down. The turbulence is just amazing. We’re thrown every which way. Which way is up? It doesn’t matter – I’m staying here in the boat. I open my eyes… yes, just as I suspected: the water is full of sand. Close them again and wait. There is nothing else to do. Getting low on air now – have to come up soon… Good, turbulence is subsiding. Get ready.

I strike out with a screw roll but only get half up and fall back under. Managed to get another breath. Uh-oh, something’s wrong. I should’ve been up with that one. More aggression needed in the next one. Go!… That worked! Daylight at last. I pop up and see that my kayak ends just forward of the front hatch. A metre and a bit of the bow has gone. My dry bags containing sleeping bag, mat, first aid kit are floating out of the hatch and surging in the soup. Breakfasts and lunches in zip bags are dotted on the beach.

I paddle to the beach – the open bow fills with bow wave and progress is slow. I hit the beach and the kayak scoops up sand like a bulldozer. Ian is there to grab what’s left of the bow. He is limping after being corked in the thigh on exit from his kayak.

I jump out of the boat and chase after my gear littering the beach. Thankfully it has come ashore. I don’t fancy a swim out there. Check the boat – everything has gone from the bow hatch but the rest of the boat is fine. Some consolation! No sign of the bow piece in the surf. It’s probably sunk.

Ian and I move the boats away from the beach wash. We watch Peter on his run in. He makes it OK and we grab his boat to stop it sliding back down the steep beach.

“Hey Pete, would you mind going back out to see if you can find my bow. The repair kit’s no use without it!”

He stares open mouthed at my wreck on the beach.

We stayed on the beach for a while to see if any more bits would appear. None did so we carried the boats over the bar and into Sydenham Inlet. I stuffed all my gear into the rear hatches and we paddled up the inlet to a nice campsite in the ti-trees called Reg’s Rest.

The afternoon was spent swimming, fishing and brewing cuppas. I suggested to Ian and Peter that they continue the tour to Mallacoota and I would paddle across the inlet to Bemm River village and hitch to my vehicle and come back for the boat. They would have none of that, and the following day we all paddled across to Bemm River and they hitched to their vehicles at Marlo. When they returned we loaded up all the boats and drove to Mallacoota. From there it was a short drive home for me.

Ian and Peter returned to Tamboon Inlet and completed the paddle to Mallacoota from there. Guys, for the few days I was with you, thanks very much. For me it was less Marlo to Mallacoota and more Maiming and Munching but it WAS fun! How about another shot at it when I make a new boat?

Dave’s Notes

Sydenham Inlet, renowned for bream fishing, would be a great relaxing Club trip venue. There is a great pub on the bank of the lake and plenty of paddling to do up the Bemm River and up to Swan Lake through a narrow kayak friendly channel. The inlet averages only 2.4 metres in depth and locals tell me it whips up in a strong wind which could be fun for the sailors amongst us.

Re the wave: Ian and I reckon it was around 4 metres. Couple that with a water depth of 1-2 metres and the drop became 5-6 metres. Whatever, it was a big one. Truthfully, I don’t think any kayak would’ve survived that drop intact, especially with a week’s food, gear and water aboard. Perhaps you could build a boat with a super heavy lay-up to survive the big ones but it would be so heavy it would be a pain to paddle… and of course your friends would refuse to carry it up the beaches! A compromise I guess!

A couple of members have asked why I didn’t back up over the wave much, much earlier. I made a decision that I could beat it past its break zone. I paddled hard, had the speed and right to the end I thought I could. It turned out to be the wrong decision.

I also chose not to turn parallel to the wave. If the water is deep enough for an endo where you don’t hit the bottom, then I prefer that to sitting side-on at the bottom of a wave as tonnes of water come crashing down on you, either upright or inverted (see Bustin’ Boats in the Southern Ocean in Issue 45 of NSW Sea Kayaker). This would make a good subject for a campfire debate!

Catching a wave late (just before it breaks, as I did) is virtually a guarantee of an endo. If you can catch a big wave before it steepens to break… and … keep your boat perpendicular to the wave, you may find that you can ‘outrun’ the wave until it breaks and then brace on the white water. You have to paddle hard and KNOW that you can keep the boat straight. This comes with practice in smaller waves and kayaks that hold a course.

Abandoning ship in a big surf is not a practice I would recommend. I would always take my chances in the kayak. Hop out and both you and the kayak are at the mercy of the waves. You may never get your boat back … or worse still, your mum may never get you back!

Helmets are an issue here. I don’t wear a helmet. The water was deep enough that I didn’t whack anything except the boat but yes, it could’ve been different. Maybe a helmet would’ve helped if I had hit my body on the bottom, maybe not. I tend to think that in the hunched over ‘set-up position’, it’s my back that is vulnerable and that a helmet wouldn’t have helped. The set-up position is the lowest I can get in the boat while protecting my face, etc, so I think it’s not a bad option. I hope that the use of helmets will always be voluntary.

Re the kayak: I think the tension buckle for the forward deckline failed and released the bow section to its watery grave. Maybe that was just as well – rolling and paddling with the bow section hanging around would’ve been difficult. All the damage to the boat is forward of the front hatch. There are no gelcoat stress cracks, etc, and the front bulkhead/footrest is fully intact.

Anyone paddling either the Nadgee or Croajingolong coastlines should check out the book Walking the Wilderness Coast by Peter Cook and Chris Dowd. It contains lots of valuable information for your paddle.