Ten? [48]

By Mark Pearson

The pod arrives off Little River Beach on a magnificent June day.

We hardly ever land on this pocket-sized south-east facing beach. And there are reasons.

Steep, sloping sand at the water’s edge is evidence of regular assaults by powerful seas. But this is to be our camp for the night, a new destination on this rare winter visit to Nadgee.

So we are not surprised when a long continuous set of respectable waves rolls under us, breaking noisily across almost the whole length of the sand. We don cags and stow away vulnerable deck gear with half an eye on what is happening before us. I ask Mike if he is looking forward to it. He replies that no, he is not, that he always gets nervous landing. More so even than busting out through the surf. I am amazed!

“You’re kidding,” I tell him, before adding, “there had to be at least ten reasons why coming in was better than going out.”

The set finally settles down and we take turns making our runs into the beach with little drama. We portage the sand bar, paddle over the small lagoon, then chat to bushwalkers vacating the camp area before setting up our own.

That evening I mull on the issue of coming in versus busting out. I am usually reasonably relaxed about landings, even in biggish surf. Okay, so I’m lucky enough to have an Inuit Explorer, a boat that is less scary than most in the rough stuff. But I have to admit, that even after eight years of sea paddling, standing on the beach facing even moderate surf is always intimidating. And no wonder when you think of it; so many of my co-venturers have suffered horrors getting out.

But back to the ten. Surely the first reason is:

Coming in, the surf is, at the very least ‘helping’ you get in. But when busting out the ‘Surf Gods’ often seem malicious, intent on stopping you reaching the calm water behind the break zone.

That night it rains solidly and a southerly blows hard for several hours. We awake to the sound of roaring surf. Very loud roaring surf. Uhhmmm, I had another reason:

The ominous sound of big surf can play serious mind games with you even before you’ve got out of your sleeping bag.

We do breakfast, pack up, paddle over the lagoon to the bar, carry our kayaks onto the beach and stand and watch. And watch.

It’s not good. A messy surf zone, with a right to left rip, and sets with waves of almost three metres breaking over a large area and right across the beach. There were some relative ‘lulls’, but this was going to be tough. To confirm my thoughts, the understated Arunas advises that ‘we are going to get wet’. We hesitate for a few more minutes, each of us no doubt thinking ‘whose idea was it to camp here anyway’. As I stand there trying to get my mind and body into gear, another reason comes to mind:

Busting out is invariably done early in the morning, when you often feel stiff/tired/hung over/full of undigested Cretebix, etc, etc.

Its time for somebody to have a go. Mike indicates that he is ready. His boat is sitting about 60 metres from the northern end. The rip is strong and Mike is into it. Within seconds he has closed in alarmingly on those rocks. We frantically wave and shout. He looks around, we point vigorously south, then he changes direction slightly only to be hit hard on the port side by surging white water. He straightens up for the next wave, and the next, but by doing so continues his inexorable drift north as he progresses out. Its dawning on us that there is a big problem here; to maintain position off this beach you need to paddle diagonally out against the rip. You also have to turn into waves to avoid being broached and carried back in. But as soon as you straighten to meet a wave, the drift north was fast. I had another reason:

Coming in you are only a few seconds in the zone and you will land close to where you expected. Busting out is a much slower process and can see you taking an ‘unplanned’ route out.

It’s starting to look really nasty. Mike is now 60 metres out but only 15 metres off the corner of the rocks, sitting at the edge of the rip and holding position. His boat looks small and vulnerable where it is; white water everywhere in front and a foaming black rock wall behind. A monstrous set had broken over that section only minutes before. We all panic at what we are seeing, all three spontaneously run along the beach towards the rocks. I don’t know what for, but guess we all feel the need to be near the body. Another reason:

When busting out you may have to watch a mate get into serious trouble, and there may be nothing you can do.

But at that moment Mike suddenly puts his foot down. We hold our breath as he surges out through the danger zone, climbing over some big ones on the way. He’s okay.

The Mike Show is over, at some cost to our own precious adrenalin supplies. Grumbling about his appalling demonstration we return to the boats and move them another 50 metres down the beach away from those rocks.

Soon I was ready. I sit in the boat for a couple of minutes, just looking ahead of me. Mentally I prepare myself. I know what I have to do… hold position, hold my nerve, and then time it. I adopt a mantra… ‘position and timing, position and timing’.

I sense the possible beginnings of a lull out in the deep and push off. The first white water hits. It’s powerful, drives me back hard. I nearly go over. Another reason:

Coming in, you’re already warmed up… already have the feel of the boat, the movement of the ocean, etc. Busting out in surf you are immediately into seriously testing conditions while still ‘cold’.

Nervous and desperate to get a good feel of the water, I wiggle my hips to assert some sort of control. Another metre of frothing stuff hits me. Crash through OK but half blinded. Now I’m moving well, angling to the southern end of the beach and only straightening seconds before taking on the next surging wall. Then right knee up, left hip down and back to the diagonal. I think good things about owning a boat that turns. I look over to the rocks… it’s good, they are no closer.

Now I’m close to the big ones. Brake hard as a green wall crashes into foam in front of me, then accelerate to meet that ferocious broken water. Three more big waves are coming now. Nearly got surfed backwards on that one. Hit hard in the chest. Half blinded again. Something hits me from behind, swings me round, an emergency brace. F***! A sneaky refracting wave has crept up on me from beach side. Ahead of me the set is finishing. I go to full power. About a hundred metres to safe water now. Water is now green but some worrying forms are just ahead. Suddenly I’m going faster, another outgoing wave is surfing me out. I reach two big scary humps as they start to steepen but get over smoothly. Fifty more metres and the battle is won. I pat the foredeck of the Explorer and make a mental note to thank designer Sanders. Textbook.

Mike and I make contact. Now the wait for Arunas and Dave. We are three hundred metres off shore, and due to the swell only get occasional glimpses of their progress. Arunas pushes off. We see his paddle tips working hard. Then nothing as another big set rumbles in. A couple of minutes pass and no sign. Is he holding in front of the break? It’s been too long. Dismay as we see Arunas sideways back on the beach. Minutes pass. He’s now dragging his boat south away from the rocks. Later to learn that he had been capsized twice and had hurt a ‘lat’ muscle during a roll. Another reason:

Going out, there’s always the chance of muscular injury due to over exertion of cold muscles. Then you’ve still got to paddle the rest of the day.

The two are talking. Talking for some time. There’s some arm waving going on. Are they arguing? Or maybe just warming up. Mike and I wonder if they are thinking of giving up. Should we go back in? We decide to wait. Another reason:

Going out, those who have actually got out may have to make a decision to go back in. This is not a nice decision to have to make.

I ask Mike if there’s a protocol? Can we leave them here and wait at Merrica? Are we two viable pairs. Does insurance cover us if we split? We agree that communication is a bastard in these scenarios.

Time passes. About half an hour since I got out now. Arunas is trying again. We see him cresting some good waves. But his timing is good this time and he eventually approaches us, complaining about his slothful Greenlander being broached several times because of its inability to turn. Now the wait for David. My stress level hits maximum now. If Dave gets into trouble there’s no question, we all go back in. I don’t envy his situation. Another reason:

The last man out has to take on the waves while being aware of overwhelming ‘pressure’ from the waiting group.

He’s on his way, a minute passes while he awaits a lull in the wash zone. I see him crest a wave. He’s on his way. Three huge swells roll underneath us. Frighteningly quick. We watch and wait as the swells rise up as they touch bottom, the mighty greenbacks sparkling and shimmering as they reflect the morning sun. The Nadgee rises over the second hump, just one to go, the biggest one. Dave’s fully airborne as he climbs over the monster. He joins us, waterlogged and gasping, telling the tale of his epic climb up the face of Number 3. The visual similarity to that wave in The Perfect Storm. We don’t doubt the intensity of his experience. Arunas is sore but can paddle. We head north for Merrica River feeling good at our achievement.

And so another mini-drama in my NSWSKC career comes to an end, with more tales for the camp fire for that night and nights to come. I had only managed nine reasons. But maybe my next trip will give me the tenth.