Fear is Man’s Best Friend [49]

By Tom Parker

This song title by John Cale floated into my mind as I was deriving my latest perspective based on the singular circumstances that I was involved in at Green Island, off Lake Conjola during the Easter paddle. I was caught up by a rather biggish wave (the details are in the verse Great Wave, Green Island in another section of this publication and in Trevor’s trip report too) and a number of things are interesting to note.

Firstly I was tumbled and rolled along for hundreds of metres whilst in various underwater positions. Half way through this I was ferociously hurled onto the back deck of my kayak by a force that I was powerless to resist and eventually I discovered that this resulted in two cracked ribs. As I waited for the froth to subside, I prepared to roll and consciously waited an extra few moments in the set up position, as I figured that I would at best, possibly have only one chance at rolling up, which I subsequently did. What has surprised me on reflection, is that for these several minutes, I had no notion of needing to breathe in any fresh air and kept myself from taking in a single drop of sea water. As if mouth and nose were completely sealed off.

That evening I hardly slept as the video replays of the event wouldn’t stop. I contemplated and re-contemplated realities like the fact that once separated from the group by hundreds of metres of breaking waves, you were on your own. You could not expect anyone else to come to your rescue as it would mean considerable peril for the rescuer. What if I had banged my head on a rock? How would the others have gotten to me to provide medical and rescue assistance? Imponderables by the mile. At camp that evening, someone had mentioned that they had recently seen Gordon Carswell doing continuous rolls while surfing a wave in to shore. I imagined that this could be very useful in similar circumstances? Definitely another skill to acquire.

The next day I drove back to Sydney, after dropping off some of the lads at Ulladulla for the car shuttle… still running on adrenalin or some pheromone cocktail. Got home as bright as a button. That night too, I slept very little.

At home, the pheromones still pumping, I sat down and wrote the verse Great Wave, Green Island in a matter of hours in between doing other things. If I was asked to do it now, I doubt whether I could do it in six months. A week later I went for a paddle knowing that I had cracked ribs and took four attempts to roll in perfectly flat water. Very little strength was left on the right side for executing the roll. Oddly enough the roll worked perfectly just after the tumble and in much more demanding conditions.

My point is that we must have a huge capacity for dealing with life threatening situations, that allows us to survive in extreme circumstances. John Cale’s title is usually used in the context of war and it would be fascinating to have a deeper understand of the relationship of fear to survival in extreme conditions.

Several times before, I have been summonsed by the liquid hammer (Greek seamen refer to it as ‘it has no bones, but breaks bones’) and have experienced it differently but adversely each time. On one occasion, extreme effort in a very short space of time was required to survive the situation and at the end of it, I remember experiencing complete exhaustion, weakness and total loss of breath that is completely unimaginable in the most demanding requirements of ordinary sport or physical work. On every occasion I was left with less strength and with varying loss of balance.

What are the lessons to be learnt from this trip? It must be said that this was a freak or ‘rogue’ wave, however I remember that Michael Culhane was the only one in the group to wear a safety helmet during the whole trip. Perhaps there is a good case for doing this when paddling challenging seas close to the rocks?? It was not until I got home that someone remarked that my left brow and face had been bruised. This totally escaped my notice for several days. Maybe this could have been avoided too. After this kind of experience the individual can be in quite an altered physical and mental state and a fresh assessment of paddling capability needs to be made.

The eventual scramble over the rocks produced cuts and bruises to both hands and to my left knee. Not much can be done about the knee, but the wearing of even short form gloves could have avoided some of the damage done to hands. The event also punctuated the need to develop the off-side roll to complement the regular one, because it is conceivable that in a slightly different injury scenario, one’s safety or very survival may depend on having this additional capability.

Rescuing a flooded kayak over rocks that have waves constantly crashing over them also brought home the value of an electric bilge pump. A loaded and flooded kayak in these circumstances is a formidable weight to have to manage, while at the same time having to rescue yourself. The whole pump kit weighs about 3.5 kg and is as bombproof as they come but I can’t see myself relinquishing it without a well reasoned argument/alternative. Quite a comfort to just press the button and it does all the pumping which leaves you to push and pull this heavy weight around rocks and struggle towards dry land, while at the same time you seek to recover your strength, your breath and your balance.

Lastly, I should say that I learned another lesson on this trip that stemmed from discussions with David Winkworth several months earlier. David was good enough to review my approach to various aspects of planning for long trips. One of the critical factors was weight. I took David’s advice on this trip and trimmed away a lot of the unnecessary equipment, spares that are hardly ever used, heavy duty repair kits, extra, extra clothing and so on. Food provided great opportunities for weight saving, and as I said to David, I couldn’t shout the bar, and couldn’t have ‘gourmet’ dinners at night, but it made a big difference to the handling of the kayak when the sea was up. The result was definitely more control, and definitely more speed. I also noticed that I really didn’t need to eat as much as I usually do and it resulted in a better level of comfort on the trip. Thank you David for taking the time to share your wealth of experience. I’m a convert, I’ll now think about the merits of drilling holes in my Trangia and in my hat rims.

I would also like to thank Andrew McPhail for taking on the demanding task of organising and leading this trip and to my paddling companions Michael Culhane, Trevor Gardner, Lawrence Geoghegan, Mike Snoad and John Wilde for their great conversations, that were never in short supply. John Wilde was instrumental in coordinating the regrouping at Green Island and we were quite fortunate that he just happened to be carrying two radios with him that greatly assisted in directing the group towards a safe rendezvous. Fortuitous that he was the person I spoke to immediately before and immediately after this episode. For me it was a trip to remember and a great learning experience. Mostly, I learned about myself.

My only regret is that I was not totally fit in the morning, as the next day was full of sunshine, the sea had built up a little more and it would have been pure magic to break out through the pumping surf with John and Lawrence who were considering the paddle down to Ulladulla in that very energetic and exciting sea. I dare say this opportunity will come again. In the meantime, I have one more thing to look forward to in life

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