Blood on the Rocks: An Easter Sacrifice
As is generally the case, the last minute logistics were dominated by the weather predictions.
The synoptic charts for the weekend looked acceptable but the Bureau kept on forecasting strong winds, 25-30 knots out of the south.
Rain, hail, thunderstorms and asteroid impact were added to put off those accustomed to high winds and seas. Ever since the Sydney to Hobart disaster a few years ago when poorly prepared yachties sailed into the eye of a cyclonic low and a few less came out, one feels as if the Bureau of Meteorology issues more conservative marine forecasts. Just an impression mind you.
Come the Good Friday start at Jervis Bay and the forecasts of impending doom had taken their toll and the initial ten starters were reduced to seven. The plan was to paddle the 80 odd kilometres from Hyams Beach on the western shore of Jervis Bay to Lake Tabourie, south of Ulladulla, over three days. The fourth day was for a day trip from Lake Tabourie to Murramarang for the survivors. Alas, in the end, there would be only one.
Hyams Beach is a small village and the boat ramp and small beach provide a reliable starting point for trips leaving Jervis Bay. Relatively protected from heavy southerly swell and winds, there is temporary parking at the waters edge for unloading gear with toilets and tap water as well. The cars are left in what is essentially a residential area and we had no problems.
The starters on day 1 were Lawrence Geoghegan (Pittarak), Tom Parker (Pittarak), John Wilde (Nadgee), Mik Snoad (Kayak Kits), Mike Culhane (Inuit Classic), Trip Leader Andrew McPhail (Horizon) and me (test driving a borrowed Mirage 530).
The first leg was a pleasant 7 km paddle to Murrays Beach, just inside the southern headland of Jervis Bay. The skies were overcast and a large localised storm cell was pouring rain on and obscuring Beecroft Peninsula on the north side of Jervis. Light winds and calm seas in the Bay gave everyone a chance to warm up and have a chat. Jervis Bay, a designated marine park, is a superb paddling destination in its own right. Beautiful beaches, clear water, dolphins, penguins, whales and spectacular cliffs and gauntlets.
After a quick stretch and snack we headed out through the two hundred metre wide passage between Bowen Island and Governor Head, the tip of the southern peninsula. Bowen Island is about 1,000 metres long and creates quite a detour if the notorious passage is not passable.
Once round the corner and heading south there is 14 km of escarpment that is without safe landing in a moderate southerly sea. The cliffs from half way at Cape St George to St Georges Head, the southern peninsula limit, are the highest in Australia. Alan Lucas (Cruising the NSW Coast) describes these cliffs as, ‘Worth seeing at close quarters during fair weather so that their outcrops, caves and collapsed parts can be fully appreciated. In moderate to foul weather, they are best given a very wide berth to avoid the turmoil of rebound swell and waves… the rebound seas can be miserable beyond description in bad weather.’
Moderate seas with a 2 m SE swell and wind to 15 knots confirmed what Lucas had predicted and it became an exercise in head down in your own little bit of sea and stay upright. Everyone was paddling well and there were no mishaps. There was not much in the way of idle chat for two and half hours though. Being least experienced I paddled towards the front, reckoning on increasing my chances of not being missed if I came a cropper. Steamers beach, the only potential landing spot, was passed without a second glance. The southerly seas funnel in and this would only be a useable bomb out in calm seas or northerly swell. The marine fauna checklist had the boxes ticked for shark, seal, shark, penguin, turtle and shark. The fish were biting and John had Good Friday dinner covered.
Once around St Georges head we paddled north into the protected upper corner of Wreck Bay. This was the relaxing warm down after the last couple of hours of attention focused paddling. Several small beaches and rocky outcrops make this a pleasant retreat from the open seas. Whiting Beach was the lunch stop. Gentle sloping sand approach and well protected, this is probably a reliable stop in most sea states and directions. Fresh water was available from a small cascade on the western edge of the beach. Rotting seaweed took the edge off paradise but you can’t have it all.
The original plan to stop at Sussex Inlet was all but abandoned due to the spring tides, increasing swell and recent death on the entrance bar. For the next 18 km we paddled parallel to long, exposed beaches with large dumping surf. Heading WSW gave the sailors a chance to utilise the moderate SE wind to take the edge off the slog into increasing seas.
There was minimal group spread except for an hour or so while I blindly followed a compass bearing due west and presumed the others were behind. Those that knew the landmarks had altered course more south and our paths diverged. I was able to keep visual contact with the sails of John, Mik and Mike from the tops of waves so I kept pottering along parallel until I ended up behind the surf zone. For the third time in the last hour I had a close encounter of the shark kind and suddenly feeling very vulnerable I headed to meet up with the others. I soon realised I had caused a little concern and the group had been about to start looking for me. Whilst I had kept tabs on the group via the sails, they had not seen any sign of me for something approaching an hour. Oops, sorry about that. Realistically, if I had been in trouble I would have been on my own and then placed the group in an invidious position. Poor form really.
After a 41 km day and 6.5 hours on the water we came to a small rocky headland just north of monument beach. The surf landing in the corner was looking better than the exposed beach but there was no immediate sign of anywhere to camp. John offered to land and do a recce. A short time later he re-emerged from behind the sand dune. Whether he was adjusting his shorts or calling us in wasn’t immediately clear but we were all too stuffed to care and headed in. Andrew was last in and provided some amusement by rolling up and having only his legs remaining in the kayak. At this point he decided it was easier to step out and walk than paddle.
The recent bushfires had prepared an excellent campsite. The tea tree barrier had been reduced to a skeleton and the new fern growth behind the dunes made an excellent underlay. No sandflies and hardly a mossie. This is where I found out the main difference between mountaineering and sea kayaking. Out came the cask of red, cans of beer, bottle of green ginger wine, Tasmanian Brie, crackers, fresh vegetables and gas cooker. I have spent too many years carrying stores on my back and this was a new concept.
The swell increased overnight. The first sight of the beach in the morning was not all that encouraging. Kilometres of beach had a huge closing out surf break. On second look it was apparent that our corner offered a reasonable exit if you could get the timing right and avoid the 3 to 4 metre sets wrapping around the headland. I was keen to go first so that there would be more people to grab pieces of broken body and boat. Fishkiller was dead right; there are at least ten reasons why its better to land than to exit a beach. A wet exit here meant an almost certain ride on to the rocks. Everyone made it out first go. Andrew snapped off an early morning roll after being hit by the white water from one of the bigger sets while he waited in the surf zone.
The plan was to paddle the few kilometres to Bendalong for an easy late morning landing. This would allow us to warm up, assess the conditions and make a plan for the day. The swell was definitely up from the day before but without the rebound it was actually quite fun. The wind was light and sky overcast but no rain.
Bendalong is definitively protected from southerly seas and is used for club surf training weekends. Some of the group were keen to look for a landing down towards Narrawallee, ten or 12 km away, while others were pretty certain that the beach landing would be ugly. The compromise was to head for Green Island about 5 km away and check out the surf landing to Lake Conjola entrance. Word of a waterside café at Lake Conjola may have influenced the decision making of some members. Andrew dutifully advised us of the sure-to-be-working bombora around the corner from Bendalong and again at Green Island.
As we paddled out from Bendalong two things became obvious. First, there were no boats out on the water and second, there were spectators massing on the headland to watch us head out into the unprotected sea.
The swell was 3 metres plus giving that sensation of paddling up and down hills although it was mostly abeam. Not far around Red Point, Tom had an inadvertent encounter with the first bombora. He was rolled and carried in towards the rocks and cliff. We all sat and watched as he missed his first roll, then the second before cracking the third and paddling back out to safety. I was seriously relieved, as the options for a rescue were not that appealing.
A few more kilometres and the front four of us were paddling past the SE corner of Green Island. We were only a few hundred metres from the point where we were going to assess the surf approach to Lake Conjola. Tom and John were close enough to be having a chat with Lawrence as far in front of them as I was behind.
Immediately in front of me a wall of green water grew out of what had been a large but predictable swell. The breakers were a hundred metres further inshore but this was too steep, too fast to be just another swell wave. In less time than it takes to snap off a few sweeps strokes the wave had peeked and was beginning to break. The face of the wave was higher than a kayak was long and it was a full and heavy wave. Shit, this is going to hurt! John appeared out of the foam on the crest; a thunderous visceral wave close out was followed by a boiling mass of white water heading for the rocks of Green Island. Tom was gone. No boat, no Tom. Then there were six.
There was a brief period while the rear three caught up where we just stared at the whitewater and the rocks of Green Island. There was still no sign of Tom or his kayak. John summed it up, “We have to go in and look for Tom.” I think everybody contemplated that we might be looking for a body. After discussing the situation with Andrew, John and Lawrence offered to paddle in and try to land on Green Island to look for Tom.
This initially appeared to be a courageous and gallant offer, following a lost companion into the boiling seas and rocks. However, we soon realised that John thought there was a chance that Tom might have survived and even made it to shore. If this happened Tom would be sitting at the lake side café drinking coffee. This was a more serious scenario than a simple drowning or mortal battering on the rocks.
John handed Andrew one VHF radio and kept the other. The rescue plan had John and Lawrence attempting to negotiate the surf while the remaining four of us waited out the back. If they survived the surf entry they could pass on the pearls of wisdom. As it transpired the surf approach was probably less intimidating than the wait out the back. Apart from the unknown damage to Tom, the cold and the thought of an ugly surf approach we had to contend with the ever-present sharks. At one point I was back paddling out of the way to allow a shark a less obstructed run at Andrew. They were only 2 to 2.5 metres long and probably hammerheads but the frequency of contact was a bit disconcerting.
The master plan came together. John and Lawrence were ashore on Green Island with Tom. Tom was intact minus various amounts of skin, and his mighty Pittarak was in one piece, minus various bits of gel coat. John called Andrew and suggested a route to negotiate the surf. A good use of VHF radios. This involved starting a straight run in just south of the bombora then paddling right into the lee of Green Island before the terminal surf zone. Probably close to about 500 metres.
The run in was going too well. Constantly worried that there must be something ugly behind me I paddled flat out. The inshore zone in front of the lake entrance was a confusion of strong current, moderate surf, small rebound and strategically placed rocks. By the time I was cleaned up in the surf I was well out of breath. I managed to roll up, overcook the next high brace and roll again. I was a happy camper when I landed on the beach without bending my mate’s boat. The three lads from out the back and the three from the island all arrived without drama although Tom got wet again in the inshore chop.
A short paddle against the outgoing spring tide and we arrived at the Lake Conjola boat ramp. Plenty of time to kick back and tell war stories. Tom had braced into the top of the breaking wave, then been rolled and munched as the wave broke. He travelled 200 metres upside down, in the kayak, waiting for the noise to stop. Tom rolled up first time seriously out of breath, pointing out to sea, only to be confronted with a second wall of white water. This time, about 50 metres from the rocks, Tom rolled under the front of the wave but there was too much energy to pass cleanly overhead and he was surfed upside down into the rocks. “I started to feel the rocks hit my shoulders and decided to wet exit”. Tom’s main injuries came from being hyper-extended across the back deck of the Pittarak and lacerations to hands and knees from scrambling out over the rocks. Tom wasn’t saying much but must have been pretty sore.
After a few hours kicking back, reading the paper and drinking coffee it was time to escape the masses. A short paddle away into the back corners of Lake Conjola and the forward hunting party found what appeared to be the perfect camping spot. Perfect in fact because it was a camping spot, on private property. Ray, the owner turned up, appropriately suspicious, but was soon disarmed but the charm and charisma of Mike and Tom. Or he may just have seen all the ragged and torn flesh hanging off Tom and felt sorry for him.
Flat, grassy, no sandflies or mossies, next to the lake edge and with the offer of fresh water from the Ray’s tank we had lucked in again. Tom spent a couple hours up at Ray’s shack giving him the spiel on the NSWSKC and returned to advise us that Ray had offered members of the Club the use of the camping site at any time. I have the GPS coordinates for those heading that way but they won’t be being published in the magazine.
Next morning we paddled back out to the front of the bar exit and landed on the beach to assess the exit and plan for the day. The cloud and wind were as expected (not as predicted, strong winds again) but the swell had risen again and was now closer to 5 metres. There was little doubt that a reasonably safe exit was possible in the northern lee of Green Island but once out to sea it was quite possibly going to be heavy going.
Lawrence was in, John was prepared to paddle out and reassess the situation from there. Tom was out; he was pretty stiff and sore. I was out, too little experience in a sea this large, and Mike, Andrew and Mik deferred to discretion for various reasons. A quick conference and it was decided that the Club sanctioned trip finished at Lake Conjola. There was some discussion about Lawrence paddling on alone but the conservative approach was taken. A sea rescue using the various authorities in the face of a poor marine forecast could only reflect poorly on the Club.
The rest of the morning was spent surfing on the bar entrance, drinking coffee and a rolling demonstration, with and without sails deployed. The Gods smiled again and Andrew met a friend that offered to drive Tom to Lake Tabourie to start the car shuffle. Mike and Lawrence decided to camp back at Ray’s place and assess the day again in the morning. Then there were two.
Back at Hyams Beach we watched waves breaking in Jervis Bay rising to the height of the inner northern cliffs. This was from 7 km away. I started to feel less unsure about the decision to abandon the day.
The next day dawned to a much improved sea state, the swell having dropped overnight and a big high influencing the weather. Mike paddled locally and Lawrence paddled 24 km uneventfully to Lake Tabourie, arriving about three in the afternoon. Then there was one.
Many thanks and all credit to Andrew for acting as trip leader and putting on an excellent paddle. Not an easy task with experienced paddlers all offering their two cents worth during the planning. No names have been changed to protect the guilty. The truth was not permitted to get in the way of a good story.