30+ at North Head [50]

By Tom Parker

Father’s Day started out with low hanging dark grey clouds and the occasional drop of rain. The wind was 20 to 30 knots and gusting well over thirty.

Just before ten, Rob and I paddled out from Balmoral and headed towards North Head. As we came out of the lee of Middle Head the harbour started to boil with white caps all around and the wind gusting from the south making hard work of constantly paddling the Pittarak on the starboard side. The sea was up and Rob and I were the only ones on the harbour except for a single boat with several divers. We did not see anyone else during the whole trip.

As I hadn’t been paddling for a whole week I found it quite challenging to be in this boil, and the first 20 minutes were taken up in getting the really intimate feel of the kayak again… Rob was paddling Rob Mercer’s Coho and for him it was pure delight. He later said that the Coho was very stable and a very fast kayak. Pretty well how the other Rob sees it too.

The wind came whistling down from the southern part of the harbour and we had these constant gusts on our starboard while the waves moved around us in all directions. It was like this all the way across until we were in the lee of South Head which gave us a little respite until we got closer to North Head and then paddled through breaking waves inside the harbour.

Well we got to North Head and the sea was 4 to 5 metres, the waves were breaking and lots of white-water everywhere. It reminded me a little of the wilder days on my trip to Tathra earlier in the year, but the difference in confidence levels was obvious. Constant paddling for a few days tends to sharpen the reflexes and your support strokes come to you so instinctively that you know you could do them in your dreams. These water conditions provided an excellent opportunity for practising support strokes and as we rounded North Head and started experiencing the rebound combined with the gusting wind conditions it became even more challenging.

With the wind behind us now we caught some runs going north. I couldn’t see the waves breaking behind me and just took up Rob’s challenge to keep on surfing. The swell and the waves were still pushing the kayak all over the place and there was no way that I wanted to capsize in these conditions so did more bracing than racing. Rob, of course, did it the other way round. We got halfway to Bluefish Point and decided we had better turn around as the trip back would be into the wind and would take more out of us.

I turned around to face south and wished I hadn’t. The swells were rolling towards us and they were over 5 metres on the face and they were all breaking. The wind was well over 20 knots and all of a sudden I was punching into this big sea and howling wind. Whenever one of the larger swells would rear up and start to break, flashes of Green Island would come back to me and a shudder would go up my spine. I really didn’t want a replay of that again.

The spray was horizontal as it swept off the tops of the waves and hit us in the face. Familiar taste of saline in the back of the throat came to us both as the spray kept coming. Now it was a challenge to make headway in this sea. At times the gusts would push on the paddle and totally destabilise me. On one occasion I paddled up the front of a wave only to be stopped dead on its crest by an unbelievable gust. For a split second I was suspended in air and then pushed back down the wave by the gust.

At times, making headway was slow. Had to focus. Had to use all available energy. Couldn’t afford to waste any energy. I had been practising the Russian Twist in order to improve my body rotation technique and deliver more power to the blade. It required a lot of focus to pay attention to all the details and to implement them in these conditions but I tried and it helped. More power to the blade meant that you went forward faster. The problem was with the unexpected. Occasionally a wave would come from an unexpected direction and force a brace just to stay upright. Then back to attacking the headwind. All around the spray was driven horizontally across the water. The gusts were horrific. Later Rob reckoned that you couldn’t paddle into anything stronger than that.

Considering that it took me half an hour to paddle from Shelley Beach to North Head the previous week in 10-15 knot conditions, it took the same time to paddle roughly a quarter of the distance in these conditions. When the gusts were at their fiercest, it wasn’t possible to make headway for perhaps up to 10 seconds. When we got back inside the harbour the conditions were a repeat of the trip out, but with the wind on the port side. Now, however, the muscles had had an hour and a half of being well exercised and the return trip was much easier. Still, it was another opportunity to practise the finer elements of body rotation and get the shoulders and the arms where they should be during the stroke.

I was surprised that we didn’t see anyone else out there on the day as these conditions provide an excellent training opportunity for Sydney based paddlers. We all yearn for the attractions of the South Coast, however we do have a great venue and a great opportunity to build our skills very close to home whenever the seas are up. It was a great outing and I couldn’t wish for a better start to Father’s Day than to go for this kind of paddle with my son. At the end of it, my shoulders and back were well worked out and the cup of tea tasted just great.

On getting back from the trip, the BOM data showed the following for Sydney Airport:

  • 10:00 – wind 25 k, gusts 31 k
  • 11:00 – wind 27 k, gusts 33 k
  • 12:00 – wind 25 k, gusts 35 k
  • 13:00 – wind 24 k, gusts 34 k

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