Moving Right Along Paddle [50]

By Mark Berry

Kevin Melville’s ‘moving right along’ paddle, held on Sunday 03 February, was the NSWSKC’s inaugural attempt at utilising a mentoring approach to prepare grade 2 paddlers for the Sea Proficiency assessment. Whilst Kevin organised the day to provide a series of challenges for the candidates, the weather decided to throw in a few challenges of its own, including strong southerly winds and 2 metre seas.

The end result was a great day’s paddling that highlighted the inherent strengths of the mentoring system and the club’s positive approach to training as a whole.

Kevin’s objective for his introduction of the mentoring system was to:

  • Introduce grade 2 paddlers to challenging but relatively safe kayaking conditions
  • Improve the skill levels of grade 2 paddlers using one-on-one tuition
  • Through the mentoring system, expose grade 3 paddlers who do not lead trips to some of the issues associated with trip leadership.

Nine grade 2 paddlers were coupled with mentors ranging in experience from grade 3 to instructor. Because of the forecasted southerly front Kevin left the choice of the final route until Sunday morning. We all met in the car park at Clontarf Beach just east of the Spit bridge at 8.30 am.

Following introductions mentors and their charges were paired off to complete boat and safety equipment inspections and to discuss expectations for the day’s paddle. Kevin then went over the forecast and the proposed route. Once we were all on the water Kevin’s Melville and Brennan demonstrated an assisted rescue followed by the grade 2s and their respective mentors. We then set off past Middle Head.

I am not a frequent Sydney Harbour paddler, however, I have been reasonably assured that on nineteen days out of twenty the harbour is a grade 1 paddle. With a south-easterly swell of 2mtrs and wind gusts reaching 29kts at North Head, Sunday provided the one day in twenty when conditions deteriorated to at least grade 3 on the seaward side of Middle Head. This created an interesting scenario. On the one hand it provided the paddlers who took conditions on the harbour for granted with a wakeup call not to become complacent about their preparation or abilities. On the other hand it provided the paddlers, who would not normally go out in these conditions, with an excellent opportunity to experience and learn how to deal with the combination of swell, wind and current whilst under the close supervision of a mentor.

We headed out around Middle Head and over to Manly Harbour with a strong tailwind and quartering sea making paddling interesting. A couple of capsizes and assisted re-entries along the way livened up the leg. Following our arrival at Manly Harbour and a group discussion on the severity of the conditions two of the group decided to withdraw from the remainder of the paddle. As conditions didn’t warrant pushing on out through the heads as was originally planned Kevin decided we should paddle back around to Clontarf and continue skills training in the sheltered water off the beach. Middle Head again provided us with some aquatic entertainment in the form of a howling headwind and cross swell which resulted in a couple more, real time, assisted re-entry practices. The final part of the afternoon was spent practicing skills in preparation for the grade 2 paddler’s up and coming sea proficiency assessments.

At one stage while we waited for a capsized paddler to right themselves off Middle Head, the wind, waves and current conspired in an attempt to push us back onto the rocks. In the middle of our struggle to hold station my paddling buddy, Rohan, turned to me and commented “you really need to be self reliant in sea kayaking don’t you?” I believe this was a particularly astute observation. Even in the relative safety of Sydney Harbour with a one-to-one ratio of mentors and grade 2 paddlers, managing group dynamics, capsizes and assisted rescues were difficult issues. On the open ocean in these conditions the same challenges would take on a whole new perspective.

The key points here are knowing your limitations and practicing your skills. I gather all the grade 2 participants picked up on the importance of having a reliable roll because once we arrived back at Clontarf they went at it hammer-and-tongs for the next hour. Good paddling sense was also shown by the two paddlers, who acknowledged their limitations in the conditions, and pulled out at Manly.

As the group were crash test dummies for the mentoring system I emailed participants for their comments before writing this article.

Considering the conditions on the day, I particularly wanted to know how well everyone thought the system worked. The resounding answer was that mentoring was a really effective way of imparting knowledge and skills. The only negative comments related to the unwieldy size of the group. On most days on the harbour a group of 18 would not have caused any problems. Unfortunately with the prevailing weather conditions Kevin ended up working harder than a one armed bricklayer in Kabul trying to keep everyone together. Kevin has since told me that he is writing an article for the magazine on his thoughts on the complexities of trip leadership. Ultimately everyone said they had come away with a greater respect for the vagaries of weather on paddling conditions and considerably better prepared for their sea-proficiency assessment. Well done Kevin for a meticulously organized and successful training day.