South Pacific Ocean: One. Humans: Nil [53]

By David Winkworth

If, like me, you believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, you’ll know that deep down in the ocean’s depths, King Neptune runs a marine second hand shop.

I imagine this store to be stocked with thousands of hats, sunglasses and assorted bits of sea kayaks… but never a whole boat because they are very hard to sink!

In early April, my mate Ron donated the bow of his beloved sea kayak to the store.

It was early morning off Tathra Beach near the Bega River bar and Ron was paddling his own design sea kayak, outside the break… well, he thought he was!

He looked out to sea and saw the first wave of a huge set rearing up above him. No time to turn and sprint over it, no time to race shorewards past its break zone… Ron was in big trouble and he knew it!

Ron rolled over as the wave shadowed him in the early morning light, crunched forward, paddle hard against the side of his kayak…and waited. He felt himself being taken up, up, up… and dropped.

In incredible turbulence he felt the kayak flexing beneath his feet as he was flung this way and that. The water was deep and thankfully he made no contact with the bottom but cool water around his feet told him that something was wrong.

When at last the buffeting subsided, Ron, an ‘A’ grade roller, could sense from his boat’s orientation in the water that rolling up was not an option. He pulled the spray skirt tab and exited the cockpit to gasp for air. What he saw shocked him!

The bow of his sea kayak was gone… sunk, broken off at the front hatch, strong deck fittings ripped clean through the deck. A half metre section of boat, containing his front bulkhead/footrest unit was floating nearby. A Tupperware box containing his car keys bobbed in the foam (this is a good idea!). Ron grabbed the box and stuffed it into his shorts. The large jagged-edged section of his kayak rocked on the water beside him, cockpit awash and now with an opening at both ends.

Still holding his paddle, Ron saw the second wave in this giant set rear above him. He dived down to escape the wash and the sharp- edged pieces of his boat. Only partly successful, he was again thrown over and over and his spray skirt was ripped off by the turbulence. He held his paddle firmly and surfaced again. His boat was gone. He struck out for the beach which was still a long way away, but he was making headway and the smaller waves were assisting him shorewards.

Finally he made it to the beach and watched the pieces of his kayak wash up in the surge. Ron pulled the sections up the beach and sat to recover his breath before walking down the beach to his vehicle.

So, are there any lessons to be learned from this bust-up? Maybe. Firstly we should of course realize that no sea kayak is ‘wave-proof’. There is a wave developing out there somewhere right now that can bust any sea kayak. I always think of the power of waves every time I see a snapped surfboard. If waves can snap 1.8 metre surfboards, which they do, a 5.4 metre sea kayak is nothing.

Ron’s tactic before the wave hit of crunching forward, paddle along the boat and HOLDING this position seems to me to be spot on. This position puts a paddler in the most protective and pro-active position possible. If you are going to get creamed, protect your face — make yourself as small a target as you can, and with the paddle tight against the boat you stand the best chance of being able to hang onto your paddle for a roll-up when the wave lets go of you.

Ron builds sea kayaks and experiments with different lay-ups in glass and Kevlar. The broken kayak was certainly no heavyweight boat, the reinforcements being laid very carefully to provide strength where needed. The job now is to try to interpret the forces that broke the kayak and their orientation and to incorporate desired changes into the next model.

It would be a great help if Neptune would return his bow piece!