A “Classic” Prelude [58]

Paddling for a good cause

By Adrian Clayton

About two years ago I acted as an impromptu overnight host to Chris Dey, hitherto an unknown paddler. Seeking advice as to the whereabouts of the local camping ground, he had knocked on my door at Elizabeth Beach which is approximately 250km north of Sydney. Chris was on a solo paddle in a borrowed Mirage 17. He had left Sydney a week earlier with Yamba — approximately 600km away — as his objective. It was only three months since he’d taken up sea kayaking. He didn’t have a roll but was a seasoned skiff sailor and possessed excellent seamanship. I was impressed that a guy with such little sea kayaking experience would take on such a big challenge. At that stage I’d been paddling a kayak for about three years and had never contemplated anything so bold. Therein lies the origin of a recent paddle I did between Sydney and Forster (a major holiday destination on the mid- North coast of NSW) to promote the Paddle for Life Myall River Classic.

The idea of paddling between Sydney and Forster (or the reverse) appealed to me. To do the trip on my own seemed out of the question and so about a year ago I suggested to a couple of my paddling buddies in the Club that they accompany me. “Yeah, we’ll come” was the response but diary clashes meant we couldn’t get our act together and the plan was abandoned.

The need to take on a paddling challenge kept gnawing away at me and at the beginning of this year I decided to do the trip solo. In the scale of paddling epics, a 250km Sydney-Forster paddle wouldn’t rate However it would help lay to rest a self opinion of being a paddling dilettante (and perhaps even qualify me for a long-cherished Goretex sock rating). When he heard of my plan, Mike Eggleton, a fellow NSWSK Club member living at Hawks Nest, said he’d like to join me. Now Mike is a real goer. He’s ex Special Forces, has dived extensively, paraglided (until he did his back in), and spends a lot of time in sea kayaks. He’s an AC instructor and the president of Just Paddlers. He’s also the initiator of The Myall River Classic. Mike saw the Sydney-Forster paddle as an opportunity to promote the Classic (and the Cure for Life Foundation that it supports) and started organising the related publicity.

As part of our preparation we’d been paddling together a bit over the last three or four months and had recently done a return day trip from Hawks Nest Surf Club out to and around Broughton Island. Mike was also putting in a lot of paddling in testing conditions, against wind and current. We had one planning meeting and a couple of lengthy telephone calls sorting out the logistics. Mike had also done a recce of the Central Coast area to suss out landing and camping sites. Seven days had been allowed to comfortably complete the journey and we added an extra day as a contingency for bad weather. Mike also organised for a couple of the regional tabloid newspapers to print half-page articles about the trip and for the local mayor to welcome us when we got to Forster. Chris Dey had kindly lent us his charts and given us tips on landing points. I’d also picked up knowledge from trip reports published in the Club’s magazine and from some Club members with extensive experience in some of the waters in which we would be paddling. The short- and medium-term forecasts looked reasonably encouraging and so it was all go.

We arrived at Sydney’s Balmoral Beach around 7.30am on Saturday, 24 July. Some members of our respective families were there to see us off. The banter was amusing but hardly inspiring. Questions were asked about the whereabouts of wills, insurance policies, lost marbles, etc. Dane and Lynne Snelling arrived to paddle with us out to North Head.

It was at 8.15am and we were on our way. Maitland Bay, 40kms away and on the northern side of Broken Bay, was the first day’s objective. The forecast was for 10-15 knot winds from the north west, a 2-metre swell out of the south and seas around 1 metre. There was a bit of work to be done. As we approached North Head, Alan Whiteman ranged up alongside us on his ski and put the brakes on for a short chat before accelerating off for Shelly Beach. The rebound from North Head was pretty healthy and the sea quite confused as a result. We were both pleased to be wearing cags. The rebound didn’t prevent a couple of ski paddlers from passing us much closer inshore. Somewhere along Manly Beach I noticed that Mike was dropping behind. I asked him how he was travelling and was getting the expected response of “Okay”. It was around Curl Curl that he indicated that he wouldn’t mind stopping for a shore break at Long Reef. I started to realise that he wasn’t in good shape. All the colour had gone from his face and, as we approached Long Reef, there were times when he was bent over almost with his head on the apron of his skirt.

It was approximately 11am when we both landed without incident on the Dee Why side of the reef . Mike discounted suggestions of sea sickness. There was something else upsetting him — perhaps a reoccurence of the stomach ailment he had been suffering recently. Anyway, we both agreed that his condition represented a safety risk and that it would be silly for us to continue the trip as planned. We weren’t in a good spot to pull-out and after a 30-minute break on terra firma Mike felt strong enough to paddle around to Fishermans Beach on the northern side of Long Reef where the portage to car transport would be much easier. Mike paddled strongly out through the surf and around the outside of the far-protruding reef. The local swell was such that the course we would need to take in to Fishermans Beach took the form of a wide arc. We decided to look for an alternative and headed off for North Narrabeen prepared to accept the prospect of a rough landing. Mike’s condition was deteriorating again and he reluctantly accepted a tow for the last twenty minutes or so. The tide was not far off its highest point of the day and we found a passage through the surf where the breaking waves were not a problem. A kindly current carried us well in to Narrabeen lagoon and up to a sandy pull-out point adjacent to a picnic reserve. Once ashore, Mike admitted to having experienced chest pains and, after a phone call to one of his daughters, he agreed to see a doctor as soon as possible. Geraldine, my long-suffering wife, collected us and our kayaks and Mike was admitted to the casualty ward at Royal North Shore Hospital around 5.30pm.

Well, what to do? Day One and my paddling partner was in hospital — who knows for how long Time to take stock and rethink. In my mind there was a lot at stake. What were the ramifications if at least one of us didn’t reach the objective? Would credibility suffer? Would failure harm the cause we were trying to support? Given that I had previously indicated that I was going to do the trip solo I had no real excuse or reason for not continuing with it. Besides, there was that Goretex sock rating I wanted.

A further day out of the schedule was lost as I reconsidered my plans. One of the upsides of Mike’s hospitalisation was that I was able to get my hands on some of his gear. His Aquapacks for my mobile phone and VHF transmitter proved to be a boon. I contemplated taking his 2-week old kevlar-hulled kayak but decided against risking being hospitalised myself should I cause the hull to be scratched.

Forty-eight hours after our original start Geraldine is waving goodbye to me from the Pittwater side of Palm Beach. Having lost two days I decided to make up some time. Bugger restarting at Narrabeen — the tidal situation meant that I couldn’t re-enter the ocean via the lagoon. I can complete that leg on a Club trip sometime. Besides, I’ve got a rendezvous with the mayor in Forster in six days. Can’t keep the man waiting.

Plan A had Norah Head as our second night stopover. It was now my destination for the day. The seas and swell had abated and I had a very smooth passage all the way to Terrigal. A slight increase in the pulse rate occurred around Cape Three Points when I saw a shark’s fin slicing through the water about 25 metres inshore of me. Fortunately, it was heading south and I didn’t hang about to check out the size or species.

I arrived at Norah Head around 3.30pm after 7 hours on the water. A 45km day or thereabouts of which the last 20 had been pushing in to a stiff north-westerly wind — mostly along a stretch of boring coastline. I set up camp on the northern side of the head, just below the lighthouse and was forced to retire early owing to rain which continued to fall intermittently throughout the night.

Day Two and it was after 6am before I was poking my head out the tent to behold an overcast day and an ugly looking sea with white caps everywhere and spume flying high in to the air as the swell crashed in to Bird Island about 6km to the north. The rain starts falling again so there is no chance for my ritual plate of porridge and cup of tea. An apple, handful of almonds and some dried apricots don’t really satisfy but have to do. A phone call to Geraldine for a forecast update off the B.o.M web site doesn’t improve my mood. There’s a strong wind warning for NSW coastal waters south of Seal Rocks; the latest Automatic Weather Station reading from Norah Head has the wind blowing out of the southern quarter at 25 knots and gusting near 40 knots. The seas are responding accordingly. What’s more, the forecast for the next day is similar. One of the locals tells me I’m well out of the wind where I am and that “it’s blowing a gale around the other side of the Head”. I observe two 30-foot cabin cruisers making haste towards the protection of sheltered waters around The Entrance.

Stockton is the day’s objective. A phone call to local kayaker Bruce Richards to suss out likely pull-out options beforehand reveals that there’s not much other than Catherine Hill Bay or Swansea. I log my plans with Lake Macquarie Coastal Patrol and am told that they have a boat in trouble off Redhead. The operator seems concerned that I’m about to take on the conditions in a kayak. Maybe I shouldn’t but then the prospect of two more nights at Norah Head doesn’t appeal either. I undertake to make contact again in two hours time. On the water at 8.30am and 200 metres out from the shore I look back and think about returning. There are a couple of people looking out at me and I wonder if they think I’m mad. Maybe I should go back; after all, I haven’t paddled alone point to point in conditions like these before. “Bugger it”, I mutter to myself “I won’t die wondering” and continue northwards. There’s a fair amount of water washing over the deck and sometimes I let the sea take me off course before correcting. I throw in the occasional brace, more for comfort than necessity. I am constantly looking to my seaward side and am missing most of the shoreside scenery. I spy some Little Penguins just south of Bird Island. A set of three big swells spook me but that’s about all there is to worry about other than it’s not a comfortable ride. After two hours paddling I still haven’t reached Catherine Hill Bay and, fearful that my Coastal Patrol buddies might be concerned about me, look for a place where I can go ashore from where to phone them. Deep Cave Bay is immediately before Catherine Hill Bay and the southern end is very well protected from the southern sea and that’s where I take a shore break.

Back on the water, I poke my nose in to Catherine Hill Bay but don’t stop. Swansea is the next shore stop and I get there in about an hour-and-a-half. Moon Island stands about 200 metres off the southern head at Swansea. There are waves breaking well out from the island and in to the channel between it and the headland. I look for a passage through the channel, the thunderous noise of 2- metre breaking waves — some only 50 metres away — is a little disconcerting. My approach is observed by the Coast Guard station on the headland — I don’t want to stuff up now.

After approximately three-and-a-half hours paddling since leaving Norah Head I am safely in the protected waters of the entrance to Lake Macquarie. I get a lift from a generous flood tide and arrive at the bridge at Swansea very quickly. I’ve decided to wimp out.

Swansea is to be home for tonight. A serving of fish and chips for lunch disappoints and I end up throwing half in to the bin. Having stayed at the lakeside camp ground earlier this year for the Arrow 24-hour Challenge, I’m familiar with the procedure. I register, pay my money and get my key to the shower block. One problem, my campsite is approximately 100 metres from the lake’s edge and so I have to do about half a dozen trips to and from campsite and kayak before I can pitch my tent and enjoy a hot shower.

The sky has cleared and the wind has dropped to a gentle air; the lake presents a very calm picture. I’m relaxed, chatting with my fellow campers. They’re all amazed about how much I can fit in my kayak. Brian and Janet are a couple of evangelical grey nomads from England via Victoria who have been living in the camp ground for over a month. They come through with a Good Samaritan offer — they’ll load up all my gear in the back of their station wagon in the morning and cart it over to the lake side.

Bruce Richards drops in and I tell him about my day’s adventures. He gives me some advice on how to deal with the Swansea bar if it’s running on my way out. I enjoy a good nights sleep and, thanks to Brian and Janet, leave the Swansea campsite at 8am. The conditions are no where near as bad as forecast the previous day. Blue skies above with a cloud or two. An ebb tide gives me an easy paddle down to the sea and it’s a straight forward paddle to Stockton.

The camping ground at Stockton is adjacent the beach immediately on the outside of the northern training wall that leads in to the port of Newcastle. I’m there after four-and-quarter hours paddling and kicking myself that I didn’t make it the day before. The management and staff of the camping ground are very helpful. I wangle an assisted lift of my fully-laden kayak from beach to campsite. It’s only lunchtime. I’ve got a bit of housekeeping to do before I take the ferry across to Newcastle for a look around and to stock up with some fresh fruit for my next day’s long haul across Stockton Bite and up to Fingal Bay.

The crossing of Stockton Bite is the part of the trip I was most apprehensive about. Around 30km of boring sand dunes viewed from 5km out at sea. Somewhere along this leg represents the half way point of the trip. I’m back on the water again soon after 7.30am the next day. The manager of the camping ground helps me get my loaded kayak back on to the beach. Another fine day with little cloud about. The wind is around 8 knots and on my left cheek for most of the crossing. I reckon I have a micro sleep at one stage. At another point I have an “Oh shiiiit” moment when I paddle through a fish-feeding frenzy and have a sizeable snout come out of the water alongside my hand during a stroke.

The crossing is faster than I expect and I am approaching Fingal Bay around 1pm. What a beautiful part of the world to kayak in — must come back some time and spend more time here. The spit separating Point Stephens from the mainland is covered with water and I am able to paddle through it getting a wet ride due to clapotis created by opposing waves.

This is a pivotal moment of the trip for me. By stopping overnight in Swansea I had fallen a further day behind my schedule and I had resigned myself to arriving in Forster one day later than planned. Now I’m standing on the northern side of the spit of Point Stephens and beholding a marvellous vista. Tomaree guards the entrance to Port Stephens on my left — around 10 o’clock. I can see Jimmys Beach tucked inside Yacaaba — the Port’s northern headland. Cabbage Tree and Boondelbah Islands complement the near view and in the distance Broughton beckons. I’ve already paddled more than 40kms this day but the fast crossing of Stockton Bite has given me the opportunity to make up some lost time. I’m feeling strong and if I make Broughton by tonight I’m back on schedule. Go for it!

Before setting off again I give Mike a ring to find out how he’s getting on. He tells me he’s out of hospital and on the way home to Hawks Nest. After a series of tests including ECGs and an angiogram he’s been given the all clear. It won’t be long before he’s back on the water.

I’ve paddled to Broughton Island from the south on three previous occasions but never when it’s been bathed in the light of an afternoon’s winter sun. With strong tones of greens and russets mingled with hues of buffs and whites, it’s truly a wonderful sight. There’s a slight breeze on my back and I head directly for the cleft in Looking Glass Island which stands just off the south-eastern tip of Broughton. The sea and swell are gentle enough to contemplate a short cut in to Esmerelda Cove through the cleft. I take the short cut. As I paddle through the cleft the angle of the afternoon sun lights up the eastern wall and provides me with a new perspective of this outstanding feature.

There’s no one in residence in any of the fishing huts within Esmerelda Cove so I have the whole place to myself. I choose a campsite beside the huts — much flatter than the spot where kayaking visitors usually camp and offering less prospect of a repeat of the visit I had from Ratus ratus on my last overnight stay on the island. Also, there’s a 27mHz radio facility attached to one of the huts that I can use to advise Port Stephens Coastal Patrol of my safe arrival. Conserving my own battery power has become an issue as I can find no facility on the island to recharge. It’s only a small distance from the water to my campsite and my tent is up just as the dark sets in and light rain begins to fall. The awning of the nearest hut allows me to set up my stove out of the rain. I also use its protection to hang up some clothes and other kit to air.

I’ve paddled more than 60kms today and am back on schedule. Using fresh water from the hut’s tank, I reward myself by bathing mandi style and then tuck in to the best meal of the trip.

Occasional voices from the PA system attached to the 27mHz radio interrupt my sleep and I’m out of my sleeping bag and starting my morning duties not long after 5am. The morning light reveals a sea that has cut up a fair bit during the night and dense cloud to seaward. I use the 27mHz radio to pick up the latest (favourable) weather forecast and to advise Coastal Patrol of my plans for the day. I’m on the water around 7.30am.

Broughton Island veterans will know that the narrow pass between Broughton and Little Broughton Islands is not always navigable and can be a tricky manoeuvre at most times. However, by passing through it, one can save a fair bit of paddling. Today, there’s a fair amount of white water in the vicinity of the pass obscuring the rocks lurking underneath. The tidal situation is sufficient to allow safe passage so long as I don’t get speared in to the submerged rocks by a big wave. I line up my course through the pass and back-paddle to avoid being picked up by a 2-foot wave. A smaller wave follows and I use it to shoot me through. I feel a great sense of relief when I find myself safely beyond the pass and in the calm waters on the leeward side of the Island.

Seal Rocks, about 35km away, is the next stop. The 6- to 8-knot breeze is coming directly from the south and is on my port stern quarter as I track towards the Big Gibber. I am in familiar waters, enjoying being able to easily identify landmarks without referring to my maps. I get close to the mainland before altering course and paddling directly towards Treachery Headland. The wind is directly behind now and giving me a gentle push along. The lighthouse on Sugarloaf Point comes in to view and not long after that I’ve negotiated my way through the inner pass of the Sawtooth, where I see the first dolphin of the trip, and am paddling in to the calm waters of Boat Beach. There’s a pesky shore break which causes me to make a rather inelegant exit from my kayak.

One happy paddler arriving in Forster

I’m in home territory now and some building mates are working on a house adjacent to the beach. I persuade them in to take the bulk of my camping gear with them to my home on their way through to Forster after they knock off work. The tightness in the muscles beside the back of my neck has been causing me a fair amount of discomfort over the last few days. So much so that my ability to turn my head is severely restricted. I manage to scrounge a massage from a young woman walking along the beach with her boyfriend. He and I chat while she does some heavy work up and down my back. The relief is instant and allows me to set off for Elizabeth Beach in comfort.

It’s 3.15pm and I’m carrying what’s left of my gear up to the surf club at Elizabeth Beach where it will be stored overnight with my kayak. Another good day’s paddling. Around about 50km covered and in good time — just in excess of 6 hours on the water. I walk home and celebrate with a couple of cold beers.

It’s Saturday — six days since I set out from Pittwater. The 25km paddle from Elizabeth Beach to Forster is all that’s left to do. Some local paddlers, all in sea kayaks, have agreed to accompany me on what I refer to as the “ceremonial leg”. We’re on the water at 11.15am and are due in Forster at 3.30pm. The sea is glassy and there’s a slight swell — maybe half a metre. We’re halfway along Seven Mile Beach and about 1500 metres offshore when one member of the group tells me that it’s his first time on the ocean. We get to Cape Hawke and some one asks why the water has roughened up a little. I’m surprised by the question but answer by saying that it’s reflection off the rocks from the slight swell. It’s not long after this that the first-timer starts complaining about sea sickness. His condition slows us down and we take a break at McBrides Beach where he recovers. There’s still about an hour’s ocean paddling before we’re transitting the channel leading in to Wallis Lake. It’s a delightful stretch of coastline to paddle along — lots of gauntlets, nooks and crannies, etc — and I am drawn to it. My companions are much happier to paddle on open water and directly towards the channel. I reluctantly rejoin them. Our first-timer is experiencing another bout of mal de mer so I take on the role of nursemaid. He declines a tow so progress is now very slow. About 400 metres from the channel mouth and right in front of the Forster-Tuncurry Coastal Patrol’s observation point he rafts up on my boat and proceeds to dry wretch over my bow. I’m horrified by the prospect that any onlookers might be mistaking him for me!

The group manages to get in to the channel without further incident and the local rag has a photographer snapping away from various vantage points as we make our way up Wallis Lake to the final destination. There are more dolphins than people to greet us. We’re right on time but the mayor isn’t there. He’s been called away to something more important.

PS: A solo trip, for the most part, this may have been. Unsupported it was not. In fact, one of the highlights for me was meeting the people — complete strangers — who assisted me along the way. I also was helped enormously by the volunteers manning the various Coastal Patrol stations between Middle Harbour and Forster who tracked my progress and Geraldine’s regular updates on weather data.

Having had a small taste of doing a solo kayak expedition I can now appreciate that it takes a special kind of person to undertake larger scale solo trips on a regular basis. I am in greater awe of the solo expeditionary achievements of the likes of Andrew McCauley, Stuart Trueman, Karl Noonan and Mike Snoad.

PPS: Looking forward to catching up with you at this year’s Myall River Classic on 18 September.