Sea Skills [65]

By Sue Webber

It’s day two of the Sea Skills course weekend. The second day of training is different: there’s a more relaxed atmosphere in camp; the excitement of the unknown is replaced by the slower pace of weary limbs and tent-rested muscles. The anticipation of refining stroke techniques is substituted by the knowledge that we will be wet again soon. And we’re resigned to that already because most of the gear is still hanging damply from trees and trailers around the camp. A cold damp bottom is enough to reduce an adult to infancy in a matter of hours.

Still, it’s another clear fine day with blue skies and the promise of warm air even if the water is cool. Bonnie Vale campground is masquerading as a little piece of bush on the edge of the city although the lights of Cronulla twinkle over the water at night and the planes jet in and out of Sydney airport all day. Despite this proximity to a four million-strong metropolis I can still look out of my tent early in the morning to see a group of spoonbills, ibis and egrets working their way through the mangrove mud as if the city had never been built.

Many years ago I walked from Otford to Bundeena through the Royal National Park, more as a training walk for an overseas trip than as a bush experience. Many times I’ve watched from the window of a plane flying south down the coast following the line where the park meets the ocean. Yesterday, I paddled those waters and saw the park from the sea. Looking up at the sandstone cliffs and down through the clear blue waters gave me a new perspective and in my kayak I felt I had the freedom to explore in a way I never did walking a track or sitting in a plane seat.

At the start of the morning, the beach at Bonnie Vale looked like a kayaking expo with a major leaning toward Mirages. Scattered among the 580s were a few non-conformists; a Greenlander, Nadgee, Nelo and even some plastic boats. I think my Q-Kayaks Tui took the prize as the smallest, and possibly widest, boat on the beach.

We split into four groups and each little bobbing flock was rounded up and chivvied along by an instructor. Mark Sundin and Dave Hipsley shepherded our little group to the mouth of Port Hacking and out to sea.

The weather was just about perfect for our needs; a light Nor-Easterly, a small swell and a forecast for more of the same. It looked like a beach landing would be possible.

Rolling is often cited as kayaking’s greatest mystery, something akin to the loss of virginity. The whispered question among the neophytes, “Can you roll?” is often replied in the negative but with a positive wish for the future. Rolling is one thing but I’ve begun to see the forward stroke as a greater mystery as I steadily work my way through all the things it is not on my way to discover exactly what it is.

I know it’s not about the arms and it is about the torso. I know it is about the box and it’s not about the chicken wing. I know it is about moving the legs and keeping the hands in place. I know that when I get it right it will be efficient and easy but until then I will use a great deal of time and effort remembering to do one part of the stroke while I forget to do another.

Unfortunately, the multi-facetted complexities of the great forward mystery kept slipping my mind as I simply enjoyed paddling south following the sandstone cliffs of the Royal National Park.

Our next challenge was a beach landing at Big Marley Beach. The surf was very small and my main concern was getting my kayak up the fairly steep beach and then keeping it out of the water as the tide came in during our lunch break.

Before heading home we practised our sweep strokes and I discovered that the Tui’s major strength is being able to turn in small circles while the longer kayaks perform ponderous circumnavigations.

Once back in the waters of Port Hacking we worked on our sculling draws and took turns to deliberately tip ourselves into the water for rescue practice. While it is jolly calming to have someone describe at length how they are going to rescue you, I soon decided I would rather jump on the kayak and get on with it instead of waiting patiently in the water while the rescuer described his honourable intentions to me.

The second day saw us regroup with different instructors. I paddled off behind Harry Havu but he soon spotted my forward stroke errors and had me concentrating on paddling with my knuckles along the horizon until I forgot what I was supposed to do with the rest of my body. Our main aims for the day were towing and rescues and we landed at Jibbon Beach for a tow rope inspection. Harry played the part of Goldilocks to our eight bears. He found that some tow ropes were too fat, some carabiners were too sharp, some kayaks didn’t have a suitable towing point but a couple of tow lines were just right. However, we paddled out to the mouth of Port Hacking and made the best use of our equipment towing one another through the swell singly and in pairs, until everyone had enjoyed the experience of dragging a large weight behind their boat. How I wished for the efficiency of a perfect forward stroke.

Back at Jibbon Beach we landed for a quick lunch. The bay was filled with millions of dollars worth of pleasure craft that didn’t look as if they’d been as far out to sea as we had. You could tell it was a classy spot as the flotsam included strawberries and a Cognac bottle label. It certainly made a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich look like a pretty low status lunch.

The self rescue is a manoeuvre probably best attempted by the rolling adepts but Trevor Creighton was pretty keen to have a go at the “Cowboy method” and, after a couple of attempts, managed to straddle his craft and slip back into the cockpit. Harry showed us that elegance, style and a good roll is the essence of a successful self rescue and then set about telling us to fall out of our kayaks so other people could rescue us. Anyone watching must have thought we were the most incompetent bunch of paddlers on the water with people falling out in all directions. Harry bravely suggested that I rescue him and spent several minutes in the water crying for help more and more weakly as I failed to manoeuvre my craft into the correct position. I’m glad to say I did eventually assist him back into his boat while he requested a bit more commitment on my part.

Once everyone was completely wet and had been rescued several times we headed for home with thoughts of hot showers and hot drinks. With my Grade 2 checklist nearly completed I realised that this was a good opportunity for the 50 metre swim so I struck out boldly in my skirt and PFD to add another tick to the box.

The Sea Skill training takes three days and is designed to cover all the skills and techniques needed to attain the club grade three award.

Many thanks to all the trainers who made the Sea Skills weekend so enjoyable and rewarding.