We’re rattling along towards Cave Beach in the Jervis Bay Kayaks Troopy. In the back we have two state-of-the-art surfkayaks, a Megatron and a Neutron, and related paraphernalia. At the wheel is Tracy Garner who, apart from being a member of our club, enjoys a very high ranking in world surfkayaking circles (she’s soon to head off for the World Championships in Spain). Also on board is my twelve-week-old (to the day), very expensive TK1 which I am planning to test in surf conditions.
I’m keen to have a go at surfkayaking, having been inspired by the reports from the super heroes who took up the challenge at the last Rock’n’Roll in the boats made available by Ross Boardman. My enthusiasm has also been stoked by the photos on the back cover of the Winter 2007 edition of NSW Seakayaker.
However, I’m no super hero, just a mere mortal, so Tracy is about to give me a lesson in surfkayaking. Despite my keenness, I’m feeling a little apprehensive — it’s been over forty years since I’ve ridden a surfboard (and a balsa one at that!). What’s more, the Megatron (this one with a completely rebuilt bow following an unfortunate incident involving one of the Club’s heavyweight super-heroes at R’n’R) is totally different to anything I’ve paddled before so I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to right it in the highly likely prospect of a capsize. Tracy senses my mood and asks if I’m nervous. “No way — it’ll be a piece of cake” I answer with bravado while secretly wishing to be elsewhere.
We arrive at the parking area approximately three hundred metres from the beach and don our paddling gear including helmets. We portage downhill to the beach with the aid of trolleys and shoulder carries, pausing in our descent at a lookout platform to get a view of the beach (which we will have mostly to ourselves) and to assess what’s happening with the surf.
We negotiate the steps — fifty of them — with the kayaks on our shoulders before we reach the beach where Tracy gives me a rundown on the characteristics of the boat and how to handle it in the surf. The hull of a surfkayak is not unlike a surfboard — but beamier. Upturned at the bow, it is mostly flat and has rails and three fins to improve its surfing performance. The deck looks similar to a play boat except there is a lot more volume behind the cockpit reflected in an afterdeck not unlike the back end of the old speedcars that used to burn the cinders at the Sydney showground years ago.
Today the surf is a bit messy due partly to the onshore wind, a south easterly aspect and the tail end of an ebbing tide. There are reasonably clean spilling waves out the back — maybe five feet at times — which break and reform a couple of times before they wash up on the sand. It’s confused water between the breaks — “difficult conditions” according to Tracy (although they look as though they would be a doddle in a seakayak). She wants me to start in close, only trying to catch the small fluffy stuff.
Just above the water’s edge, I shoehorn myself in to the boat for a seal take off. Once the skirt is on, I start bunny-hopping the boat in to the water by lifting my bum while simultaneously pushing off with the paddle and my free hand. It seems to be hard work as the fins dig in to the sand but eventually I’m nudging cautiously in to the barrier of the innermost break. Tracy stays on the beach and I notice she has a throw line at hand just in case.
I stop before the first break and turn around to attempt my first ride. No major problems so far. Although beamier, the boat seems a lot tippier than a seakayak. Being only about 8-foot long, and with a flat bottom, it’s a lot more manoeuvrable and a decent sweep stroke will spin it around 180 degrees. Soon I’m paddling in front of a small broken wave towards shore. It catches me, turns me sideways and tips me over before I have time to apply a brace. The roll is tested right away and, thankfully, the boat comes up easily. I’m embarrassed but decide that it was just an aberration. Unfortunately this is not the case. I’m tipped over quite a few more times trying to catch small waves. On one occasion in this first session I have to swim because I’ve run out of air, having had to roll up three times in quick succession as a result of drifting in to more turbulent surf.
A review with Tracy on the beach results in some padding being added at my thighs to give me a better connection with the boat. Back on the water I find that the padding helps me control the boat better, but I’m still capsizing more frequently than I should, and I still haven’t been able to catch a half-decent ride. I’m getting a bit dispirited from the unintentional rolling practice, and head back to shore for a break and a chance to observe Tracy demonstrating how it’s done in her Neutron. She’s playing in the surf for around ten minutes and I’m interested to see that she, too, is being trashed occasionally (although she’s catching much bigger waves than I attempted).
Another review and some more tips from Tracy and I venture in to the surf for my third session. This time something clicks and I start catching respectable rides, mostly across the waves. The capsizes are less frequent and I’m starting to enjoy myself. However, in the prevailing conditions, there’s little chance to rest. A brief ride on a wave is followed by a bash out through the surf to catch the next wave. I’m starting to tire and head back to the beach for another break. After I’ve had a short rest, Tracy seems to think that I’ve made enough progress to join her catching the clean waves out the back. I’m not sure that I agree but decide that I’ll have a go.
Tracy has punched through the first break and I’m still bunny-hopping my boat in to the water. She powers through the surf easily while I make the same task look difficult. I’m tired, have already capsized breaking out, and the force of the bigger sets at the second break is enough to put me off venturing further.
Some of the waves of the second break are sizeable enough to get the boat moving well. My first ride of this session is far better than anything I’ve experienced so far. I find that the bigger the wave the faster the boat goes. The faster the boat goes the easier it seems to handle and respond. I start catching unbroken waves and am now confident enough to throw in a few transitions. I’m going one way and then with a quick swing at the hips and transfer of the paddle I’m cutting back the other way. The confidence is growing, the adrenalin is flowing and I start becoming a lot more adventurous with my approach. I don’t know how many waves I caught in this final session — not many — but certainly enough to get hooked.
My last capsize of the day finds me so tired that I can’t roll up and I have to swim the boat in to the beach. Even so, my mood is euphoric and the offer of a hot coffee and a piece of freshly-baked carrot cake back up at the Troopy makes the fifty-step ascent (with kayak on shoulder) and the trolley return an easy task.
And what about the twelve-week-old very expensive TK1*? It stood up to the test in the surf extremely well.
Thanks, Tracy, for a fabulous day. I reckon I shed about thirty years at Cave Beach and I’m looking forward to getting back there sometime soon in my own Megatron. Best wishes for the World Championships.
* Titanium Knee (1 only)