Incident at Maitland Bay [71]

By Michael Steinfeld, President

Earlier this year, a club trip leader led four paddlers on a grade three trip from Parsley Bay at Brooklyn to Maitland Bay.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) forecast for that morning stated that from Broken Bay to Port Hacking the winds would be south to south-east 15-20 knots, sea 1-2 metres and swell south 2-3 metres, abating during the day. The leader was aware that the group might not be able to land at Maitland Bay (on the ocean side), due to the swell and had planned an alternative destination at Lobster Beach near where Brisbane Waters meets Broken Bay. On the outward paddle the group made a safe passage between Gerrin Point and the bombora, through a deep channel in the reef and landed at Maitland Bay through a half metre surf.

There was discussion on the beach at Maitland Bay that it might be difficult to negotiate around the reefs on the way back and that the group should keep a wide berth on the seaward side of the reefs. One of the paddlers strained a shoulder when leaving the beach for the return paddle.

The group paddled approximately 150 metres seaward of the bombora. A large, swiftly moving wave appeared and lifted the leader’s kayak, causing it to collide into another paddler’s kayak, which was positioned on the front of the wave. Both the leader and that second paddler capsized and wet-exited.

A third paddler entered the break zone and successfully helped the leader re-enter his boat. However, another large wave capsized the third paddler and the leader again while they were still rafted together, so that three people were then in the water and the leader’s and the third paddler’s kayaks were washed over the reef. After the last wave in the set had passed, the third paddler and leader managed to swim away from the area. The fourth kayaker came in and assisted the second paddler to re-enter his boat and together they went to help those who were in the water away from their kayaks.

Meanwhile, the fifth paddler observed the events and paddled south of the reef. When he looked back, the situation did not seem to have changed. He had noticed the Killcare Surf Life Saving Club tent on the beach and the houses around the headland. He let off a flare he had stored in his PFD. He then paddled back to the others to assist. Shortly after, the surf life saving boat came to the rescue, quickly followed by the Volunteer Coast Guard and Water Police.

The rescue was completed and all parties were grateful for the assistance. On the recommendation of the group, the club donated $500 to the Killcare SLSC and $300 to the Coast Guard, with a letter of thanks to the Water Police. Three kayaks were very badly damaged.

So what went wrong?

There is common agreement that the group paddled too close to the reef. While the conditions of the sea and wind appeared to be well within the group’s ability, it was the large long period swell combined with a low tide, which led to the capsize of the first two paddlers when paddling on a less obvious part of the reef, even though the water was over four metres deep.

For the trip leader, there were many challenges faced on the day. It was the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the group spread was controlled and directed away from the risk. As he capsized and did not self-rescue he was not in a position to lead the rescue. The other paddlers had to take over based on their perceptions of the risk.

What about the appropriateness of the use of the flare? All other members were initially upset that the fifth paddler had turned away and paddled into safer water. However, he saw three out of the five capsize, and with two kayaks nowhere to be seen decided his personal safety and that of the other members came first. So once clear of the reef, he elected to summon outside help.

As one of the group writes: ‘Initially I thought he had abandoned ship and [I] was a bit angry but in retrospect he did the right thing — DRABC (as taught in first aid) — Danger being the key word and he got as far away from it as quickly as he could. It was the single flare that got assistance on the scene so quickly. Turned out my mobile in the aqua pack was useless. The trip leader did have the VHF radio in his day hatch, due to its bulk, but separated from his boat that was useless.’

What can we learn from this?

  1. Marine weather has a ‘history’In judging suitable conditions for a trip, one must not only make use of the BOM forecast but also appreciate that the weather has a history and a trend. In this case, the large swell and strong winds had been a feature for the preceding three to four days. Although the swell and sea state were trending downwards, it was still a foreseeable combination of adverse tide, wind developed sea and prevailing long period swell from the south that produced the unusually large sets of waves.
  2. Look for warning signs and respond with simple navigation plansAll members of the group had paddled to Maitland Bay before and were very aware of the bombies but weren’t expecting larger waves to break on the extended reef. They needed to appreciate the immediate conditions of the day, the likely interaction of the swell, wind and tide as a result of the history of the conditions and how this could affect the wave action on the outlying reef.

    With this in mind, a trip plan appropriate for the day should have been prepared in advance or at the latest, prior to leaving Maitland Bay. It needed to include the setting of bearings and transits for the group to follow. This would usually require the use of a detailed map or chart. It would have ensured that all members paddled a safer heading to seaward of the reef on the return leg rather than using visual observations.

  3. Expect the unexpectedLarge and irregular reef breaks are typical of long period swells. They are not ‘freak waves’. They may only appear very occasionally but they are no different from any other wave in that they only break in water that is shallow relative to their size. On the day of the incident, offshore wave data for Sydney coastal waters indicated a significant wave height of 2.47 metres with a maximum of 4.67 metres with an 11.4 second period at 2 pm. These general heights, ranges and wavelengths were typical of data for Sydney for the entire day.
  4. ‘All kayakers are between swims’In challenging conditions, selected rescue and communications equipment needs to be accessible when in the water and maybe even away from the boat. Also the paddler needs to be sure gear can be used from a swimming position. One paddler tried to use a phone in an aqua pack from the water and found it useless.

    VHF radio might have worked to summon nearby boats or SLSC but would have had a short range from such a low position. The trip leader had 8 mini rocket flares in his PFD and has indicated that he would have used them if the paddlers/swimmers had not been able to regroup.

  5. Re-enter and rollUnless you were there it is too easy to theorise about rolling and re-enter and rolling in big conditions especially when the water is heavily aerated. No one can be sure they would have fared better. However, it would have changed the course of events if one or both of the original capsizes had been dealt with by a roll or a quick re-enter and roll. Paddlers need to practise in realistic conditions with support nearby.
  6. Dress for immersionAll in the group were well dressed for immersion so hypothermia did not become an issue. In colder water the amount of time spent in the water may have been more critical.
  7. ‘Don’t just do something — sit there!!’Although the third paddler came in and successfully rescued the leader in the danger zone, they both ended up in the water, adding to the seriousness of the situation. When planning a rescue, paddlers should always make sure that the conditions are safe so that they don’t become the next person needing help. The surf zone is a difficult place to attempt a rescue. One should be sufficiently skilled in this type of rescue before assisting a capsized paddler.
  8. Remain positiveThe group never gave in to despair. Instead they continued to use their skills and equipment to look after one another. By the time outside help arrived they had dealt with the immediate danger posed by the reef and had regrouped to support those who were still in the water.
  9. Don’t be afraid to call for helpThe use of the flare triggered an outside response and provided the group with the fastest and safest way out of their predicament on the day. Obviously where a leader was in control of the situation this would be their decision, taking into account the paramount safety of the group.


There are many ‘near misses’ that involve sea paddlers every year in Australia and most of them go unreported, giving a false sense of how safe and manageable our seas really are.

The group is to be commended for their willingness to provide honest and detailed accounts so all can learn from their experience. They no doubt fared better than an untrained group in the same predicament and all take away a strong determination to hone their skills and sharpen their judgement.

This is another reminder of just how unforgiving the open coastal environment really can be. It is hoped that we can all become better and wiser paddlers by learning from this incident.

Some Recommendations

  1. Club to develop training days to practise a broader range of rough water rescues and practise the use of communications and rescue equipment in the sea.
  2. Carry emergency communication equipment on a PFD or in a bale out bum bag, so in the event of an out-of-boat experience, life saving equipment remains with the paddler. Ensure emergency communication equipment can be used if you are in the water (VHF, mobile phone, EPIRB, flares) and practise or role play using it.

The club is grateful that no one was injured and that we can all gain something from this kayaking incident.

As the trip leader states in summary: ‘All of us know that any activity on the ocean is dangerous and we should not be complacent. We all learned a great deal from the event and I’m sure we will be honing our skills to be better able to deal with possible future incidents.’

I wish to acknowledge and thank members of the paddling group and the Technical and Safety Committee for their assistance in compiling this report.