Notes on a Solo Paddle [71]

By John Wilde

It was a surreal moment watching the bubbles rise to the surface and realising that that is where I should have been. Added to this, the sight of the sail, no longer helping me skim across the water, but holding me, like a large sea anchor, firmly in the inverted position, despite my efforts to roll. Then the inevitable swim, a call to Mike for assistance, as he manoeuvred around in the choppy, breaking swell and strong winds, coming to my assistance with care. A short time later I was back in the boat, pushing away on the foot pump to remove water and gain more stability, ready to continue the trip, but this gave me some real food for thought. I was planning a 600 km solo trip along the Tasmanian coast in a few weeks time. What went wrong and how could I avoid this happening again somewhere in Bass Strait or beyond? In the long run, this capsize and the measures I took as a result, certainly made my trip much safer.

Firstly, some more on the given situation. Mike Snoad and I were camped at Merrica River for a couple of nights on a casual trip into the Nadgee region. Earlier that day, despite a strong southerly being forecast later in the afternoon, we left a standing camp at Merrica, and with empty boats intended to paddle as far south as we could before the southerly hit and then ride the winds back north. We reached Little River, about 15 km south and landed to check out this lovely spot when the southerly hit early, but we still expected a good ride home on the forecast 20-25 knot winds.

On the way south there had been a reasonable swell from the north, which, when hit by the southerly front, soon kicked up into quite an ugly sea, not big, but very confused and breaking all over the place. Added to this, unbeknown to us at this stage, the wind warning had been upgraded by another five knots, 25-30 with possible stronger gusts.

An empty boat is always less stable than a loaded one. Mike and I were also using our biggest sails and we were both hanging on, having a good ride, but close to the edge. As the wind was straight to our backs, I found myself regularly gybing, a quite unstable manoeuvre, as the sail flips from side to side. The boat was also pitching a great deal in the confused swell and I was having difficulty keeping a straight course even with the rudder. Of course, we should probably have dropped our sails at this point, but the thrill of the ride had infected us and we seemed to be flying. So suddenly I was sideways to a breaking wave, the wind howling in my sail and in an instant I was upside down.

Now the soul-searching began. Should I really be heading off on my own down a coast particularly known for its rough weather and inhospitable outlook? Well, I like adventure and the Tassie coast is well known to me. This is a trip I had wanted to do for some time. So now, how to minimise the risk?

Firstly, our sails were quite overpowered in the 30 knot winds. Mike makes two sail sizes. The smaller of these fits on a mast at least 30 cm shorter than my current mast and as well as giving better stability, it is much more suitable for regular strong wind sailing, so that was easy to fix with a change of mast and sail.

Secondly, for the last four years or so I have been using a propeller paddle, much more efficient for forward paddling, but hard to brace with and generally more unstable to use. Back to a standard, spooned blade, more stable for bracing into a breaking wave and generally more predictable to use when the going gets tough.

My boat, a Nadgee, has been fitted with a rudder most of its life, but, like all boats with a similar set-up, the stern is often out of the water in following swells and the rudder blade is regularly clear of the water. As a Christmas/going away present, Mike made me a much longer rudder blade, probably in the region of six or so centimetres longer than a standard blade. This bites much better in a following sea and is generally in the water, being much more effective than a standard rudder, so I have more control, particularly under sail in a following sea. (If you want to get technical, a rudder is probably best mounted further forward than the stern of the boat, but that raises lots of technical issues that have not yet been resolved.)

Next, the Nadgee I usually paddle is a lightweight version, the first production boat out of the mould and Dave Winkworth’s first use of carbon/Kevlar. It is close to 10 years old and I love it, but it is light and easily damaged in collisions or big surf. I seem to remember it weighed in at 18 kg when it first came out of the mould. My wife’s Nadgee is a much more recent version, still carbon/Kevlar, but a good three kilograms or so heavier and much more robust, so it was easy to change boats for this trip. My main thoughts were about dragging it up remote beaches fully loaded on my own, or landing in big surf but I am sure it saved me from much more damage, probably to my person, in the shark attack (see Issue 70) that I had not in fact allowed for in my preparations.

In calm conditions I regularly paddle with my buoyancy aid strapped to the deck within easy reach. I find paddling 60 km a day with good style really difficult whilst wearing two large pieces of foam strapped close to my body, especially in tropical conditions where heat can be a real problem. For the Tassie trip I kept my buoyancy aid handy at all times and also kept my HF radio, EPIRB and a flare in the back pocket.

Even if you subscribe to the Laurie Ford view that if you get yourself into a situation, you should be capable of getting yourself out on your own, if shit happens, in this day and age, someone is going to spend a lot of time looking for you and you owe it to them, if not your loved ones, to be found or assisted as soon as possible. As soon as it got rough, or the wind started to come up, my first concern was to don the PFD and emergency pack.

I was able to contact my wife virtually every day by CDMA phone and as she was staying in Launceston before picking me up in Hobart, it was easy to let her know my exact movements.

My phone was also in a waterproof pack, so contacting her in an emergency should have been easy. All the local fishermen were using CDMA for communication and hopefully ‘next-G’ will be at least as good.

Finally I bought a top of the line paddle float, something I have never used before as my roll is usually strong — and had it strapped to the back deck the whole time. It’s always handy to have an insurance policy!

So did I need all these preparations? As is the wont for Tassie, I regularly paddled in big breaking swells and about half the trip was completed in a BOM strong wind warning. If you go to Tassie this is what you must expect. On three occasions I had to take down my small sail as the wind was just too strong to sail in and the real danger was having my paddle ripped from my hands.

On one of these days, a 60 km hop due to big, dumping surf south of St Helens, the forecast the previous night was 15-20 knot NE winds. In actual fact it blew up to 30 knots from the north-east before a 60 knot westerly kicked in and although I was somewhat sheltered by the land, for a while it was touch and go survival paddling in probably 45+ knot, extremely gusty winds, to make it back to shore. In these conditions I was glad of every precaution I had taken.

If you are planning a solo trip I hope that these notes will give you a few tips and help you to paddle more safely.

There is something very special about a solo trip on the sea if you know what you are doing, but in the end, much comes down to previous experience and matching your skills to the conditions. It would not be good to get this wrong, as the sea is an unforgiving mistress.