I’d had my birthday that week and to celebrate it we decided we might look forward to some fishing. (I haven’t fished in yonks and generally am unsuccessful at that.) That at least was the tentative plan when the following message popped up on the club’s chatline:
‘Hello, My name is Daniel Esposito and I am writing to you to see if somebody in the Club can help our cause. I will briefly explain what we are trying to achieve. Currently I coach Kaise Stephan who is training to swim the English Channel this July, we have been well underway the past two years and we are in the final 10 weeks of our training program. We are doing a trial swim from Cronulla to Bondi, 35 kilometres in the next couple of weeks depending on conditions. However we are trying to find someone who can paddle a surf ski to accompany Kaise.’
Now I like helping people, so without much thought I dropped a line in response to the call for assistance. The next day brought more detail:
‘We are actually doing the swim this Sunday, 11th May’ and ‘We will be looking at starting around 5.30 am. Kaise will be swimming 35 kilometres, so we are looking at finishing around 6 pm; I am just making you aware of the time, as it is a long day for all.’
Yikes, it’s in two days from now and it’s 12 hours!
I suddenly felt I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I needed help so I started calling around my fellow lunatics to see who could help. Asking someone to come for a 12 hour paddle didn’t seem outright difficult — but on Mothers Day?
As luck had it I was successful on the third try; Tony Hughes, whom I’d just met on two previous paddles. His response was: ‘Twelve hours — yeah I think I can make that’. He was either deluded or he knew what he was talking about. Either way I was not going to let him get away! I probed a bit more:
Q: ‘We’ll have to get up really early to do the car shuffle, 3 am or so’.
A: ‘Yeah, I am fine with that’
Q: ‘We’ll have to do a surf landing at Bondi Beach. Do you know how to do surf landings?’
A: ‘Yeah, that should be alright’.
I’d run out of reasons for pulling out. I emailed Daniel and let him know we were on. We planned to paddle the distance with one paddler at a time tagging the swimmer and the other getting into the support boat to rest.
Daniel explained further: ‘The reason we need a canoe paddler is to tow a very lightweight shark shield, to constantly stay near the swimmers (two). Kaise has a support swimmer, Ryan Ainley, who is only 15 years old. He pooped his pants the last swim as we all saw a shark.’
Well this was getting more interesting, now I was going to drag a marine version of an electric cattle prod behind my kayak.
I called Rob Mercer, Chief Instructor extraordinaire, to see if he could give me some sage advice. His response was: ‘Twelve hours in the kayak? Well I think a major problem is going to be sea sickness’. God almighty, this was becoming as attractive as a cockroach on a cream cheese cake.
On Saturday night I tried to pack what I needed. Lots of water, food, dry bag for clothes at the other end and thermals. Marissa looked at the thermal pants and queried if I really wanted to wear long undies under board shorts. ‘What will people think when they see you at Bondi Beach?’
The next morning, the alarm went off at 3 am and I almost killed myself by dragging the light off the headboard while trying to silence the alarm. It could only get better.
I packed up and Tony showed up on the dot at the pre-arranged time.
We drove to Bondi where I dropped my car (untimed parking spaces are quite a distance from the beach there) then hopped into Tony’s ute and we were off to Wally’s Wharf at Dolans Bay. During the drive Tony suggested a change to the plan — instead of paddling together for 12 hours we’d do it in halves: him from Port Hacking and me taking over after Prince Henry Head. In his distinctive style he argued: ‘This is going to be boring as batshit.’ Well, he had a point.
We arrived at 5 am and the support boat was at the ramp being readied. We said hello to everyone and started preparing our boats. Slowly the rest of the team trickled in including family and relatives. They were all wonderfully warm people with such a positive attitude that it was infectious. Kaise showed up a little later and was getting prepared, which consisted of having white cream applied all over his body. This was to reduce heat loss and avoid tissue damage by water. In the end he looked like he’d jumped into an oversized jar of sun lotion.
Daniel explained the protocol. Since this was training for the crossing of the channel Kaise had to follow the protocol defined by the English Channel Swim Association. He wasn’t allowed to touch the boat nor the kayak. And every 40 minutes the coach would blow a whistle and Kaise would stop and be fed. The food would come out on a long pole with a cup. Drink followed in a squirt bottle which could be drawn back by a string.
It was 6 am and we pushed off. Tony had the shark shield attached to the kayak. The unit was the size of a small pouch supported by an orange pool noodle and a two metre long antenna at the end. I was going to tag along for the first hour just in case there were any problems. We paddled into the Hacking River towards Bate Bay. But at Gunnamatta Bay Kaise started turning into the bay. Having his head in the water he didn’t hear our shouts about his wayward course and he only stopped when Daniel blew his whistle. From then on Tony would also act as a guide, setting the direction.
When we left the Hacking River a beautiful sunrise greeted us. The waters were cool (17 degrees) but flat. Things were looking good. After the first hour, now in Bate Bay, I excused myself and turned back to drive to the changeover point. The bar had small spilling waves, giving me a quick ride on the way back. Even at these early hours there were surf skis and kayaks on the water — people doing their morning exercises.
Back at Wally’s Wharf I put the kayak on Tony’s ute and started it up. Before, Tony had given me advice on how to drive a vehicle of such sophistication. A quick look at the odometer revealed 250,000 km — or had it by chance gone once around and it really had 1.2 million km? Either way, it drives and it does it with a certain lassitude. Being an older generation it simply feels big — in comparison my Volvo now feels quite dinky. I also noticed that other people pay respect to such a venerable vehicle by giving it more space.
After a quick second breakfast I made my way to Long Bay, from where I would paddle to rejoin the group. At 11:45 the mobile rang and Daniel said they were an hour off Little Bay. I took off around 12 and slowly paddled out of Long Bay and southwards. The first thing I noticed was that the sea had become considerably lumpy.
No boat! Look as I might, I couldn’t see any boat out there. At that point my mobile rang. Had something gone wrong? My phone was inside my (waterproof) deck bag but I didn’t have it in an aqua pack. With the lumpiness of the sea I wasn’t game to get it out and answer it. So I turned around and headed for Little Bay to find out what had happened. At the beach I dragged the phone out and tried to get the voice mail Daniel had left. No luck — there was no mobile phone reception at the beach as it is surrounded by an escarpment 20 metres up with a golf club on top of it. So I hiked up the steps and stood on a fairway to be able to make a call. Daniel’s voice mail was apologetic. They had overestimated their speed and were going to be late. I hiked across to the ocean side of the golf club, hoping to see them from the cliffs. The first cliff revealed nothing; there were other obstacles (i.e. pieces of cliff face) protruding between my position and where I expected the team to be. I carried on trudging southwards and dodging golf carts. It took a while to realise that those golfers weren’t really used to someone walking around in a PFD and sprayskirt…
Finally I found a spot that gave me a view southwards. A few kilometres down, just north of Prince Henry Head, I could make out a white spot and a smaller red spot — presumably the support boat and Tony’s kayak. That meant they still had about three quarters of an hour to go. I waited for a few minutes to make sure the specks moved northward and that it wasn’t people just fishing out there.
Well I had some time, which was good because I had to do something about that lumpy sea state. The Labrador doesn’t have pronounced primary stability and I was going to have to manage following seas for the next six hours. I needed to ballast the kayak. That meant going down to the beach to do beachcombing. I got lucky and found a lump of concrete and a house brick. I tried to stick the lump into the day hatch but it was too big to fit in. So it went into the back hatch and the house brick into the front hatch. I turned my beautiful kayak into a dump truck!!!
(I spent some time wondering how to get rid of it at Bondi Beach without getting into trouble for littering. It later turned out that they have really big bins all over the beach.)
A quick test paddle and the kayak behaved better — not really stable but a clear improvement.
Meanwhile the team was starting to come into sight and I paddled towards them. Even at about one kilometre, they were hard to see from a kayak. Every once in a while, when we were all on top of a wave, I could make them out.
Tony looked relieved when I showed up. I quickly explained to him where I’d parked his ute: ‘Next to the loos’ brought a reaction. He must have been busting. We changed the shark shield over and he disappeared into Long Bay.
It was now my turn to stay in position to Kaise, a little to the side and a little forward. Close enough for what we thought the shark shield to be effective but not to get him electrocuted. (It does send out electric shocks as I found out later when I tried to turn it off at Bondi Beach and couldn’t find the switch.)
The paddle was really slow, a slow forward stroke every 10 seconds or so, interspersed with either a bit of sideways positioning or a little balancing or a brace when a following sea passed. Minute after minute after minute — and the coastline didn’t appear to move at all. Paranoid thoughts were popping up that I wasn’t going to make it — either I was going to die of boredom, suffer hypothermia, tire of balancing the following seas or get seasick. For a while I was envious of the people in the support boat but they didn’t look too comfortable either, the slow forward speed meant they had almost no steerage and every following sea started to broach the boat.
Every 40 minutes we stopped and coach Daniel provided food and drink for Kaise. Banana, ice cream, juices and Gatorade was the menu on offer. For me it was an opportunity to hold onto the side of the boat. Still uncomfortable but I could relax from the ever present balancing. I had my own food, but I really didn’t need much, a bit of apple and something to drink was sufficient.
Over time we worked our way northwards. Every once in a while Kaise would ask me where we were: South Maroubra, Maroubra, North Maroubra, Lurline Bay…I wondered if he was going to make it. Over time, boredom gave way to a kind of trance. I’d paddle, balance the following seas and keep my position to Kaise. Somehow the intervals between feed stops appeared to become shorter and Bondi started coming closer. At first I could see the Stinkpot at Ben Buckler, then individual houses, car roofs glinting in the setting sun and then little people figures on the beach.
Then Kaise let out a big shout. He’d looked up and for the first time seen Bondi Beach. You could feel how he was being energised by this. He started to re-invigorate his stroke as he set out to do the final kilometre.
It was past 5 pm and the sun had set. Slowly the light was receding. There were still people in the water. If I had to surf in I had to do it now while there was sufficient light. So a few hundred metres off the beach I peeled off my position aside Kaise, paddled over to the support boat and said my goodbye and headed in to the northern end. The surf looked quite manageable, but what do you know looking at it from the back. I picked my position, waited for a set to pass by and headed in on the back of the wave. Paddling fast past a group of surfies I caught a wave and started surfing. I am surfing Bondi Beach!! What a great feeling. But it wasn’t to last. A kid on a board decided it would be fun to catch the same wave as me. The kayak started broaching and no stern paddle was going to keep it straight. I started spearing towards the kid and even a shout didn’t seem to help. So I had to let go and drop into the water. ‘What an unstylish way to land at Bondi,’ I thought.
By now I was close to the beach in just half a metre of water so I got out and pushed the kayak in.
Some people came to help get the kayak further up the beach.
‘Where did you paddle from?’
‘Where is that?’
English tourists I suspected.
It was getting dark, which was good. I took the lump of concrete and the brick out and unobtrusively (as you do in a yellow PFD and a sprayskirt) carried it to the next garbage bin and dumped it there.
Then a shout from the road. Tony comes bounding over the fence to help me. We carried the kayak up to the road and Tony brought his ute down (my car was several blocks away). I changed into dry clothing in front of a restaurant full of diners. Wonder what they thought.
We walked over to the North Bondi Surf Club. In there was Kaise and his co-swimmer Ryan getting showered and changed. Kaise looked as if he had just taken a walk in the park — no signs of weariness or exhaustion. The only marks were big eye bags caused by the goggles. His family was there, with his really sweet Mom taking pictures and saying ‘I don’t know how we can thank you guys’ several times until Tony quietly said, ‘You just did’.
It was a good day — a rare experience and the opportunity to help someone along the way to achieve a dream — not bad for spending the weekend of my birthday. Forget about fishing.
P.S. For those who wondered: My mother didn’t mind having her Mothers Day rescheduled to Saturday — she loves seeing me any day.
Another perspective — Tony Hughes
Like Stephan (Meyn), I am a sucker for helping out in a heroic undertaking, and swimming the English Channel is certainly that. Also, I have not spent much time in a boat for a while so I felt this would be a good test to see if I had got rid of my dead legs problem which had curtailed my paddling.
Stephan and I had only met Kaise (pronounced Case) Stephan and his team for a few minutes before we all started out. The team on the water were Daniel Esposito (trainer), Ryan Ainley (support swimmer), Ryan’s Dad and Matt (boat skipper). The Stephan family were there in force to support Kaise and they were so intent on thanking us kayakers over and over I had to remind them we had not done anything yet and they could thank us when we all got to Bondi.
We had our briefing and were sitting in our kayaks in the dark on Dolans Bay and I was thinking that there should be a cannon shot or rocket flare to start off this gruelling swim, but Kaise just walked down the boat ramp, waded out a few metres and swam, and he swam like a machine for the next eleven and a half hours, stopping only for brief refuelling. The system we worked out was the boat crew would yell out the course to the paddler and we would paddle on that bearing till the next order, keeping station about three metres abeam Kaise so he would get eye contact with the kayak on his left when he breathed on that side. It is a good system and most helpful to the swimmer. As the time slipped by I just became more in awe of Kaise’s relentless pace and sheer determination and I lost myself in just doing my little bit as well as I could in helping his great effort.
Kaise Stephan is swimming the Channel to raise money for the Oncology Unit at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead. He has a very personal reason for doing this, which you can read about on the website http://www.channelcrossingforlife.com. They are serious, professional and exceptionally nice people. I believe they will achieve their goal and they will be great ambassadors for Australia. Many club members appreciate and understand the endurance athlete and I think this is a great cause well worth our support.
(Personally, I was a bit wobbly after spending eight hours in the kayak but I could feel my legs and didn’t fall over when I tried to walk so I guess I’m cured. I’ll rejoin the club as soon as I can afford a titanium knife, fork and spoon set. Mike Eggleton has told me it is a now a club rule you must have this before you can become a member. Is this really true?)