NSW Sea Kayak Club – Blown Away in Botany Bay — Almost [75]

by George Jessup

“I maintain that once a wind rises over 30 knots, paddling progress into the wind grinds to a halt.” (Paul Caffyn, NSW Sea Kayaker, Issue 26)

Our little pod jealously protects its reputation as a cruisy bunch. However, two paddlers in the group recently received ‘Sea Skills’ accreditation and the other paddler will soon follow. This created an unsettling dynamic. “Let’s try some real wind.” There is some debate within the group about whose idea it was. The group (for those who want to steer clear of us): George Jessup (Point 65 XP), Geoff Farland (Impex Force 4) and Neil Napper (Mirage 580). It has been agreed by a poll to blame Geoff for the trip.

The forecast was for a 1-2 metre swell with a WNW wind of 20-30 knots. The plan? Paddle from Frenchmans Bay to Bundeena for their world class hamburgers, a snooze, then return. (All our paddles revolve around hamburgers or coffee with toasted banana bread.)

We set out with a NW wind of 20 knots on a beautiful sunny Sunday on close to high tide. These conditions were giving the Maroubra SLSC Surf Ski training group problems in Frenchmans Bay but we paddled through the chaos secure in the knowledge that we had superior craft and superior NSWSKC sea skills training.

We decided to head out to Cape Solander to “have a look” and decide if we should keep going. It was a little bumpy getting across Botany Bay with small (0.5 metre) wind waves following and gusts catching the paddles, but when we turned around the headland — cruisy conditions. So much so that I got bored and was nearly severely embarrassed as I flirted with a rock platform and an unexpected wave. Off we went, close to the cliffs, minimal rebound, life is good.

When we rounded the last headland, Merries Reef was all white caps and spray with no hope of seeing the break in the reef so we chose to avoid it and take a straight heading into Port Hacking. OK, the wind had increased to 20+ knots WNW coming across our right bow quarter. Heading across Bate Bay was a bit of work and I got a lecture on group spread. No problem, we had made good progress and were going to be a bit early for those hamburgers so a slow crossing was not a problem. (The group spread issue has since gone into mediation.)

The only incident was when a NSW Maritime boat came out of Port Hacking and did a loop around two of the group (refer back to group spread above) about 0.5 km out. I had visions of a third party intervention and a full scale inquiry by the Commodore followed by stripping of my hard-earned Sea Skills qualification.

However, the supreme skill level of those stray two kayakers must have provided reassurance and the boat moved back into the bay.

We were assured by our alleged leader that the winds would abate, so as we headed for hamburgers, we noted the white caps in Port Hacking and were comforted by the expectation they would be gone by the time we got back on the water. The hamburgers were as advertised but the wind worsened. There were small wind waves as we crossed the entrance to Port Hacking, which increased to around one metre in Bate Bay with lots of white caps and spray. The trip back provided some test of skills with wind and seas on the stern left quarter. Good practice for our newly accredited skills of edging and bracing. We stuck a little closer to shore on the way back until Shark Island then around Merries Reef past Boat Harbour. Aaah — cruisy conditions again.

So far, the hardest part of the trip had been crossing Botany Bay at the beginning of the paddle. Maybe we should have taken note of that fact. As we turned past Cape Solander into the entrance of Botany Bay, it was tempting to head straight for the beach east of Bare Island. This would have been a mistake resulting in a longer crossing in more exposed conditions. Fortunately a large container ship was a couple of kilometres off shore and heading into port so we decided to paddle further into the bay while it passed — hard work but we made reasonable progress into the westerly. About 1.5 km in from Cape Solander we headed across to Bare Island and then around to our launch site in Frenchmans Bay.

Those last two kilometres were very educational. We had arrived back at Cape Solander earlier than planned and there was still a slight runout tide (about one hour left). The westerly wind was on the left bow quarter and seemed to keep increasing and the wind waves were up to one metre and washing over the kayaks. White caps and spray everywhere.

Where was that weathercocking when I needed it? I had the skeg fully up but with each wave, the wind would push the uplifted bow downwind. It was hard work keeping the kayak pointed away from the rocks. I was grateful for all the club training — edge, twist, good catch, use trunk and legs, sweep. I was edging and sweeping on the right so much that my right foot became numb. Things improved when I started to time my right forward stroke to when the bow was out of the water and about to fall into the next trough. I could feel my toes again!

The paddle past Bare Island was at a crawl, I reckon less than 0.5 km/hr. More than once I wondered if we were going backwards and that beach east of Bare Island looked very inviting. All this on Botany Bay when we were almost home! We later found out that the airport readings for that time were average wind WNW 29 knots, gusts 37 knots.

I initially didn’t want to document this trip because while we did a few things wrong, nothing actually went wrong. A bit boring really. Not one of the requisite disasters occurred: no capsizes, no rescues, no towing, no injuries, no holes from rocks (despite a good attempt), no lost paddlers, no popped shoulders, no emergency calls on the VHF. But — that last 2 km showed us how offshore winds can create a real hazard. Imagine being in a more remote location and no pullout spots? Imagine having to paddle more than 2 km in those conditions — how long could we have kept up the workload? Here we were within 100 metres of Bare Island and being pushed hard.

The ink is still wet on my ‘Sea Skills’ certificate so I am not qualified to make recommendations. But it is worth repeating some advice from a past issue of NSW Sea Kayaker. The legendary Paul Caffyn in “Those Deceptive But ‘orrible Offshore Winds” (NSW Sea Kayaker, Issue 26) recommended the following:

  • If an offshore wind is blowing at the launch site, be prepared to abort or shorten the length of the trip.
  • If caught in a sudden or gradual change to an offshore wind, turn tail immediately and run for the beach or nearest shelter. Sea conditions will deteriorate as the wind continues to blow offshore.
  • When faced by a wind violently funnelling out of a harbour or fiord etc, either return to the launch site or attempt to land and wait until the wind strength abates.
  • Patience is the order of the day. If there is any doubt, it is better to wait.
  • When caught on an exposed coast by a change to offshore wind conditions, hug the coast intimately, even if this adds considerably to the distance paddled for example by paddling around the curve of a bay.
  • Do not make straight line crossings of the narrow entrances to bays, fiords or harbours. Paddle upwind into the feature far enough before kicking out on the crossing. This is to combat ensuing wind and chop drift during the crossing and ensure reaching the far side safely.

I would add three other points:

  • Don’t underestimate the danger of fatigue. I found it no problem coping with the conditions initially crossing the bay. As we approached the end, I felt I had very little reserve left and would not want to deal with similar conditions out at sea for any extended length of time.
  • Even cruisers can end up in bruiser conditions and need to practise for those occasions.
  • Buy a beer occasionally for those leaders in the club who generously give their time to provide such an active training program for club members — even cruisers.

We are all glad we did the paddle, but next weekend we revert to a cruiser paddle to Shelley Beach. Hmm, coffee and toasted banana bread (no butter for me).

Postscript:

In the interests of fairness I asked for comments from the other paddlers.

Neil: “I’d add a new item number 10 at the end — never listen to a pod member (Geoff) who tells you strong morning winds will abate in the afternoon.”

Geoff: “I didn’t get to take part in the poll.”

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