NSW Sea Kayak Club – Winter Solstice Paddle [76]

by Matt Bezzina

This is how Harry Havu described one of the highlights of the NSWSKC trips calendar:

A paddle to explore the darkness of the longest night. The brave souls who choose to join this pod launch from Gunnamatta Bay and head out to the darkening sea as the sun sets. Rounding the black, forbidding cliffs of Kurnell, where swell pounds the unyielding rock with unforgiving anger, our fragile craft shall steer a heading toward Bare Island. Some say the island is haunted — don’t go there at night! — we shall see, let’s round the island. After 30 gruelling kilometres, the paddlers will return late at night, and no doubt, quietly remark amongst each other on the depth of darkness of the longest night.

Conditions were on the rough side with a white capping sea of about 1.5 metres on top of a 2 to 3 metre swell. The wind was around 12 to 16 knots from the North East. Heavy cloud and a few showers were also features of this moonless night.

There were five starters and as we headed out from Port Hacking my anxiety eased as I found the conditions to be quite manageable. The distant urban lights reflected off the clouds so it was not as dark as I had expected and there was enough visibility to see the approaching waves, which meant I could paddle the same as I would in daylight.

The 15 km trip into Botany Bay was only interrupted by a cargo ship exiting the bay. We waited for it and then, with all lights blazing crossed the shipping channel just as the accompanying pilot boat shot back in front of us, probably shaking their heads at the sight of kayakers out at sea on a rough and rainy winter’s night.

On rounding Bare Island two paddlers made the call that, due to nausea and tiredness, they had had enough and didn’t want to make the return journey.

We all paddled across to Kurnell where we made sure everyone was good. A taxi was arranged and then the three remaining paddlers turned around and gunned it. I was pretty much in top gear from that moment on — partly to keep up with club heavyweights Harry Havu and Keith Oakford and partly because the trip back had me outside my comfort zone and my pre-eminent thought was getting back into Port Hacking.

Heading back we had the wind and sea behind us which made for some hellish rides, but it took me quite a while to relax, as unlike the trip out we were looking away from the city so it was now much darker.

Like so many situations in sea kayaking, how you cope is a mind game above all else.

Because I’d had a couple of breakers hit me unexpectedly and took off a few times on waves I didn’t see coming I was a bit anxious. I told myself to just chill, stop thinking the worst and paddle the sea like I normally would.

It helped that Harry sometimes zoomed past, yahooing as he rode the steeper sets, a ghostly figure often appearing ever so briefly before disappearing in front of a cresting wave. Once I changed mind sets I too started to paddle hard for the rides rather than going into cautious mode every time I felt the stern get picked up.

It wasn’t long before we left the rougher cliff section and began our crossing of Bate Bay where many a midnight ride was had. We encountered some noisy penguins and paddled into a few gannets which were almost invisible as they took off around us. Another hour and a half and we were back in Port Hacking and soon after were in dry clothes and heading home.

The thought that I take with me from this paddle is that we don’t paddle this boat or that — we paddle the ocean and the conditions and circumstances we find ourselves in when we’re out there.

Whatever boat allows you to push your boundaries and paddle beyond your comfort zone, the boat that can get you through when you’re right on the edge, the one that gets you home no matter what. That’s the right boat.