From Aquaphobe to paddling in the Whitsundays [80]


The following account is for all those of you out there who have friends or partners who you know would love sea kayaking if only they would give it a go.  This is my short journey.  I hope it will inspire others.

It all started several years ago.  Rae took up sea kayaking with a passion.  I, on the other hand, would begin to panic if I was in chest deep water and could not touch the bottom.  Rae’s severely aquaphobic husband.  So what happened to change all this?

October 2009

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to land crew for Rae and Kate in the 2009 Hawkesbury Canoe Classic.  They crossed the finish line looking amazingly elated.  I thought perhaps I could overcome my fears and try to capture some of that for myself by competing with Rae in 2010.  What better way to spend our 30th wedding anniversary than 12 hours paddling through the dark night down the Hawkesbury?

On the way home the happy banter was about “Rae and Kate doing it again next year” when Kate suggested I should partner Rae and she would land crew.  After some thought I decided to give flat water paddling a go in the very stable double, with the view to doing the Hawkesbury in 2010.

November 2009

We launched the double at Kyeemagh for my first paddle.  Rae had explained the basics of the forward stroke.  We set off up the Cooks River into a gentle 10-15 knot breeze.  I lasted for about twenty-five minutes before my legs and feet began to protest at this extreme torture.  A couple of day’s rest and we gave it another go; similar breeze but lasted about forty-five minutes.  Each of these trips was fraught with anxiety, I can see why they call it the “divorce boat”.  Next time I was in the back, all I had to do was keep cadence.  Should be easy, right?  No it wasn’t, and then she wanted to “poke our nose” into Botany Bay.  Those 15-20cm waves were so terrifying that it took a while to relax afterwards.  I had been a bit freaked by it all.

Next Rae wanted to try me “in the ocean” so we put in at Malabar which looked very flat from the beach.  Off we went, heading out with a 20cm swell rolling into the bay. I thought the double was supposed to be stable but it seemed to want to tip.  We headed back in to the flat water where I calmed down a bit, then out we went again; stress levels rose rapidly so in I came again.  Not the outcome Rae was looking for.  I was okay when it was dead flat but anything disturbing the surface caused me to loose the plot big time.

December 2009

I had realised that trying to learn in the double was going to be hard work and frustrating for Rae. I needed a single so Rae could then show me what to do and I could see her do it. Also it would take away some of the fear of not being in full control.  We settled on a Mirage 580 as the most stable kayak, except they were hard to find second hand.

Next came learning how to get out of the boat underwater so off we go to Watsons Bay. Rae is going on a Tuesday night paddle with Rob Mercer.  Into the Impex Currituck in the shallows, now roll over and get out, okay I can do that.  Now try playing a tune on the hull before getting out, not a problem.  More importantly there was no panic,  it was even a lot of fun.

Meanwhile I found a Mirage 580 for sale in Brisbane Waters.  I rang at 4.00 pm on a Friday.  The owner was heading out for a twilight sail on Sydney Harbour but we could meet at about 9.30 pm.  Off we went, via the ATM to get enough cash for a deposit.  I was the proud owner of my own 580.

What next?  Perhaps some formal training might help. Time for a lesson with Rob in my own boat!  Now I was a Grade 1.  Dee and Adrian were running a doubles weekend.

The Doing it in a Double course was at Clontarf, with the first skills session held on the opposite bank, so across we go through the boat wash, a really strange feeling to have the nose and stern in water but none under me. I managed not to freak and we stayed upright (I will admit there was probably a pretty satisfying adrenalin rush on getting across the wake upright).

By the end of the course I has happy doing brace turns and edging.  A really positive learning experience.

The next major stepping stone was my first paddle with club members.  We got to Clontarf on a beautiful morning and had to choose a destination.  We could do the soft option of Middle Harbour or the more adventurous option of Middle Head to Chowder Bay. Andrew and Peter had explained that the water would be a bit rough around Middle Head.  I looked around at the others and could see they really wanted to go to Chowder Bay.  I took a very deep breath and agreed to give Chowder Bay a go.

Peter played nursemaid on the way around to Chowder Bay and Andrew played sea shepherd on the way back.  Off Grotto Point it got really interesting, a big boat wash to my left as well as my right, got through it without coming out but it was a bit touch and go.  I think the others had their hearts in their mouths for a few seconds until the wash settled.  Maybe I could do this after all.

Neil and Rae relax after rounding Middle Head on the return leg

January 2010

By now I was ready for Basic Skills and Grade 2.  You need to realise that the Hawkesbury was still the objective, but I had enough sense to know that I would need some paddling skills to have a chance of completing it successfully.

January 23 and I set off with my Mirage strapped to the car.  I had Rae’s flat blade, up until now I had only used a wing.  Initially I really struggled with the flat. I would miss Rae’s great support and encouragement but luckily I knew Kate and had been told that Stefan was a very good instructor.  The conditions were pretty ideal for Basic Skills. A southerly blow at about 10-12 knots the only real challenge on the final leg back to Clontarf.  Now I only needed two 15km trips to complete my Grade 2.

At this point I was fairly confident that I could manage reasonably flat conditions and could even manage with a bit of a breeze.  But any wave action over about 30cm was still pretty scary.

The next major step was a SOLO paddle, out into Botany Bay from Kyeemagh.  Conditions not bad, maybe up to 10 knots, but I was fairly sheltered and managed over 90 minutes. I had a tremendous feeling of accomplishment after this trip.

By this stage I really wanted to get my 15km trips done so Rae and I set out on a very blustery afternoon from Rodd Point to try to do the first with winds gusting to 15 knots, sea up to maybe a metre (really big for me).  Ended up getting to Mort Bay before slogging back to the car into a strong headwind, a really hard but mostly enjoyable paddle. The only trouble being that we covered 14.5kms, bugger!!!  The paddle conditions were the worst to date for me but because of the learning curve I had been on it seemed to be just a natural progression into bigger seas rather than the scary monster it could have been.

February 2010

Remember the Hawkesbury?  We did, so one Wednesday we headed for a Lane Cove River time trial.  12kms in 77.14 mins, at 9.33km/hr, not bad for our first serious attempt at going fast for an extended time.

My next major step was a short paddle across the entrance to Botany Bay in the double into a 2-3m swell.  This was not a nice feeling, I was not happy.

We sat down to analyse the situation when Rae asked the most critical question: “Which was worse, paddling into the swell or having it following me?”  When I answered that it was paddling into the waves, and that I found a following sea pretty comfortable, she pointed out that heading into a wave is the easiest part and that technically I was much more likely to come to grief with a following sea i.e. most of my fear was perceived, not actual.

Two days later I did my first paddle out to the Heads – a confused bumpy sea with about 1 metre swell.  On the way back I even helped out with a short tow.  The feeling of being “outside” was pretty daunting but because of the previous paddle I managed it pretty well.  Also managed my first 15km paddle.

March 2010

About this time Rae, Shaan, Mike and Guy began talking seriously about a Whitsunday paddling trip in August.  Whilst being more than happy for Rae to head off paddling with her friends, I was not looking forward to the time alone, feeling a bit jealous actually.  However I was resigned to not having the confidence or experience to undertake such a trip.

The next big step came two weeks later.  Rock and Roll was coming up, Cathy, Paul, James, Guy and Rae were going to paddle down to Batemans Bay from Jervis Bay.  Rae and I took a couple of the boats down to Currarong, in preparation for their trip, and so we could together paddle on the Saturday.  Guy joined us at Honeymoon Bay and we headed out towards Boat Harbour.

The first part of the paddle was fairly flat, with Rae giving me advice on how to improve my rate of going forward.  After lunching, we decided to head out in the direction of Point Perpendicular.  The sea was, for me, very rough, not big (maybe some sets up to 2m) but just confused, rebound doing its thing.  When asked about whether to turn around or keep going, I replied that I would be extremely disappointed to have come this far and not gone out beyond the point.

On looking up and seeing that I was outside, really in the ocean for the first time, I felt very tiny, but extremely elated.

Then came the very lonely week while Rae paddled to Rock and Roll, having a ball.  I reflected on my journey so far.  The conclusion was – if I truly wanted to spend more time being able to do the more adventurous paddles with Rae that she was into then I needed to strive towards Sea Skills – this final decision came as I drove alone to Rock and Roll.  My transformation was almost complete.

Waiting for Rae to arrive so I could tell her that I wanted to go on the Whitsundays trip, and wanted to try to get my Grade 3 was really hard.  When I finally got to tell her, her eyes sparkled, and a look came over her face that seemed to suggest that she had planned this all along.

April 2010

Between Rock and Roll and leaving for the Whitsundays I crammed in as much paddling as possible.  Challenging myself whenever possible.  I did a doubles weekend at Patonga which culminated in a wonderful surfing experience off Ettalong.  A double provides a few challenges as well as extra exhilaration, the extra speed on a wave is a real buzz.

May 2010

I had a surfing lesson with Rob at Umina – I love the surf.  I did get horribly trashed at the club Intro to Surf at Wanda though.  I did a navigation course with Adrian and Steve.  Keith’s Five Islands trip was also a real blast.

Neil edges at Umina

I did my first solo gauntlet where I realised that the Mirage rudder is not the best tool for learning boat control, it gives one a false sense of security and ability to turn.

June 2010

I now have a Valley Nordkapp as my day boat so that I can learn how to better control a boat in tight situations.  Oh – and I also tried out paddling in a 25 knot westerly just for fun.

July 2010

The rest as they say is history.  I joined Rae, Shaan, Guy, Mike and Dave on a two week adventure to the Whitsundays.  The most awesome trip, even paddled with whales.

Neil in the Whitsundays

And what of the Hawkesbury?  Well we might or we might not.  It is no longer a top goal.  Going back to the Whitsundays or ferry-gliding in Wales or perhaps Baja have much more appeal.

What advice would I give to someone starting out like I did?

Be patient, it will happen

Ensure you have patient teachers

Listen, watch, learn and practice

Start off small and work up to bigger things

Do it regularly

I guess that most important thing for me was that I was always paddling with people in whom I had implicit trust.  If I got into trouble they would get me out of it, or they would not take me into situations for which I was not ready.

A huge thanks to all who have helped me on my (so far short) journey.