Wood and Water, a good mix


We were nearing the end of August 2010 and my wife Helen and I had spent most of the month, and our annual leave, renovating our cottage down at Batemans Bay.  I looked forward to swapping a paint brush for a paddle and my plan of having a few fellow wooden kayak enthusiasts visit for some local paddling was starting to look inspired.

Andrew Eddy was coming down from Sydney with his Baidarka.  Canberran paddlers, Matt Leonard with his Shearwater Merganser and Trent Henson with a LT Chesapeake (CLC) 17 were to make the trip down the escarpment.  I had my Mike Snoad Islander Kayak with me and Helen would have to be the odd one out for the weekend, with her Kevlar Mirage 530 (I did see the irony in this).

This was the first time we had paddled as a group.  Neither Matt nor Trent’s boats had sails, rudders or skegs and both used traditional Greenland wooden paddles.  The rest of us used conventional paddles.  Andrew’s Baidarka was fitted with a sail but no rudder and my woody and Helen’s Mirage with sail and rudder.  This made for an interesting mix of boat types and fit outs for the weekend.  Apart from the joy of having so many wooden boats along for a paddle, I was interested to see if any one aspect of the boats designs or fitout stood out as a benefit or negative for paddling.

Saturday 14 km return, winds up to 20 knots

For the Saturday paddle we launched at Surfside Beach and headed for a lunch spot just before North Head and on the way we got to play in the small surf and with the local dolphins.  As often seems the case when kayaking, it started to blow up while we were sitting on the beach having lunch.  We could see the faces of the white caps, so we knew it was going to be one of those long slogs back to the cars into the wind.

On launching, all took off like a shot cutting directly across the bay, making a B-line for Square Head.  With generous bow volume, the Islander can be somewhat lively when pushing hard into oncoming conditions, riding up and over most waves but cresting and flopping over the bigger swells.  But this liveliness up front is countered nicely by a pronounced keel line.  I noted Trent’s CLC sliced through the oncoming waves like the Bismark as did Andrew’s Baidarka, while Matt’s Shearwater and Helen’s Mirage somewhere in the middle.

Helen’s Mirage was the only boat with a rudder deployed, but as you would expect, this didn’t seem to offer any huge advantage against oncoming conditions.  The guys paddling with the Greenland sticks had no problems with the wind, being able to hold a low hand paddling position easily.

The ensuing discussions in the car park over each others boats, paddles, building experiences, etc. threatened to see us still there at sunset.  Eventually the thought of takeaway from the local Thai Restaurant got everyone moving and we headed home.

Day one conclusion

With oncoming conditions lack of skeg or rudder was no problem for these particular models of wooden boats.  Greenland paddles seem to be equal to the task as any conventional paddle.

Sunday 18 km return, winds up to 18 knots

Sunday saw us launching at the boat ramp on the Tomaga River at Tomakin on a run out tide.  We had sussed out the conditions from the beach and as expected it was a quick and uneventful free ride out over the river bar into the expanse of a friendly rolling sea.  The wind was predicted to pick up again from the north so we headed in that direction for our lunchtime destination at Guerrilla Bay.

On the way Andrew pointed out a gauntlet that had nearly been his undoing a few years back when conditions were not as friendly.  Over lunch he retold his gauntlet story in detail explaining how he had found himself upside down in the tight gauntlet courtesy of his sail acting as a sock for the incoming swell.  While munching and listening, our wide eyes also took to watching the whitecaps building around the headland.  Right on cue.  The wind strength looked about the same as the previous day but at least the conditions would be behind us this time.

Leaving our idyllic lunch spot, we were soon into a much more confused sea as we headed out around the point and into the rebound.  Andrew was in his element and as he whizzed by informed us he was heading further off shore to chase some wind.  After Helen and I had cleared the point we turned in unison and ran with the conditions to the calmer water beyond.  From this quieter vantage point I did a quick scan around.  Andrew’s silver sail could be seen way offshore, the other two were still in the slop. Matt was busy but seemed ok, while Trent was concentrating hard on keeping the CLC on track.  Andrew then appeared from nowhere and offered a timely demonstration of key techniques to handle rudderless craft in tricky following conditions.

Free of Burrewarra Point, we all took advantage of the stiff tail wind and following swell to stretch our sea legs.  With my rudder down and sail up the generous bow and modest rocker of the Islander came into play, as in company with the Mirage, we effortlessly skipped from one wave crest to the next.  Matt kept pace easily in the Shearwater and from his grin I could see he was enjoying this just as much as I was.  Andrew continued to run rings around the pod like a Kelpie herding directionless sheep, with Trent and the CLC making good progress.  For me this is peak experience stuff, what paddling is all about, all framed by the spectacular south coast seascape with the line of blue/green mountains and never ending sky as the backdrop.

It wasn’t long before we were at the Tomaga River bar once more.  We couldn’t have fluked the timing any better as the incoming tide meant a smooth run in over the bar and assistance back to the boat ramp.  On dry land it looked like we would once again take for ever to get the boats loaded and gear stashed as we swapped stories of pump installations and seating configurations, etc.  Trent revealed he was near completing his next wooden boat.  A stripper this time, a very elegant Redfish King.  Having seen the photos of his project I have no doubt this will be a very different paddling experience to his CLC. Thoughts of the long drive home eventually saw our visitors on their way.

Day 2 conclusions

The confused conditions around Burrewarra Point appeared to test the skills levels of some of us, along with perhaps the limitations of some boat designs and fit outs.  Andrew was in his element, this despite the Baidarka being far from the most versatile design.  For example, he mentioned that it was burying its nose on many of the swells on the way back under sail.  But the way he handles the long water line of the Baidarka, especially under sail, without a rudder with a few well executed paddle strokes, is amazing to watch.  A true technician, which goes to show skill can overcome most challenges paddling can throw at us.  As an interesting side note, I found I could track Matt’s location on the water with my eyes shut while he was up to about 50 metres upwind.  It wasn’t his aftershave but his beautifully crafted Greenland paddle made out of Western Red Cedar.  It let out a strong, distinctive but not unpleasant odour when wet.  Which makes make you wonder if sharks can track a scent.

So a good mix of different conditions, craft designs, skills, experience, paddle types and set ups made for interesting companionship and comparisons over the weekend, which fuelled much good hearted debate and discussion.  I’m still not going to give up my rudder or sail, but I might give one of those smelly Greenland paddles a test run soon.