Sea skills in the surf zone


On a sunny winter’s day, an assorted bunch of colourful sea kayaks lined the grass near Sydney’s Wanda Beach.  At 9am the briefing started.  Instructors Harry Havu and Keith Oakford with their merry helpers, Karen Darby, Tony Murphy and Guy Reeve had an onerous task, to impart knowledge and hopefully skills to a bunch of fledgling sea skills aspirants in the surf zone.  We divided into two groups.  I was in Harry’s flock.

Harry gave a very good briefing.  He discussed why sea kayakers have to deal with surf, typical east coast surf breaks, shifting sand bars, why a sea kayak will broach, the paddler’s box, the dangers of overreaching in surf, how to hold onto the kayak in the surf, why there are rips and what to do if stuck in a rip current.  The forecast was discussed, a SE swell, a NW wind and an eight second wave period.

Harry expanded on the briefing once on the beach with the surf visible.  Here it was easier to point out the crunch zones, broadly an inner shoreline one and an outer break, bars and rips and the dangerous swash zone where unbroken or reformed waves break. As Harry spoke, his back to the waves, I commented on a bigger set coming through, not once, but twice.  Harry would look over his shoulder and these energetic waves cowered, magically shrinking as if hiding from Harry’s gaze like naughty children.  I would not have been surprised if Harry was thinking I was either exaggerating or incredibly nervous.

We watched Guy and Tony paddling out first, Harry commenting on their timing and technique.  A couple of fledglings were launched, the waves pounded a few of them back in.  It was my turn.  I found that paddling with a full length wetsuit provided more resistance to my stroke reach, or maybe it was me putting in extra effort to paddle forwards as Harry had instructed.   I suspect it was the latter given my sore pectoralis muscles the following week.  I realised that I was approaching the outer set a fraction too late.  I paddled quickly towards a steep wall of water.   As the wave crested I lowered my head to the deck, the arching wave breaking over my back.  I was through, surprised at the lack of white water I encountered and minimal loss of momentum.   I kept on paddling as fast as possible to avoid the next breaking wave.  Then I joined the small group of those who had not been washed back and completed a celebratory roll to saturate my steamy wetsuit.

It was quite a while before the next kayaker arrived.  The delay was due to an incident.  An upturned sea kayak, its white hull camouflaged in surf froth, had collided with a fellow participant (standing in the water) causing a potentially serious knee injury.  Arrangements needed to be made with cars, gear, first aid, kayaks and gear.

Next we paddled towards Boat Harbour where the surf was smaller.  Harry instructed us in low brace technique.  Paddling parallel to the break we put the low brace into use.  He reminded us of the triangle of death and that we were the pilots of potential missiles.

After lunch Harry gave some on-land instruction covering expanding on high braces, use of stern rudder to stay on the wave and how, if you get the timing right, you can ride on the back of a wave to land.  We made our way along Bate Bay towards Wanda.  My personal objective was to use a stern rudder to stay on the wave longer before bracing.  I caught a nice unbroken wave, deploying the paddle into a stern rudder position while edging my kayak, it worked.  My sea kayak started to broach as the wave broke, as Harry said, there would be a time to change over to brace.  Securely in a brace position, the wave crested over my head and deck, then I felt a rush of cold water around my legs.  Suddenly I was in the drink, then upright.  Darn, my first roll in surf and I had to bail out of my kayak as my paddle was five metres away!  I blame the distraction of my imploding spray skirt for releasing my paddle.  At least I experienced my first “paddleless” roll.

I had to wet exit a few times but had a great time and learnt a lot.  Big thanks to all members of the club who make these training days possible.