By STEWART MORGAN, with added research from Andrew Eddy
In my Summer 1999 issue of NSW Sea Kayaker there was a new trip in the Regular Events Calendar:
“On a weekday – perhaps Wed, Grade 2”
It went on:
“Why should the North-Siders have all the fun? Rob Mercer will run a regular fitness paddle one evening mid week. Launch from Rose Bay RSL and paddle to South Head and return.
You must have equipment and lights to NSWSKC and Waterways specs.”
The reference to “North-Siders” is from the pre-existing and popular Roseville Bridge to Balmoral (return) night trip run by Nevil Lazarus for many years prior. That paddle doesn’t exist anymore though the OANDORA paddle has recently taken its place.
A few things about the paddle did change: it changed to Tuesday nights around 2004, it departed mainly from Watsons Bay and went well beyond South Head. It’s not a grade 2 trip either, it’s listed as training paddle “that includes skills practice and a safe exposure to the ‘outside’ sea”.
The 11Th Anniversary Paddle
My first Tuesday night paddle was in 2008 after I had retired from work, I became a regular Tuesday-nighter for a couple of years until an injury stopped me paddling for a while. I was still on Rob’s email list so when I saw that the paddle on the 16th November would be the 11th anniversary I decided to go.
Appropriately eleven paddlers turned up for the 11th anniversary, it was a typical Tuesday night paddle. After a briefing on Watsons Bay beach, also known as Rob’s Office, we paddled out the Heads and headed into the wind. That night we headed south into a 10-15kt SSE.
As usual the group was varied; in strength: a world ranked veteran was part of the group; a wide selection of boats: a few Mirages, Valleys, an Impex, an Epic and a Q-Kayaks Southern Skua. There were all types of paddles: European, wing and a Greenland. Though the latter stayed on Rob’s boat as his spare.
Stopping initially at the Hornby Light to regroup we staggered our starts to minimize group spread, repeating this as we regrouped at the familiar landmarks along the way, the Gap, and the Coastguard Station.
Off the Coastguard Station Rob got us to paddle backwards into the wind to be well clear of the cliffs. This exercise always demonstrates the difference between the ruddered (Mirages) and the skeg boats, at going backwards anyway.
Following some rolling practice we continued south against the seas until we reached Diamond Bay before turning and catching rides on the following seas to retrace our route back to Camp Cove for yet more rolling and then on to Watsons Bay .
With kayaks washed and strapped onto the cars we watched the sun finally set over the harbour while having a beer at the Watsons Bay Hotel.
A Few Reflections
The paddle is listed as a training paddle in which I think it excels.
In the time I have been doing the Tuesday night paddles I have developed my confidence and paddling skills much more than I think I would have just continuing to paddle within my comfort zone. Paddling with limited vision at night in choppy seas and rebound attunes your balance making bigger seas much more comfortable to be in. Rob uses a buddy system with new paddlers or in rougher conditions. I recall on one of my first night paddles being ” looked after” by T.J. as we caught 2m NE swells back through the Heads towards the city lights.
Training exercises like towing take on a different perspective in the “outside” sea, like trying to attach a towline to a kayak pitching up and down over a metre in a moderate sea. I learnt to use a carabiner that doesn’t snag and to clip on to the deck-line away from the bow, much less relative movement.
Trying to dual tow into a building 20kt NE wind and sea, you don’t make headway; don’t bother, just go the other way.
It wasn’t all rough sea. One evening with a glassy smooth sea we were quietly paddling next to the southern cliffs under the Coastguard Station. Suddenly that 1 in 1000 wave appeared sucking the water from the rock shelf. I tried to roll under the wave but according to Chris James who was watching from outside the break zone, I ended up being surfed backwards in a broach. Fortunately the wave dissipated before it hit the cliff face. I continued the paddle that night much further out to sea.
Even though I was familiar with paddling through the Heads I had to reorient myself with the area while paddling at night. The view of the city at night after rounding North Head is mesmerising with all the lights. Unfortunately ships’ lights are lost in the background of the bright city lights behind. One night it was only when I spotted that the city lights had been blacked out, in the shape of a tanker did I notice the navigation lights on the ship heading out to sea. We paused midway across the Heads to let it clear.
Then there were the whales, the one surfacing for a breath when we were rafted up in the dark off Blue Fish point. It surfaced just metres away from the closest kayaks. Sometimes we had to paddle after the whales a few kilometres offshore. One evening as a pod were approaching, Matt Bezzina got a great photo of one broaching near T.J.
Apart from the padding skills learnt on the Tuesday night paddles, I developed friendships with the other paddlers. This in turn led to more paddling trips, such as the Whitsundays, Jervis Bay and Seal Rocks. On these trips it was reassuring to know that the skills and attitudes of the paddlers had been developed on the Tuesday night paddles.
Over the eleven years I would guess hundreds of paddlers have been on the Tuesday night paddle and all would join me in thanking Rob for his dedication in continuing this contribution to the club’s training program.