By IAN FLETCHER
In late November last year my original plans to paddle the Royal National Park coast were changed after an unfavourable forecast, and I decided instead to head out onto what I thought was the relatively safe waters of Port Hacking. I put in at Gunnamatta Bay, and made for South West Arm.
At Lilli Pilli, as I followed the shoreline, I saw the approach on the opposite side of the channel of a man in a tinnie. As he passed me I heard the throttle roar and I turned to see him fall overboard. Any comical aspect to this sight soon disappeared. The outboard’s throttle had jammed wide open and the boat was doing high speed donuts.
My immediate thought was that the man in the water was in serious danger, and I turned my kayak and began to paddle toward him. I didn’t get very far before I realised that I too was in danger, and stopped to weigh up my options.
Getting out of there fast seemed like a very attractive idea, but I couldn’t leave a man in the water alone with an out-of-control boat. Moving in closer to rescue him with a stern carry was going to leave both of us vulnerable.
My indecision was abruptly interrupted. The tinnie had completed about a dozen circles when it hit a random wave (probably a reflected wave from its own wake) and left its circular pattern on a tangent headed directly at me.
I was about thirty metres away, and despite my immediate fear, felt sure it could not maintain a straight course for me. I was only half right – the boat turned one way, then the other, and then unbelievably locked onto my position like it was fitted with a heat-seeking device.
A futile attempt to move out of the boat’s path left me broadside to the impending collision. I managed to overcome fear, shock, and disbelief by shouting some expletives very loudly. This was unplanned, but it seemed to help kick in the much needed adrenaline. The bow of the boat was heading for impact at mid-thigh. This would have had the bow quarter impacting directly with my head and body.
When it came within reach I somehow managed to deflect the bow, and it rode up over the kayak deck. The deflection caused another problem however – pushing the bow away had began to spin the tinnie slightly, and as it rode up and over the deck the stern of the tinnie was heading for me.
The outboard screamed as the prop left the water, and I could clearly see the spinning blur of blades coming towards my chest. I was able to deflect the stern, and the runaway continued its crunching path up and over my deck, with the sickening sound of the prop chopping through fiberglass.
Having completed its assault on me, the seemingly possessed boat left to make more high speed turns in mid-channel, and I did what I should have done when I first saw the runaway boat. I reverse paddled to the nearby shore, got my feet onto land, and lifted my kayak out of the way in case of another attack. Several nearby rock fishermen ran to my assistance, and took some convincing that I was unhurt.
From the safety of shore I watched the swimmer get picked up by a half cabin cruiser, and three fishermen in a large tinnie with a powerful motor chase down the runaway. They had one man at the helm, one man leaning over the bow with a gaff hook, and the third man holding his legs.
This rodeo act continued for what seemed like about fifteen minutes of a mostly circular pursuit, with the occasional random tangent, until the cowboys successfully unhooked the fuel line and the ordeal was over.
After exchanging details with the boat driver I opted to turn for home, as I didn’t know whether my kayak could still float with what I later counted as fourteen holes in the hull and deck. The impact had also bent one of the footrest rails quite badly, so my foot-operated bilge pump was dislodged and inoperable. This made for a very wet paddle home, but I was glad to be in one piece, and grateful that my kayak had not simply gone straight to the bottom.
As I paddled I reflected on what had happened, and thought about what I should have done differently, and what I would do if ever faced with a similar situation.
It was clear to me that I should have immediately pointed my bow toward the danger zone, then reverse paddled to the nearest safe landing, exited the kayak, and waited on shore.
In the case that an incident like this occurs where there is no near safe landing, the best option would be to reverse paddle to a relatively safe distance, and wait with the bow pointed toward the danger zone, until it is safe to perform a rescue.
I was also aware that I had nearly made a decision to paddle that day without wearing my PFD, because of the “safe” protected waterway I was in. I considered what would have happened if I’d been knocked unconscious or badly hurt and in the water. Survival would certainly be much surer with a PFD.
Above all, the lesson of the day was that it’s never safe to assume that you are free from danger, and should always expect the unexpected.