A little adventure off Wollongong

By NICK GILL

It’s a small club; those who have taken a perfectly good sea kayak and turned it into several pieces of splintered fibreglass. In February last year I joined it.

A few people have urged me to write about it, not least for the jerry rigged temporary repairs that got me off an island and back to where we started. So some time down the track from the event here I go.

I had organised an outing for a small group of Illawarra paddlers who occasionally get out together. We were going out of Wollongong Harbour and heading out on a loop around the Five Islands further south. It was a moderate day; my log book records moderate seas at worst, 6—15 knots and swell of generally 1-1.5m. My memory recalls a nice day, easy paddling, nothing to worry about.

This pleasant day turned adventurous once we’d got to the southernmost islands and were heading around the south side of Big Island. I was paddling close, but wasn’t in rock roulette or gauntlet mode. I was cruising. I wasn’t even wearing my helmet.

What must have been the next forty seconds or so happened almost without me realising. One second I was paddling along, the next, with an apparently seamless transition and minimum of fuss, I was being driven up on to rock shore of the island. There wasn’t time to get worried or panic. No impact or grinding of fibreglass was evident to me, though as became clear later it was happening in spades.

Up the rocks I went and then down, up again and down again, up once more. At least I think this is what happened. Maybe it was just up and down and up again. In any event as I slid down the rocks for the second or third time, backwards and upside down with my boat on top of me, my imperative was flip myself up. My hope being that I could back off on the next surge. I slid and slid for what felt a mile but must have been all of two metres, and managed to flip the boat and get positioned to power off backwards. The next surge came and as it sucked back off the rocks I paddled backwards hard and went precisely nowhere. A quick look forwards showed me why. The front metre of so my boat was sheared off. Still attached by the decklines and full of water, it was acting as an anchor.

Only one thing for it – I hopped out and began to drag the boat up the rocks. This was easier said than done. It was a very rough surface, waves continued to wash up, buffeting me and the connected pieces of boat. Rough fibreglass edges threatened to cut me. The gear in my front hatch started to wash out and literally bounce down the rocks into the water. I watched – food, dry bag, first aid kit, helmet…..I was dimly aware of the humour in the situation. Helmet libertarians Fishkiller (see Flotsam & Jetsam 49, 2002) and Geoghegan will love that image.

Eventually, I wrestled the wreck up onto the island. Step one. Luckily I was fine, only a few grazes.  But now what? Big Island is about 500m off the mainland and, even if I swam back, what would I do with my boat? Getting back to retrieve it would be a hassle, cost me, and could generate unfavourable coverage for sea kayakers.  Far better to get myself at least to the mainland, even if not back to Wollongong Harbour, some eight kilometres away.

I checked out the damage. The front metre to a metre and a half was torn off; the front two inches of the bow were gone; there were several cracks through the hull and deck; and there was a lot of cosmetic damage. Clearly my sensation of no impact as I washed up and down the rocks had been erroneous. What did I have? Not a lot but I did have duct tape and two spare paddle halves. A plan formed. Calling to the others, I cadged another large roll of tape. With the help of another member of the group who had landed in a calmer spot and walked over, I positioned the broken bow near the rest of the boat and duct taped it back on. I then used the spare paddle halves as splints and taped them to the boat and the broken off bow. It seemed reasonably solid. I then taped over the hole in the nose and taped over the various cracks. We then laboriously carried the boat along the rough shore to calmer waters. We threw it in and I jumped after it and climbed in. It was floating!

We paddled to the beach at Red Point and had a well deserved rest and snack. The boat had taken some water but not too much and so I resolved to paddle back to the harbour and avoid a taxi rode and car shuffle back. Having made it this far, it seemed only right to soldier on!

I made it back but I’m not sure it was a brilliant idea. The tape, paddles and misshapen hull created tremendous drag and I was very glad when we made the harbour – with only two or three pump outs (yes, those hand pumps can be useful). Dirk Stuber bought me a coffee in payment for the ‘entertainment’. Thanks Dirk.

What to do with the broken boat? Could it be repaired? Based on photos, David Winkworth and Laurie Geoghegan thought so. With the help of Stuart Trueman I got it to Laurie who managed to make a new bow and fix up the other damage.

You may have seen it at Rock and Roll 2010 out in front of Laurie’s tent. It’s perfectly seaworthy again, if a little worn looking, but you couldn’t say it doesn’t have character. I still love paddling it, though I have also gone back to plastic and now own a Valley Aquanaut as well (thanks to Mark Sundin and Rob Mercer for tiding me over with a boat or two).

As to what happened? I’ve been paddling for about nineteen years, I like gauntleting and paddling in close and I’ve had close calls before.  You could say it had to happen eventually. Maybe.

However, I think what happened at the time is that my attention wandered for a very short period. As a result I paddled over a relatively deeply covered rock shelf that I should have seen by looking ahead as well as looking down and I paid the price.

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