A Few Short Minutes

An Essay by MARK PEARSON

“And so, dear reader, let me take you back to October 2006, and the annual Chaos paddle of that year.  So get yourself a nice cup of tea and get comfy.”

“Now this was a year when the chaos began at the very beginning.  Somehow the group had started in two locations 40km apart.  Leader Laurie Geoghegan and six others from Disaster Bay heading north, and a second group, led by the impressive Stuart Trueman, from Boydtown heading south.  Nobody knew how this had happened, which I thought set a wonderful new benchmark for Chaos planning and organisation.”

“But by end of the day we had united at Mowarry Point.  Day 2 saw Mr Geoghegan surprise us all by not heading north as expected but leading us 10km to the west to a ‘secret camp spot’ near the woodchip wharf at Eden.  This caused even more disenchantment.  Not only were Mr Trueman’s group unhappy to find themselves only 5km from their cars after two days of paddling, the secret spot turned out to be a reserve infested with ‘trail biker bogans’ from the nearby town who took great pleasure in starting their motors at midnight.  As a group we looked forward to heading north to Pambula River the next day.”

“So the next morning as we packed our boats someone said there was a strong wind warning out.  We headed out of the creek into Twofold Bay just as the south westerly arrived.  Ripples became wavelets which became waves, and in no time the sails were up and we were away.”

“Thirty minutes later it’s really blowing, my sail is bulging and straining and I’m becoming quite busy.  Busy, you are thinking, what the hell does he mean busy?  Well dear reader, given my kayak (and even though I hate giving boats names, let’s call it Quirky), is ‘different’ to most in the club, I need to digress somewhat to explain what I mean here.”

Quirky is 5.25m long, plywood and glass, Swede-form with a maximum beam of 56cm just aft of the cockpit.  She has a V-keel, such that when you sit in her on a beach you are at a 20 degree angle and uncomfortable.  There is also 4m of severe hard chine, and a little bit of rocker.  And there is no skeg or rudder.”

“So there’s decent secondary stability, but with the V-keel she never really wants to sit straight and level.  She’s easy to edge and lean turn, but never really feels steady and ‘calm’ like a conventional flat bottomed hull with those soft rounded edges.”  So Quirky is lively to paddle, but she feels more tippy than she actually is.”

“With these edgy characteristics she handles well in almost all conditions … demonstrated by the fact that no matter what the wind direction I rarely have to paddle twice successively on the same side.  And I don’t have to worry about a skeg getting stuck or broken rudder cables or any of those regular mechanical issues.  Nothing to go wrong.  So I like Quirky, but she is a kayak that likes to be handled with confidence.”

“And sailing her poses different challenges, most kayaks need their rudder down under sail.  No choice.  Quirky is brilliant and balanced in a cross wind, with those chines and the V-keel resisting sideways movement, but when it’s blowing from behind she tends to want to round into the wind on the opposite side to which the sail is working.  I counter this with a combination of edging, high rate/low power paddle stokes, and some light stern rudder ‘dabs’ as the need arises.  This is the ‘nip it in the bud’ technique, and there’s no great effort in this.”

“But when she starts surfing under sail it gets more difficult.  Speeding down a  wave face can exaggerate the ‘round up’ tendency, which can lead to a mild broach.  So, having got say 60 degrees off line the easy thing to do is a wide stern rudder to bring her round, but this sacrifices speed, particularly with a wing blade.  The most efficient way to get straight again is to edge down on the upwind side with a close to the hull stern rudder on the downwind side while leaning forward to ‘lift’ the keel.  But dear reader, as you can imagine this is a vulnerable position in a sea, there’s little time to do an emergency brace if something unexpected happens on the edged down side.”

“So in essence paddling the rudderless and skegless Quirky is thinking man’s paddling … it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s fair enough.  Most of my companions seem content to sit in barge-like kayaks thinking they are doing it tough because their rudder pedal toe is cramping.  I’ve been paddling Quirky for eleven years now and enjoy the challenge … and it is rather nice being the only pony in a herd of camels.”

“But anyhow dear reader, let’s get back to Day 3 of Chaos 2006.”

“Minute by minute it’s getting wilder and the sound of wind and breaking waves is now dominating everything.  There’s the beginnings of group spread as each kayaker engages in his own personal battle with the conditions.  Communication within the group has all but ended.  I can only see three or four of my companions out of the eleven that started out.”

“There’s five kilometres of water behind us now, enough fetch to generate waves that are closely packed and getting close to two metres in the bigger sets.  And looking around there are no other boats or yachts in sight.  It is a wild place here, and as usual it is only kayakers that are out in this.”

“But surfing rides are now long and exciting.  On some rides the sail has enough power in it to power up the back of the wave in front and then go even faster down that second face.  But every few minutes there’s the start of a broach, I edge down the port side, stern rudder right and bring Quirky back around.  But this is tricky so it’s total concentration … there’s no looking for wildlife when playing this game.”

“I can tell the strength of the wind by its sound as its whips through under the brim of my hat.  It’s well over 20 knots, but sometimes the roar becomes a howl as strong and nasty gusts edge up to 30.  And it’s getting colder, the water is 15˚C, and I’m getting chilled with every wave washing over my kidneys.”

“I look right and left, see the occasional colleague cresting a wave before disappearing again.  Then the scary sight of the double Pittarak up ahead doing a massive broach.  The breaking water all but buries the two crouching, bracing paddlers as they disappear into a deep trough.”

“So it’s just about now that I’m thinking this day is starting to lose its fun quality.  I’m thinking that a capsize in these conditions would be a worry. No chance of rolling up with the sail.  Would be invisible to the others.  Getting ‘left behind’ to self-rescue in this would not be good.  I want somebody close now.”

“I look around to see Paul Loker in his Mirage behind and to my left.  That’s good.  Another huge gust, I’m spearing into a trough, and white water breaks over my back.  I want the sail down now.  I really want it down.”

“But when dear reader? To do that the hands have to leave the paddle.  Two control lines have to be released.  And all this while the sail is powering on, the waves are breaking on and around me, and the bloody V-keel is underneath me behaving like a V-keel!  There is risk in this.  So when?

“I turn downwind again for another sizzling ride, catch up to next wave and then the wave in front of that.  Stern rudder dab right, then the left.  Hear the wing blade cavitating and hissing through the water.  Then eight quick forward paddle strokes.  Again I’m hooning along in excess of 20km per hour, strange emotions of exhilaration amongst the stress.”

“So I trust I’ve set the scene dear reader.  It’s wild, it’s difficult, I’m in a demanding yet capable kayak.  I’m starting to hate my sail. I’m feeling cold, worried and increasingly lonely.  And it’s about to get worse.”

PREY

“I feel the beginnings of lift from another wave rising behind me.  Lean forward, start paddling and I’m running down a face again.  My left blade enters the water.  A grey dorsal fin shoots past that blade.  Like I was not moving.  Thirty five centimetres of fin, a metre from my hand.”

“The fin then peels away and slips beneath the surface.  I’m still surfing the wave while struggling to absorb this.  I’m thinking large dolphin – wow, what a large dolphin.  But a nagging doubt.  Colour and shape all wrong.  I’m turning upwind again, less courage in the counter lean this time.  Then involuntary acceleration into another ride.  Bracing on the other side now, trying to forget that fin.  Holding her straight, left rudder dab, right rudder dab.”

“But then real shock as I see it again.  Twenty metres ahead to my left, coming across, slicing through the back of a trough, dipping down at the last second as it passes under my legs.  I glimpse sleekness and shape below in the water, get an idea of the size of this thing.”

“It is a shark.  At least three metres long.  It is grey with a lighter tone underneath? Sort of creamy.  Creamy white …”

“Adrenalin surges as primeval responses kick in.  A heavy and rapid heartbeat rises up from my chest.  The realisation that I have no control here.  It’s a strange sensation.  On this day at this moment , I, Mark Pearson, am prey.”

“Everything is now more frightening.  The waves seem bigger, the white caps whiter, the wind like gale force.  I now have a host of enemies.  The ocean, a rampant sail, and a shark that is seemingly interested only in me.  Thoughts of capsize are simply terrifying now.”

“So I concentrate grimly on the task.  No mistakes.  My eyes dart left and right looking for a pointy grey shape in this boiling sea.  Maybe she’s gone.  Gone to menace another kayak.  But no, a minute later the fin is ahead on my right.  Coming again.  Coming at me again! ”

“As she closes in I sense the beast’s excitement.  A large and powerful tailfin breaks the surface only five metres away.  I brace for the impact but again she dips down under the bow just as the deck buries itself up to the hatch in another deep trough.”

“I consider my fate.  Will she hit hard, will I be thrown into the air? Will I come out of the boat? Didn’t this happen to a guy up north?  Unwelcome images flash through my head.  Of hanging on to a bitten kayak, legs dangling temptingly in this cold heaving sea.”

“Stern ruddering again at speed.  I look back.  There’s a long bubble trail in the water.  Spray is fizzing metres from the blade.  Exciting looking water.  Like a school of panicking fish.  Suddenly I understand. This is it .. this is the stimulus.  The sail must come down.”

“I surf into a big broach until broadside to the howling wind, then three right paddle strokes and I’m almost facing this maelstrom of a sea.  With one hand bracing with my paddle I release the sheet line.  Unrestrained, the sail flaps crazily.  I rip up the uphaul line, the mast teeters then falls back.”

“Letting go of the paddle I wrap the sail and tie it down feverishly.  There’s a tippy few seconds with no paddle support, then tense moments as I crouch low in the seat.  Quirky suddenly feels heavy as the next few waves break over the deck.  One minute later and no more beast.  Has it gone?”

“Suddenly Paul is behind me.  He’s excited, shouting “mate, did you see that shark!”

“I babble a few words in reply.  Little energy left.  The scariest few minutes of my life are over.  A short time later we round the headland and find relief in sheltered waters.  Plenty to talk about at the camp tonight.”

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