It’s our magazine


Since 1989 the NSW Sea Kayak Club has published a quarterly magazine by and for club members. Many of the published articles can be found on this website. In 2012 the magazine was renamed SALT. If you would like to contribute or advertise, please contact the editor through the club website.

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Safety Kit: Laser Flares The Future in Marine Signalling?


These days it seems that the sea kayaker’s Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is rapidly becoming a repository for so much safety gear that the word ‘flotation’ should surely be replaced by something else.

Depending on location, a well-prepared sea kayaker carries at a minimum a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB, similar to an EPIRB, but smaller and able to be fitted into a PFD pocket), a hand-held marine VHF radio, a mobile phone (appropriately waterproofed), and pyrotechnic distress flares, as well as a strobe light, signal mirror and perhaps sea marker dye. It’s little wonder that as a result there’s not very much ‘F’ in ‘PFD’ any more. So anything we can do to reduce the bulk and weight of equipment carried in the PFD must be a good thing.

Among the most bulky items are distress flares. Before the advent of the PLB and VHF radios, pyrotechnic distress flares used to be the only practical device available to the kayaker to summon assistance in case of emergency at sea. They are still routinely carried by many sea kayakers, mostly as a sensible precaution rather than in compliance with any regulatory requirement. The NSW Maritime Boating Handbook (2011-12) exempts canoes and kayaks from carrying the same safety equipment as boaters on open waters, including the otherwise mandatory distress flares.

Limitations of Pyrotechnic Distress Flares

Regardless of whether or not they are legally required to be carried, distress flares are still an essential adjunct to use of a PLB, VHF etc. A PLB or VHF will get rescuers to the approximate location, but a visual signal of some sort is essential for attracting the attention of search and rescue aircraft or vessels to your precise location, the concept of ‘the final mile’.

Simply alerting a Search and Rescue agency by PLB, EPIRB, VHF and/or DSC (Digital Selective Calling) may not be enough: the rescuers also need to be able to locate you.

Rescue aircrew may not be able to see their search target even when the aircraft is virtually overhead and in good weather conditions. In white-capping seas on an overcast day or in low light, SAR crews are unlikely to be able to spot their target without some form of position marking. Distress flares, a strobe and/or sea marker dye are essential under these sorts of conditions. Other technologies for this ‘final mile’ location are still emerging, and for the time being flares are, in the eyes of official agencies, the most effective solution for pinpointing a vessel in distress.

But pyrotechnics have their limitations: with burn times of around 60 seconds each, they are very short-lived, as well as being quite bulky, potentially dangerous (they are Class 1 explosives) and needing to be replaced every three years.

Flare and particularly hand smoke performance can also be degraded by wind and weather. Hand smokes are not much good at night or in more than 10kts of wind (the smoke will be dissipated too quickly to be an effective visual signal). Operating smoke and flares in rough conditions is both a great challenge and potential hazard to the operator. One yachting forum has an extremely long thread discussing accidents with hand held flares and the need to use welding gloves when operating them!

An Alternative: the Laser Flare

Enter the laser flare: a small, safe and long-lasting alternative to the hand-held pyrotechnic red distress flare.

There are currently two variants available;
1) the directional laser flare made by Greatland Laser in the US; and
2) the ‘omnidirectional’ laser flare, a recent innovation by OdeoFlare in the UK

Rescue Laser Light

Greatland Laser make several laser flare products, but the Rescue Laser Light is perhaps of most interest to the kayaker given its exceptionally small size and reliability. It is about 80mm long and 20mm in diameter and weighs about 100g. It is waterproof to 24m and of very robust aluminium construction, but it does not float.

The Rescue Laser Light is available in both red and green laser lights. To ensure it will be seen by the target, the Rescue Laser Light projects a wide flat beam of laser light, rather than the concentrated point of light produced by a conventional laser pointer. Accurate use, however, requires two hands, one hand to act as sight by bracketing the target (e.g. a helicopter or vessel) with two fingers, and the other to hold and aim the flare. You will see the line of the beam on your fingers and it is a simple matter of slowly scanning the beam of light up and down so it crosses the target.

The recipient of the signal will see bright flashes, as the beam crosses their line of sight, rather than a continuous bright light. The effect is similar to that of a signal mirror in sunlight. Except that it works in the dark as well as daytime.

But apart from its very small size and corrosion-resistance, the greatest advantage of this device is that provides 40 hours continuous signalling on one battery. That’s a whole lot more than the 2-4 minutes of signalling available from the ‘2 smokes, 2 hand held distress flares’ pack.

Does it work?

The manufacturer claims that, under ideal conditions, the laser flare will be visible from 32km at night and 5km in daylight.

But how good is the Rescue Laser Light in practice?

A red Rescue Laser Light was tested during the search and rescue exercise held at the 2012 Rock ‘n’ Roll, during which a group of paddlers used a range of signalling devices to attract the attention of a real live rescue helicopter.

Julian Holder, the pilot of Rescue 26, the NSW Ambulance Service rescue helicopter which participated in the exercise, has provided a detailed write up of the various signalling methods tested. His report is available on the club website.

In summary, Julian’s assessment was that the Rescue Laser Light proved very effective. The signal laser was seen by the rescue aircraft from 5 nautical miles, the same distance as the pen flare. Julian’s conclusion was that “The night pyrotechnics (Mk 5 hand held night flare, Mk 8 pen flare) were very effective under NVG’s (night vision goggles) as was the signal laser. The laser had the advantage of providing continuous signalling whereas the flares had only limited burn times. The use of the flares to gain the attention of the crew followed by the use of the laser to maintain identification would be the best combination for night visual identification.”

It should be noted that the SAR exercise was conducted under very benign conditions with an almost flat sea and no wind to speak of. It would have been a different story trying to use the Rescue Laser Light effectively in rough conditions, as ideally you need to use both hands for most accuracy. One-handed operation is possible, but would probably be less effective. Two-handed operation is not impossible if you’re rafted up, a factor to consider. But a laser flare is undoubtedly a lot easier and less dangerous than using a conventional pyrotechnic distress flare.

A good independent review of the Rescue Laser Light can be found at:

It is worth noting that not only is the Rescue Laser Light useful as a distress signal, it is also useful as a search tool. The laser beam will pick up reflective tape at great distances, useful for spotting a paddler or boat in the water at night or finding your tent in the dark (if it has reflective guylines), or even for attracting the attention of your mates in a non-emergency situation.

An Alternative to the Alternative: The OdeoFlare

Even more recently I’ve become aware of a different style of laser distress flare product known as the Odeoflare, so named because it is an omni-directional electro-optical device. This device is produced by OdeoFlare in UK. The Odeoflare is a bulkier and heavier device (265mm x 50mm and 330gm in weight, about the same as a pyrotechnic hand flare), but claims 5 hours continuous operation from 3 x L91 (AA size) lithium batteries. This device is waterproof and importantly it floats.

Although I haven’t yet laid my hands on this device, its greater advantage seems to be that it will be visible from any direction and only requires one hand to operate, that is, you just need to hold it up like a conventional pyrotechnic hand flare rather than aim it at a rescuer.

Are they safe?

Both the Odeoflare and the Rescue Laser Light are classed as Type 3R laser products, which means they are not dangerous to the eye with brief accidental exposure, although it is obviously not recommended to look at any bright light source.

Greatland Laser claims that their Rescue Laser can safely be used to signal an aircraft for help when in distress, and that they will not cause eye injury or flash blindness to aircrew. Our practical exercise with Rescue 26 bore out this claim. Aircrew viewing the rescue laser had no complaint or damage with either naked eye or through night vision goggles.

What are the disadvantages?

By their very nature laser flares, just like hand flares, can only be operated from a kayak at sea level. The signal may not be visible to a rescuer at the same level a long distance away i.e. it will be below their horizon. In these circumstances, a pen flare, or a parachute or rocket flare could be a better option.

Secondly, a laser flare may not yet be generally recognised as a distress signal to the ‘man in the street’. This is perhaps a secondary consideration as a laser flare is designed as a location aid rather than a primary alerting device.

But there is evidence that people have responded to the OdeoFlare in the same way as they would a conventional pyrotechnic flare: from a distance the OdeoFlare appears the same, a bright glowing light.

Are laser flares legal?

In a nutshell, the Rescue Laser Flare is not a prohibited import, but is a prohibited weapon in most Australian jurisdictions and may require a permit.

The OdeoFlare, by contrast, is legal; it is neither a prohibited weapon nor a prohibited import.

By way of background, in Australia laser pointers with an emission level of greater than 1mW are prohibited imports under Schedule 2 of the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulation 1956, unless approved by the Minister or an authorised person.

Customs Firearms Policy Section, however, confirmed to me recently that Greatland Laser products, including the Rescue Laser Light, are not controlled for the purposes of importation into Australia and therefore do not require Permission to Import.

But in some, but not all, jurisdictions (both in Australia and overseas) laser pointers may be classed as prohibited weapons, including in NSW.

In NSW at the time of writing, a Rescue Laser Flare is classed as a prohibited weapon. The NSW Weapons Prohibition Act 1998 prohibits “A laser pointer, or any other similar article, that consists of a hand-held battery-operated device with a power output of more than 1 milliwatt, designed or adapted to emit a laser beam and that may be used for the purposes of aiming, targeting or pointing.”

The Rescue Laser Light is currently deemed by the NSW Police Firearms Registry to be prohibited by virtue of the fact that it falls within that definition. It is possible to apply for a permit as outlined on the NSW Police website. Before considering whether to buy such a product, I urge you to check the relevant legislation, and seek advice from the appropriate police Firearms Registry.

As outlined above, the Odeoflare is legal in NSW and other States, and does not require an import permit, because it does not fall within the legislative definitions of laser pointer.

Where can I get one?

Due to previous restrictions on the import of lasers, the Rescue Laser Light (and other Greatland Laser products) is currently not distributed in Australia. However, the manufacturer, Greatland Laser, is willing to ship their products to Australia in the light of the recent determination by Customs, and are currently investigating reactivating their network of distributors.

Odeoflares can be mailed from the UK but without the lithium batteries which Australia Post will not deliver. The batteries can be readily purchased here in Australia.

If you want to satisfy yourself about the legality of these products for import purposes, or would like a determination to ensure you can import one, contact the Weapons Policy section of Customs and/or the Firearms Registry of the relevant police force.

Should I get one?

In summary, if you carry a PLB and/or VHF to summon external assistance in an emergency, you should also seriously consider ‘the final mile’ i.e. how are you going to guide the resulting search aircraft or vessel to your precise location, even if the rescuers are looking in the right general area?

Rescue lasers are of course not the only device available for this. ‘Traditional’ pyrotechnic flares, sea dye, strobes, headtorches, V sheets, rescue streamers and divers’ safety sausages all have their place. But in my view, rescue lasers offer so many advantages, particularly in size, weight, signalling duration and safety, over other distress signals that they should be seriously considered as part of any paddler’s essential safety kit.

Stu Truman’s verdict after the SAR exercise at Rock ‘n’ Roll? “I want one of them.”

One Woman’s Solo Mission to cross Bass Strait


I remember Stuart Trueman’s comment about preparing for kayaking expeditions: if you made it to the start of your trip this was probably the most important moment of the expedition! That’s because inevitably there are many obstacles to overcome before a single paddle stroke is taken. When I decided in late 2009 to cross Bass Strait I had no idea of the obstacles I had to jump, bump and trip on before landing at Little Musselroe Bay, Tasmania on the 25th February 2011. Before making my first paddle stroke on the famous Bass Strait I had to contend with a smashed and destroyed kayak, a few shoulder dislocations, helicopter rescues, surgery, a rare nerve syndrome that claimed the use of two fingers and one false start! As they say, what doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger.

Do I paddle today? I faced many challenges kayaking Bass Strait, but this was probably the toughest and the most rewarding. Making that decision each morning, with no paddling buddy to talk it through with, share the risk, or back me up. Each morning the decision rested on me and I had to face the consequences alone.

Despite all the BOM weather predictions, the different weather scenarios, wind forecasts, sea states and tidal predictions, weather was never a sure thing. Most times the BOM was spot on, but some days the weather just did its own thing or just changed in an instant. There was always a risk relying on a weather forecast and every day I had to take the gamble alone: Do I paddle today?

Perfect weather had accompanied Dad and I on our drive to my departure point at Port Welshpool, Victoria in December 2010. The night before the start, it was excitement that first kept me from sleep then it was lightning, rain and a howling westerly. Then anxiety hit me, my heart was beating so fast I felt like it was trying to escape my chest. The build up to this moment – the accident, surgery, difficult recovery, nerve damage, training paddles, planning and organising equipment – had all fallen on this moment, the anxiety was about as intense as I’ve ever felt. Do I paddle today?

I checked the weather forecast. No. It seemed that the good weather window had closed, so I made the call to abandon this attempt to cross Bass Strait. Dad was amazing; he just said this wasn’t the time so we drove back to Sydney without complaint. The experience was invaluable as I went home and contemplated how I felt. With hindsight my little ‘stress rehearsal’ was a real advantage in preparing me mentally for the trip.

In February 2011, we were back at Port Welshpool. This time the weather was perfect, even the tides were lining up well for a comfortable paddle down the eastern side of Wilsons Promontory. Dad watched in amazement as I somehow loaded a mountain of gear and food into my tiny Mirage 530.

The last time dad had seen me in a kayak was when I was 12 years old, and now he was about to watch me paddle off to Tasmania. I knew the courage that must have taken for him, so I tried to not whimper when I realised I had accidentally deleted all my waypoints and tracks after switching on my GPS. With a blank GPS screen, I just pointed my kayak in the direction of Tasmania, waved goodbye and off I went to the stunning Refuge Bay.

The consequence of nerves, a heavy kayak and a strong westerly got to me about 10km from shore, a pain in the right wrist probably from gripping the paddle too hard. My first case of tendinitis, it became just another thing I needed to manage and accept as part of the adventure.

Day 2 was to start from the pristine and deserted Refuge Cove. Do I paddle today? was answered by a strong south-westerly, which convinced me to stay and explore for three nights. This gave me time to walk to Tidal River, get some Ibuprofen for my wrist, and take in the beauty of the Prom.

On Day 4 the winds had blown over and it was time to take a leap of faith. I had to take my first hop off the mainland and cross 55km of exposed ocean to Hogan Island, a small grassy lump that you can’t see until you are well and truly committed. Despite the calm conditions, it took all my courage to keep the kayak pointing out to sea and battle the natural urge to turn back to the mainland. Hogan Island turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. In a small worn hut built by the Flinders Island cattle graziers, I discovered a 20 year-old logbook. It contained the entries of those who came before me, including one by fellow kayakers Matt Bezzina and Mark Schroeder. They had left a little hello note to me a year earlier, it was a great and proud moment to finally be reading it.

Since the trip, many people have asked me if I got lonely or bored during those nineteen days alone. Honestly, I don’t think I ever got lonely, but on some of those crossings I felt quite alone. The feeling of isolation really hit me on Day 5 crossing from Hogan Island to Winter Cove on Deal Island.

Paddling into Hogan I had experienced my first little ‘white knuckle’ challenge with a small tidal race caused by strong currents surging between the twin islets just north of the main island. There was nothing like a bit of self-preservation to keep boredom at bay. Now getting into Winter Cove on Deal Island, even though I had a lot of faith in my Mirage 530, I was perfectly aware of what a nasty shore dump could do to a fully-loaded kayak. A year ago I had watched the demise of my previous Mirage 530, repeatedly crunched to destruction at the base of a cliff.

I tried catching a smaller wave to get through the dump zone. This worked until it died out a little too early. I heard the surge of a rising wave behind, sucking me backwards. In my next attempt, I just closed my eyes and edged the kayak. After the initial thump, I went sliding sideways up the beach. I came to a stop, covered in sand, relief.

I was tired and Winter Cove was misty and dark. I looked back at the angry surf. Whilst it was there, I would be stuck here. I ate and crawled into my sleeping bag feeling a little drained. The next morning I poked my head out of the tent. I was now looking at an island paradise! How could this be the same cove? Amazing what a good rest, food, sunshine and a change in swell can do! Now only a tiny wave broke on the beautiful beach of Winter Cove.

Do I paddle today? Not when there was Deal Island to explore! A great decision as it turned out, as it was not long before a strong SW began to blow. For the next two days I discovered more coves and the Deal Island museum. I also met some of the locals, Cape Barren Geese, Bennett’s Wallabies and the caretakers, New Yorkers Tim and Lyne. They were kind enough to invite me into their cottage for a lovely warm cuppa and to re-charge the 50w external battery which was powering my mobile phone.

The challenge presented itself when I realised that the tides for my crossing from Deal to Flinders Island were going to be particularly strong. They would be steaming around the northwestern edge of Flinders Island as I approached, potentially creating some challenging conditions. I needed to aim well north as I approached Flinders to compensate for the strong flooding tide that would drag me south and past Flinders if I didn’t plan for it.

The morning of the crossing dawned. The pre-dawn starts were always tough, and this was no different: it was dark, the wind was still blowing from the southwest as it had been for the past two days and I definitely didn’t want it on this crossing. The wind forecast was for 5 to15 knots from the northeast, I needed this for the paddle, as the wind with the tide would be manageable. It was then that my Do I paddle today? was again tested. I couldn’t really see what the ocean was like until some distance away from land. I counted on the accuracy of the forecast, which up to this point had been pretty spot on, but would it hold? As I started to paddle, I started to doubt my decision. It’s difficult not to have thoughts of turning around. A wrong decision could stuff the whole trip.

These Do I? or Don’t I? paddle decisions were the stand-out moments of my adventure. It really focuses the mind and adds a depth of clarity rarely felt in daily life. I suppose that was what added to the adventure and sense of achievement of doing this on my own.

I had to focus on crossing the longest of the eastern Bass Strait crossings to Flinders Island. Thankfully a few kilometres from Deal things began to settle and it was looking like a beautiful day to do the crossing. On final approach, I stuck to my plan to be well north of Craggy Rock. 10km from Killicrankie Harbour, the normal landing spot for Flinders Island, the flood tide was in full swing. The wind was 15 knots from the northeast. Everything was in my favour so I decided to continue south around Cape Franklin and head for a tiny beach on Roydon Island, a small island which sits about 2km west of Flinders. After ten hours and 73km I got out of my kayak and watched the sunset. I finally relaxed for the first time since leaving Port Welshpool and celebrated with the remains of my red wine.

After spending two nights on Roydon Island I decided to continue south and spend the night at Emita, about half way down the west coast of Flinders. But I didn’t get very far. The forecasted 15 to 20 knot NE turned out to be a 27 knot gusting to 40 NE. I didn’t realise this until after paddling as hard as I could, giving up 4km and an hour and a half later. I had made it across to Flinders Island to the northern end of Marshall Bay and pulled into a little beach just past Bun Beetons Point. A lady who had watched me struggle around the point invited me up for a tea break. Well, coffee turned into a lunch of champagne and fine food, which turned into a beautiful dinner of local wallaby with friendly locals.

Finally on Flinders Island, I ended up spending seven days there due to the weather. All but one of those days the wind blew hard. My forced stay was an unexpected joy, my stay on Flinders became all about the friendly and interesting people I met and included a tour of the island by both land and air.

The following day I took advantage of a lull in the weather and headed for Trousers Point, about a 45km paddle. I needed to make the most of it as strong SW winds were forecasted for the following three days. Along the way I experienced more sea fog. However as I approached the final 10km the fog started to lift exposing small glimpses of Mt Strzelecki. After a tiring day I rounded the corner into the small bay on the southern side of Trousers Point, it was calm and golden now with an impressive mountain backdrop. Making camp, a very strong and sudden wind from the SW began blowing straight into the bay and didn’t stop blowing for four days. I tied my kayak to some wooded stairs where I dug it out four days later.

The next day I hitched a ride into Whitemark with Wayne, a local field officer for the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. Tagging along on his rounds, I got a tour of the island, visiting all parts including Killicrankie and the east side of the island. After a brief stop at the hospital to have an open wound on my lower back checked, and a celebratory beer at the Whitemark pub, I met some more friendly locals, Lois, owner of the general store, and Leedham Walker who turned out to be a very interesting and lovely third generation islander.

After a windy and wet night in the tent, the lovely Leedham tracked me down the next day and invited me to stay with him and his wife Judy. I was supposed to be roughing it, suffering in the wilds of the fierce Bass Strait. Instead I was enjoying warm showers and home cooked meals, ah the benefits of solo travelling: adapt and survive, I say. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Leedham showed me his Cessna and then took me for a spin over the island. We flew out of Whitemark and headed south to take a look at my route to come, via Cape Barren and Clarke Islands. On the way south we flew over Trousers point to check on my kayak, I was relieved it hadn’t blown away.

My last afternoon was spent climbing the 750m high Mount Strzelecki gazing down at the spectacular views. I started making my way further south towards Banks Strait, the final crossing to Little Musselroe Bay on mainland Tasmania.

Leaving Flinders Island for Cape Barren Island turned out to be another of those Do I paddle today? moments. The conditions weren’t great but good enough to take on the 15km across Franklin Sound. After a brief stop at the Cape Barren township I headed off for Thunder and Lightning Bay, my proposed camp on the southern side of the island. After setting off the winds built up to over 20 knots which made me a little nervous but I knew I would be off the water in less than two hours so I didn’t worry too much, until I approached the cape.

Before I really knew it, I found myself right on top of a shallow reef with exposed rocks and standing waves. I had made a ‘school girl error’ with my casual departure and I hadn’t bothered to check the tides. The tide was streaming towards the east and the wind blowing in from the west and there was a nasty reef under me. This was my ‘whitest knuckle moment’ of the trip, a twenty minute ordeal which really tested me. After all my planning for the big crossings ironically it was this moment that almost had me. I felt alone and isolated and remember visualising my roll in anticipation of capsizing. I’ve never been more focused and in the moment.

Fortunately the breaking waves were not as powerful as they looked and I reached safety when I rounded the corner into the quiet lee of Thunder and Lightning Bay. It was a definite ‘kiss the ground’ moment when I landed. It felt like my life had been enriched by the intensity of the moment, it was like someone had turned up my sensation dial as I absorbed the beauty of the late afternoon.

My last three days between Thunder and Lightning Bay on Cape Barren Island and Spike Cove on Clarke Island were beautiful. The forecast for the next few days was for light winds and sunny skies so I felt confident that I would have a clean run into Little Musselroe Bay.

Heading for Clarke Island, I first pulled into Preservation Island for the afternoon. Thanks to the calm weather, it was straight out of a holiday brochure: beautiful clear water with white sandy bays surrounded by the characteristic bright orange tinged boulders. My next stop was Spike Cove on Clarke Island. There I found a small little beach tucked away on the far end of the cove. I found space for about one tent, a protected little spot where I enjoyed my final two nights in Bass Strait.

Crossing Banks Strait on Day 19 was the final challenge. Throughout my trip I was able to get the weather forecast from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) using my smart phone, via the Telstra 3G reception. Sometimes, after landing, I had to hunt for reception, but I was able to pick up something at all stops along the way. This made the crossing easier than having to rely on set radio announcements. Ultimately my world was reduced to caring about two things: getting weather information and making decisions about when to paddle.

Although the shortest of all, I took this final crossing pretty seriously because the tidal streams here are stronger than elsewhere along the whole route. At their peak, beyond the speed at which I can paddle.

I had the usual nerves when I woke up early, but I was feeling good. I set off towards Lookout Head where I would make my dash across the strait to Little Musselroe. As I paddled away from the lee of the island I started to see a line of white water a few 100m ahead of me. The wind pushing against the outgoing tide causing the sea to rise up and form white caps and confused conditions. I’ve never seen the sea quite like this. From calm to rough – it was that quick.

Days previously I learnt that it can look worse than it is. Ultimately the only way I would know how rough it really was would be to charge on in. Thoughts of turning back punctuated my mind but I was committed. The defining moment came when, amongst the leaping breaking waves, a little penguin popped up beside me. It appeared to be having a ball and enjoying the bouncy conditions. Hey, I thought, I should be having fun also! As soon as I began to relax, everything became a lot easier.

Some hours later I began to make out the distinct shape of Swan Island and behind it my final destination and, hopefully, my dad with a big welcome. I paddled into the inlet at Little Musselroe eagerly looking across the shore for him. I recognised my van parked not far from the water, but where was dad? Confused I semi-ceremoniously made the trip’s final paddle strokes and pulled up on shore. I walked up to the car but still no one. Not quite the reception I had in mind.

A guy on a tractor appeared. “Ah, you must be that chick paddling across the strait. Your dad’s waiting for you up on the headland.” With the mystery solved, I walked up to my dad as he sat anxiously looking out to sea. A direct crossing from where I left from Clarke Island would logically have me come in on the west side of Swan Island, not the east, and this was the direction my father was keenly observing.

“Cripes,” he shot up, “where’d you come from?” We posed for a well-earned team hug. A fitting ending for my solo journey that was less about fleeting glory, and all about inner discovery and the experience of real adventure.

Solo adventures are hardly ever achieved solo. My trip critically involved the advice, support and encouragement of key friends and family. I especially would like to thank Andrew Eddy for the in-depth discussions about the route, the weather and the tidal streams. I was also grateful for Andrew’s advice and support during the crossing. Rob Mercer was a very supportive inspirer and another valued source of advice. I also thank Rob for providing the many opportunities, from which so many of us in the club have benefitted, to improve our skills and experiences on the ocean. Ian and Dave at Mirage were wonderful at providing me with my custom Mirage 530. And thanks to Bettina Otterbeck for bravely taking on my journal.

I had a bumpy ride the year leading up to the crossing, with various setbacks and challenges. It all made me realise how valuable those around me are, friends like Rae, Neil, John, Guy, Paul and to my wise friend Pax who showed me the way; thank you. Thanks to the friendly people on Flinders Island, especially Leedham and Judy Walker, Allen and Louise and Frank and Joy, Karen and the Box Thorn crew, who all made my Flinders experience a very memorable one.

And ultimately to the guy and gal who I know endured restless nights and premature ageing: my wonderful mum and dad, thank you so much.

Helinox Chair One – a nice piece of kit for the camping kayaker


Photo by Dee Ratcliffe

Recently, while involved in five days of some solid paddling activity, I had the opportunity to do some field testing on the Helinox Chair One.

The Chair One is manufactured in Korea by Donagh Aluminium Company (better known as DAC), an organisation that specialises in making lightweight outdoor adventure equipment. DAC enjoys a world-wide reputation for the high quality of the materials it uses in its products which include tent poles and trekking poles. The Chair One is the result of three years of development.

What I like about this product

It’s well designed: simple yet highly functional. There are only two components, the frame and the seat cover. They are easy to put together (the frame almost self-assembles), even in the dark. The printed instructions that come with the chair are almost superfluous.

It’s well made: the slim-tubed frame is made of a high-quality, light-weight anodised aluminium alloy (or, to be accurate, TH72M – an alloy said to have an unrivalled strength­to-weight ratio). The frame is held together with shock cord – thin but durable. The seat cover is a combination of meshed fabric and a plasticised cloth. The stitching is robust as are the pockets into which the frame fits when the chair is assembled. The finish of both components is clean – no loose threads sticking out from the seat cover. The carry case reflects similar quality.

It’s strong: the product specifications indicate that the chair can cope with a 145kg person sitting in it. Not many sea kayakers tip the scales to this extent. The chair showed no ill effects from me frequently plonking my 85kg body into it.

It’s light: Chair One weighs close to 940 grams when packed in its carry case. This is a significant weight saving on the three-legged stool I’ve been using up until now.

It’s compact: when disassembled and packed snugly in its carry case, Chair One measures 35 cm long X 10 cm wide X 12 cm high (not much bigger than one of my sandals). When assembled, it measures 52 cm wide X 50 cm deep X 65 cm high. During a rain shower while field testing I was able to use the chair inside the vestibule of a 3-person tent with headroom to spare.

It’s comfortable: promoted as being “lounge-chair” comfortable, I reckon I could nod off in Chair One without too much difficulty (which is something I wouldn’t want to do on my 3-legged stool). One of the best features about the chair from my point of view is that it’s very easy from which to prepare a camp meal.

It’s practical: I sat in Chair One on various surfaces – from sandy beaches to riparian campsites. The legs of the chair are angled enough to avoid too much sinking into soft surfaces. Its scalloped rubber boots also assist in this regard. I sat in the chair in my wet paddling kit a couple of times without any apparent ill effect.

What I didn’t like about this product

I really can’t say that I found any negative aspects of Chair One during my field test. The one occasion when I tipped over backwards getting into the chair was caused by my own carelessness. Being lower than most camping chairs, heavier folk might find it more difficult to get up from.

I think the sub-title of this review says enough.

Chair One can be bought direct from Helinox. At the time of writing it was selling at $89 including Australia-wide delivery. Even though this is a lot more than I forked out for my three-legged stool, the comfort benefits alone of Chair One deliver value-for-money (it’s like comparing a plastic-bladed paddle with an alloy shaft alongside a carbon fibre model). The chair is backed by a 2-year warranty and Helinox maintain a Brisbane-based service centre for any repairs, refurbishment, etc. Bushwalkers who already know the quality of DAC products have snapped up existing stocks of Chair One. More stock is due to arrive in July. •

Chair One on Orpheus Island, Queensland

Surfing at Fingal Bay on a Saturday morning


It was a cool autumn morning when we gathered at the Fingal Bay holiday park campsite kitchen. We squeezed into a small communal room. Beanies and jackets indicated the current temperature. The much anticipated Grade 3 Weekend had arrived. A registration system was set up, and then it was either a short trolley or drive down to the launch zone.

I was in the Saturday morning surf session with sea instructor Nick Gill. The air temperature warmed a bit, however we all dressed sensibly with layers and a cag as getting wet was more than inevitable. Helmets were the choice of headwear and many of us also had a tethered nose plug.

At the briefing we discussed our goals with Nick. Maintaining a straight line seemed to be a common objective, survival another.

After a few waves Nick summoned us together for an on-land review and discussion of technique. Nick paddled out and then provided an on-wave demonstration of edging and stern rudder use. He confessed it was a bit exaggerated however often demonstrations need to be.

I experienced a few combat rolls, including one on the first wave I caught. There is nothing quite like the tactile reminder of insufficient or wrong edge as you take a dip. Nick explained and demonstrated backwards surfing. Encouraged by this I had a go and managed a long backwards ride though I was not doing any intentional steering.

The cranking around of our sea kayaks with static sweep strokes gave a good torso workout. The unscheduled capsizes provided opportunity to practice rolling setups in surf that required waiting for the right moment to roll up.

I’d seen the prior surfer get off a wave near shore and start to paddle parallel to the shore line and further to my right. I surfed in on a wave, experimenting with paddle placement in the froth and somehow turned my kayak ninety degrees from the direction that I was travelling in. This put the other kayaker into my view. “No matter, she is some distance away and paddling out,” I thought. My computation did not take account of my surfing speed versus her lack of speed punching out through the surf zone.

I realised that I was on a collision course too late and glanced the other kayak. Upon review, I realised it would have been better for me to have capsized. It would have reduced my speed and thus the potential to injure a fellow paddling pal and cause damage to her kayak. As the water was deep enough capsizing was a safe option. The actual cases of capsize that I knew of were when the sitting duck capsized to avoid a surfing kayak, however I had not thought about it the other way.

Throughout the session I had been actively maintaining an awareness of the triangle of death [see footnote below] so I was mortified at being the cause of this collision even though it did not have a big physical impact. Nick later suggested that deliberate capsize of both kayaks was another good option. I came away with much greater confidence in my ability to roll in surf, a little more sea kayak surf control and a tad wiser.

The triangle of death is a 90 degree triangle which operates when surfing towards the shore. The shoreline is one line and the other two are at 45 degrees to the left and right of your intended straight line course to the shore. Assume on take-off that your sea kayak can hit anything or anyone within this triangle.

PROFILE: Mike Eggleton


For those of you who wondered why Mike Eggleton didn’t run his forward stroke clinic at Rock ‘n’ Roll this year, it was because he and Shirley have retired, sold the house and moved to the Sunshine coast, taking their surf skis, kayaks and a beautifully converted camping van. They may have retired but you can be sure they’ll be busy with the grandchildren, paddling and extended holidays.

Like many of us Mike was captivated by our sport of sea kayaking, and his determination to ‘get it right’ led to hours watching the kayak roll video and many more hours upside down in his kayak. With the elusive roll mastered he moved on to perfecting the forward stroke and has become one of the club’s best advocates and coaches of the forward stoke.

His knowledge of the sport was extended when he worked for NSW Canoeing. He understands. and has impressed on others, the risks involved in the sport and the need to be well prepared.

As the club grew in numbers Mike realised that our sea instructors were over-taxed so he worked with Rob Mercer to develop the role of flat water instructor within the club. Thus our basic skills program and grading system evolved. He gained instructor and assessor qualifications, mentoring and assessing most of our flat water instructors.

I first met Mike when I did basic skills. It was the middle of winter and he was assisting Dee and Kate to get their flat water instructing qualifications. “Does that paddle work well for you?” was the first of his loaded questions that I fell for before he explained that I had the paddle upside down.

Now four years later it was me being assessed as a flat water instructor and guide by Mike and I knew I’d need to be on my game. Sure enough, a couple of the punters had their paddles upside down as we left Clontarf. Next, Bettina fell out of her kayak right where the current would wash her onto a Spit Bridge Pylon and Neil had been instructed to ignore me and wander off if I asked the rest of the group to raft up safely during the rescue. Mike’s a perfectionist so he sets the bar high, no-one gets away with sloppy presentation or poor skills and we’re all very grateful for his perseverance.

That perfectionism extends to his equipment; if you take a look at one of his many kayaks you’ll see that they’re in immaculate condition. He designs and fits his own sails and has also helped many of his mates with installing sails, pumps and other modifications.

I was also lucky enough to spend time with Mike at Narrabeen Lake working on my forward stoke. If you think you’ve got a good forward stroke, try paddling a K1… “Don’t slouch, vertical paddle, are you going to let him get away from you?” The Saturday sessions were a demanding workout, lots of fun and always followed by a coffee and chat.

In support of Charlie Teo’s work, Mike and Shirley initiated and run the annual Myall Classic Marathon to raise money for the “Cure for Life Foundation”. Don’t be fooled, it’s rarely a flat water event as the weather often turns on severe conditions. It’s a fantastic warm-up for the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic and has raised thousands of dollars. Just another example of Mike’s generosity as a volunteer.

NSW Sea Kayak Club would like to wish Mike and Shirley Eggleton all the best. Mike has been an active and highly valued member of our club for many years and will be sorely missed.

Paddling the Murray …the view from the rear


We set out early one Saturday morning at the end of April, Stephan Meyn, John Friedman and I. Stephan and John are both kayakers with 10+ year’s experience. I’m a newbie, a grade 1 who joined the club 6 months ago. When Stephan posted the trip on the club web site, I thought ‘That sounds like fun’ and ‘If not now, when?’ I have done a fair bit of bush-walking and cycle-touring. I had done one overnight trip in my kayak, from Berowra Waters Ferry to Marramarra National Park and back. The furthest I had paddled was about 20km in a morning, so paddling 30 or 40km a day sounded doable; demanding perhaps, but doable.

We drove 800km on the Saturday, arriving at a caravan park in Moama after dark. The next morning we were up early. Stephan assembled his folding kayak in an hour and a quarter. We took our kayaks down the river embankment to a nearby pontoon, and loaded them there. Then Stephan and I drove the 90km to Barham, left a car there, and drove the other one back to Moama. By 1pm we were ready to slide our heavily laden kayaks off the pontoon and into the water.

There is plenty of water and the river is glorious. People tell us that three weeks ago the river was three metres higher, and spectacular. We quickly pass Echuca wharf. In the 1870s and 1880s Echuca was the second biggest port in Australia, until the construction of roads and rail brought more efficient ways of transporting people and goods. Today there are paddle boats aplenty, taking tourists on trips up and down the river. Paddle boats, houseboats and holiday cabins line the banks; the boats on the water and the cabins at the top of the embankments. The current gives us a nudge along. Occasionally the wind presses against us. Cabins give way to homes on bigger blocks.

Eventually there are fewer buildings, fewer houseboats, and the odd skier. About 3pm we pull up to an embankment where it looks like we might be able to make camp. As it happens the campsite is right next to a moored three level houseboat mega-mansion. The person who is looking after the boat is dwarfed by it. She has her four wheel drive and jet ski parked next to the campsite. If we face upriver we don’t have to look at the boat. The landscape is glorious in the late afternoon sun. We pitch our tents, collect firewood, and start a fire. We make our dinners. And we sit and talk around the fire for hours. There is something fundamental and primeval in sitting on the ground around a fire, with the overarching sky above, vast and awash with stars. We are aware that people have been doing this for millennia.

The weather was pretty kind to us. Some days we had maxima in the low twenties; some days it was 15 or 16 degrees. The evenings got cold, getting down as low as 2.5 degrees. Good sleeping bags, and in my case a hot water bottle, helped. Paddling down the river was comfortable most of the time, with our expended energy warming us. As soon as we stopped paddling, we were cold. When we stopped for morning tea or lunch, we would throw on a jacket, or light a campfire and squat around it warming ourselves. In the evenings we would start a fire as soon as we landed, changing out of wet gear and pitching tents before we lost the light. And in the mornings when we rose, we would rekindle the fire. When we wake there is a miasma on the water, shafts of morning sunlight pushing through it as it dances across the surface. The magpies warble and the kookaburras laugh to wake us. All around there are red gums, and sometimes box gums.

On the second day, thinking my set up is not quite right, I adjust my pedals closer to me. Somehow I manage to bring my right pedal two stops forward. Suddenly getting full extension of my right leg is really hard work. What has happened? Is my right leg longer than my left? Eventually I work it out, and adjust the pedal back, but not before I have worn a big nasty bruise on my right buttock. The next evening, I get my first aid kit out, and John patches me up. John and Stephan are technological titans, so morning and evening, the tablet computers come out and emails are sent, weather reports checked, and tweets tweeted. A photo is taken, and by next morning my bruised buttock has gone viral.

At just about every club paddle I go to, someone will sidle up alongside me and say, ‘Do you mind if I give you some advice on your forward stroke?’ Rae Duffy had emailed me a list of things to remember when practising my forward stroke. I had them laminated and sat them on the deck in front of me. John periodically paddled up beside me and gave me welcome advice. So I ended up with my forward stroke mantras:
Relax wrists, shoulders
Cross the horizon
Entry by toes/ spear the fish!
Straight arms/ extend your arm
Exit by hip
Leg drive
Rotation at hips

As I paddled along I worked my way through the mantras over and over, trying to string them together into a relaxed flowing and efficient stroke. I was in my Mirage 580. John was paddling a heavier 580 than me, carried an extra 10kg or so of water, plus copious supplies of out-of-date jars of fruit and muesli bars. Stephan paddled his Feathercraft folding kayak, an inherently slower kayak. Both of them powered on effortlessly, looking as though they could go on forever. They would regularly look back to check on me, and every couple of bends would wait until I caught up.

I can see that with a comfortable forward stroke, paddling down a river could become quite meditative. It’s a journey, and the journey is the thing. Paddling moves back and forth. It’s a series of practices. I push along at a slow rate. One day John comments to me that with the rhythm of the stroke he found himself falling asleep as he paddled.

The landscape on this section of the Murray varies subtly from moment to moment and day to day. The river winds and winds back on itself. The banks are steep and muddy; sometimes steeper, sometimes less steep; sometimes very muddy, sometimes a bit dryer. The first couple of days the Murray River Red Gums are big and gnarled, and their roots hang out of the river banks, and every so often there is one fallen in the river, creating snags and a reef for the fish of the river. In the middle couple of days there are sometimes willows lining the banks. And as we go further down river the Murray River Red Gums are smaller and gnarled, and their roots hang out of the river banks, and every so often there is one fallen in the river, creating snags and a reef for the fish of the river.

I’m glad I have my forward stroke to work on. I think otherwise paddling this section of the river might be like vipassana meditation. One day, as we are stopped on the side of the river, squatting around a warming fire, having our lunch, we are passed by three kayakers. Two of them are in a double, and they fly on down the river. The third one, a woman in her sixties, sees us, turns back, paddles over and stops for a chat. They are from Melbourne. They are paddling the whole river, from source to sea, taking 40 days and averaging 55km a day. Remarkable, but perhaps not a quiet meditation.

On the third day we pull out the stops and keep paddling until we reach Torrumbarry Weir. The weir is at full capacity at the moment. Rain is forecast for the coming night. There is a caravan park at the weir, the one settlement we encounter along the river. We book in to a flash cabin, eat a great dinner, and sleep warm all night. In the morning we go through the lock. We paddle through the gates on the upriver side, sit in our kayaks as the water level drops 6 metres, and paddle out the gates on the downriver side into the fast flow running from the base of the weir.

Torrumbarry Weir marks our halfway point. The second half of the trip passes through state forests. On the NSW side are Perricoota Forest and Koondrook Forest. On the Victorian side is Gunbower Island. Apart from the occasional campsite there is little sign of human activity.

As I paddle along I keep getting pain in the lower back. I find myself having to stretch out over the back deck every fifteen minutes or so to shake things up, so that I can keep paddling. On the fourth day, it’s particularly hard going, and I feel my energy flagging. I’m going slower and slower. Stephan and John see that I’m struggling, and find a place for us to pitch camp for the night. I’m cold and tired. John gets the fire going. We get our tents up, and make dinner. John and Stephan discuss contingency plans. They start thinking about what we will do if I don’t have the energy to keep going for the next two days. We are passing through state forests on both sides of the river. The first signs of habitation won’t come until just before Barham, some 70 km away.

It’s about 6pm. It’s dark. We are making our dinners. I have cooked myself some pasta and pesto. I like to use a sharp knife when I cook. I have brought a cutting board too, but this time I don’t use it. I take the block of parmesan and try to cut a slice into my bowl of pasta. The knife skips off the parmesan, and instead I put a fillet of finger in the pasta. Blood pumps. I grab my finger and hold it tight. Out come the first aid kits. Stephan wraps the wound in an absorptive dressing, and binds it up with duct tape. I’m enrolled in Bruce McNaughton’s coming first aid courses. I wish I had done them already. Somehow I sleep that night.

The next day, I adjust my pedals out one stop, and then another. The back pain eases off a bit. I have my energy back. We paddle 38km. The following night my finger is throbbing. I don’t realise that I should elevate it. I lie awake most of the night. The next day we paddle the final 29km to Barham, pull into the caravan park, unload the kayaks, and carry gear and kayaks up to our cabin. The kayaks are smeared with mud inside and out. We start cleaning them. I drop from a half-squat and my knee lands on my injured finger, eliciting a cry of anguish. I was planning to find a doctor once we got to Barham. Now seems like a good time. Stephan drives me to Barham’s hospital, which is about a kilometre from the caravan park. We are welcomed in by the nurses, and they start working on me straight away. They take off the duct tape dressing and with compression try to stop the flow of blood. That doesn’t work, so they call the doctor. He comes from his home, anaesthetises my finger, gets me to wash the wound, and then inserts a stitch through the nail. The nurse dresses the wound, and off we go. I’m feeling a little in shock, but it passes. We pick up John and have a decent meal in a pub in town.

The next morning, Stephan folds up his kayak. We load all our gear into the car, and drive back to Echuca. Echuca is a town that is forging a tourist trade based on the river and the town’s historical roots. There are cafes, heritage buildings, wine vendors, tour operators, bakeries, restaurants and boutiques. We have coffee and walk around the town. Then we pick up the other car in Moama, and start the 800km drive back to Sydney.

We have travelled 190km over six days. I have made some improvement in my forward stroke. I’ll keep working on it (and yes, I still welcome advice!) I will get advice on my cockpit setup, and somewhere in the mix will get rid of the back pain.

My favourite times on the trip were when we were sitting around the fire in the evening. Sometimes we would talk, sometimes sit in silence, enjoying the stillness of the night. I had the fortune to be travelling with John and Stephan, who looked after me well, kept encouraging me when I was struggling, and waited for me on the bends. On top of that, they are intelligent people with stories to tell, so discussions ranged far and wide across all sorts of interesting topics. What a delight!

Broughton Island 14-16 February 2012


Broughton Island is part of the Myall Lakes National Park and is a major breeding location for the Wedged-tailed Shearwater (or muttonbird). It was first sighted by Captain Cook on May 11, 1770 and, thinking it was part of the mainland, he named it Black Head. It is positioned approximately 20km NE of Yacaaba Head at Port Stephens. These waters are reputed to be the birthing grounds for the Great White shark and are well-populated by juveniles.
I had been trying to get to out to Broughton Island again for many months; three times I had a trip planned and three times bad weather was forecast. Each time the forecast turned out to be accurate. Then in the latter part of 2011, NPWS suspended camping on the island whilst they upgraded the camping facilities. It was with delight I saw that Adrian Clayton was leading a mid-week, three-day, NSWSKC trip there. I quickly registered.

On the Monday I started go through my check-list and to assemble my kit. When it came to which kayak, Mirage 580 or Nordkapp LV, I chose the M580 due to its greater point-to point speed and gear carrying capacity. It is also fitted with a Flat Earth sail. However, the Nordlow would have been ideal at the island due to its fantastic manoeuvrability amongst the rocks and ability to handle bumpy conditions.

The trip was leaving from Jimmys Beach at Port Stephens. Joining Adrian (Nadgee) and I were Owen Kimberly (Mirage 530), Drago Pejic (Mirage 580) and Roger White (Wilderness Systems?). It was a good little group and it was comforting to know that we had two experienced instructors, Adrian and Owen.

The forecast update indicated clearing conditions, light SE breeze, calm seas, but with the chance of isolated thunderstorms. We had a briefing, made final checks and were ready to go by 0930. As we cleared Yacaaba Head and swung north we saw a storm up towards Broughton. We decided to push on assessing the situation as we went. I talked to Marine Rescue Port Stephens on the VHF who advised that they were watching it on the radar. Although it seemed “very wet” we could see no lightning, nor hear thunder; it also seemed to be moving further north. As we got past Cabbage Tree Island, Marine Rescue confirmed that it was indeed tracking away and lessening in intensity. We decided to push on.

It was a great but uneventful paddle to the island. Although the breeze was from a favourable direction for sailing, it was too light to be of any real assistance, so Drago (also carrying a sail) and I had to do it the hard way. Upon reaching the island, Adrian and Owen decided to see if it was safe to take the “shortcut” through Con’s Cleft at Looking Glass Island. Though quite bumpy, the all-clear was given. With the fully-laden Mirage and the difficulty of getting to my stashed-away helmet, I decided to go around, whilst the others safely negotiated the Cleft. All alone in the rebound off the SE corner, I was wishing I’d gone through the Cleft! We all met up again and continued on into Esmeralda Cove and landed at our campsite at Little Poverty Beach.

We were keen to check out the new campsites that have been recently completed, and which have to be booked and paid for in advance. They have built three raised timber platforms, based on a Tasmanian design used at Cradle Mountain, and two further grassed sites.

These platforms have some eye pads and eye bolts set into the surface to attach tents. Both Owen and Roger decided to give the platform a go. It took a bit of ingenuity and some additional scrounged cord, but they got their tents pitched and overlooked us peasants set up on the grass below. It is advisable to bring some extra cord in your kit to string between the pads and eyes, and then tie your tent corners to this.

After dinner we retired to our quarters for a restful and well-earned slumber. However the muttonbird chicks made this a bit of an issue. These birds, about 55,000 breeding pairs, return to Broughton each summer to breed in the thousands of burrows that cover the island. Each pair has a single chick and at this time of the year it is still burrow-bound. The adults go out each day to fish, returning sometime after dark to feed the chicks. As they get hungry, the chicks cry out for their parents and being camped there is like trying to sleep in a nursery full of babies crying, or inside a cemetery with a myriad of ghosts howling.

Wednesday arrived with absolutely perfect, sunny weather. We left the camp and set out to circumnavigate and explore the island. We could not safely negotiate the passage between Broughton and Little Broughton Islands as there was a bit of bump combining with a low tide, so we went the long way. As we approached Providence Beach, a seaplane flew low overhead, then landed and disgorged some day trippers. He flew off, but returned soon after with yet another load.

We decided to stop off at Providence Beach for a little break. As we lazed about on the beautiful clean sand after swimming in the crystal clear waters, one of the group commented: “Why do we go all the way up to the Whitsundays, when we’ve got paradise right here on our doorstep?” Amen.

We continued on, heading west towards the mainland and Dark Point, exploring the reefs and The Sisters on the way, picking up the occasional runner for a bit of fun. Our circumnavigation continued, exploring all the inlets and rock gardens near the stunning Coal Shaft Bay. Eventually we got back to Con’s Cleft and this time with the unladen boat and helmet firmly affixed to my head, I was ready to give it a go. Once the surge at the opening was negotiated and the passage underway, there was no turning back. Mission accomplished.

Upon return to camp, we were met by Broughton Island NPWS Ranger Suzanne and her work crew. They were there to do some maintenance, grass mowing and toilet cleaning. She was quite interested in our thoughts on the camping platforms. We had already discussed this and advised her that more pad eyes were needed and she will follow this up. She told us all about the Shearwaters and the other inhabitants of the island. She also advised that extensive eradication work had eliminated all the rats and rabbits.

On Thursday morning we were all packed and ready to go by 0900. As we cleared the island both Drago and I popped our sails ready to ride the nor’easter home. Unfortunately, again it was only blowing at about 4km/hr, so again we paddled all the way. We had a pleasant paddle to Cabbage Tree where we had a good look round, then crossed over to Yacaaba Head and had a bit of fun in the rebound and surge.

The sea had churned up a lot of foam and it was about half a metre thick and coated both our boats and ourselves as we passed through it.

Eventually we re-entered Port Stephens and were greeted by a welcoming pod of the local dolphins. Great trip, great weather, great company and the camping facility upgrade is certainly worthwhile.

Five Salty Sea Dogs visit Broughton Island


Five salty sea dogs set out from Shoal Bay ramp
To do an open crossing and a Broughton Island camp.
The sky was grey and cloudy and the rain came pouring down
But everyone was cheerful, there was not a single frown.
One salty sea dog lost his breakfast on the way
And a second tossed his cookies in the flat calm of the bay.
Two salty sea dogs lapped the island just for fun
The others went for walkies and enjoyed the evening sun.
Later, after sunset, the stars were burning bright
And the sea dogs enjoyed dinner with a healthy appetite.

Five salty sea dogs awoke to clear blue skies
The sea was like a mirror to reflect the bright sunrise.
They set off after breakfast to explore the northern shore
Then headed back to Cabbage Tree to rock garden some more.
The sea was smooth and glassy on a lazy eight foot swell
Which left one salty sea dog feeling really quite unwell.
The sailors raised their canvas vainly hoping for a breeze
But they had to keep on paddling on the limpid, turquoise seas.
They sneaked in under Yacaaba and crossed back to Shoal Bay
And landed on the beach to end a perfect paddling day.

Escape from the NSWSKC


It had taken me a while to realise. I had been sea kayaking a long, long time. Eighteen years. Hundreds of day paddles, dozens of long weekend escapes, and a good number of ‘expeditions’ that had taken me as far south as Fortescue Bay in Tassie and up to Cooktown in FNQ. But I was finding my favourite escape hobby was no longer so enjoyable. I wasn’t experiencing those special moments, wasn’t my usual self around the camp. Had even been a bit grumpy and irritable on recent trips. I went to a behavioural therapist about how I was feeling. She encouraged me to go through my sea kayaking history.

And so I did. The beginnings, joining the NSW Sea Kayak Club, learning to roll, scary surf, the rubbish leaking early boats. Making friends. Enjoying my first camping trips. The excitement of it all.

But then as the years passed the story darkened. I witnessed the emergence of the brand-based factions. The urbane but supercilious Mirage clique, the rather odd Pittarakers, the appearance of annoyingly smug Nadgee owners in the late 90’s. The destruction on rocks of my little Inuit Classic on 31 December 1999. Then on to the new century, the Flare Incident and the age of the Chicken Littles and the obsession with waivers, legal protection and TAFE-style certification. And throughout this period, the culture wars between the Cruisers, a large group of relaxed and psychologically well-balanced sea paddlers, and Bruisers, a sub-group of fastidious zealots obsessed with grinding out kilometres for no real reason. And how that even though I wasn’t a Bruiser I always seemed to end up paddling with them.

I then started to talk about the club members and how annoying they could be. The rough, tough, bearded Aussie blokes whose ‘sense of mateship’ was offended if you didn’t drink beer or camp within a metre of their tent. The dietary experts who always seemed to be smugly munching on a muesli bar to demonstrate their ‘glycemic index’ awareness. The electro gadget freaks crapping on about waterproofing pump switches and GPSs and Waypoints and carrying half a ton of batteries in a boat I would have to help carry. The nervous bloke who’d blow his ‘panic whistle’ if he had a stone in his bootie. The neat freak mummy’s boys with their colour-coded gear and expensive tapered dry bags designed to fit so snugly into the ends of their Mirages. The tough women paddlers with their coarse sense of humour and dirty laughs. That guy who seemed to be sexually aroused by John Howard PM! I found myself letting it all out.

It was a painful exercise, but recounting these memories was helping. And after several sessions, it was becoming clear. In over 200 paddling events since 1994 the number of times I wasn’t surrounded by members of my sea kayaking club I could count on one hand. My therapist finally put her finger on it: what I needed was a total break. Not so much from my favourite ocean pursuit, but from the human element of the NSWSKC.

So I went on to Google Earth to find somewhere far away. I zoomed in on the other side of the northern hemisphere. And there I found Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides islands on the west coast of Scotland. 57 degrees north. Mountainous. Rugged. Remote.

I then searched the web and found an outfit called Highland Ascent, and booked myself three days of sea kayaking complete with ‘wild camping’ on this famous island. It was done! Some 17,000 thousand kilometres from NSW, the haunting Isle of Skye would be the place where I would try to rediscover my kayaking mojo.

So physically I would be far away from my problems, but the therapist warned me that my NSWSKC trauma ran deep; the big challenge would be to keep repressed memories from invading my mind.

The Trip

And so it was that at Kyleakin on 20 July 2011 I met my guide Andreas. Andreas was a German who had arrived in Scotland in 1996, fallen in love with the place and six years ago had set up Highland Ascent as a mixed outdoor adventure business. So Andreas was now a German Highlander, which gave him a very interesting accent indeed.

It was high summer but even here was unseasonably cold thanks to a fresh northerly wind that had been blowing for a week. Because of this a large air mass had been sucked down from its usual home in the arctic circle a couple of thousand kilometres to the north.

Given the wind and the forecast, Andreas suggested a route on the southern side of the island. We would start at Torin in Loch Slapin, go south to explore some spectacular rocky headlands then turn west then north up Loch Scavaig to make camp at Camasunary. We would then head west to explore the dramatic Loch Na Cuilce and walk up to Loch Coruisk before heading southwest to the Isle of Soay for night 2. Day 3 would be circumnavigation of Soay and then cross over Loch Scavaig to Elgol and the waiting car. Bewitched as I was simply by the evocative names of these places I nodded in agreement. The route also skirted Skye’s dramatic ‘Black Cuillins’, probably the UK’s most dramatic mountain ridge. And 20kms a day sounded good to me to explore and enjoy a new coast.

… I’m discussing my plans. “60kms in 3 days!” growls the Bruiser with carpal tunnel scars on both wrists, “you could do that in a day mate!”

Andreas had brought two very decent fibreglass sea kayaks. He would paddle a very slick looking red P&H Cetus and me a black Island Kayak Expedition. As we packed he told me he had packed a spare midge head net. Such had been the wind I had forgotten about the renowned Scottish midge (Culicoides impunctatus), but I knew that the Aussie sand fly was also in the Culicoides family. I had suffered over the years at the hands of the little Aussie bastards and wondered how their cold climate Scottish relative would compare.

As we set off I did a stocktake of the conditions. The air temperature about 13°C, but the northerly wind chill was making it feel more like 3°C. Even though I was fresh out of a Canberra winter this was hard to take. But I had lugged my paddle and warmest paddling clothing over from Australia to ensure I was comfortable on the water. I wore a compression top, polyester short sleeve top, long sleeve Reed Chillcheater, heavyweight cag and Sea to Summit long pants. And I needed them all. For the first time since Tassie in 200I, I wore a beanie on the water. With the water temperature about 11°C, I decided early on not to practice any wet exits. I noticed Andreas wore no gloves which I thought was silly. But when my own gloves got wet I soon realised that bare skin in this wind was actually warmer.

We blew down the coast enjoying small surfing rides. Having never rented a kayak before I was pleased with my boat. The seat was comfortable and it was reasonably responsive, even though as the wind increased I did need some skeg.

… I’m with a Bruiser come kayak designer. He owns his own business. He’s listing the deck design features on the ‘Hubris’, the new kayak he has put on the market. There are many features. It looks good. He wants me to buy one on the spot. Strangely, he doesn’t offer me a test paddle…

The rock formations got more and more interesting, some headlands resembling the sandstone and granite formations of the NSW south coast. We entered some spectacular caves where I encountered a species of cormorants that nested high up in crevasses in the walls. They didn’t move but bravely vocalised their warnings. Very unlike the skittish characterless creatures we see so regularly on local NSW waters.

Andreas stopped occasionally to point out coastal features or distant mountain ranges, most of which he had climbed. But in between times we paddled along with long periods of just enjoying the scenic experience in appropriate reverential silence.

… I’m paddling the southern Whitsundays. I’m with a Sydney paddler. He’s a commercial salesman. He’s good at talking. He talks and talks and talks. After thirty minutes I’m exhausted just listening. I’m forced to pretend my kayak isn’t tracking well and veer away. Five hundred metres away, I can still hear his voice…

Then half an hour later we close in on a series of larger caves on and over the water line, one of which was the famous spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie hid for some weeks after defeat at Culloden in 1745. Turning north we were full on into the northerly and I actually enjoyed the last seven kilometres of good honest grinding into tight packed wind waves on the way to the camp at Camasunary.

Camasunary was a nice bay with a spectacular valley/mountain backdrop. A river on the left was the outflow of Loch na Creitheach. At the other end of the beach was a beautiful stream strewn with little tumbling waterfalls. On the flat ground was an old crofter cottage, now a ‘bothy’ of the Mountain Bothy Association, which maintain these old cottages for walkers all over Scotland.

We set up camp. I was mightily impressed that Andreas pitched his tent a respectable 20 metres from mine, unlike so many in the NSWSKC, usually the bull snorers, who have absolutely no concept of personal camping space. I walked along the shore, trying to imagine what life would have been like for the crofters who would have lived here up to about fifty years ago. Two Tornado fighters of the Royal Air Force then flew over at a frighteningly low level, banking sharply to follow the glen as it curved to the northwest. Dangerous job even though you could tell they were loving it. A couple of days back I had passed a monument to two dead Tornado pilots near Glen Coe.

Returning to camp Andreas was preparing dinner. Hamburgers cooked on a neat little portable BBQ washed down with a bottle of French ‘syrah’. Not bad but I still prefer good old Australian shiraz.

… Shoalwater Bay. Alone with two Bruisers. It’s my turn to cook for one of them. I’m using his new cooking stove. The controls are fiddly. I burn food on the bottom of the pan. Offer to wash up. But the offer is coldly refused. By burning a new non-stick pan I have broken the Bruiser code. The atmosphere around the camp is strained. It is Day 2 of a 12 day trip…

Andreas was turning out to be an interesting companion, with a huge range of knowledge and interesting Germano-Scottish insights into the ways of the world. This was just what I needed, conversation that enlightened and entertained. I thought how refreshing this was compared to spending night after night listening to the opinionated bigots, techno fetishists and weed-smoking dribblers of the NSWSKC, whose boorish discourse had so often forced me to seek early refuge in my tent.

The conversation turned to climate change. I told Andreas that many Australians did not believe in it. That we had a politician called Tony Abbot who had a ‘direct action’ policy which I tried to explain. In his sophisticated European way, Andreas is both puzzled and amused at this.

… I’m talking to a Bruiser from Sydney. He owns his own business. He seems to be suggesting that climate change is a socialist-inspired conspiracy. I’m polite but hyper-ventilating. I realise that Shock Jocks and the Murdoch press are definitely winning. I decide to get drunk…

But even an interesting conversation couldn’t mask the fact that the north wind was blowing hard through that valley behind us, and despite our ‘full metal jacket’ clothing it was Andreas who eventually suggested we found shelter in the bothy. Here we found three young Belgian bushwalkers.

Now I had never met a Belgian before. I remembered a Monty Python sketch from the 70’s entitled ‘Prejudice’, where there was a TV competition to find a derogatory term for the Belgians. Mrs Hatred of Leicester said “Let’s not call them anything, let’s just ignore them!”, and a Mr John of Huntingdon said he couldn’t think of anything more derogatory than the term “Belgians”. But I digress. And I must say I was immediately impressed by the perfect English of these refined and knowledgeable young men. They were obviously well-educated, and I enjoyed learning about the origins of this slightly obscure nation state. As I retired to my tent I remember thinking what a shame it was there weren’t more of these sophisticated Belgians in the NSWSKC, the only Europeans the club seemed to attract were dour Germanic/Scandinavian types.

Going to bed at 10pm when it is still not even remotely dark is strange. But with my tent on the lushest green grass I’ve ever camped on I was soon asleep. I woke up just after midnight for the call of nature and was stunned to see that the sky behind the clouds still had a glow about it. Amazing.

The next morning I resisted the impulse to get up at the crack of dawn, as dawn was shortly after 4.15 am. I lay there truly thankful that I would not have to suffer a ‘Dawn Creeper’ walking around centimetres from my tent. After a pleasant second sleep I was flushed out of the tent at 7am due to a surprisingly hottish morning sun. We breakfasted on Aldi muesli with coffee before casually loading the boats.

… I’m packing my kayak. I feel I am being observed. I look up to see the Bruiser looking directly at me. He is a public servant, with a life so empty he has put many nights of thought into perfecting a camp dismantling/kayak packing method that only takes twenty two minutes. So he now sits on a rock and watches, his smugness enveloping my thoughts. He is waiting for me to make a mistake in my own haphazard routine. I pretend I am not aware of this, but my stress levels are increasing as I struggle to concentrate. And then it happens, I make the mistake…

We headed south west round the corner into the beautiful craggy bay that is Loch Na Cuilce. I see a tiny rocky islet at the entrance no more than 20 metres across and decide to land. It is difficult but I manage to do it without scraping Andreas’s kayak. I feel exhilarated to be one of only a few to ever set foot on this barren little rock. Andreas dutifully takes the photo.

Then we pass a small colony of Atlantic grey seals. These are shorter bodied and with rounder heads than our southern species. Noticing they would follow our kayaks but would dive when we turned to look at them, I paddled backwards. It worked, they would come within a metre of the ‘stern’, lifting their round heads high as they scanned you with large black inquisitive eyes.

We then paddled past some small waterfalls tumbling down the near vertical slopes of the Cuillins. A river dispersed with some force down some rocky ledges into the sea, the current making it hard to position the kayak for a photo. We landed and walked up to the steep sided and dramatic Loch Coruist immortalised by Sir Walter Scott’s description ‘For rarely human eye has known a scene so stern as that dread lake, With its dark ledge of barren stone’. Yes it was a forbidding place but I would have loved to carry the kayaks up over those falls and paddled up to the loch. One for the bucket list.

After lunch we paddled up to “The Bad Step” … a spectacular part of the coastal walking trail which gives pack-laden walkers some stress as they traverse a near vertical rock face above the cold azure water.

We reluctantly left this magical place turning west along the coast which would end at the peninsular of Rubha an Dùnain. With the weather improving to the extent that I was able to take the beanie and cag off, we explored another eight kilometres of picturesque cliffs and coves before turning east to cross the passage to Soay and our second night camping spot.

… we are on the Murramarang coast. My local coast. Day 2 of a trip. A visiting Bruiser from Wollongong seems to be assuming leadership without a mandate. He owns his own business. I suggest camping at Snake Bay, he ignores me, saying he knows a really good spot. I tactfully try to make the case for my suggestion. He brushes me aside as he would one of his indentured workers. Half an hour later the Bruiser proudly leads the group into Snake Bay…

Andreas was suggesting a camping spot in Soay harbour, a deep inlet that almost bisects the island “although ze midgies can be mur-durr in there” he said in his unique twang. With the wind dropping in the late afternoon I was alarmed at the thought and as we paddled towards the island I spotted a possible elevated site at the entrance to the inlet which would be more spectacular and less midge friendly than the inlet – but could we land?

After a few minutes we located a rock ledge and, standing in the freezing water, managed the tricky lift out. After this I was damp and cold and quickly got into dry clothes, always a golden moment in my sea kayaking day.

… I am with a Bruiser. We arrive back on the Tasmania mainland. It is cold and wet as we load the kayaks onto my car. Stuff is everywhere as we hurriedly get dressed into dry clothes. Now he is asking if I have seen his underpants. I say no. But then realise with dismay I have put on his! It is an awkward situation. Despite profuse apologies the damage is done. I had disrespected a Bruiser’s clean underwear. Broken the Bruiser code. The drive to Devonport is frosty with little conversation…

We set up camp on two grassy spots big enough to pitch our tents and enjoyed the spectacular view over a cup of tea from a comfortable rock platform. Then we walked up the inlet to the ruins of buildings that for a few years processed huge thresher sharks for their oil in the early 1950’s before thankfully going bankrupt. I had hoped to see one of these six metre creatures with their huge tail fin before the end of the trip, but time was running out.

Dinner was pasta with a bottle of shiraz I had brought along, our meal made slightly more exciting by the constant aggressive squawking of two tern-like birds who hovered above us. Their ground nest was nearby and they weren’t happy with the first humans ever to camp on this spot.

We marvelled at the sun descending slowly along the ridge opposite. Today had been scenic sea kayaking at its best. We were millionaires. Memorable.

Waking up next morning I was shocked to find no wind, a warm sun and glassy water with the spectacular Cuillins providing an amazing vista. But ten seconds later I became aware of thousands of ‘things’ in the air around me. The midges had arrived, and were hungry for a feed of human after a week of wind. And man, do these things mean business. No slow circling and sizing you up before gently settling on your skin like their laconic Aussie relatives, these were kamikazes coming in their dozens to land on your face and bite immediately. After killing many I desperately ran to the tent and grabbed the head net. It felt terrible and claustrophobic but I loved it. Andreas finally got up and we enjoyed bacon and egg rolls with tea, lifting our nets briefly for each surreptitious mouthful. Then the chill wind came up again and the midges disappeared back to their swamp. Never has a cold breeze been so welcome.

We packed up and headed off for a circumnavigation of Soay, a less spectacular shore line but still offering a number of sea caves full of colourful rocks and more bird nests. Looking up we saw the occasional wild ram observing us from the cliff tops. A couple of hours later we landed on an east facing bay for a toilet break. A gruff bloke with a Yorkshire accent appeared and invited us up to his half-restored croft for tea and biscuits.

Andreas and I swapped boats and I enjoyed the final seven kilometres paddling the very responsive Cetus to the picturesque village of Elgol. We unpacked and I sorted the gear while Andreas walked up the steep winding hill to get his car.

… the end of a four day trip. We land at Mallacoota. It is cold and drizzling. I stay to tend the kayaks and gear while three Bruisers head up the hill to get the cars which are parked at a local kayaker’s house. I stand and wait in the rain. And wait. Hypothermia is setting in. Sometime later the Bruisers return in their cars, relaxed and warm after enjoying tea and muffins courtesy of the generous host.

It was over. I had loved every minute of my first and hopefully not last northern hemisphere trip. But had I found myself? Had I lifted myself out of my sea kayaking depression? Only my therapist would know.

Footnote: Mark Pearson returned to Australia in August 2011. He has yet to paddle with members of NSWSKC.