Conditions were at the marginal end of perfect for a full-on test, with a mighty East Coast low buffeting Sydney with gale force winds for the 48 hours previous, and showing few signs of easing. A warehouse inspection down South provided the perfect opportunity for a work colleague to drop me at Kurnell on the southern shore of Botany Bay, and (hopefully), collect me a short distance from my office again near the airport on the northern shore, after a 9km downwind-ish blast.
Pushing off the beach it was immediately obvious that I had made a mistake in not sitting and watching the wind and waves for longer, trusting instead a set of live observation for the airport I'd seen an hour earlier, showing dead southerly winds gusting to 30 knots.
Once past the flimsy lee of the Cronulla isthmus however, a subtle wind shift a few degrees to the west meant my SSE line to the airport was going to be a quartering ride most of the way. To counter this I turned west and tried to give myself a better line by running across the bustling steep chop, conditions some reviewers describe as not the Swordfish's favourite.
The boat is buoyant in comparison to other skis I've paddled, and in really rough water this is a definite design advantage. You couldn't imagine a more demanding set of conditions than extremely strong beam winds and short, sharp, wind generated chop, from the side, in which to test this reported weakness. Happily, the ski just rode up and over everything and powered through.
With a slightly better line to my destination I then turned and ran north, with frequent gusts powerful enough to nearly pull the paddle out of my left hand. The short video shows the messy chop, and the quartering nature of the waves.
The beauty of Botany Bay in high winds is that there are few consequence if you get it wrong. Sydney's cliff line topography makes the safety margin for ski-paddling offshore in winds of this strength too narrow. Inside the bay, you get enough fetch to whip up shoulder high waves, and over about 20 knots they're more than a boat length apart, which makes them about the best little fun waves you can imagine. Even if you capsized half way across and had to simply hold onto your ski and go where the wind blew you, it would only be a maximum half hour drift before you landed on sand, or at worst, hitched a ride with ASIO off an airport runway!
In fast steep chop, the shorter waterline and rocker profile of the Swordfish excels. Despite having the stability profile of an intermediate ski, it accelerates and then manoeuvres like an elite ski. I love kayaks and skis that follow the axis of your shoulders when you're running on a following sea. More simply, if I see a steep section to my left, my shoulders will turn towards where I want to go and hopefully the kayak will too as I naturally drop my right hip. I've found that the more stable a hull is, the less inclined it will be to have this magic property, one for me that separates the good designs from the ho-hum. It's also the reason that bulletproof stability in a kayak or a ski soon becomes a restriction on your paddling development, rather than an aid, as you improve.
With a slightly better downwind line I hooked into screaming runner after runner, all the while noticing with alarm the water of my treasured bay turning dark brown, as the runoff from two torrential days rain made it's way to the sea. Not a day for a swim.
All too soon I was tucked inside the break wall of the Cooks River and heading for my pick up, buggered but felling pretty damn alive! It's funny how flat water is always such a let down after you've been for a blast in a decent sea.
In hindsight the conditions were too extreme for a solo paddle, let alone in an unfamiliar craft, but this neat little ski looked after me and lived up to its well won reputation. My advice is, and remains, once things get over 25 knots, you are reducing your safety margin to an unacceptable level. In this instance, please do as I say, not as I did....
Note. Expedition Kayaks will be stocking the Fenn Swordfish and the new entry level, 5.8m Fenn Bluefin from September, with access to the full range of Fenn skis for test paddling south of the bridge. Five me a shout if you'd like to give one a go.