Monday 28 April 2014

From the River to the Sea

A few weeks back we offered to take some members from Sydney's famous old River Canoe Club out on Botany Bay for a morning of basic sea kayaking skills instruction.
We ran through the gamut of biomechanics & technique required to paddle & close-quarter safely on the sea, on a bright, warm & sunny Sydney morning.

The session was a success in both directions. We had the learning experience of instructing recreational & whitewater river paddlers, and they got some tips on adjusting their existing skills to an open water environment.

It was a terrific morning, and we offered to follow it up later in the year with a genuine open water day to allow participants to get out onto the sea & put the theory into practise.
We pencilled in yesterday as the date, but a big southerly system which developed on Saturday evening (as predicted), had Rob & I doing some very careful planning Saturday night to ensure an incident-free paddle.

The spot we'd picked is a long, mostly enclosed bay, adjacent to Sydney's infamous Long Bay Gaol. It has a sheltered launch spot on the sand at Malabar Beach, but a swift transition from lee to full-on open ocean conditions at the southern headland, only 1.5km from the beach.
Rob's briefing.
The southerly had abated somewhat from peaks in the early hours of Sunday morning over 20 knots, but the remnant sea state was peaky, short, and in places very steep. Had the wind stayed up we would have moved to a more protected location.
Rob gave his briefing out of the wind, so everyone could be sure to hear all of the details, & emphasised the forces at play on the sea overnight, and what we could expect to see & feel once out in the relentless moving water. I reminded everyone that the sea will take control of you, if you let it, and aggressive & positive paddling is rewarded with control, once things start to move around. Personally I hate the big briefing, mostly I reckon they overload groups with information, when in the simplest terms all you're trying to do is identify risks & make sure everyone is in on the plan. This one was short, succinct & most importantly, left everyone in no doubt as to what to expect.
My group leave the safety of Long Bay
We split our groups into two, me with 6 paddlers & Rob & Sharon with 8. In amongst them we asked Mick Taylor, the club's training officer, to distribute the more experienced members with the less experienced, so we had a mix of steady hands to help out in the event of a problem.
Sharon & Angie (on her first sea paddle) head back into the bay.
The stated objective was a paddle from Malabar around & into Little Bay, a return trip of just under 6km, but laced with everything from industrial strength rebound to the flat calm of the beach, to a tricky navigation through breaking reefs into Little Bay itself.

Crucially, we identified the northern cliffs of both Long & Little Bay as the dangers, with a breeze likely to very quickly minimise any sea-way should an incident occur that took some time to sort out.
The trace of Sunday morning's paddle
As such, we kept our groups as close as possible to the protected southern cliffs, and went very wide on the way around to Little Bay to avoid the steepest, most multidirectional sections of sea. These were most likely to produce a capsize, and we wanted as much distance between us & the cliffs should something go awry.

The approach to Little Bay can be intimidating, with reefs breaking on both sides of a narrow entrance, but experience has shown us a clear line in through the break, and a left turn behind the most prominent reef to the sand. It's one of those 'surely we're not going in there' sights from the sea, which is actually pretty smooth as long as you hold a disciplined line.
Sharon working with her group inside Long Bay
Not everyone made it out of the bay, with some novice sea paddlers rightly deciding they'd had enough as we approached the start of the steep stuff. We escorted them all back to the calm water as a team, where Sharon put together an excellent session guiding her impromptu group in less demanding water, & worked on some moving water skills.

Andrew having a short breather at Little Bay
I headed back out after this with Andrew, Dee, Deb & George, and we made it all the way around, landed at Little Bay, then rode a tighter line to the cliffs home as the wind abated. For a group with mostly little or no big water sea experience, they did incredibly well in some proper ocean conditions.
Dee (on her first sea paddle) & George heading out to sea after leaving Little Bay
Rob's prudence paid dividends, with several capsizes & rescues out in the middle of the biggest seas in his group, but nothing more serious than a bit of blue language!

We were so impressed with the ticker on display from the River Canoe guys, both from those willing to say enough, and those who took on the challenge with such relish. Like our mates at the Sutherland Canoe Club, this is clearly a place where a supportive environment encourages people to do their best, with a sense of humour underpinning everything.

For us it's no easy task to get a group of paddlers we know little about, except that they have very limited or even no sea experience, out into such intimidating conditions, without unforeseen problems. A lot of planning goes into the exercise, and in this instance the club you're banking on to have done the prerequisite basic rescue & group work has to have done their bit too.

Thanks to the River Canoe Club for allowing us to show them the sort of paddling we love, and for fulfilling their end of the bargain with a well prepared & enthusiastic bunch of members.

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