It must be hard to be the race director for one of Australia’s biggest paddle events when faced with inclement weather systems that put your event at risk. For Dean Gardiner and the crew at Ocean Paddler, the tough decision was made a week ago to postpone the event after enormous storm swell and winds hammered Sydney. Many of the nation’s top paddlers (plus a few other non-contenders) had driven or flown into Sydney only to find the event they’d travelled so far for had been cancelled.
The event was postponed a week and as the next weekend rolled around, it was clear that the conditions were still going to be diffcult. With south-easterly swell averaging 2.5 metres, plenty of wind coming in the same direction, and a low tide in Sydney Harbour, the new race date was still going to throw up some challenges. Still, the conditions didn’t look to be worse than in previous year’s races, so when the race team gave the thumbs up for the event, we were all “excited with a touch of nerves” thinking about what would face us.
Team Fat Paddler had seven paddlers racing on the day – five in surfskis, one in an OC1 and one in a sea kayak. We started early, unloading boats at Blues Point at 5am before shuttling cars to Manly and back. The conditions seemed a little blowy but at the starting line of the race the harbour was looking flat and calm, putting everyone’s nerves at ease. Before we knew it, we were all on the water and, in a surprising twist on the previous year, the start was well organised, clear and fair for all involved.
The first section of the race was a cruise. I’d had a bad head-cold all week so I was never going to be pushing it hard, but I was also paddling with team mate Dee who is a relative beginner to surfskis and I wanted to make sure I was with her throughout the race just in case the conditions got too hard. Our pace was slow but as Dee gained confidence our speed picked up and we started passing other craft in the “rear to middle” paddler bunch.
We rounded the point just past Taronga Zoo and got a taste of what was to come. The wind picked up considerably, blowing hard as the sizeable chop hit our boats from the side. Dee was starting to struggle, as the side chop worked against our skis. I tried to explain over the howling wind that zig-zagging can help, and demonstrated the point by paddling into the wind a bit before turning and catching some 45 degree runners. Dee could see how it could work but wasn’t confident enough to catch the runners so we continued the slog, staying upright as we rounded Bradley’s Head.
Turning into the run to Middle Head, everything got crazy. Huge swell was curling around South Head and hitting us from 45 degrees. It was also hitting the rocks behinds us, rebounding back out and churning the water up in every direction. Because it was also low tide, the swell height was amplified with big white-capped waves seemingly hitting us from all sides. Before I knew it, Dee was out of the boat and starting to panic.
I turned back to help her but to her credit she managed to get back aboard. The look on her face said it all though – she was no longer in control of the boat, was terrified, and wanted to pull out. To make matters worse, she came out of the boat again and struggled in the choppy water as I helped her get back aboard. As soon as I left her, she was off again, and needed a rescue.
Fortunately I could see the rescue launch heading our way for Dee, but a few hundred metres away (and closer in to the rocks) I could just make out an up-turned sea kayak with a paddle raised in the air. After a few words to Dee to hold tight, I turned and ran the chop downwind to the where the stricken kayaker was before pulling up to start a rescue.
Sea kayaks are notoriously hard to self rescue in, especially in rough seas, but they’re quite easy to right with another paddler if you know how. Doing it in a surfski is not quite as easy, since surfskis don’t really like staying upright when stationary, but with my legs over the side I grabbed hold of the boat and talked the kayaker through an assisted rescue. It didn’t work the first time, with a wave knocking us both off the boats and into the water, but after climbing back on the ski I was able to try again and finally the kayaker was in with his electric pump working hard to empty his boat.
By now the sea was churning and the paddler wanted to pull out, so I advised him to head back and pull out at Clifton Gardens. I gave him an escort about half way back before spying another paddler stricken by rocks. Dee had also been picked up by a rescue boat so I called out for them to watch the kayaker as he head back in, whilst I went back for the next rescue.
This time it was a ski paddler who was down. I’d seen him fall out quite a few times earlier and it was clear he was utterly exhausted and unable to get back on his ski. I pulled up alongside him and held his ski as he climbed back onboard, then advised him to lie back across our two skis and rest a bit before trying to continue. After 5 minutes or so he was ready to try again but, as I slowly paddled away he fell out immediately and it was clear his race was over.
I pulled up to his ski again and helped him get back in. I held my paddle upright as a message to rescue boats that we needed help, then took a look around us to see if there was any other danger. I realised we were drifting closer and closer to the rocks, where waves were smashing with full force, and an area where rescue would be extremely difficult. I threw a foot into the other ski and as my stricken paddler lay back fighting leg cramps and paddled both our skis away from the rocks as much as I could (which, admittedly, wasn’t that much!).
When I realised there was little I could do to avoid our drift, I concentrated more on looking for a rescue boat. In the distance I spied the flashing lights of a NSW Rescue boat and after waving my paddle to get their attention, sighed with relief as they tracked in to us and pulled alongside. They helped the paddler climb aboard, got hold of his ski, and let me push away to get back into the race.
The water was now churning and I was fairly scared, but I paddle in rough water every week so I was confident I could push my Stellar SR surfski through the waves and get to the end. A few hundred metres from Middle Head I was approached by a NSW Police boat, it’s rear deck filled with rescued paddlers, who asked if I wanted to be pulled out. I was polite when I declined, but the captain of the boat wasn’t at all happy with the prospect of facing another possible rescue. They mentioned they’d fished dozens of paddlers out from just past Middle Head, that the ocean was seething and I should think very carefully before going on. Admittedly the previous rescues had left me pretty exhausted, but I don’t like to quit and was firm that I wanted to go on. The captain uttered a few stern words before accelerating away, leaving me to bob around in the wash of the large boat before continuing on. A grim faced paddler on the the back of the boat uttered an ominous warning as the left…. “Stay wide”.
Bracing myself for the onslaught that was to come, I approached Middle Head, where I saw something I’ve never seen there before – a barreling wave breaking 20 metres out from the headland. I took the wide line to get around the wave and was amazed at it’s shape, although quickly forgot it as I turned to watch the massive swell rolling in through the Heads.
To say the water there was scary would be an understatement. Huge swell rolled in from the starboard side, with many of the moutainous waves actually cresting and breaking even in the deep water. To make it more difficult, the crescent shaped line of the Grotto Reserve cliff was bouncing the swell back out in all directions, so the water was churning with multi-directional chop, swell and whitecaps. This was really rough water but, despite being tired, I dug in and slowly but surely made my way towards the buoy marker at Dobroyd Point where the bombora wave was breaking far out from the cliff in a spectacular show of energy.
This is normally the point where once you’re past, the last few kilometres are pretty easy, but the south-easterly swell was pushing its way in and the rocks past Dobroyd Point where doing a great job of rebounding the waves back out. As I passed the point I caught sight of a double ski closer in to the rocks that looked to be in trouble, so I slowly edged my ski in to see if they also needed help. They finally got underway just as the bombora caught me from behind and smashed me into the drink. With the steep waves coming in it took me a couple of attempts to get back onboard, but finally I made my way back out from the rocks and northward towards little Manly.
Just as I thought I was back on track I spied a black shark fin rise up not far from my ski and slide past me, giving me a quick case of the panics and a few shakes in the ski before I realised it looked more like carbon fibre. As I looked closer I realised it was a very nice carbon wing paddle floating by almost vertically in the water… clearly the remnant of an early race finish for some poor paddler. I considered going back for it but, as exhausted as I was, figured I should concentrate on getting to the finish. Then after a couple more exhausted spills from the ski, I was able to ride a little wave into the beach at the finish line, hand off my ski to a waiting attendant (thanks Marc!), before starting the slow walk up the sand to the finish line.
With the exception of Dee, all of Team Fat Paddler finished the race – we even had a couple of bronze medals in the ski and OC classes to brag about. When Dee arrived at the finish finally we all sat down for a well earned beer and told stories about what had turned into one of the most dramatic races many of us had ever experienced.
For me there was no doubt that my rough water training coupled with the stability of my Stellar SR helped me get through the race – hell, it certainly wasn’t my superior conditioning and fitness! The competitive paddlers had no problem with the conditions on the day and it was really only the recreational paddlers that did it tough. Certainly many of them will have a far better understanding of just how rough ocean conditions can be!
The tough conditions proved a nightmare for all the officials on the day, so an extra special shout out to the SLSC crew, the Maritime and Rescue crew, the water Police, and of course to Dean and the whole team at Ocean Paddler. Despite the drama, I felt it was actually run very well and secretly, I had a lot of fun out there.
Lastly, later that night the sea kayaker I rescued left a very generous donation on our Lifestart Kayak for Kids fundraising page (thanks David!). It was incredibly generous and not at all warranted, but thank you all the same from those of us at Team Fat Paddler.
I took some video on the day but my camera ran out of battery before any of the drama unfolded, so please enjoy the calm start of the Manly Wharf Bridge to Beach! Cheers, FP