Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rethinking Decisions: Hinchinbrook Island by Sea Kayak

Doug called our recent Hinchinbrook Island sea kayak trip, the “trip of decisions,” as we seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time discussing options and making decisions. Neither of us are impulsive decision makers. If we err at all, as I am sure we do, it is in our tendency to over think every decision, no matter how minor. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I shouldn't spend more time and effort making a decision than a wrong decision would cost me.

In truth, not every decision on the trip required great amounts of brain work or time. Some choices, like continuing to paddle on to Zoe Bay instead of camping at Sunken Reef as originally planned, were easily made and, afterwards, we were content with the decision. Others, like whether or not to attempt to paddle around Cape Sandwich required much deliberation and discussion and, once made brought no sense that the right choice had been made. Even now, with some time and perspective available, I am not sure what the “right choice” was.

Overall, on any trip like the one we just did, whether it is a ski traverse, a mountaineering traverse or a sea kayak trip, the decision as to how far to push in a day, when to dally and enjoy side trips and when to make solid forward progress seems only easily and clearly decided in hindsight when the prevailing weather and conditions declare themselves – the key deciding factors on any trip in the outdoors. I have done kayak trips where I wished we had spent an extra day at various places, but, equally, I've done ski traverses where I know we should have pushed on instead of lingering.

On the Hinchinbrook trip, we knew we did not want to rush. There are so many side trips to do along the way – beach walks to enjoy, hiking trails to summits, snorkelling on off-shore reefs, even surfing the kayak in small swells – and we wanted to be able to stop and do all these things without having to “make ground” each day. Our tactic to accomplish this relaxed pace was to take nine days of food for the 100 kilometre trip.

We started out with calm winds and ideal kayaking conditions, so, dawdling at first was easy. We spent an extra day at Zoe Bay which gave us time to hike above the falls, to paddle up both tidal creeks, to ride the small swell on the beach, and to walk the length of the bay. Had we moved on the morning after we arrived, we would have had time for only one of those activities, yet all of them were wonderful and I would have been sorry to miss any.

From Zoe Bay, conditions for kayaking got more challenging. Each day the wind was stronger than the day before and the seas bigger. On the open east coast of Hinchinbrook Island, it took only one 24 hour period of continuous wind for the seas to build to over 2.5 metres. The strong southeast winds blew continuously day and night, only occasionally dropping to 15 knots, and, the drop in winds was always between 5.00 pm and 8.00 pm when it was too dark to paddle a kayak safely.

Our first series of agonising decisions was at South Ramsay Bay. We arrived relatively early in the morning – around 10 am. After years of outdoor adventuring, getting up at first light and rapidly getting moving is second nature and we are on the water most days at 7.30 am; getting from Zoe Bay to Ramsay Bay early was simple. At this point, with no mobile telephone coverage and no reception on the weather channels on our marine radio we had no weather forecast to help us make decisions. It was easy to assume that the favourable conditions we had thus far would continue. Accordingly, we decided to stick to our pre-planned schedule which had us camping at Ramsay Bay. There is lots to do at Ramsay Bay. You can walk the boardwalk out to Channel #6 on the west side of the island, a good trail leads to a fabulous viewpoint on Nina Peak, the beach is 9 kilometres long and perfect for a long rambling walk, and there is surf on the beach to ride. We did most of these things, and they were all wonderful. Again, missing any, particularly the hike to the summit of Nina Peak would have been terribly disappointing.

On the summit of Nina Peak, we got mobile telephone reception and a marine weather report – a somewhat disconcerting weather report of continuous 20 to 30 knot southeast winds for the next few days. On the Beaufort Wind Scale, this is a Force 6 wind and cause for a strong wind and/or small craft warning. Paddling a small kayak on a remote and open ocean in these conditions requires a good level of expertise and well practised safety systems. We are moderately experienced kayakers, but not highly experienced on the open ocean, there is only two of us, and no-one would miss us if we set out to sea and did not return.

Ahead of us, Cape Sandwich was the big obstacle where the winds would cause trouble. Cape Sandwich protrudes out into the prevailing tidal stream and is fully exposed to the long fetch of the uninterrupted southeast wind flow. Conditions in strong winds would be challenging at best, dangerous at worst. By the time we got the marine weather, it was too late in the day to continue. We were two hours paddle from Cape Sandwich, and could not be on the water before 4.00 pm which would have us rounding the point in darkness. All I could think to do was hope that the forecast winds either didn't appear or were late arriving. This seemed, even at the time, and certainly in hindsight, futile as the winds had clearly been gradually increasing over the last 24 hour period and never showed any sign of diminishing.

No surprise that the following day was windy, in the 20 to 30 knot range with waves crashing on the beach. Initially, we decided to be at camp at noon, so that, should the winds abate in the afternoon (there was some forecast easing), we would be in a position to take that opportunity to paddle north and round Cape Sandwich. At 11.30 am, the winds were still blowing at 20 to 30 knots and we could not foresee any diminution, so we ignored our noon deadline and were not both back in camp until after 2.00 pm. The wind was still howling and we stayed put. The decision seemed easy to make at the time, as it would have been 3.00 pm by the time we launched, giving us a scant three hours to round Cape Sandwich, two of which would be consumed reaching the Cape, leaving only one hour of daylight to navigate the turbulent waters of the Cape and find a landing site. What made us rethink the decision was the guided kayak group, camped a short distance south of us, who set off some time during the early afternoon and made it past Cape Sandwich.

We spent many hours that evening discussing what we should do next. The best thing to do seemed difficult to determine. We were two hours of hard paddling (in the conditions) from the Cape. Coming ashore before the Cape would require a surf landing in a swell exceeding two metres. I thought I could land safely in that swell, but I wasn't certain. There is no sheltered camping at the north end of Ramsay Bay, and relaunching would require a difficult surf launch into the same two metre plus swell.

In the end, we decided to try the next morning, and we did, battling our way through big swells north up the coast line. The swell was steep and cresting, the seas confused, and paddling north was very slow. My paddle strokes, no matter how I tried to make them count, felt ineffective as I was never certain whether my paddle blade would encounter water or air as I rode up and over the crests of the big swells. We seemed to be getting pushed by wind and swell inshore and making forward progress was slow and arduous. The wind was increasing, we were moving slowly, and, although I felt relatively stable I was not at all sure how I would handle the confused seas off Cape Sandwich. In the end, Doug called it and we turned around and fought our way back. We both took a few breaking waves broadside, but were able to brace and lean and stayed upright with no real trouble, but, we had no idea how we would handle the conditions if they got any rougher.

Our contingency plan was to portage over to Channel #6 and paddle on the protected west side, and we decided to do that next morning if conditions had not improved. Next morning was windier than ever, so we did not waste any time rethinking things and went for the portage route. We had landed the day before in the protected waters of Black Sand Bay so launching was easy, and, the wind seemed more behind us than broadside on this final morning, and, possibly, the swell was smaller (although how that can be after so many days of continuous wind I'm not sure), so making ground north up Ramsay Bay to our portage site seemed comparatively quick and easy. In hindsight, this is the time where I wondered if we would have made it around Cape Sandwich, as we seemed to be making far better time heading north than we had previously and the swell seemed smaller.

Our contingency plan worked well, and, within five hours of leaving camp, we were safely ashore at Macushla camp site with the big difficulties behind us. Next day, we paddled back to Cardwell in another 20 knot wind, crossing Hinchinbrook Channel at, what we assume, was slack current (according to our chart the current runs at 3 knots in Hinchinbrook Channel). I was happy to find that paddling even across Hinchinbrook Channel with the funnelling wind and the tidal current was comparatively easy.

In the end, I am left with a series of questions for which I really have no answers:
  • Should we have skipped all the enjoyable side trips and paddled north as fast as we could? Our paddle days were neither long nor hard and we could have easily rounded Cape Sandwich in two days from our launch site at Dungeness. We would have paddled the length of Hinchinbrook Island on the east side and thus met that goal, but, we would have missed the wonderful side trips we did up the mangrove channels, on to Nina Peak, and up to Zoe Falls. Should the one goal, to cover ground, overshadow all the other equally enjoyable parts of a trip?
  • Could I have safely navigated Cape Sandwich in a 20 to 30 knot wind? I felt comparatively safe where there were no overt current effects in winds of 20 knots, and felt very safe in protected waters in winds of that strength, but, how safe would I have felt when exposed to the full fetch of the southeast wind in waters made turbulent by ocean currents? I simply don't know.
  • Would timing – that is, aiming to round the Cape at slack low or high tide have made any difference in the difficulty? In some locations, sand bars off shore made the swell smaller and more manageable at low tide as the swell tended to lose some energy on the off-shore sandbars. But, in other locations, the conditions seemed to get more difficult as the swell rose up on the same sandbars as the tide dropped. Certainly, one would assume slack tide would bring some relief from the overall ocean current, but slack tide is difficult to predict from tide charts alone. Possibly, we could aim to get within an hour of slack tide, but, would that have made a significant difference given the overall wind speed?
  • If we could have paddled to the immediate south side of the Cape with relative ease and been able to land and make a reasonable camp, would our chance of rounding the Cape have been higher? The hard (and possibly somewhat dangerous) two hour paddle just to reach Cape Sandwich certainly influenced my decision making.
  • On the final morning when we gave up on rounding the Cape and took the portage option, could we have made it around the Cape given that paddling to the Cape seemed (at least at first) easier and quicker? Or, would we simply have reached the Cape quicker, but with conditions which were still too overwhelming?
  • Would access to marine forecasts have made a difference? Although we have a VHF radio and can receive the channels on which the marine forecasts are relayed we frequently find we have no reception in Australia. The transmitting stations seem far apart, and, we can only rarely reliably get forecasts.

Frequently, paddling in Australia, I feel out of my depth (no pun intended) when it comes to understanding the prevailing weather and sea conditions. In Canada, I had a fairly good grip on the expected weather conditions, in Australia, I have none. Clearly, I need to understand the weather better. I also need to continue improving my paddling skills so that paddling in a 20 to 30 knot wind becomes possible. I think I have progressed towards being able to paddle protected waters in that kind of wind, but, there is still much to learn before I feel really confident on the open ocean in those winds. Getting the experience one needs without being injured or killed in the process, is the difficulty.


  1. Just read this as I am organising a trip in for 1st week sept 2014.
    Very helpful and honest account. It has made me think again of the decisions we need to make.
    Beautiful island though, is it not??

  2. One of my top three sea kayaking trips. I could do it again tomorrow!