Doug and I were not only thrilled, but somewhat honoured to be invited on the Lizard Island trip with Tim and his friends. Inviting two relative strangers on a nine day ocean kayak trip when you will be a long way from land for most of the trip is a significant commitment. As serious as asking relative strangers to join you on a mountaineering trip, and we all know how that ends sometimes.
With this in mind, we seriously considered every possible outcome before joining up. Our biggest fear was having to paddle in strong winds - 20 to 30, or even 40 knot winds are common in Far North Queensland - and not being up to the task. Our experience paddling in those strength of winds is fairly limited, and, unlike the other people on the trip with relatively stable kayaks, our Marlin sea kayaks are fairly tippy. And then, there was the series of long crossings between small islands to contend with, another area of sea kayaking with which we have limited experience. Add to that the fact that we would be using kayak sails, with which we were similarly inexperienced , and we approached the trip with as much trepidation as anticipation.
But, as departure day drew ever closer, and the study of weather maps, charts and forecasts became ever more frequent, it began to appear as if we would have favourable weather conditions for the trip. And we did. I don't think the winds ever tipped 15 knots except for one day when I paddled around Blue Lagoon at Lizard Island and the others went walking. Overall, conditions were strangely benign. We quickly got used to sailing with a beam wind, and an occasional tail or head wind. The long crossings were still long (four hours was our longest), but never scary, only tedious and somewhat cramped.
I had always approached this trip as a learning experience, as we would be paddling with people who had some serious ocean kayaking experience, and such opportunities are not to be wasted. Now that the trip is over, it is interesting to think about what I learnt.
I learnt a fair bit about sailing a kayak. Kayak sailing, at least with our Pacific Action sails, seems easiest with a straight tail wind, and more challenging with a cross-beam wind. With a straight tail wind, the hull seems to stay more or less flat in the water. Whereas, with a beam-wind, the kayak gets pushed way over to the down-wind side and a compensatory lean to the upwind side is necessary to avoid capsizing. Sailing with a beam wind one day when the wind was close to 20 knots (happily inside Blue Lagoon), I had to lean to the wind-ward side while using my paddle as an outrigger/brace on the down-wind side. With this technique I felt relatively stable and literally flew across the lagoon in minutes.
In light winds I felt more stable if I was paddling the kayak, not just sitting there, but this could be just me. Certainly, the rest of the group seemed happy just sitting. In stronger winds, I didn't paddle, just kept the paddle handy for a brace or used it as an outrigger. Initially, I was bracing on the wind-ward side, but the group corrected me and I started bracing on the down-wind side. This took a little getting used to as you have to lean up-wind and brace down-wind, but, once I got used to this strategy it seemed to work well.
Doug sailing towards Cape Bedford
I also learnt to aim off to compensate for being blown off-course by the wind. For most of our trip, the wind was coming out of our starboard front quarter (I'm not sure if those are the right nautical terms), and, while having the sail up definitely helped lighten up the kayaks and we moved faster than simply paddling, we also were continually blown cross-wise to our course. If we aimed off to the east of where we wanted to go, by the time we reached our destination (roughly north) we would have been blown a fair ways west and would generally be right on course. Apparently, this is like doing a giant ferry glide and is a shorter course than paddling towards your destination and then doing a huge curve to stay on course (something that happened to us on our PalmIslands trip).
Finally, I learnt the lesson that one always seems to have to learn and relearn, whether kayaking or mountaineering. In mountaineering, you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other hour after hour. In kayaking, you keep paddling. The next island may look so far away, or may not even be visible – as a couple of our destinations were on this trip – but, if you continue to move steadily forward, you will, in the end, arrive.
Heading towards the Direction Islands,
one of the shorter crossing on the trip