Ocean kayaking reminds me a lot of climbing, you can choose your own exposure level and there is always something to learn. You can climb well protected one pitch sport routes at Wingello or hang your butt out on some sandbagged line with dubious trad gear in the Blue Mountains. Ocean kayaking is the same. You can have a pleasant paddle around Port Hacking where the biggest hazard is some drunken yobbo in a power boat, or paddle out on the southern ocean in big swells and whipping winds. Each day brings new lessons that enrich our lives both on the rock/ocean and in our regular day to day lives.
Our latest ocean kayaking trip from Bramston Beach to Lyons Point lies somewhere between those two extremes. A bit tougher than paddling on Port Hacking, but, only minimally risky. North Queensland waters are warm and the coastline is protected from the full force of the ocean swell by the Barrier Reef so capsizing is not a lot worse than falling off a multi-pitch trad climb. There is, however, always a chance that things could become epic and I certainly would not have relished capsizing on the day we paddled from High Island to Fitzroy Island. The sea conditions were rough enough that pumping out the cockpit of a kayak with our current hand pump would have been very difficult.
Surf landing on the east coast of Hinchinbrook Island
Which leads me, after a long, rambling and discursive preamble, to lessons learned, some of which will seem frightfully obvious:
- Keep your kayak in good repair. Leaking hatch covers that aren't a big deal on calm waters become a real safety hazard 10 kilometres from shore in a breaking sea. Bungees and deck lines that are near breaking point will inevitably break, gear stored under them will be irretrievably lost, rudders will fall off, spare paddles will go astray, and pretty soon that easy days paddle morphs into an epic.
- Check all your safety gear before each trip. Spurred by this last trip, I checked all our gear when we returned and discovered that one of our emergency strobe lights had leaked, corroded and stopped functioning. The open ocean is no place to discover your paddle float no longer inflates, your bilge pump is clogged with sand and your tow rope is tangled.
- Learn to paddle without a rudder. My kayak tends to weathercock in the slightest breeze so I most often paddle with the rudder deployed, but, paddling without a rudder is one of the those essential skills that just have to be mastered. I don't use a rudder for surfing as it makes the boat too slow to turn, but I do tend to over-rely on my rudder in windy conditions, simply for ease of paddling. This is mostly laziness as I don't like having to throw in corrective strokes all the time or paddle with the kayak heeled over on one side to give directional control. But, after this last trip, where we had two broken rudders, I am going to practise paddling without a rudder more.
- Kayak sailing is easy until it isn't. Sailing in winds up to about 20 knots is pretty easy to master. With the wind above 20 knots, conditions get challenging and a full range of boat control issues begin to surface. I need more practice kayak sailing in stronger winds. I'm working on it, but I've got more to learn before I am totally proficient.
- Rafting up when kayak sailing is very stable, but very tedious and is hard on boats and bodies. It seems a lot like a sitting glissade versus a standing glissade. The former is used only when the individual can't master the latter.
- A lot of water comes into the cockpit during rough crossings. Crossing from High Island to Fitzroy Island the water in my cockpit reached to the bottom of my calves. Pumping out with a standard hand pump is virtually impossible in rough water as you can neither remove the spray deck nor take your hands off the paddle. The oft recommended practice of sticking the pump down the inside of your PFD and spray deck is ridiculous.
- Storing your hand pump behind the seat is quite workable in average sea conditions, in wild and woolly sea conditions, it is pretty much inaccessible. Which may not make a lot of difference, see point #6. A better option is either an electric or foot operated pump.
- Tow ropes should be adjustable in length, easily deployed and able to be quickly released. Otherwise, they are pretty much useless.
- An efficient forward stroke that you can keep up for hours is helpful if you have to paddle a heavy boat into a strong wind. Torso rotation is likely the key.
- Beyond a certain point, everyone is responsible for their own safety at sea. In strong winds, rough seas, big swells there is only so much one kayaker can do to assist another. No doubt this is why sea kayak clubs have such stringent proficiency requirements for participants on club trips.Mellow paddling in Nooramunga Inlet